This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
How bad is the decline in actor salaries over the past decade? Despite the huge sums still being raked in by such superstars as Robert Downey Jr. (his $75 million comes from his 7 percent, first-dollar slice of Iron Man 3, as well as his $12 million HTC endorsement deal) and Sandra Bullock (a 15 percent, first-dollar deal on Gravity and about $10 million more for her summer hit The Heat), most actors are feeling a definite squeeze, especially those in the middle.
“If you’re [a big star], you’re getting well paid,” says one top agent, “but the middle level has been cut out.” Sometimes with a hacksaw. Leonardo DiCaprio made $25 million (including bonuses) for The Wolf of Wall Street, while co-star Jonah Hill got paid $60,000. Granted, that’s an extreme example — Hill offered to do the part for scale (and got an Oscar nomination for his trouble).
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But studio cost-cutting has meant that mid-level stars are being nickel-and-dimed in ways that would have been unheard of in the gilded ’90s (i.e., Marvel Studios’ reportedly offering Mickey Rourke a mere $250,000 to star opposite Downey in Iron Man 2). Before breaking out the violins, though, remember that even mid-level stars are far better off than most other actors. According to the most recent SAG statistics, the average member earns $52,000 a year, while the vast majority take home less than $1,000 a year from acting jobs.
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Like everyone in Hollywood, the talent agencies have been tightening their belts. “Your biggest concern used to be, ‘Would I get a $100,000 bonus or a $200,000 bonus?’ ” recalls one veteran agent wistfully. “Ha! Things have changed.” Those bonuses still happen, they just require a hot client (or five). CAA generally pays more than WME, UTA, Gersh, ICM and Paradigm, yet salaries increasingly are tied to what an agent brings in. And an agency will overpay to lure a top agent (and his clients). Generally speaking, though, starting agents can expect to earn $50,000 to $65,000; more senior agents make around $200,000; partners make $400,000 to $700,000; and board members — like CAA’s Bryan Lourd and WME’s Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel — can earn as much as $10 million. In rare circumstances, bonuses based on client earnings can turn mid-level agents into $1 million-a-year employees. In short, top talent breeds top salaries. Tracey Jacobs at UTA is said to be earning upward of $9 million — and she reps Johnny Depp.
AGENT’S ASSISTANT $10-$13 AN HOUR
At most agencies, you start in the mailroom, hope an assistant’s desk opens up, then dream of ascending the assistant ladder so you can be on the receiving end of middle-of-the-night email rants from top agents. At CAA, though — where Richard Lovett has five assistants and Kevin Huvane has four — you start as an assistant and move up to the mailroom agent-training program.
ANIMAL ACTOR $5K-$108K
Crystal the monkey earned $108,000 in 2012 for appearing in nine episodes of NBC’s Animal Practice. That’s more than most of the below-the-line talent featured in this story and twice as much as the average actor, who earns $52,000, according to SAG-AFRTA. But most animals work for peanuts: The day rate for a dog or cat in Hollywood is $400, with most earning $5,000 to $10,000 a year.
Crystal the monkey
$5K-$30K A WEEK
Top directors of photography, of which there are probably about 10 to 15 in the industry, can command $25,000 to $30,000 a week on movies that shoot up to 12 weeks — maybe even a little more, according to insiders. That select circle of top cinematographers would include 11-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, Gravity Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki and Martin Scorsese‘s frequent collaborator Robert Richardson. On a big-budget studio movie — say, $80 million or more — an experienced cinematographer can expect to earn $10,000 to $20,000 a week. On a low-budget indie fare, DPs often take home $2,000 to $5,000 a week. On TV productions, the range is $5,000 to $8,000 a week.
FILM DIRECTOR $250K-$20M A PICTURE
“The middle range doesn’t exist anymore,” one studio executive says of the current financial landscape for feature film directors. “Either you’re paying for a modern master, or you’re paying a lot less. The days of paying $3 million or $4 million, knowing they’re just doing the job, that doesn’t exist.”
The going rate for modern masters? Between $7 million and $10 million for auteurs like Paul Greengrass and Ridley Scott, more if the film is considered a tentpole. Christopher Nolan is said to have made $20 million against 20 percent of gross for Interstellar. Backend is otherwise rare these days for the non-A-list.
On the other end of the scale, emerging directors can expect $250,000 to $500,000 for their first big studio feature, but there are exceptions (one European auteur was said to have recently have been paid $1 million for his first Hollywood blockbuster).
