Peak TV is a term that gets tossed around a lot. But shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, then later Breaking Bad and Mad Men, genuinely brought cinema-quality stories — and arguably better stories — to the small screen. Add streaming and a respiratory pandemic spread easily indoors among strangers, and what’s the difference between a night at the movies and sitting in front of the TV anyway? Inconvenience and a slight risk of agonizing death?
You’d think with all this peaking, stars would be cashing in too. But that’s only kind of true. So much content is a bit like butter spread over too much bread. The carbs are us in this scenario, sitting at home, sleepy and bloated, suddenly enjoying smaller-scale, serialized productions, recommended by robots, and catered exactly to our exact demographic desires.
On other side of this arrangement though, superstars like Jim Carrey used to reliably cash $20 million checks. Now, that’s a “rarity” says Business Insider. Johnny Depp and a few others outliers still get there. But more often lately, fans show up for the franchise, not the actors. Who is the masked star of Disney’s streaming smash The Mandalorian? Well, it’s Pedro Pascal, and he’s great, but that guy has all the bargaining power of whoever was inside Big Bird. There are openings though. Franchise player pacts have shown promise, along with some other tactics too. So these are stars who pulled power moves, demanded huge raises, and despite the odds, got seriously paid.
The cast of Friends will be there for each other
It’s important to talk about this show first, because it was the Friends cast, who, just like the mythic Mandalorian, showed everyone else, “This is the way.” Back in 1994, the now-familiar cast were unknowns, earning a comparably modest $22,500 per episode, according to Business Insider. In a 24-episode season, that’s $540,000. Not a bad year for a successful surgeon, but not superstar money for a then 25-year old Jennifer Aniston.
As the show took off, however, so did the salaries. By season three, the cast was pulling in $75,000 an episode, or $1.8 million a year. However Aniston says the cast’s pay wasn’t always even. “It wasn’t so much about women being paid the same as men — some of the women were being paid more,” she told RadioTimes (via NME). “It was more about, ‘We’re doing equal work and we all deserve to be compensated in the same way.'”
It was in fact season three where Aniston and David Schwimmer took voluntary pay cuts so the cast could negotiate collectively. And that leverage paid off. The real-life friends went on to become the highest-paid TV-stars of all time, pulling $1 million per episode for the final two seasons. And as the show moved to streaming, the money came even easier. Each Friends star now earns an estimated $20 million per year in royalties, according to USA Today.
Jennifer Lopez, oh the rocks she's got
Jennifer Lopez got her big break after an enthusiastic audition to be a Fly Girl on In Living Color in 1990. To that point, her life had been hand-to-mouth. She worked at a law firm by day to take dance jobs at night. “I remember only getting to have one piece of pizza every day when I was a dancer,” she told The Daily Mail. “That’s how I lived. I did that for a couple of years before I got my first big job. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. For me, coming from that struggle, this is a dream come true for me.”
She said all this while getting seriously paid as executive producer of NBC’s World of Dance. But Lopez first cashed in at Fox when she joined American Idol in 2011, signing a booming $12 million deal to replace Simon Cowell.
The deal is so rich it set off a gold rush The Hollywood Reporter dubbed “the J.Lo effect.” Lopez became “the new standard as reality salaries soar.” Jenny from the block got even more for the second season, upwards of $20 million, though that’s unconfirmed. Other sources say $15 million. J.Lo bumped that up to $17.5 for season three, however, surpassing Britney Spears’ meager $15 million for The X Factor, says The Daily Mail.
Christina Aguilera gets her wish
Hey, who needs a genie when they’ve got millions of dollars to their name? After all, isn’t being insanely rich exactly like having infinite wishes?
Christina Aguilera inked a perfectly nice deal worth a reported $10 million per season when she joined NBC‘s The Voice in 2011, according to The Wrap. That deal lasted through 2013 when the singing sensation thought of a much better situation: Sources told The Wrap that she was raking in a cool $17 million! By season five that figure was down to $12.5 million, but an insider claims she could still hit her old figure, “depending on the number of hours she appeared,” because oddly, Aguilera was punching a time card like the rest of us.
