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Stars’ Soaring Salaries Rattle TV Business

Monster paydays leave little earnings power for working-class actors

As if things weren’t difficult enough already for the middle class, Hollywood’s working actors are getting squeezed by Peak TV.

The unprecedented volume of series currently in production has triggered a gold rush for A-list performers, from film stars no longer ashamed to slum it on the small screen to TV veterans making their return to the tube, where programmers are eager to exploit their hit-making chops.

Those big stars are commanding bigger bucks: upwards of $250,000 per episode. That kind of money used to be rare, even for lead actors on a first-year TV show. But competitive pressures, from deep-pocketed upstarts like Netflix in particular, have pushed many programmers into backing up the Brinks truck before the cameras even roll. And to keep up, even the more cost-conscious broadcast and basic cable networks are making exceptions to their usual pay ceilings.

“Networks and streaming services that are trying to launch themselves will go beyond what is appropriate to grab a big-ticket item,” says a top rep from one of Hollywood’s key talent agencies.

Dozens of agents, managers, and studio and network execs contacted for this story agreed to candidly address the touchy subject of actor salaries, but only on the condition that they could speak off the record.

Not too long ago, pay for top-level talent on broadcast or basic cable would often max out at $125,000. Even premium cable rarely exceeded that: The leads of HBO’s star-studded but ill-fated “Vinyl,” for instance, were getting around $175,000 an episode — not too far from the broadcast scale.

Now there is clear consensus that over the past year, salaries have doubled for superstars.

“When you look at Billy Crudup, Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman, or Amy Adams doing a show, those are driving the prices up and making it more competitive for [others] who are on the verge of doing a series,” the agent says.

Netflix is spending $275,000 for Watts in “Gypsy,” while Amazon is believed to be paying at least $250,000 for Billy Bob Thornton to anchor its new drama “Goliath.” And it’s not just the streaming services paying up for big-screen talent: $400,000 is the per-episode price tag for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in HBO’s “Ballers,” and the premium cabler is thought to be spending $350,000 per episode to land Kidman for its new series “Big Little Lies.”

“There’s no line anymore between television and film, and anyone who says they won’t do TV, they’re crazy,” says a talent agency head.

The wealth isn’t limited to film folks, of course. Some of TV’s biggest stars of yesteryear have been wooed back thanks to monster paydays, including former “NCIS” star Michael Weatherly, who will get $300,000 from CBS to anchor new drama “Bull.” “24” vet Kiefer Sutherland will get $300,000 to lead ABC’s “Designated Survivor,” while “Sex and the City” icon Sarah Jessica Parker will get slightly less to come back to HBO for another new comedy, “Divorce.” The Eye network is handing sitcom pros Kevin James and Matt Le­Blanc around $200,000 apiece for their new series. Producing fees, backend, and more are part of some of these deals.

The migration of more top-tier talent to TV is generally a good thing for networks looking to make a splash. It allows showrunners to cast master thespians to perform their works, actors to see their paychecks rise, and viewers to feast on good TV.

One studio chief says he’s alarmed by the quick escalation in salary asks across town, even among midrange actors. “There has been a 50% [raise in pay demands] across the board, from actors who are above ‘working actor’ status but below the top tier,” he says. “There has not been a similar hike in license fees or value of shows. Production costs are going up because of talent costs.”

That chief also laments that A-list actors now command so much leverage that they’re often refusing to read for roles. Networks and studios will agree in order to land that talent, but it also means relying on blind faith that the actor is indeed the right fit. “I’m not sure casting across the board doesn’t suffer,” he says.

But lost in this feeding frenzy is the plight of the supporting actors and actresses — the performers who still live in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley and are simply making a living. Even at the streaming services, the fountain of riches dries up when it comes to this tier.

“They’re paying more to get the one big person,” an agent says. “Then they’re out of money.”

In a world of 500 scripted series, more shows mean more jobs. But some of TV’s biggest trends — shorter episodic orders, limited runs, shocking character deaths, the disappearance of major back-end syndication dollars — are hitting the pocketbooks of middle-class actors the hardest.