TV DIRECTOR $25K-$42K AN EPISODE
TV directors, of course, are an entirely different species, and get paid in a different way. The base DGA rate is $25,145 for a half-hour episode and $42,701 for an hour. But unlike writers, directors sometimes helm all 22 episodes of a season — it’s just too much work. But some big-name pilot directors (David Nutter, Jason Winer and Pam Fryman) get an executive producer credit and a stake in the show, which is how Bryan Singer is said to have made tens of millions for directing the pilot of House M.D.
ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER $2M-$6M
Maybe more, if you’re Skip Brittenham, who is rumored to take home $10 million a year. After a practice builds up, a lawyer can receive 30 percent of what the firm earns from his or her clients. With a big enough list, that easily can add up to millions. But even first-year attorneys can do OK, earning $135,000 to $165,000 (enough to pay off law school).
EXTRA $148 A DAY
But there’s a “bump” of $50 a day for wearing a hairpiece, or if you’re working in challenging conditions (rain, smoke). There’s also overtime — a full day of pay for every hour after 16 hours — which has been known to happen on movie sets.
GAME SHOW HOST $1M-$10M
Quiz masters make between $25,000 a week (for a syndicated show) to upward of $75,000 a week (for a primetime program). Unless, of course, you’re Alex Trebek, Jeopardy!‘s 30-year host — in which case you take home the $10 million-a-year jackpot.
LATE-NIGHT TALK SHOW HOST $3M-$30M
Late night’s recent round of musical chairs hasn’t changed the pay all that much — unless you’re Stephen Colbert, said to be in line to earn a bit more as David Letterman‘s replacement on CBS than the $15 million a year he gets from Comedy Central. The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart remains the top earner at $25 million to $30 million a year. Jimmy Fallon is said to be making a little less annually than Jay Leno‘s$15 million for hosting The Tonight Show (and a lot less than the $25 million Leno made before he took a pay cut). And Seth Meyers barely can afford an applause sign at $3 million.
Bonuses are the name of the game in the management business. They’re tied to commissions — one big client can be worth millions. Starting managers make $50,000 to $60,000 and are expected to bring in two to three times their pay in commissions. Top partners can pull in seven figures. And unlike agents, managers can produce projects, bringing in additional fees.
NETWORK TV PRESIDENT $2M-$3M
The usual base salary for running the entertainment division of a major broadcast network is $2 million, but a $3 million base is not unheard of. And bonuses can double that salary. Still, says one former network president: “It’s not like these are jobs people lust after — they’re too hard. The really fun jobs are running cable networks, a job like head of programming at AMC, because you have more opportunity to be creative.”
PORN STAR $120K
That’s what an “average” porn star makes in a year, according to Joanne Cachapero of the Free Speech Coalition, the closest thing adult film has to a guild. Big-name female performers — what Cachapero calls “top flight” — can earn $200,000 or more (men, for once, earn less, though they tend to have longer careers). But there’s a limit to even the most successful porn star’s earning power. “Unlike mainstream performers,” says Cachapero, “adult performers have less opportunity to diversify revenue by adding streams like merchandising and endorsements.”
STUDIO CHIEF $5M-$15M
Your average studio chief — think Alan Horn, Brad Grey and Amy Pascal — earns a base salary of about $5 million. But bonuses and other sweeteners (structured on box office and production output, among other factors) usually amount to two to three times that payday. Plus, the job comes with the best perks in Hollywood, from private jet rides to 24-hour assistants.
The number of producers whose fees top $2 million — such aces as Jerry Bruckheimer, Scott Rudin, Brian Grazer and Neal H. Moritz — can be counted on two hands (plus maybe a foot). Moritz now tops the list, surpassing Bruckheimer with his rich Fast & Furious 7 deal. Rudin is said to have a quote of $2.5 million against 7.5 percent of first-dollar gross. But one dealmaker says no one is earning true first-dollar gross as in the old days. Instead, “everybody reduces before a film is greenlit and agrees to be part of a cash-break pool.” The PGA does not share average producer salaries, but a newbie typically earns $250,000, while a hot actor making a foray into producing earns $500,000 to $750,000 with some backend. Established actors with successful producing track records can take home considerably more — like Adam Sandler, who earned $5 million to produce Grown Ups 2 (not nearly as much as the $20 million he received to star in the film).
