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How actors earn money successfully for movies and TV

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  • Post last modified:January 30, 2022

Scarlett Johansson has changed the way actors get paid. Because the distribution system has changed. Films are no longer released on cinema and several months later on DVD. Streaming services are here to stay. And it changes the paying system of actors. Johansson’s lawsuit to Disney for releasing Black Widow both in the cinemas and on their streaming service at the same time – meaning that she will miss out on income – was the start of the change in the movie industry.

So let’s take a look at how actors get paid in the film and TV series business and how it is changing.

The background information: different types of roles, countries and unions

Before I dive into details of the paying system of movies and TV series and what has changed, I feel that it’s vital to understand some background basics first. There are many factors that decide someone’s final payment.

Different types of roles

Let’s start with the fact that there are different types of roles. In movies, a cast exists of leads, supporting cast members and extras. Sometimes the extras are put within the supporting cast, so you’ll only have two types of roles. In TV series, you have the lead, a series regular, a recurring role, guest stars, day players and extras or background actors. So TV has more variety because the broadcast time is much longer and the cast will change more often.

You can imagine that the kind of role you have influences your payment. A lead will earn more than an extra – if an extra even gets paid anything.

Different wages per country

It’s necessary to be aware that salaries and regulations are different per country. You can imagine that the earnings in India differ from those in the USA, as the value of money is unequal.

Yearly average wages worldwide per country
A chart that compares the average yearly wages (between 2017-2020). Note how these are all mostly Western countries.
Source: OECD

The income is also related to the audience reach. Actors in the USA are the best paid because their movies and TV series are distributed all over the world. Productions studios receive more income, giving them the ability to pay out higher salaries. In comparison, the UK also releases its products around the world, but in the end, their movies en series are in much less demand. Resulting in lower income per product, causing the actors to get paid less.

Different regulations per country

Each country has their own regulations. If you’re from the UK, you’re probably a member of the Actor’s Equity Association. Habitants of the USA have The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists as a union. These societies give their members protection regarding several aspects, like payment, working hours and more.

Some countries work differently. For example, in the Netherlands, there’s a national CAO (translated as a collective working agreement). This CAO is linked to the company you’re working for and not the actor himself. So you can do the same job at another company, but you can be bound to other rules if there’s another CAO. So it’s advised to check their CAO before you sign a contract to know their regulations. Germany works with a similar system, but their rules within the CAO are different. For example, they have other requirements regarding working hours and days off.

Differences in gender

Thirdly, and sadly, there is still inequality between male and female actors. The unions, associations or CAO’s don’t make this distinction, but it is still a problem that happens on all levels. Often, productions studios explain this discrepancy for other reasons than gender. Like fame, the amount of screen time or the importance of their role in a movie or series. I’ll provide an example later in this article.

Claire Foy as a female actress get paid less than the actor Matt Smith.
Claire Foy, playing the Queen and leading role in The Crown, was paid less than Matt Smith, even though she had more scenes. According to the production, the reason behind this was that Smith had more fame due to his previous role as The Doctor in Doctor Who.

How do actors get paid for their work?

Let’s get into the main question of this article: how do actors get paid? Or maybe the question some are asking: how do actors get so rich? I will give you an overview of all the different options for how actors earn their money. Sometimes, I provide country-specific information, but I’ll be sure to mention for which country it’s valid.

Just note that I explain a lot about leading roles, as they are the most diverse. These people often also earned the most. According to Business Insider, the median salary for an actor or actress in general (whether it’s TV or movies and regardless of the size of the role) is 50.529 dollars a year. A big difference from the millions we hear about when Brad Pitt got a new leading role. 

PS. Before you know how much salary you can give to an actor, you need to make an estimate of your film budget. You can find a complete walk-through here.

Fixed income

Payment per time

This is how most of us earn our money. You work 40 hours a week and in return, you receive a certain amount of earnings. In the film industry, you can be paid per hour or day. Per day is the most common. This way of payment is often used for the less important roles.

So if you’re an extra, you will probably be paid per day or for the couple of hours that you’re on set. It doesn’t pay much. In the UK, an extra receives between 50 to 100 pounds a day. This includes long shoot days of 12 or 16 hours.

The Battle of Helm's Deep
20.000 extras were used in the scene of The Battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Filming the scene took so long, that all cast, crew and extras got a t-shirt ‘I survived Helm’s Deep’.
Credit: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers / New Line Cinema

If you’re part of a union or association, your pay is usually set. If you work through the SAG/AFTRA, the rate is 980 dollars per day + 10% agent’s fee for the first 8 hours. If you work 8 – 12 hours, you earn 150% and between 12 – 18 hours you earn double. This is for TV, movie and also streaming services. Always check which agreement is described in your union, as each one can differ and each country has different standards. Note, that the written prices are often the minimum prices. You can negotiate higher prices, but you will need some weight to convince the producing company that you’re worth it.