It should be noted Aguilera’s deal was upstaged by — who else? — the diva-in-chief, Mariah Carey, who scored $18 million in 2012 to render her judgments on American Idol, according to People. This also included a sweet option to re-up for another year of sitting pretty in the judge’s chair. Carey, however, declined. As she said on a 2015 episode of The Kyle & Jackie O Show, “That was the worst experience of my life.” She went on to accuse the show of “pitting two females against each other,” in a nod to her feud with fellow judge Nicki Minaj. Because of Carey’s clashes, in terms of total earnings, Aguilera remains diva queen.
Charlize Theron is doing queen stuff
Hackers have done a lot of harm to Hollywood starlets. The release of hundreds of sexually explicit photos from stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton — obviously meant for boyfriends-eyes-only — come to mind. But at least for one star, Charlize Theron, they got her seriously paid.
Speaking of JLaw, in 2014 sophisticated “cybercriminals” breached Sony studios servers and “paralyzed operations,” tapping into a trove of internal documents including “top employees’ salaries, nasty Hollywood hardball emails,” according to Vulture. One significant revelation was that American Hustle stars, including Lawrence, and Amy Adams, earned less than their male co-stars Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, reported The Daily Beast.
Charlize Theron was not mentioned in the leaks but got the sense she wasn’t being paid the same as her Snow White and the Huntsman co-star Chris Hemsworth. Her reps at WME shrewdly used the unflattering view of Hollywood gender politics to nail down a new deal worth $10 million for the film’s sequel, 2012’s The Huntsman, the same rate as Hemsworth, according to Page Six. This hack will likely get other female stars paid too: “One knock-on effect from the Sony hacking scandal is that there will be more sensitivity about equal pay for actresses and hiring practices at movie studios,” revealed an anonymous source.
Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser get mad money
In 1996, in the wake of the Friends cast banding together, other stars realized they had leverage too; you can’t just recast the central characters in a prime-time comedy. That’s when NBC’s Mad About You stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt locked in an astounding deal, taking their per-show salaries from $250,000, to a cool $1 million, according to Entertainment Weekly.
All this for a show that was never a “mega-hit” and whose numbers were in decline. Law & Order Executive Producer Dick Wolf reportedly “fumed” about the trend, calling it a “virus infecting the industry,” adding, “It’s insane … Forty-four million [Hunt and Reiser’s total take for next season] for the actors on a 15-share show? It’s a dangerous era in terms of salaries.”
Mad About You was cancelled three years later but brought back for a revival in 2019, to scathing reviews. “No one was clamoring for more Mad About You. The new season demonstrates why,” writes Time. The New York Post simply called it a “nostalgia trip not worth” taking. The show has not been renewed.
Simon Cowell has that X factor
No discussion of huge stars who demanded huge raises would be even semi-complete without the massive payday allotted to the king of mean, Simon Cowell.
In 2008 the longtime American Idol judge was already making an eye-popping $36 million a year for his continued berating of the tuneless and delusional. And that was only part of his total earnings for that year: Cowell brought in $75 million between 2008 and 2009, and at that time Forbes named him the top-paid man on prime-time TV in the US, surpassing Donald Trump and Ryan Seacrest. But in 2009, with one foot out the door, Cowell was reportedly offered three or four times his salary — which would land somewhere between $100 and $144 million a year — according to The Guardian. When Extra asked Cowell about the report, he called it “absolute nonsense.”
Either way, he made a lot of cheese — but only a fraction of the $900 million the show raked in annually, according to the New York Post. “This is about properly owning himself, Brand Cowell, everything he does … not just the ones starring him,” a source told the Post. And the very next year he made his move, announcing his departure from Idol in 2010, according to CNN. Cowell was bringing his UK talent competition, The X Factor, to US TV in 2011, and he’d be sitting in the judge’s chair. But this time, he’d also be signing the checks.
