Agent Ethan Hunt banks on himself. Tom Cruise is taking a lower fee upfront for starring in the next two “Mission: Impossible” films, which sources say leads to a meager paycheck in the $12 million to $14 million range, but he commands a significant percentage of the movies’ first-dollar gross. That means that Cruise gets box office bonuses before the studio even breaks even. In the case of “Top Gun: Maverick,” still flying high at nearly $1.2 billion at the global box office, sources estimate that Cruise will net $100 million or more from ticket sales, his salary and his eventual cut of home entertainment rentals and streaming revenue.
“I would never bet against Tom Cruise,” says one studio executive, noting that Cruise is superhuman when it comes to crisscrossing the globe promoting his movies (though he doesn’t do print interviews). “Most actors aren’t worth what you pay them, but Cruise and maybe Dwayne Johnson justify their salaries.”
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Cruise’s deal is unique, however. Most A-listers still command large paydays, and many get a chunk of the profits, but they can only access the pool of riches after a movie is in the black. For decades, the biggest actors in the world commanded $20 million. That figure dated back to Jim Carrey’s payout for 1996’s “The Cable Guy,” and it was a number that seemed immune to inflationary pressure.
Cruise’s pact is a vestige of a time when stars, not superheroes, were the reason that audiences flocked to movie theaters to see a new release. But things have changed since Marvel took the box office hostage in the early aughts, putting an interchangeable array of Chrises in spandex and masks. The problem is that even though those actors are surefire draws any time the Avengers assemble, they can’t always attract a crowd when they try to leverage their success in other genres.
That doesn’t mean that movie stars need a bailout. The streaming wars have been very good for their bottom lines. Apple will pay Leonardo DiCaprio $30 million to reteam with Martin Scorsese on the historical drama “Killers of the Flower Moon,” as well as shell out $30 million to Brad Pitt for getting behind the wheel of a currently untitled Formula One drama from “Top Gun: Maverick” director Joseph Kosinski and $35 million to Will Smith for appearing in the escaped-slave thriller “Emancipation.” Not to be outdone, Netflix will pony up $20 million for Chris Hemsworth and $10 million to Millie Bobby Brown to reprise their roles in the upcoming sequels to “Extraction” and “Enola Holmes.”
Studio executives concede that the payouts at Netflix, Apple and their ilk have caused some actors to raise their quotes. Johnson, for instance, asked for and received $22.5 million to play the lead in “Black Adam,” a DC superhero movie. In addition, he will receive millions more for producing the film and earns a fee on top of that to promote the movie on his social media channels.
But those gaudy paydays come with caveats. Apple has included clauses in some contracts that make bonuses contingent on films coming in on time and on budget. And all of the streamers are essentially paying out the actors’ backends. That eliminates the risk that their movies will collapse at the box office, which would theoretically deprive them of all those bonuses. Yet it also puts a cap on their potential earnings if, say, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a globe-straddling phenomenon.
In success, stars reap rewards in other ways. Jason Momoa had an option to appear in a sequel to “Aquaman” as part of his initial deal, but after the first film topped $1 billion, he renegotiated his pact to essentially double his salary to carry the trident once more. Now, Momoa will pull in $15 million for his sophomore trip to Atlantis. The same holds true for Joaquin Phoenix. When he first portrayed Gotham’s most infamous villain in 2019’s “Joker,” Phoenix earned $4.5 million. The film went on to earn more than $1 billion and landed the actor an Oscar. If Warner Bros. is going to get Phoenix back in clown makeup, it will cost the studio $20 million.
The good times may not last. There’s a nagging sense that as the country braces for recession and media companies see their stock prices plunge, stars could start to feel the pinch. After years of free spending, Netflix has signaled to investors that it is serious about maintaining its operating margins at 19% to 20%. That’s made the streamer much more selective about writing huge checks for buzzy projects. At the same time, companies like Warner Bros. Discovery are grappling with heavy debt loads and have made a commitment to slash costs. To be fair, Apple, with a market cap of $2.4 trillion, seems unlikely to be forced to belt-tighten, but at some point all this economizing will have a trickle-down effect in terms of star salaries.
For actors, it’s not always about the money. Take the cast of “Oppenheimer,” a historical drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the atom bomb. The $100 million production is a challenging commercial proposition given its subject matter, but Universal is taking a bet on it because it hails from the mind of Christopher Nolan. And while “Oppenheimer” has character actor Cillian Murphy in the title role, the ensemble includes such A-listers as Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in supporting parts. Any one of these players could command $10 million to $20 million on the open market, but for the privilege of working with Nolan, they’re giving the studio a big discount, pulling in $4 million apiece. Still, like Cruise, all have backend participation built into their deals. So if “Oppenheimer” beats the odds to be the rare serious drama to achieve blockbuster status, they could profit handsomely.
Matt Donnelly and Rebecca Rubin contributed to this report.
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