Robert De Niro's Making How Much?! TV Is Becoming an ATM for Top Talent

How TV Became an ATM for Actors - Illustration by Laemeur - H 2016
Illustration by Laemeur

The so-called Golden Age of Television is living up to its name for many top talents.

With more than 50 outlets now producing scripted original programming (and competing for available stars and producers), the price tag for Hollywood's upper echelon has skyrocketed beyond what longtime TV insiders have ever seen. At the same time, fees are so high (and material so diverse and alluring) that the final holdouts among film actors are migrating to the small screen.

Robert De Niro is getting $750,000 for each of 20 episodes of an upcoming Amazon series produced by filmmaker David O. Russell. Kiefer Sutherland is said to be getting around $300,000 per episode to star in ABC's fall hit Designated Survivor, the highest pay ever for an actor on a first-year broadcast network series. Meryl Streep is said to have commanded a whopping $825,000 per episode to sign on for J.J. Abrams' Warner Bros. TV miniseries The Nix, which has yet to land at a network. "Someone is going to crack the $1 million mark," one veteran TV buyer tells THR of the escalating salaries.

Many on the network side blame Netflix, which will spend upward of $6 billion on original content this year and which kicked off the spree in 2013 with a $100 million commitment for two seasons of Kevin Spacey's House of Cards. In March, Netflix picked up a package for a reboot of the Norwegian comedy series Maniac, with Jonah Hill and Emma Stone set to make $350,000 for each of 10 episodes. Netflix beat HBO to pay Chris Rock $20 million each for two stand-up comedy specials.

But now it's not just Netflix. And it's not just actors. Russell's per-episode budget for the Amazon show is said to be $7 million, including an outsized fee for him to make his first TV series. Amazon won a multi-outlet bidding war for Matthew Weiner's follow-up to Mad Men by committing to a budget in the $70 million range for an eight-episode limited series. Woody Allen's first TV series, the poorly reviewed Crisis in Six Scenes, went to Amazon for a huge fee.

At HBO, Ballers star (and executive producer) Dwayne Johnson is scoring $450,000 per episode for the hit comedy. And his salary — an estimated $200,000 more than the average big name on broadcast — is considered low risk for HBO. "How much more valuable is it to go out and have The Rock in a commercial?" notes one top agent. "If you're a network chief, you'll spend $20 million to $40 million to market and create awareness for a show, plus another $30 million to $35 million to make the show, so you're in for $65 million. Are you going to risk all that over an extra $2 million?"

Of course, stars on established hits still make the most: The Big Bang Theory's leads command $1 million per episode. The Walking Dead actors Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln recently renegotiated to make $550,000 and $650,000 for seasons seven and eight, respectively. The five "A-tier" stars of HBO's Game of Thrones — Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — banded together and recently concluded a renegotiation that will pay them each $1.1 million per episode for seven episodes of season seven and six episodes of season eight.

Is there a payday peak in sight? Insiders say the astronomical fees will continue to climb until networks back off on original series. But with scripted originals projected to inch close to 500 in 2017, the demand for a star-driven, easy-to-market new show is greater than it ever has been.

"Viewership is shrinking on a per-show basis, so what [these networks] are doing is trying to break through the crowd with big-star and big-ticket names," notes Henry Schafer, executive vp at brand specialist Q Scores. And stars increasingly see limited series as simply an extended movie with no long-term commitment (and film-like salaries).

Another factor: With outlets like Amazon, HBO and especially Netflix demanding global rights to shows, most deals don't offer a second or third window such as syndication that might lead to a big ancillary windfall for an actor. Netflix now insists on a flat "buy out" in most of its deals. "That's why the checks are so big," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said during a THR roundtable in August. "We are negotiating for what the backend would be." For instance, Amazon is said to have global rights to Weiner's show, while producer The Weinstein Co. has it in territories where the retail giant has yet to establish itself.

Of course, big names don't always guarantee success. Snarks one agent: "It could be like House of Cards or it could be like Woody Allen's Amazon show."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.