Ellen Pompeo turns Grey's to greenbacks
When the star of TV’s long-running drama about an imaginary hospital in Seattle found out her co-star “McDreamy,” aka Patrick Dempsey, was earning more than her, she asked for $5,000 more than him. “The show is Grey’s Anatomy and I’m Meredith Grey,” Ellen Pompeo told the Hollywood Reporter. The network turned her down flat. Pompeo even reached out to Dempsey for a Friends-style team negotiation, but “he was never interested in that,” she said.
However, when Dempsey left the show in 2015, suddenly Pompeo had the advantage she needed. As she told the outlet, in the past the network reasoned, “‘We don’t need you; we have Patrick’ — which they did for years.” But that eventually changed. In 2017, the star bumped her per-episode earnings to $575,000, and scored backend equity for an overall package worth an astounding $20 million-plus a year, becoming “dramatic television’s highest-earning actress.”
Nearing 50 during negotiations, Pompeo admitted her age was a big factor in giving up other acting options. “I made a decision to make money and not chase creative acting roles,” she said on Jemele Hill Is Unbothered (via Vulture). “I don’t like chasing anything ever, and acting to me … was a lot of chasing. You’ve got to chase roles, you’ve got to beg for roles, you’ve got to convince people … I’m never that thirsty, because I’m financially set.”
Amy Schumer gets a very special deal
In 2016 Dave Chappelle scored a monster $60 million Netflix deal, according to Page Six. The contract covered three specials, two of which Chappelle already had on hand, from the comic’s “personal archive.” A third was shot originally for Netflix. All this means $20 million per set. The same year, Chris Rock landed a similar deal worth $40 million for two specials, according to Variety.
In 2017, Amy Schumer, who “couldn’t have been a hotter personality,” says Variety, had an $11 million deal in place for her upcoming Leather Special. But in light of the news about Rock and Chappelle, Schumer’s team went to Netflix and “raised the question of fairness.”
Anyone who has ever negotiated a salary will be quietly chuckling to themselves; what matters in negotiations is the upper hand. Well a cultural moment was afoot, providing exactly that. “The Fight for Equal Pay: Women, Minorities on TV Still Making Less Than White Men,” reads the cover-story from Variety detailing Schumer’s situation. Under the scrutiny, Netflix agreed to pay Schumer “significantly more.” The special was eviscerated online in a torrent of backlash, but Schumer seemed to respond. “I believe women deserve equal pay,” she wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post (via Variety). “However I don’t believe I deserve equal pay to Chris and Dave. They are legends and [two] of the greatest comics of all time.”
The Stranger Things cast is tiering it up
Stranger Things was, in part, such an instant smash because many millennial subscribers do dimly recall the actual 1980s the show’s incredibly dead-on world-building re-creates. As another retro TV anti-hero Don Draper once put it, “Nostalgia: it’s delicate, but potent.” And for child stars, profitable.
Heading into season three, The Hollywood Reporter announced, “Sources say the new pacts for the child stars are worth roughly 12 times their previous deals.” The cast got raises in three tiers. Here’s how it shakes out: the grown-up leads Winona Ryder (Joyce) and David Harbour grabbed $350,000 an episode. The second tier includes the kids: Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) and Noah Schnapp (Will) — who are each pulling down $250,000. Bringing up the rear are the onscreen teens Natalia Dyer (Nancy), Charlie Heaton (Jonathan) and Joe Keery (Steve) — each netting approximately $150,000.
That of course leaves the show’s breakout star, Millie Bobby Brown. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Brown reportedly split off from her cast mates when it came time to negotiate. Some sources say she’s getting the same $250,000 as the other actors her age. Others say Brown is pulling in closer to the $350,000 per episode that Ryder and Harbour are making — which would make sense of her decision to negotiate alone. Only a telekinetic psychic could know for sure.
