In 2014, it was reported that Robert Downey Jr., would collect a hefty $40 million payday, plus backend participation, for his role in Captain America: Civil War. In terms of a one-off salary for a single role, it was one of the highest actor earnings on record at that point in time. It used to be front-page news when movie stars pulled in record-breaking cash for new roles, such as the major hubbub that surrounded Jim Carrey’s $20 million salary for The Cable Guy in 1996. Nowadays, the money is only getting bigger for that handful of enshrined A-Listers, but the reporting feels almost bored with it.
Following Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney for lost earnings regarding the release of Black Widow, the industry’s growing fear over the prevalence of the streaming age came to the forefront. Variety recently reported some of the gargantuan paydays that actors are earning, mostly via Netflix. Daniel Craig is receiving a staggering $100 million for the Knives Out sequels, which includes the streaming back-end buyout. Will Smith got a surprising $40 million for the supposedly indie title King Richard. ‘Poor’ Robert Pattinson is only getting $3 million for playing the goddamn Batman.
Much has been made about how streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon try to keep up the allure of a seemingly endless money pit as a means to entice top-level talent. It’s clear they’re still banking big on that formula, yet its effectiveness has been further scrutinized in the new, post-COVID economy. Hollywood still operates by the logic that the most efficient way to make all of the money is through big international box office returns. It’s one of the reasons they’re so desperately pushing forward with theatrical releases despite terrifying rises in coronavirus numbers and deaths worldwide. When you tell an actor that it’s totally worth taking the pay cut because the backend deal will benefit them for years to come, it’s hard to justify that when nobody’s going to the cinema and you’ve dumped the movie on a streaming service with little warning. Netflix compensates movie stars for the projected back-end box office participation they would earn from the traditional theatrical release, but it’s unknown how fairly this model is applied across the board and not just to the headliners.
That’s partly why we’re seeing these major payday bumps now. It’s a safety net for the richest people in the business (make your ‘eat the rich’ jokes here.) Johansson may not be a sympathetic enough public figure for some when it comes to making this case but she’s not wrong. Netflix isn’t the only streaming service hoping to avoid ScarJo-style headaches. Warner Bros. negotiated monetary compensation for some of its stars when they made the unprecedented move to simultaneously release their major movies on HBO Max and in theaters. If the actor isn’t guaranteed a boost from ticket sales, then they’ll want their money up front, especially if the current circumstances continue to diminish theater attendance (seriously though, why the fuck are studios still releasing movies in cinemas right now?!) As Variety noted, this is why Will Smith is getting such a payday for King Richard, a film with solid mid-budget awards-friendly potential but hardly a blockbuster in waiting. Really, his name may mean more for that film than it did for something like Suicide Squad since he’s the undisputed star they’re marketing it around.
But it isn’t just about the megastars. Most people in the industry, including most actors, are working figures who don’t rely on a big cheque after one movie to keep them going for the year. They take their Law & Order: SVU episode, they appear in that small indie movie, then you get excited when you recognize their face in two scenes of a Marvel release. For jobbing actors, residuals and fair wages matter more than ever. Both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America have been fighting for appropriate streaming compensation for the past several years. In 2017, SAG successfully lobbied so that actors will receive residuals from streaming after 90 days, instead of a full year. But the journey is ongoing. One of the major sticking points of the Johansson suit is whether Disney+’s premium fee to watch certain movies is seeing that money trickle down to the stars, crew, and so on. It’s clear that streaming has irrevocably changed the game and the studios probably weren’t ready for this shift to happen at the speed with which it did. Even if they could have foreseen the past year of drama, it’s doubtful they would have rushed to avoid labor rights disputes with an altruistic eye.
The changing model of stardom is also playing a major part in this battle. Sure, it makes sense to pay through the nose to get Robert Downey Jr. to keep putting on his CGI Iron Man suit, but the audiences who loved him as Tony Stark didn’t exactly flock to see Dolittle. When the property carries more value than your name, some studio heads will grumble that you’re not really the one to thank for the record-breaking grosses, but that won’t stop actors from demanding their fair cut of the increasingly large pie, especially if you’re signing up for a decade or more of sequels. Hollywood thrives on hierarchies and that won’t end any time soon.
Blockbuster cinema has been moving towards a ‘too big to fail’ model for about 15 years now, with budgets ballooning past $200 million, a number that no longer feels rare or shocking to see reported in the trades. When the baseline for breaking even is half a billion dollars, one wonders when the bubble will burst. Some have predicted that the film industry will try to downsize to a more sustainable model post-COVID, but these salary bumps suggest otherwise. The stakes are higher and the opportunities to be short-changed bigger than ever. Let’s hope that the changes happening are allowed to take effect across the board and not just for those who already have all of the money.
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