A decade ago, Hollywood stars knew their place on the A-list was secure when their film topped the box office. Today, success can be measured by views on Netflix or a vague press release touting a movie’s popularity on HBO Max.
The digital revolution may have changed things dramatically, but don’t lose any sleep over the financial statements of your favorite actors. Film stars continue to be paid handsomely for their duties and are often able to earn much more by leaving the big screen behind and diving headfirst into streaming.
A $20 million-per-picture paycheck has been industry standard for top talent since 1996, when Jim Carrey stunned Hollywood by earning that sum for his dark comedy “The Cable Guy.” That number still stands for headliners of movies made for theatrical release, including upcoming projects starring Sandra Bullock (Paramount’s “The Lost City of D”), Brad Pitt (Sony’s “Bullet Train”) and Chris Hemsworth (Disney’s “Thor: Love and Thunder”). And it’s a sliding scale. Chris Pine will earn close to $11.5 million for the Paramount franchise hopeful “Dungeons and Dragons,” and Robert Pattinson picked up $3 million for his turn in “The Batman,” a grittier take on the comic book icon.
Five years ago, many of these paydays would be the top of the heap. Now they’re dwarfed by the riches offered by Netflix, Amazon and other streamers. Daniel Craig, for instance, is walking off with north of $100 million thanks to the eye-popping sale of two sequels to Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.” His windfall can be attributed to the fact that Netflix compensates movie stars for the projected back-end box office participation they would reap if their movies were released exclusively in theaters. Add to that salary bumps Craig would’ve received for second and third films in the murder mystery series, and the outgoing James Bond is sitting on a nine-figure check.
The new equation has created exponentially higher upfront paydays, including $30 million for Dwayne Johnson to star in Amazon Studios’ acquisition of his holiday adventure “Red One,” which could balloon to $50 million when his backend is finalized; $30 million for Leonardo DiCaprio and $25 million for Jennifer Lawrence in the Netflix-Adam McKay disaster comedy “Don’t Look Up”; $25 million to bundle up Julia Roberts for the end-of-days thriller “Leave the World Behind” at Netflix; and roughly $20 million for Ryan Gosling in the Netflix spy thriller “The Gray Man,” including a multipicture bonus.
The new deal economy has also created headaches for studios like Warner Bros., whose decision to release its entire 2021 film slate on HBO Max and in theaters concurrently caused a talent revolt. Denzel Washington and Will Smith both earned $40 million for their respective WB titles “The Little Things” and “King Richard,” insiders tell Variety, to account for diminishing box office in light of streaming premieres. Keanu Reeves will be entitled to back-end payment on top of the $12 million to $14 million he earned for the upcoming “Matrix 4.” Amazon Studios also deposited $15 million in Michael B. Jordan’s bank account after it picked up “Without Remorse” from Paramount.
One of the only stars enjoying the best of both worlds is Tom Cruise. The actor is among a handful of traditional movie stars who demand first-dollar gross on their backend participation, meaning Cruise gets paid before his studio earns a dime from box office receipts. This entitles him to tens of millions of dollars in bonuses after certain box office milestones are achieved over the life of his films. He’s earning $13 million for his upfront acting fee in this year’s “Top Gun: Maverick” from Paramount, but that number will fly much higher if the film is a hit.