Unlike agents, managers and lawyers, PR reps typically are paid a monthly fee, not a percentage of income. That makes a big difference. A partner at a large firm makes $200,000 to $300,000, though some of the bigger flaks are rumored to pull in nearly $400,000. Publicists with A-list clients earn $100,000 to $150,000 (though fees vary depending on how many clients are “on,” or paying monthly fees), while midlevel reps (five to seven years of experience) take home $50,000 to $80,000. The entry-level flack at the red carpet and premiere parties who can’t find your name on her clipboard makes $27,000 to $35,000.
STUNT PERSON $50K-$1M
How much would you charge to jump a motorcycle over a wall and into a swimming pool? How about driving a semi tractor-trailer 65 miles an hour off a ramp and 30 feet into the air? Tom McComas, 44, who has done all that and much more as a stuntman in The Dark Knight and Mission: Impossible movies, earns about a half-million dollars a year, and some make even more. Yuen Woo-Ping, who worked on the Matrix films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was said to have earned $1 million annually at his peak. But those are exceptions — most risk their necks for far less.
The AFTRA rate for stunt work is $889 a day. That’s about $50,000 a film, assuming one works every day during a three-month shoot. And work, by the way, is getting harder to come by in L.A. thanks to productions moving to Louisiana, Georgia and other low-cost states, where local stunt workers grab most of the jobs. “I was in the top 1 percent, making $250,000 a year,” says a Hollywood stuntwoman who has doubled for Linda Hamilton and Jamie Lee Curtis. “But in the last two years, that has gone down by $100,000.” She estimates the average working stunt person makes only $50,000 to $100,000 a year.
That’s barely enough to cover a daredevil’s insurance premiums, let alone pay the bills when he or she takes the inevitable spill. “I was doubling Jim Carrey in Yes Man, on the back of a scooter on Sunset Boulevard with the girl doubling Zooey Deschanel,” recalls McComas. “A car that was supposed to slide by us hit us at 50 miles per hour. She shattered her pelvis; I jumped, flipped in the air and herniated a couple of disks.” He was out of work for eight months. “When you’re hurt, you show up the next day and you’re fired. Basically we’re blue-collar workers who punch the clock. I went from $10,000 a week to $900 a week on disability. The bottom line for a stuntman is: Don’t get hurt.”
COMMERCIAL VOICE ACTOR $3K-$1M AN AD
You can do it on bad hair days, and it pays great. More and more top stars are lending their voice to TV and radio commercials. Robert Downey Jr. for Nissan, Morgan Freeman for Visa, Jon Hamm for Mercedes, Tim Allen for Michigan Tourism, Kevin Spacey for Honda, Lisa Kudrow for Yoplait, Queen Latifah for Pizza Hut … the list goes on and on. “The trend in terms of celebrities doing voiceover has been distinctly upward,” says Jeff Danis, president of DPN Talent, an agency that specializes in commercial voiceover work. Big names like Freeman and Allen can command more than $1 million for an ad, which usually requires only a day’s work.
But major stars account for only about 20 percent of the voices you hear in commercials. The other 80 percent — non-celebrity voice actors — don’t make nearly that kind of dough. Typically, they’ll earn scale, which works out to about $3,000 to $5,000 an ad.
Jon Hamm is the voice of Mercedes.
TV STARS $150K-$1M AN EPISODE
It used to be when movie stars did a TV show, it was seen as slumming. Now it’s considered moving on up. Just this summer, Oscar winner Halle Berry debuted on CBS’ Extant, and this fall Katherine Heigl stars on NBC’s State of Affairs, while Tea Leoni plays a better-dressed version of Hillary Clinton on CBS’ Madam Secretary. Each of these actresses is being paid $150,000 an episode, the going rate for luring big-screen names to TV (for a 22-episode season, it adds up to $3.3 million). That’s a far cry from the $15,000 to $25,000 per episode an unknown actor is offered for a series regular role. But established TV actors with virtually no big-screen experience can do very well. Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting now will make $1 million an episode on The Big Bang Theory (up from $350,000). Then there’s Mark Harmon, who makes north of $500,000 per episode of NCIS, and Ashton Kutcher, who earns $750,000 per episode of Two and a Half Men — or about $34,000 a minute. With paychecks like that, who needs a film career?