“This is a real problem in the entertainment world, and I think it’s a problem that hasn’t really defined itself yet,” says a talent manager/producer. “The more people I talk to, whether they’re on-camera talent or writers, they wonder: When you’re suddenly moving toward a 10-episode model, how do you sustain yourself? People are grappling with that right now. How do you afford to live?”

SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris says these trends are having a “tremendously negative impact” on performers.

“Actors are having a harder time making a living with antiquated [contract] terms, which do not reflect usage as we once knew it,” Carteris tells Variety. “And while TV residuals are up in the aggregate, they are increasingly becoming a less reliable source of income to the individual actor.”

If you’re on a limited-run series, you may have job security for only one season; ditto if your character is slated to die in a shocking twist and you’re suddenly unemployed. And in many cases (especially on a broadcast network), you may also be locked into an exclusive deal that means you can’t work elsewhere — even if your show is on the bubble and you’re waiting months for an answer on its fate.

“We have an overwhelming amount of data and anecdotal information substantiating this trend from members,” Carteris says.

Cable networks often have an 18-month hold on stars, limiting their ability to get other jobs, although insiders say cable nets are growing a bit more lenient in allowing stars to book other gigs. Nevertheless, attached talent lacks freedom.

“You’ve shot 10 episodes, and the network is waiting this long period of time before they pick you up for the next season. You’re screwed,” the manager says. “It’s hard. I’m dealing with a client right now. We have three weeks left on an option period, and we’re dancing as fast as we can because we have another job opportunity that we can’t afford to lose.”

An agent notes that when stars like Viola Davis require shorter seasons as part of their TV deal, it means fewer paychecks for the supporting players as well.

“Now you’re on a network show that won’t let you do something else, but you’re only doing 13, 14, 15, or 16 episodes — great for Viola Davis because they’re paying her a lot, but not so good for the rest of the cast.”

Then there’s the plight of actors and actresses on shows with huge ensemble casts. In some cases, programs attempt to save money by hiring performers as “guest stars” for a full season’s work. The performers aren’t under contract but are expected to commit to the full season.

“They’re asking you to do 10 episodes, which can take three, four, or five months, for $5,000 or $6,000 an episode, and you’re on set standing next to somebody who’s making $30,000 who’s working as much as you are,” an agent says. “They get away with it because people want to work. It still adds up to $50,000, $60,000 over that period of time, and sometimes those roles are career-changing. But it’s really crappy because they’re starting to budget their shows that way.”

Yet the gamble can also work against programmers: Most of the “Orange Is the New Black” supporting cast wasn’t under contract when that series exploded. That’s why Laverne Cox has the freedom to star in CBS’ new drama “Doubt,” presumably to Netflix’s and Lionsgate’s chagrin.

Yet that example is the exception to the headwinds that working actors usually face. Carteris adds that SAG-AFTRA will likely make the matter of wage compression a priority next year, as the guild’s Television Agreement contract comes up for renegotiation.

“While we have not yet opened up our formal preparation process for negotiations,” she says, “I would be surprised if these issues didn’t arise as priorities for bargaining.”

The widening gap in television between the “haves” and “have-nots” reminds several agents and managers of what happened in the film world over the past decade. There, as tentpole-movie stars’ paydays exploded, everyone else’s fell.

“We used to have clients who were the second or third lead in a feature film who were making $600,000, $900,000, or $1 million for those roles, and guess what? Those roles are now all ‘Schedule F,’ $65,000 roles,” says a manager, referring to the minimum payment stipulated by the Screen Actors Guild.

Ironically, it’s those film stars being pushed out by today’s blockbuster mentality who are now crowding into television, where a greater number of big salaries still awaits.

“I think you can get away with asking for something for a big star that you might think in the back of your head is ludicrous, without them blinking,” the manager says of the TV feeding frenzy.

If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that female stars appear to be enjoying the same riches as their male counterparts — and that TV stars who are reprising popular roles are being well-compensated.

