When Apple TV Plus agreed to pay Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon more than $1 million per episode to star in “The Morning Show,” the burgeoning service didn’t just enter the streaming wars with a bang — it blew up the template for how much stars were paid on new TV shows.
Aniston and Witherspoon were charter members of TV’s new $1 million club, but membership in that elite group is quickly expanding. Nicole Kidman in “Nine Perfect Strangers” (Hulu), Jeff Bridges in “The Old Man” (FX on Hulu), Witherspoon (again!) and Kerry Washington in “Little Fires Everywhere” (Hulu) and Steve Carell in “Space Force” (Netflix) have also secured paydays of at least $1 million per episode to grace the small screen with their latest projects. “At this particular moment in time there’s a feeding frenzy,” says Dante Di Loreto, Fremantle president of scripted entertainment for North America. “There’s a lot of money that has been dropped into the television universe because of new companies entering the market and a desire to make an impact really quickly.”
That’s never been clearer than this year, with the launch of Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus and with HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi stockpiling for their impending debuts. Meanwhile, incumbent streamers Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have either continued their hefty spending or increased their output, and cable titans like HBO and FX are executing plans to bulk up the volume of their offerings. Productions are now more expensive than ever, and often driving those costs are the A-list stars who can help promote a project in the crowded Peak TV age.
“There definitely has been some dramatic salary inflation, in part as new services try to buy their way into the business,” says Showtime Networks entertainment co-president Gary Levine. “We’re paying more than we have, for sure. And that’s fine. But we have not had to give in completely to the hysteria of the marketplace.”
The arrival of major feature stars to TV series (and not just longform projects) kicked into high gear after HBO’s “True Detective” in 2014. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson earned raves for starring in that eight-episode limited series, making it OK, in many ways, for others to finally dip their toes in (or return to) TV despite a healthy features career. Simultaneously came the streaming revolution, which really got underway with a pre-scandal Kevin Spacey on “House of Cards.” Those two events helped attract a broader mix of stars who had bristled at the thought of television.
“Every actor is available now,” says one agent. “They used to say, ‘No interest in TV.’ You can’t say that anymore. There are certain people who won’t do broadcast, and people who won’t do basic cable. But I wouldn’t even take someone like Leonardo DiCaprio off the table. Why wouldn’t Leo do an eight-episode limited series? It’s as good as a movie.”
Indeed, another agent believes that the $2 million-per-episode threshold could be broken soon, should a star like DiCaprio, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt finally succumb to the lure of a series. It’s already getting close: Chris Pratt is believed to be shopping a project that would pay him $1.4 million an episode, while Harrison Ford and Annapurna are developing a scripted take on the docu-series “The Staircase” in which he’s expected to be paid $1.2 million per episode.
“A large part of this business is driven by people who are there to take advantage of those opportunities,” says Di Loreto, who spoke to Variety at a Banff Connect LA event in November. “I think the people who manage that talent see the dollar signs in front of them, and it does make it incredibly challenging.”
Aniston is no stranger to a $1 million-per-episode salary, having pulled down a similar per-episode fee in the later seasons of “Friends.” Likewise, the stars of “The Big Bang Theory” earned that fee later in that show’s run. Norman Reedus, who’s now top of the call sheet on “The Walking Dead,” got a raise to $1 million per episode, as did the key “Game of Thrones” stars for the show’s final seasons. But those salaries came after huge ratings, lucrative syndication pacts and merchandising deals could justify such paydays. The difference now: The new $1 million club is made up of major stars securing that figure before a show even begins production.“Apple started this whole nonsense, which is great for us, but it is outrageous,” says one agent.
For Apple TV, those huge salaries could be seen as the cost of getting into the streaming business — early marketing materials focused on giant close-ups of stars’ faces. “It’s almost as if what they were really paying for was to launch the service,” says one studio president.
Aniston and Witherspoon weren’t the only stars to earn big salaries from Apple. Carell is believed to have received $750,000 an episode for his one-year deal on “The Morning Show.” “See” star Jason Momoa landed a payday in the $600,000-per-episode frame; “Dickinson” star Hailee Steinfeld and “For All Mankind” lead Joel Kinnaman were also paid handsomely for their part in launching the service.