If you’re working outside of a union, the pay can be whatever the studio wants to give you. There are no rules or limits. Having an agent comes in handy at this point. If this is the case, however, you work with a very small company. All big companies work according to union rules.

Important to know is that studios have to treat everybody the same. So if half the actors are union members and the other half not, everybody has to be paid according to the union rules.

Payment per role

This is the most known way of payment to an actor. You get hired for a specific role, knowing approximately the length you’ll be working on it, and you (or most likely your agent) will make a deal for your part in the movie. These deals can be negotiated for all kinds of roles, but it’s mostly known for the lead roles.

Let’s stay with Scarlett Johansson and Black Widow. The exact number is unknown, but it’s speculated that Johansson received about 15 million dollars for her role in Black Widow. This is excluding producer checks and residuals, which I will talk about in a moment. The highest-paid actor at the moment for a movie is Will Smith for his role of Agent J in Men in Black 3. He earned 100 million dollars. Of course, these examples are all blockbusters. The same principle goes for smaller movies, only with a lower payment.

Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams
Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams at the premiere of All the Money in the World

The resume of an actor influences the payment and also how much he or she has earned in each previous appearance. Vanity Fair has written a nice article about this. To use their example: Mark Wahlberg earned 1,5 million dollars for a few reshoots for Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, while Michelle Willams got less than 1000 dollars for ten days of reshoots. Why this big difference? Well, Wahlberg was already a famous actor who had been in big franchises like Transformers and earned 17 million for that movie. Williams was known, and although she had four Oscar nominations she had never been in a franchise. So she never received the large money amount that Wahlberg got. Fame and big franchise appearances are worth more than awards.

Are you the one hiring actors and not sure if to go for a big star or a less known actor? Read this article about the pros and cons of both, to help you make the decision.

For series, actors are usually paid per episode. In Hollywood, newcomers get around 15.000 to 20.000 dollars per episode. Bigger stars earn more, around 150.000 dollars. If you want an A-star, you have to draw your purse. The actors from Friends earned around 1 million dollars each per episode in the later seasons. Topping them all, are Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. They receive 2 million dollars per episode for The Morning Show.

Passive income

Residuals

Getting a residual means that you receive money after the movie or tv show is shown to the public. You will receive a part of the revenue after the film or series is screened. A residual is based on the gross profit of the producers. This is revenue that the producing studio has after all costs are deducted. For example, if a movie earns a million-dollar revenue in the cinema, the income is usually split equally between the studio and production company. (Later on, the distributor also receives part of the revenue.) So the studio will receive half a million. From that amount, residuals are deducted. This can be 50 cents for a small role in a small series or thousands of dollars for a bigger role. This income is next to the fixed income.

Recoupment waterfall feature films
Residuals are usually paid out from the producers gross income. This schedule gives you an idea how little of the total revenue is left to pay the residuals from.
Source: StephenFollows.com

For example, a movie is released in the cinema and it makes 15 million revenue. Some of that revenue goes to the actors. Then the movie is released on a streaming service or DVD. Again, there’s revenue. If the movie is released internationally on a later date, actors once more get a part of that revenue. I think you get the point. For TV series, actors get residuals when an episode is shown more than once on the television.

Who gets residuals is written in the union agreements. If you work through a union, the chance is there you get some form of residual, although very small. It’s common for union workers in TV series to get residuals. For movie actors, residuals are less common.

Nowadays, it’s also common to ‘sell’ your residual and get a higher fixed payment.

Profit-sharing

Profit-sharing is based on the gross profit of the product, so based on the entire income, not just the producers. Sometimes, this is also called profit participation or ‘backend’. This way of income is often only agreed upon with big (leading) stars.

 In very special cases, an actor might even negotiate a deal about the gross income. Meaning they will get a residual, regardless of the profit. 

Usually, profit sharing is described in ‘points’ or percentages. An actor can get 3% – or even 7% or 9% like the actors in American Hustle – of the gross revenue. This percentage will lessen over time. There’s also a difference between foreign or national screening. Foreign screenings, in general, will earn the actor less.

A good example is Emma Watson. According to The Hollywood Reporter, she earned only 3 million dollars as a fixed salary for her main role in Beauty and the Beast. But because of her backend, she received almost 20 million dollars in the end. So she had negotiated a large profit share with the studio.

