Once upon a time, A-List actors like Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne and other legends struck per-picture salary deals with studio heads that, compared to today’s salaries, look almost paltry. These days, actors strive and negotiate for $15 million dollar per-picture deals, and some stars get it. But as finances begin to heavily impact studio budgets and new stars and franchises compete for the typical moviegoer’s dollar, things are changing dramatically.
The Girls Club
When the Hollywood Reporter published its annual “highest paid actress” list in 2007, at the top of the list was Reese Witherspoon. Her $15 to $20 million per-picture salary edged out Angelina Jolie and Cameron Diaz, each of whom also commands $15 and $20 million per picture. Following closely were four women with contracts stipulating per-picture fees of between $10 and $15 million: Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts. Rounding out the top 10 with $10 million per film deal: Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster and Halle Berry.
The Boys Club
Forbes magazine staffer Dorothy Pomerantz writes regularly about A-List actors’ salaries, but rather than reporting on per-movie contractual fees, she worked with total earnings. Between 2009 and 2010, Johnny Depp was Hollywood’s highest paid A-Lister with Ben Stiller trailing behind thanks to blockbuster, low-budget comedies. Depp’s $75 million and Stiller’s $53 million surpassed the $45 million Tom Hanks earned during the same period. Adam Sandler followed in Stiller’s comedic shoes making $40 million and Leonardo DiCaprio, a distant fifth, earned just $28 million during that time period.
The Effect of Up and Coming A-Listers
Fame can turn on a dime in Hollywood, but once an actor starts getting buzz, his salary can jump to A-List status immediately with the help of a savvy manager. Reuters tracks the rise from obscurity of actors like Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart of the "Twilight" movie franchise. Starting out as low-paid actors in low-budget movies; "Twilight" sequels and roles in other high-profile movies drove their salaries up fast. If they remain heavy box office favorites, Pattinson and Stewart could find themselves in the financial company of Witherspoon, Jolie and Diaz.
Wheeling, Dealing and Re-evaluation of A-Lister Salaries
It’s not unusual for an A-List actor to seek 20 percent of a movie’s gross profits in addition to their negotiated salary, but a new fiscal attitude in Hollywood is likely to affect future salaries. Overpaid A-Listers are becoming a financial problem in the industry. For example, Will Ferrell box office flop, “Land of the Lost,” cost $100 million to make but earned only $65 million. Other A-Listers in the same boat are Ewan McGregor, Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise. This new way of thinking about salaries has begun to affect A-Lister salaries being negotiated in Hollywood's film community.