Why Calculating Compensation for Top-Tier Talent Is Complicated – and Can Be Expensive

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson
Jay Maidment / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

I want to give a huge shout-out to our Herculean six-person team of editors and writers — Brent Lang, Cynthia Littleton, Gene Maddaus, Michael Schneider, Matt Donnelly and Joe Otterson — who collectively pulled off this week’s incredibly comprehensive cover story.

The piece, titled “Battle Royal,” chronicles and analyzes what Scarlett Johansson’s legal battle with Disney over her “Black Widow” compensation means for future talent deals, and it also documents and breaks news about some of the eye-popping salaries earned by Hollywood’s biggest stars of film and television.

Media companies’ priorities have radically shifted to populating their streaming platforms with as much high-profile content as possible to sign up as many subscribers as possible — profoundly altering the metrics of success and how talent gets paid in this newfound, more complex business environment.

As we know, Johansson cried foul when it came to all the money she claims she was cheated out of when Disney switched distribution plans and released “Black Widow” on Disney Plus simultaneous with its theatrical run in response to moviegoing being depressed by COVID concerns. Johansson’s argument is that Disney’s desire to stock its streaming offerings with popcorn titles should not have come at the expense of her potential box office bonus thresholds for “Black Widow.”

Naturally, the Johansson-Disney public blowup has implications for the entire industry. The star’s July 29 lawsuit “exposes the undercurrents of fear and uncertainty roiling the creative community,” our cover story states.

Also noted is the fact that as back-end revenue streams have dramatically dwindled in the streaming era, the salary demands of A-list stars are reaching “astronomical heights.”

Consider some of these startling sums being paid by streamers such as Netflix, which are compensating stars for projected back-end box office participations had their films been released exclusively in theaters before home viewing. Daniel Craig will earn more than $100 million — yes, $100 million plus — for Netflix’s two sequels to Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.” Amazon is paying Dwayne Johnson $30 million upfront for “Red One” with a potential total payout of $50 million once his back end is calculated.

Schneider points out in his sidebar story, “Streaming Boom Keeps TV Salaries at Heady Levels,” that while there’s also been a radical change in compensation for the big stars of the small screen, there’s no evidence that money demands will be diminishing anytime soon.

So the bottom line, so to speak, is that as far as compensation goes right now stars across film, TV and digital are well situated in the collective driver’s seat because both streamers and Hollywood’s traditional studios are vying for the same pool of in-demand talent to meet their fast-growing content production needs.

It’s also got to be fun as well as challenging to be a transactional entertainment attorney these days having to negotiate these much more complicated deals in a swift-transforming business.