What the Success of ‘Don’t Look Up’ Means for A-List Talent

What the Success of 'Don't Look
Photo Illustration: VIP+; Netflix

In this article

  • The eye-popping numbers tuning into this critically maligned movie guarantee A-list paydays will head north of $20 million per picture
  • It's not just Netflix that'll be ponying up top dollar for top talent; rivals Amazon Prime and Apple TV will also be paying through the nose
  • Skyrocketing salaries are great for talent reps, not so much for Wall Street, which knows runaway costs cut into streamers’ profitability

I can’t think of a movie last year I had higher expectations for than “Don’t Look Up.” It checked all my boxes: timely satire targeting the most important issue of our time — climate change; a terrific cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio; and, last but not least, director Adam McKay, who already demonstrated his comedic brilliance back in 2015 with “The Big Short,” a hilarious dissection of the fragility of the U.S. economy.

And yet as a lot of critics noted, “Don’t Look Up” had plenty of detractors who characterized the movie a creative disappointment. Let’s leave it to those critics to identify the film’s specific faults, but here’s how I’d distill their carping: The comedy just wasn’t funny enough.

Once the decidedly underwhelming Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 55 landed for “Don’t Look Up,” I naively assumed Netflix was going to end up disappointed by the film’s performance with its subscriber base. Yes, there are plenty of examples of movies that thrived despite a critical drubbing, but “Don’t Look Up” isn’t some four-quadrant, IP-driven sequel from the franchise factory impervious to bad reviews. It’s a sophisticated piece of filmmaking that would see at least some audience erosion if not sufficiently blessed by the cinematic tastemakers.

Imagine my surprise last week when Netflix disclosed “Don’t Look Up” not only ranked as the third-most-popular film ever on the streaming service but broke the record for most viewing hours for a film in a single week (152 million). Apparently I wasn’t the only one taken aback; McKay himself noted on Twitter that he was “straight-up flabbergasted” by the audience turnout.

Maybe McKay is being modest, but I think what he is acknowledging by sharing his shock on Twitter is that “Don’t Look Up” wasn't supposed to succeed at the level it seemingly has. Yes, it has major movie stars like DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence to attract eyeballs, but the material is not the stuff of box-office sensations. The script is humorous but about a deadly serious subject, and no one in Hollywood ever got rich off even the best satires.

Whether you liked “Don’t Look Up” or not, this much seems inarguable: It’s a depressing movie because it paints a pretty bleak picture of humanity circa 2022. Netflix makes more accessible action movies all the time that are much likelier hits, such as “Red Notice."

So, how do you explain the success of “Don’t Look Up”? Some have noted that Netflix shrewdly turned the polarized response to the movie in its favor by letting all the discussion stir up additional curiosity, but I think there’s a simpler overlooked reason for the movie’s success, one that has significant positive implications for show business.

Which isn’t to say that the healthy debate over the film has hurt. Most critically maligned movies should be so lucky as to inspire audiences to check it out anyway to see what the fuss is all about.

McKay himself surely realizes this, as he has turned to Twitter to amplify the debate. And there’s no doubt that has helped generate a second wave of audiences for “Don’t Look Up” who may not have had initial intent to watch the movie. It’s now become something of a cultural imperative for the film consumer to have a position on the film. You may not like it, but you’re going to watch it because you kinda have to in order to know where you stand in the ongoing debate.

Netflix must be breathing a sigh of relief because “Don’t Look Up” could have easily ended up a highly visible flop, one that could have sent a message to the uppermost echelons of Hollywood's creative community: Not even the almighty Netflix can guarantee the success of a project boasting A-list talent.

Instead, the takeaway is if there are any remaining top-shelf actors or directors who have qualms about a streaming service's ability to set them up for success, "Don't Look Up" must have eliminated that residual skepticism.

And Netflix may be feeling more generous than ever after spending a reported $55 million in salaries on DiCaprio and Lawrence alone. Again, that's a gamble given the material, as neither actor wears a cape or traipses across various multiverses in "Don't Look Up."

But now the streamer has reset the bar in terms of what top talent can expect to command if they sign up for Netflix projects, which means deep-pocketed competitors including Apple TV and Amazon Prime are going to have to show an increased willingness to pay through the nose. As the data in the chart below indicates, big stars were already seeing salary inflation, and every hit only cements that trend.

As someone who more than once has felt firsthand the power of streaming to elevate a movie, Sandra Bullock was out spreading the Netflix gospel this week to the Hollywood Reporter, saying, "If it wasn't for Netflix a lot of people wouldn't be working."

That's surely true of A-listers like her who no longer have to roll out of bed for a mere $20 million pittance per picture.

Last November, Netflix film chief Scott Stuber gave an interview to The New York Times in which he sought to pivot Netflix's film output from quantity to quality.  "You want to make sure that you’re delivering at a pace that people see greatness consistently instead of randomly," he said.

That's not just true of subscribers who don't want to wade through bad films. Hollywood's finest want to see their consistency to feel comfortable about even getting involved in the good ones. With "Don't Look Up," Netflix took a huge stride in that direction.

Still, as the streaming wars become more competitive and subscriber churn makes profitability more challenging, it's these kinds of costs that will come into focus.

Most Expensive Actor Salaries for Films