How HBO's 'Big Little Lies' Stars Leveraged Apple for Big Paydays

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman will get around $1 million an episode for season two as the tech giant, as one agent says, "inflates the whole ecosystem of TV actor salaries."
Courtesy of Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO; Istock

Apple's arrival in the scripted originals space already is changing the price for top talent on the small screen.

The tech giant, estimated to enter the scripted genre with a budget of $1 billion in its first year, recently paid what sources say is upward of $1.25 million per episode to stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon for its 20-episode untitled morning-show drama. The eye-popping salaries also include fees for executive producing and points on the show's backend. And that payday directly impacted the recently announced second season of HBO's smash hit Big Little Lies, sources say.

The David E. Kelley drama was originally eyed as a limited series — with Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman bringing Liane Moriarty's book to HBO (amid multiple offers) after the duo optioned it as a feature film. HBO did not have additional season deals with any of the Big Little Lies cast since the series was intended as a one-off, covering all of Moriarty's book.

Following the show's breakout success — it won the Emmy and Golden Globe for limited series — HBO had to ink entirely new deals with the cast for a second season. The option to do more was not in anyone's contracts since part of the appeal for top stars to do TV is the limited nature of a show — like Big Little Lies' seven episodes.

Witherspoon and Kidman, say sources, received between $250,000 and $350,000 an episode for season one, plus exec producer fees and points off the show's backend. Those numbers skyrocketed for season two not only because of the show's success, but also because of the precedent of the massive payday Witherspoon scored from Apple.

Sources say the duo is getting in the $1 million-an-episode ballpark for season two, as well as points off the show's backend and EP fees. Co-stars like Zoe Kravitz also are said to have scored significant bumps, with the actress' total season-one salary of $380,000 jumping to $3 million for the sophomore run. Shailene Woodley, who earned $1.7 million for season one, is also said to be getting a sizable pay raise. Season two of the show is being planned to shoot in the spring but won't air until 2019.

"It's not a shock to anybody that having a second season of an ongoing series is easier to have with those deals in place," HBO programming president Casey Bloys tells THR. (Bloys and HBO representatives declined comment on the cast's salaries.) "Every outlet has to make their own decisions about economics that make sense for them. I'm not going to shake my fist and say, 'Darn it, Apple!' If that's what made sense for them for that show, God bless."

Sums up one agent of the war for top talent in a landscape approaching 500 scripted shows: "If HBO pays Witherspoon her quote that Apple is paying, it inflates the whole ecosystem of TV actor salaries."

As for a potential third season of Big Little Lies — which now will compete in the drama series category for awards — sources say none of the cast has deals in place.

Says Bloys: "Everybody involved is so busy that it's hard to imagine aligning everybody's schedule again. That we were able to get season two together is a small miracle."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.