Hollywood's Tale of Two A-Lists: Why Chris Hemsworth Will Never Make Robert Downey Jr. Money

A-List Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: Remie Geoffroi

A-List Illustration - H 2013

Actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Hemsworth and Chris Pine are on the rise in Hollywood, but they're not earning double-digit millions for one-off movies like RDJ, Denzel Washington and Johnny Depp.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A new generation of actors may have taken Hollywood by storm, heading up prestigious directors' lists and proving they can topline major films (think Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth), but none has yet earned in the double-digit millions for one-off movies like their older counterparts. In the increasingly constrained studio world, all are being signed to deals in the low-seven figures, often with contracts locking them up for multiple pictures.

Instead, those mega-salaries are going to such tested stars as Robert Downey Jr., Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Johnny Depp. (Although even they can't command the type of backend that superstars of yore once collected -- i.e., 20 percent of "first-dollar gross.")

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It's one of the curious paradoxes of contemporary Hollywood: The more it searches for the next big talent, the more it relies on the tried-and-true to generate box office. On the one hand, there's a brilliant generation of up-and-comers, toplining Oscar bait like Silver Linings Playbook and franchises like The Hunger Games. On the other hand, there's a veteran stable of stars actually getting the big paychecks, particularly in their proven genres.

True, the new A-list occasionally has made megabucks with franchises: Daniel Radcliffe and his Hogwarts horde earned $20 million apiece for the final Harry Potter installment, the same amount Kristen Stewart and her undead pals made for the final Twilight. But none of them has been able to garner anything like that money outside their big-brand series -- or even prove they have the star wattage to carry non-franchise films.

Hence, Denzel Washington earned $20 million for 2 Guns, while his younger co-star, Mark Wahlberg, earned about half that fee. Yet both are trusted by distributors to bring in an audience where it matters most: the foreign market, where few younger stars have proved their mettle. (Wahlberg will start catching up to Washington with the next Transformers, one of the biggest international successes in recent years, for which he'll be paid in the $16 million to $18 million range.)

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Joining Washington in the $20 million club are such middle-aged (or close to) men as Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith (though even Smith only took about half that for the disappointing After Earth, which was toplined by his son). Both have been making films for decades and have shown their ability to weather a flop or two.

Similarly, Daniel Craig might enter the $20 million club when he reteams with director Sam Mendes for another James Bond thriller -- roughly $3 million more than he received for Skyfall -- and even he is now 45. And like all franchise stars, his fee plummets when he isn't playing Bond, to the $5 million range. When his reps sought a significant pay bump for a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sequel following Skyfall, Sony balked, and the project languishes.

Proven genre, more than anything else, has become the determining factor in pay for both the established set and rising stars. Jennifer Aniston can earn $5 million -- but only in a comedy --after hitting big unexpectedly with We're the Millers. Rachel McAdams also can earn up to $5 million but solely in her proven genre -- weepy tearjerkers like The Vow. She did not come close to that range for an untitled Cameron Crowe project at Sony. Dwayne Johnson makes $15 million for action films thanks to having three such movies open at No. 1 in the span of two months this year: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Pain and Gain and Fast & Furious 6. (He'll receive $12 million for his next vehicle, the upcoming Brett Ratner-directed Hercules.) "You will not see him do another Tooth Fairy anytime soon," says a source. "He got in trouble trying to step out of his range."

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Proven genres notwithstanding, the new-generation A-list has yet to muscle this older generation aside, especially when the elders manage to reinvent themselves as successfully as, say, Sandra Bullock, Sylvester Stallone and Downey. Who in recent years could have seen Bullock taking a role first written for a man in the space drama Gravity, the most-talked-about picture at the Toronto Film Festival? Three and a half decades after Rocky, who could have predicted Stallone creating his own starring material and making $15 million for the next Expendables? And a few years ago, who would have imagined Downey as the lead in not one but two franchises, Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes?

Downey remains Hollywood's highest-paid actor, whose rich deal to play Tony Stark in the Iron Man franchise netted him an estimated $50 million for the third in the series. None of his peers within the Marvel fold -- including rising star Chris Hemsworth, often pegged as the next global star -- will ever see that type of money. The comics-content company is notorious for deals locking actors in for multiple pictures at fees starting in the six-figure range, dooming younger stars to the type of indentured servitude toward which an older generation rebelled at the height of the studio system. With limited maneuverability in renegotiation, younger stars' agents have their hands tied when it comes to netting their clients huge money.

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Which means that Lawrence, the most meteorically fast-rising of the younger generation, will have to wait until Hunger Games ends -- or until she has proved her bankability in another blockbuster -- to earn the kind of dollars as, say, Cameron Diaz. (Diaz scored a mammoth $42 million payday for the raunchy comedy Bad Teacher, but only because she agreed to a $1 million upfront fee in exchange for a hefty backend.)

Lawrence is one of the few women who matter in the new Hollywood, which, despite talk of growing gender equality, remains decidedly male-skewing when it comes to pay. Even with the Oscar appeal of stars like Anne Hathaway and critical acclaim of others like Emma Stone, their paydays are notably less than those of middle-range male actors like Liam Neeson, who can command $10 million to $15 million for a certain kind of action-thriller. And none of the new generation of women stars has even come close to earning what Angelina Jolie will make if she stars in Salt 2 -- an estimated $20 million, cementing her status as the continuous queen of the A-list, 14 years after breaking out in Girl, Interrupted.

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E-mail: Stephen.Galloway@THR.com

E-mail: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27