PRIVATE CHEF $75K-$200K
Michelin-starred private chefs obviously can make more — but there are other ingredients in the salary recipe, like whether the client requires odd-hour meals or has a special diet. According to Christian Paier, owner of L.A.-based Private Chefs Inc., pairing a chef with a star or industry client can be as challenging as matchmaking: “Some of these clients spend more time with their chef than with their spouse — they travel with their chef wherever they go. It’s a very intimate thing.”
SHOWRUNNER $30K-$100K AN EPISODE
At 22 episodes a season, that adds up to $660,000 to $2.2 million a year. A select few creator-runners make considerably more, like Matthew Weiner (who got $30 million for the last three years of Mad Men).
REALITY STAR: PRACTICALLY NOTHING-$200K AN EPISODE
Sure, if you’re a member of the Duck Dynasty clan — or a Kardashian — you can make millions (like Kourtney and Kim‘s reported $40 million, three-year deal with E!, or the Robertson family’s more than $200,000 an episode deal with A&E for Dynasty). Even D-list celebs who go on Wife Swap can make decent money: $10,000 to $20,000 an episode. But for the vast majority of reality show performers — unfamous Bachelor contestants and other run-of-the mill reality hopefuls — jury duty pays better. You’re given a minimal stipend to compensate for missed wages, and that’s pretty much it. The real money in reality comes from parlaying your TV profile into something larger, the way Housewives star Bethenny Frankel managed to land that $100 million Skinnygirl deal in 2011. Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino spun six seasons on MTV’s Jersey Shore into $9 million from endorsements of products including vitamins, clothing, jewelry and sunglasses. Those deals are rare these days, but on a more modest scale, hot-ish reality stars can pick up an easy $5,000 to $10,000 just for showing up for paid “appearances” at bars and nightclubs.
FILM WRITER $100K-$1M A DRAFT
Feature film writers’ incomes continue to slide. According to the WGA West, screenwriters in Hollywood earned a combined total of $331 million last year, down nearly 25 percent from 2009. But some of them are doing pretty well. A screenwriter who sells a draft to a major studio can earn about $100,000, and a hot writer can score $1 million or more. Super scribes such as Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Simon Kinberg pull in as much as $5 million annually in writers’ fees (more when you add in residuals and producing earnings), while other top screenwriters earn closer to $2 million.
TV WRITER $3K-$6K A WEEK
In a gloomy Hollywood climate, the WGA says things are looking relatively bright for TV writers, who took in a combined total of $668.5 million last year, down just 6.2 percent from 2012. And TV residuals are booming: Last year, WGA members received $233.7 million in TV residuals, up 55 percent since 2012. Most staff writers work on 20-week contracts, at a rate of about $3,800 a week, though more senior writers earn about $6,000 a week. But the real money is in writing an entire episode on one’s own. That pays $24,788 a script, and considerably more if you create your own series (see “Showrunner”).
BELOW THE LINE: The A to Z of Industry Pay
ANIMATION DIRECTOR $200K
ART DIRECTOR $134K
ASSISTANT ART DIRECTOR $101K
AWARDS SHOW PRODUCER $300K
BEST BOY $92K
BODY DOUBLE $33K
BOOM MIC OPERATOR $87K
CAMERA OPERATOR $96K
COSTUME DEPT. SUPERVISOR $91K
CRAFT SERVICES FOREPERSON $74K
DOG HANDLER $54K
DIALECT COACH $125K
FIRE SAFETY ADVISER $73K
FIRST ASSISTANT DIRECTOR $192K
FOLEY ARTIST $88K
GARDENER (STUDIO) $50K
HAIRSTYLIST TRAINEE $66K
LIGHTING TECHNICIAN (ENTRY-LEVEL) $53K
LOCATION MANAGER $112K
MAKEUP ARTIST $100K
MODEL BUILDER $68K
MUSIC MIXER $111K
NOVELIZATION WRITER $12,500 per book
PAYROLL ACCOUNTANT $66K
PERSONAL ASSISTANT FOR A CELEBRITY $80K
PROJECTIONIST (STUDIO) $72K
PROP MASTER $59K
PUBLICIST (STUDIO) $93K
SCENIC ARTIST $81K
SCRIPT SUPERVISOR $62K
SET DECORATOR $104K
SOUND EFFECTS EDITOR $88K
TEACHER (ON-SET) $88K
TRAILER EDITOR $81K
WIGMAKER, CLASS 1 $59K
WIGMAKER, CLASS 2 $69K
WILD ANIMAL TRAINER $75K