Johnny Depp raked in 'the stupid money'
There’s always been a deep and obvious vulnerability to Johnny Depp. His Jack Sparrow, quintessentially, is both bumbling drunkard, and the best pirate Theodore Groves has ever seen.
It was that catawampus strut into The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise that turned a respected leading man into a global mega-star. The harried artist supposedly took home a comparably paltry $10 million bounty on his first excursion into the Disney-owned franchise. By 2011’s On Stranger Tides, Depp reportedly made $55 million, according to Forbes, and had pulled in $300 million in franchise cash, says The Hollywood Reporter. Even he thought it was a lot, telling Vanity Fair (via The Hollywood Reporter), “Basically, if they’re going to pay me the stupid money right now, I’m going to take it, I have to. I mean, it’s not for me … At this point, it’s for my kids.”
Shockingly, he was dead wrong. By 2017, despite $650 million in career cash, Depp was allegedly all but broke, according to The Hollywood Reporter. That year the actor filed a $25 million lawsuit against his former management group for mishandling his millions, reported The Guardian. Per The Hollywood Reporter, his former business managers claimed he was shelling out $2 million a month on his “extravagant” lifestyle “which he simply could not afford.” (According to Deadline, they settled in 2018.) Considering his ongoing sprawling legal battle with Amber Heard — and being dropped from Fantastic Beasts in 2020 — Depp will need to find some buried treasure elsewhere.
Keanu Reeves takes the green pill
Keanu Reeves is a bad man in John Wick, again flexing his impressive martial-arts arsenal. But it was The Matrix trilogy where this teep-kicking thespian really cashed in, and then, selflessly, cashed out. Or so legend has it.
Reeves, who was already huge in 1999, nabbed $10 million up front for his legendary role as Neo — all because Will Smith turned it down. But a smart deal adding back-end profits made Reeves truly rich. The film raked in almost half a billion worldwide, and Reeves’ total cut was north of $35 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. Feeling the love, nice guy Neo gave up one of those points to the special effects and costume team, because, according to a source, “He felt that they were the ones who made the movie and that they should participate.”
Unlike Johnny Depp, who told Rolling Stone it cost $5 million to shoot Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes from a cannon, Reeves lives simply, and can afford it. But more importantly, he also earned some $250 million for the Matrix movies, according to The Hollywood Reporter (with a fourth film on the way). A flattering urban myth has since sprung from this immense “whoa” windfall, claiming Reeves gave away perhaps $80 million of his neo-riche recompense — but it’s pure science fiction, says Uproxx. For that kinda bread, you’d have to fight him for it.
Donald Trump owns the media
Much has been made of just how rich POTUS 45 Donald Trump truly is. Trump’s “massive” debt load raises a “national security question,” claimed Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, via CNBC, amidst 2020 presidential campaign shenanigans. But despite leaked tax returns showing some serious losses, “yes, Donald Trump is still a billionaire,” writes Forbes, worth some $2.5 billion. And a big piece of that was his incredible earnings from The Apprentice.
The first leaked Trump return was for 2004, the year The Apprentice debuted. He made $500,000 to $1 million per episode for hosting, says Fox News (via Business Insider). However, the real money came as Trump scored a 50% ownership stake, according to Fortune. As a result, from 2004 to 2005, his earnings ballooned from $60 million to $152.7 million, says CBS News.
Outlets like The Guardian proclaim Trump’s TV income rescued his “failing business empire.” A second set of leaked returns spanning most of the 2000s, obtained by The New York Times, showed a whopping $427 million in NBC earnings, without which Trump was supposedly sunk. If true, it means the mainstream media not only gave Trump his platform, but saved his finances too. “He was far more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life,” writes the Times of Trump’s conquest of the TV business, which by their own accounting, is worth nearly half a billion dollars.
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