Stars being wooed to reprise their roles at a hefty rate include “Gilmore Girls” leads Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel. The duo is reuniting for a new four-episode reboot at Netflix, with both making $750,000 for each 90-minute episode. Fox’s “Prison Break” managed to bring back original stars Wentworth Miller, Dominic Purcell, and Sarah Wayne Callies, each at just over $175,000 per episode.

A deal that seems to be emblematic of TV’s new acting order is the one Netflix struck to put Drew Barrymore on camera. The film star is no stranger to TV, both as an actress (she was Emmy-nominated for HBO’s “Grey Gardens”) and as an executive producer (Esquire Network’s “Knife Fight”). But now she’s set to star in the Netflix single-camera comedy “Santa Clarita Diet.” Barrymore’s payday for her first regular series role: a cool $350,000 per episode.

Those big scores, after all, are making up for the fact that in the streaming world there’s no real back end — the syndication period where actors’ compensation typically skyrockets. That’s because outlets like Netflix now buy out the syndication and international windows at the start of a show’s run.

“There are big players on streaming and cable where they have back end and haven’t seen a cent, and probably never will,” an agent says. “I don’t know anyone who’s monetized that yet. We’ll have to figure that out.”

On the flip side, with traditional syndication disappearing, at least one studio president lamented that performers are looking to renegotiate their deals sooner. Actors generally sign six-year contracts, and in success, look to up their pay around the fourth year — as the show heads into syndication. But with the evolution of that model, many shows’ off-net runs are being sold to streaming services almost immediately, which is why talent is now looking for a pay bump in the sophomore season.

In broadcast, huge paydays like the $1 million (and growing) episodic fee enjoyed by select cast members on CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory” are rare but still possible if a show is successful.

Although it’s been years since a hit the magnitude of “Big Bang” has graced primetime — and some believe it may never happen again in this hyper-fragmented era of TV — network execs still woo talent with that prospective payout.

“We’re making deals all the time with actors and creators, and there are still great financial opportunities in broadcast that don’t exist in [streaming],” Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden said this summer. “You can’t have the financial home run [elsewhere] that you can have with broadcast.”

Adds a studio head: “Some talent will say to me, ‘I’m not interested in streaming because of that [pay] ceiling.’ And all the secrecy of the streaming services — I’ve had people come to me and ask, ‘Are 500,000 people watching? Who’s going to watch my show?’ That’s a real concern.”

One agency head says he counsels clients to see the upside in being a part of TV’s next generation of brands: “I’m making a deal for an actor on a show that I wouldn’t think would normally make sense, and I told her today: ‘It doesn’t matter. Let it be great; people will find it. This place will be rediscovered — reinvented because of you.’”

For many, the lure of creative freedom outweighs that treasure chest at the end of the syndication rainbow. That’s where streaming and premium cable in particular hold allure.

“If you tell an actor that he’s going to get to make the show he’s always wanted to make, without a lot of interference, and have enough money to make it, and there’s a good chance it will be on for multiple seasons, that’s a grand slam!” the studio chief says. “When you tell them on top of that that they may not make as much money, they don’t care.”

It’s a high-class conundrum for top talent: a nice paycheck upfront and creative freedom at streaming and premium cable, versus wide exposure and the potential for life-changing backend money at the broadcast networks.

Some stars opt to take a reduced salary in exchange for working on a prestige project fronted by a producing superstar like Ryan Murphy. Limited-run series remain a draw for talent that wants to commit to only a year or two on a TV project.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but one studio chief speculates that the industry won’t always be trapped in the current bubble that’s inflating talent salaries. “My hope and sense is, in four years, those numbers will come way down.”

But he concedes that the TV business may be just beginning to absorb the impact of skyrocketing wages.

“If somebody comes in with a quote, and their last show for ABC was $150,000 an episode, and now they have a quote for $325,000 from Amazon, does a network recognize that? What does it do to the economics? You’re going to have a real above-the-line problem because it doesn’t end with that one individual talent.”

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