Profit-sharing and the Scarlett Johansson lawsuit

Profit-sharing was the central problem in the lawsuit of Scarlett Johansson and Disney. She had negotiated a gross profit for screening in cinemas in her contract, which had been designed long before corona came in and Disney Plus became big. According to the BBC, Disney promised Johansson a ‘theatrical release and that the streaming would be allowed after 90 days’. This was quite normal at the time. However, the coronavirus came and it changed things. Disney decided to release the movie on Disney Plus simultaneous with its release in the cinemas, causing a stir as the revenue from ticket sales staggered. People stayed at home and watched the film on their television. Johansson had no deal about the gross profit on streaming services, thus missing out on income.

Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow.
Credits: Marvel-Disney

The Wall Street Journal announced that Johansson lost around 50 million bonus income due to Disney’s decision to stream the movie on their streaming channel. As her fixed income was 15 million and she only got 5 million bonus with the cinema gross profits, you can imagine her feelings of being ripped off by Disney.

Although the lawsuit has been solved behind doors before it went to court, it has woken up the movie studios. At the moment, they’re checking if they need to change contracts, to make them fit with the new dual release strategy. A strategy that is here to stay. 

For series, only actors whose name is in the title receive a profit share. Actors often have a five-year contract. If they renew the contract for another five years, it’s common to ask for participation points.

When working on a small scale production of a start-up company, it is also not unheard of to get some participation points. In that case, you probably work outside any union and get only a small payment for your work as there isn’t a large budget available. You will get rewarded if the movie or series is a success.

Other options to earn money, separate from the actor’s role

Having a second credit in a different function

It’s quite common for leading actors to have multiple credits in the same movie or TV series. Notice when a movie starts, you often see their names show up as producers or executive producers. This means that the actor has most likely put some money into the production budget and earned that extra credit. They will recover the money with profit depending on the movie’s success. This is also a residual, although not related to their acting work.

As a producer of a successful movie, you can earn a lot. For example, Will Smith was the producer of 2014 Annie. He wasn’t in it, but through his producer’s rights, he still earned 2 million dollars.

Perks or ‘a bump’

When you’re an actor in a movie or TV series, you probably need a place to stay during filming. You need to eat. You might have to travel. Often these facilities are provided by the production company. But sometimes you can negotiate perks: like demanding at least a four-star hotel or a private jet for travel. It has to be written in the contract. If the company does not give you these perks, they have to pay you an extra quote as compensation. This can be up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While filming Gravity (2013), it’s rumoured that George Clooney demanded a private basketball court, a hot tub, landscaped garden, and a custom-made beach hut, with a total costs of $125.000

The future of payments

The movie and TV industries are in a panic. People watch less TV and go less to the movies. Their focus has shifted to streaming services. The expectation is that half the studios will disappear in the next five to ten years, according to Joe Russo in Variety. The field is changing dramatically. Content producers now have more money than production studio’s and can change the way payments are done. Think about the prequel of Lord of the Rings, which has a production budget of 450 million dollars per season. The production studio? Amazon Prime.

Studio’s with streaming services are changing the way how they hire actors. Netflix is now making deals with actors for a fixed amount of movies. Sometimes, those movies have yet to be written. It seems like we’re partially going back to the 50s, where actors were bound to studios instead of the movie. The difference now is that actors can still also appear in other movies. For the actors, it’s nice to have the security of having an income but also gives them less choice in picking their acting roles. Residuals are in this case also based on viewings on streaming services and not by cinema revenue.

Actors may have to accept there are no longer mega-paydays. Residuals from streaming services are usually spread over a long period and can be much lower than from cinema releases. As an actor, cinema releases are more interesting as you suddenly can get a large amount of money on opening weekend.

At the same time, we see the unions and associations struggling to keep up with their rules and to make sure their members are protected against the industry. SAG-AFTRA has some rules about starring in new media, but the rules are still very vague and need to be defined. The dynamic in the filming industry is changing and it has still some way to go. The path ahead is getting clearer, but we’ll need a few more years to settle down and find the new standard. Especially with corona still within us, it’s difficult to predict the future.

What will be the new distribution strategy in the industry? What is the balance between cinema and streaming going to be, once the world opens again? The answer to these questions will also influence the paying system of the actors.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Cinema HD V2

    This article provides a fascinating insight into the world of actors and how they earn money through movies and TV. The detailed explanation of various income sources, such as box office bonuses and syndication deals, really helps in understanding the financial aspects of their profession. It’s incredible to see the hard work and dedication that goes into building a successful career in the entertainment industry. Thank you for sharing this informative piece!
    -CinemaHDV2

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