This story first appeared in the April 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It has become conventional wisdom that stars aren’t worth what they used to be. Maybe so — but that doesn’t mean they’re poorly paid. A survey of producers, agents and executives indicates that at least six actors are earning as much as $20 million a picture — right up there with the heyday of star salaries during the 1990s, when a handful of actors (including Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise) reached that magic number.
The $20 million club includes Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington and Matt Damon — depending on the type of movie they star in. Downey gets that number for the Iron Man films (plus a generous backend worth tens of millions more), and Damon will get it for his next Bourne venture, but neither came close with The Judge and The Monuments Men.
The top quote belongs to DiCaprio, who was paid $25 million up front for The Wolf of Wall Street. But this came with a catch: It also included his producing fee, and budget overruns meant he had to defer some of his salary.
Following the success of American Sniper and his three Oscar nominations as an actor, Bradley Cooper is expected to command $15 million to $20 million a picture — lifting him above the $15 million he got for the third Hangover. Ben Affleck and Channing Tatum could be in the ballpark for the right role. But Tatum might find that harder to come by for nonsequels, following the disappointment of Jupiter Ascending.
In the action category, Dwayne Johnson has become the go-to guy and can command $14 million to $15 million a studio picture. That’s what he got for Hercules and the upcoming summer release San Andreas — though insiders say he made a lot less to be part of the ensemble cast of Furious 7.
And not one but four women are in the $15 million-plus range: Bullock, Jolie, Melissa McCarthy and Jennifer Lawrence. Bullock remains the highest-earning actress after a spectacular deal for Gravity saw her make more than $70 million, once profits were factored into her pact, with $20 million up front against 20 percent of first-dollar gross. But that deal was signed before the current belt-tightening era. (She got about half as much, $10 million, for The Heat.) McCarthy can earn that amount for starring roles. Jolie earned more than $15 million for Disney’s Maleficent, and sources say they expect her to be paid $20 million (her fee for Salt) in the event of a sequel. Lawrence earned $10 million for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and insiders believe she could easily get $15 million or more for another franchise film, though not for her current David O. Russell picture Joy.
A few big differences have emerged since the height of the big-star era, however.
Hardly anyone gets the type of massive back-end deal those stars received, when many were granted 20 percent of first-dollar gross. Today’s backend nearly always comes after “cash-break-even,” which means when a studio has recouped its costs, including whatever it spent for production and marketing.
Most major stars also are taking less up front, especially for nonfranchise films — hence Brad Pitt is getting a fee in the single-digit millions to star in Robert Zemeckis‘ upcoming World War II drama. “What Brad gets for a franchise film is different than what he gets for Inglourious Basterds,” says one top agent. “These deals are much more back-loaded.”