The streaming boom has radically changed TV compensation, with no sign that demand — or salaries — will be fading anytime soon for top small-screen talent. Newer streaming services are still ramping up their TV offerings as companies make a bid for eyeballs around the globe, and established streamers are doing their best to remain competitive with them and traditional TV counterparts.
That is leading to some hefty upfront paydays for some of the biggest, A-list feature stars making their way to TV. The last time Variety wrote about bulging TV salaries, it referenced the growing “$1 million club.” Now that number is shifting closer to $2 million. At the top of that list, Robert Downey Jr. is rumored to have made at least that — if not more — for A24’s Vietnam War thriller “The Sympathizer,” for HBO. Chris Pratt is said to have pulled down $1.4 million for his Amazon Prime series “The Terminal List.”
More from Variety
And the hunger at the streamers for A-list talent only gets more vociferous when another star has a huge hit — witness Kate Winslet and “Mare of Easttown,” the kind of show every outlet is anxious to have. “You’re seeing a lot of pressure at Apple, Amazon, Hulu, to cast these major names and their shows, and for that they’re willing to spend a ton of money,” says one rep. “It all depends on how much leverage you have and how badly they need you.”
One casualty of the changing TV ecosystem: Those tremendous paydays that came from having a hit in syndication are mostly a thing of the past. Given the vast TV options — and lack of transparency about viewership for streaming shows — it’s getting harder to define a hit these days in any case.
“Back end doesn’t mean anything anymore in television, unless you’re Dick Wolf or some mega-producer who is doing network procedurals,” says one talent agent. “Anything you get in terms of back-end compensation at this point is just gravy.”
In the age of streaming, cash is mostly all upfront, and although deals may include a back-end element, “it’s not the way it used to be, where you could get really rich off it,” the agent says. Adds another rep: “You look at the traditional studios like Warner Bros. or ABC or Sony, and they’ve all moved toward the buyout models.”
If one of these traditional studios “gets a good Netflix deal, that kind of accomplishes everything,” says another agent. Or if the studio has leverage, it can “bifurcate the deal” and hold on to some rights. “In those deals you take the top dollar that networks provide, you try to get some back end, and you call it a day.”
With so little transparency in the streaming world — who knows what a show is worth without ratings or an off-net marketplace? — it’s more difficult than ever to grasp whether talent has been compensated fairly. “I think you’re going to see every single package that comes up in the next five years get audited,” says an agent, “because there’s still so much inside dealing.” But proving malfeasance may be tough in an age without all of those benchmarks.
But although it’s tough to gauge the success of a show in the streaming age without ratings benchmarks, there are other ways to do so: Awards, social buzz, and plenty of third party analytics firms that are finding ways to measure demand for a show. That may be how “Jack Ryan” star John Krasinski was able to score what’s believed to be a tremendous renegotiation for his Amazon show.
Complicating deals in the streaming age is that when you sell a show to a streamer, you’re not only giving up off-network syndication riches (since those shows live on those platforms for a lengthy period of time, if not in perpetuity), but missing out on international dollars, since an outlet like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video is usually looking for global rights.
Insiders say production companies like Lucasfilm and Marvel are adding contract wording that encompasses series, an option for a feature film that might go theatrical, and rights to include that character in another franchise. They’re paying lucrative fees for this massive reach, says another agent, who expects Netflix to soon follow suit. “But the number of buckets they’re dipping into is pretty incredible.”
Hence the need to pay big episodic dollars for A-listers who star in a 10-episode series. While the talk a few years ago was of a $1 million club, that’s rare and reserved for luring top talent who haven’t done TV. But salaries remain competitive, with a $600,000 to $750,000 range being the standard for stars like Kate Winslet (“Mare of Easttown”) and Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson in “The First Lady.”
Even broadcast isn’t immune to the trend; NBC is paying Ted Danson $400,000 per episode for “Mr. Mayor,” knowing what a bankable, TV superstar he is. “They definitely need to be competitive in order to get talent, because they don’t have a lot to show for the power of broadcast anymore,” one rep says.
There also continues to be an issue of the “haves” and “have nots.” With so much of the talent budget focused on the top of the call sheet, those actors further down the list must contend with diminishing episodic paydays. “They’re paying the top one, maybe two or three names in the sheet, and everybody else sort of is scraping by,” an agent says.
With the streamer boom, “we’re in a little bit of a bubble right now,” says an agent, pointing to the appetite of Netflix, Amazon, Disney, HBO Max and others. While one agent wonders if newer entrants like Paramount Plus and Peacock will continue to be major buyers, “I don’t see salaries diminishing at this point,” the agent says. “I’m still pretty darn bullish on that.”
Note: Some episodic salaries may include producing fees.
Best of Variety