“I think the people who manage talent see the dollar signs in front of them, and it does make it incredibly challenging.”
Dante Di Loreto, Fremantle
In comparison, six years ago McConaughey and Harrelson got $200,000 for “True Detective.” The next wave featured stars like Drew Barrymore, who earned $350,000 for Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet,” while Witherspoon and Kidman got $350,000 for the first season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” (That elevated to $1 million for Season 2.) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson averaged around $425,000 an episode for HBO’s “Ballers.” Julia Roberts was paid $650,000 for Amazon’s “Homecoming.”
At a time when $1 million is the new high end, $500,000 is increasingly becoming the norm for most top stars on streaming or premium cable. “If you’re doing a deal for a name, you better be thinking $500,000,” says an agent. And don’t even broach the idea of making a pilot — these are direct-to-series deals. “No movie star right now or star of any stature is doing a pilot,” says a studio exec. “And if they are doing a pilot, they’re getting a very significant episodic guarantee … and once the A-list talent are committed to a project, you have to turn to lesser-known talent and pay them competitive fees.”
Moreover, if the first star who’s approached for a role passes on it, that’s now considered the benchmark for what that streamer or network will pay for the role — which means the reps for the backup choice, even if it’s a lesser-known or less-marketable lead, will demand the same deal. Says a casting executive: “I think there is a 2% tier of talent that warrants those kinds of numbers.”
Is this the new normal? Depends who you ask. There are plenty of reps who hope it is, and even some studio execs believe the template can’t be torn up. But others think things may change in two to three years, after the new streaming services have launched and the business matures. “The fierce competition around talent and projects has created business models that I would posit aren’t really sustainable for volume and long term,” says Sandra Dewey, president of business operations and production at WarnerMedia/HBO Max. “I think there has to be a righting of the business ultimately.”
But here’s one caveat to these new extreme paydays: They still don’t guarantee success. “There are so many jobs out there, but there are not a lot of great jobs out there,” says one agent. Adds another: “I go out with a lot of projects each year, and the one thing I’ve been telling clients is that it all starts with the script. If you don’t have a solid script that’s something that the marketplace will auction off, then it doesn’t matter what else you have.”
Among the stars said to have shopped projects to topline that ultimately didn’t sell include Meryl Streep (“The Nix,” which would have earned her $825,000), Natalie Portman and Seth Rogen. Most notably, the Robert De Niro-Julianne Moore project with David O. Russell, originally set up at Amazon, didn’t move forward.
Meanwhile, stars gravitating to streaming and even premium cable may be pulling down hefty salaries, but it’s all upfront cash. As the syndication marketplace has collapsed, and with very little backend in the streaming era, the opportunity for “Friends”- or “Seinfeld”-style gold mines have mostly ceased to exist.
“It’s quick money,” says an agent of these modern deals. “In the old days, the long-term syndicated network model was the big bucks. If that goes away, that would be a shame. ‘Big Bang Theory,’ ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Law & Order,’ those shows will pay off for studios for decades. That doesn’t happen at Netflix or Amazon for a four-year show.”
Says another rep: “Every agent will tell you, would I want Johnny Galecki, Ty Burrell and Mark Harmon versus Brad Pitt or Leo? For looks and optics, I’d want Brad Pitt and Leo. But for taking my kids through college and retiring? I’d take the former.”
Even if there’s no likely syndication market anymore, the guaranteed “backend” at the streamers, on top of those initial salaries, is better than nothing. Because the streaming services don’t report ratings, and there’s no way to measure a show’s success, there’s usually a formula for that streaming backend (which is more like a bonus): The first year, every point in a show could be worth a few hundred thousand dollars, and it escalates each year after that. (Of course, few shows in streaming are even making it to the four-year mark anymore.)
Going beyond just money, another draw at streaming and premium cable is the freedom from the exclusivity demands that long came with doing a broadcast network show. Witherspoon, for example, has been seen on HBO (“Big Little Lies”), Apple TV (“The Morning Show”) and next on Hulu (“Little Fires Everywhere”). “I like to joke in my office that it seems there’s at least one Reese Witherspoon on every service,” says one exec. “It seems like they all must have her to launch a show or given themselves credibility, to say they attract A-list talent.”
Another example is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who sealed a major deal with Amazon (where “Fleabag” was a hit) yet will next produce and star (as a recurring character) in the series “Run” for HBO.
That doesn’t mean exclusivity isn’t still an issue. And as the streaming wars explode, exclusivity may become an even larger sticking point. Disney may let its talent appear on various projects in its own corporate ecosystem (such as Disney Plus, Hulu, FX and ABC), but balk at stars moonlighting on a competitive rival like Netflix. “I think they’re going to let you play within their own universes,” says an agent. “What they’re not going to let you do is play in another world.”
Of course, everything is negotiable for top talent, including exclusivity. The big issue is scheduling — making sure a star’s multiple projects aren’t launching or being marketed at the same time, causing audience confusion. “Once you sign on, there are a lot of questions about how many SVOD movies they can do at rival places, how many limited series,” the agent says. “Some places, when you have the leverage, you’re able to do other shows. As long as that show is in first position.”
Among broadcast networks, Fox is looking to take advantage of its newfound independence (now that it’s been separated from the 20th Century Fox TV studio) by being more flexible to talent who want to pursue other opportunities at the same time.
Broadcast isn’t going to get the A-list movie talent, who generally want to do limited series and demand those ultra-high salaries. (And then there’s the coolness factor, which broadcast networks are sadly lacking.) Nonetheless, the networks are getting more flexible than they were in the days when they held the line at $125,000-per-episode salaries for top stars. Fox, for example, is shelling out $225,000 an installment for “Prodigal Son” star Michael Sheen, who was coming off premium cable (“Masters of Sex”) and streaming (“Good Omens”) series.
Another issue driving up costs: A-list stars also have the leverage to demand that productions shoot in Los Angeles or New York City, so that they can stay close to their homes. But that means having to potentially give up the lucrative tax breaks that can be found in Canada or other states. Or, if you absolutely have to shoot on location, that might cost another $100,000 an episode to convince that star to work away from home.
Additionally, top-tier talent might request limited work days — which means, once transportation and hair/makeup/wardrobe is included, production might be less than even eight hours. That leads to additional production days, which adds to a show’s overall budget.
“That’s the cost of having them, not even what you’re paying them,” a studio head says.
The biggest issue facing the business of representing and casting talent, however, might not have anything to do with Peak TV or the streaming wars at all — but rather, a change in California law. As of January 2018, employers are no longer allowed to ask potential employees for their salary history — which has had the effect of ending Hollywood’s practice of honoring salary quotes based on previous pilot and series deals. Coincidentally, the law was enacted at the time the industry saw a huge jump in scripted programming, leading to more demand. The result has been positive for women and minorities as more actors seek parity across race and gender.
Prior to the law, because historically there were fewer leading roles for minorities and women, their quotes were usually lower than those of their white male counterparts. That led to pay disparities such as what happened on “The Crown,” when star Claire Foy was paid less than co-star Matt Smith, despite being No. 1 on the call sheet.
“Right now, for me, the focus is making sure every woman on our shows has parity with their male co-star,” says Tess Sanchez, Fox entertainment executive VP of casting. “The no-quote rule in dealmaking has been beneficial to diverse actors as well as for women. For a long time, there were non-diverse actors with $100,000 quotes who hadn’t necessarily been on a successful show, but they had tested over and over again, and so that was their number. It leveled the playing field this past year. This means that the actress playing opposite the male lead, no matter what her quotes are, will be in sync.”
As the industry continues to evolve, for now it’s a seller’s market for talent, Dewey notes. But she also points out that every outlet’s needs and business structure are different — hence the ongoing cliché that the industry is a bit like the Wild West at the moment.
“I think there will be a rhythm that doesn’t look like it is now,” she says. “These will become more mature businesses, and the models will find themselves out of necessity.” Adds Di Loreto: “There’s a lot of money, which is distorting the business in the short term, and that’s not going to sustain itself. At some point it’s going to tighten up. I think it’s already tightening up at certain streamers. Once we get through this particular frenzy, we’re going to see more of that.”