TV’s great talent economic divide is only growing wider. Paydays for actors of $1 million an episode or more — once a rare occurrence, with the exception of long-running comedy megahits like “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” — are now commonplace for A-list talent, especially movie stars diving into the marathon of episodic television production.
But for everyone else? According to multiple TV talent agents who spoke with Variety, the second tier of players aren’t commanding the same exorbitant fees that they might have fetched a few years ago, at the height of the streaming boom.
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“It’s taken a little bit of a hit,” says one insider. “There’s a much deeper and steeper sliding scale between No. 1 or 2 on the call sheet and 3, 4 and 5. I think that had to do a lot with the oversaturation of salaries on shows. I think a lot of places are realizing that you can pay the one big star, but you can’t pay seven of them.”
That $1 million-per-episode figure remains the magic number for top TV talent. With the days of seemingly unlimited spending on streaming shows going the way of the dodo as companies like Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery look to trim their expenses, many are trying to cap salaries at that mark.
With fears of an economic downturn, and a bit of a question about the health of the streaming world, there’s an overall sense that budgets are about to be scrutinized even more.
According to talent reps, the top range of TV salaries has leveled off at $750,000 to $1 million per episode for the key player, with the next tier ranging between $600,000 and $800,000.
Granted, star paychecks can go above that with bonuses and producing fees added in. Sources also note that streamers might be willing to pay more for an exceptionally well-known A-lister making a first foray into television, but those are indeed a select few nowadays. (All bets are off, of course, if someone like Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington wants to do a series.)
“Platforms appear to be trying to keep episodic fees under $1 million, with that number being reserved for only the biggest names,” one rep says.
Recent examples include Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd for “The Shrink Next Door” at Apple TV+ and Michael Keaton on Hulu’s “Dopesick.” Then there’s the Taylor Sheridan universe, where icons like Kevin Costner (“Yellowstone”), Harrison Ford (“1923”), Helen Mirren (“1923”) and Sylvester Stallone (“Tulsa King”) are all believed to be receiving handsome paychecks.
In the case of “1923” and “Tulsa King,” of course, it’s part of Paramount Global’s investment in turning Paramount+ into a must-have streaming brand. The other recent streamer upstart, Peacock, is shelling out decent-sized salaries (although perhaps not quite like those) for stars like Pete Davidson and Natasha Lyonne.
“They’re launching a network, so they have to,” a rep says. “HBO, if they’re not competing for movie stars, they have to pay more too. Netflix is also starting to catch up.”
Some shows, of course, still don’t feel the need for movie stars. (Think “Stranger Things” when it started, or “Bridgerton” — two megahits without megastars.) Up next, the salaries for the mostly unknown casts of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” series and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” also are unlikely to have broken the bank, given the focus instead on the IP.
“They don’t need them. The shows are stars themselves,” an agent says.
And then there’s Apple TV+, which opened with a boutique strategy of high-end shows with big-name stars.
As a matter of fact, Apple TV+ even just received an Emmy nomination in the outstanding commercial field for its promo “Everyone But Jon Hamm,” touting its roster of the biggest names in Hollywood — except the “Mad Men” star.
But now that Apple TV+ is established (with 52 Emmy noms this year), insiders say it’s turning to more of a model of focusing on one or two mega stars with hefty paychecks, instead of an entire cast with thick wallets.
With fears of an economic downturn, and a bit of a question about the health of the streaming world, there’s an overall sense that budgets are about to be even more scrutinized.
“How do you make the streaming model work?” HBO/HBO Max chief content officer Casey Bloys says, when asked by Variety on Emmy nomination day what the industry’s biggest challenge is right now. “How do you make it profitable? That’s a big puzzle obviously. That affects a lot of the conversations we’re having.”
Bloys doesn’t put any of that on talent: “There’s been a lot of demand and so people are commanding what they can as they should. I wouldn’t necessarily put it on that. I’m more focused on the economics of streaming, how many subscribers do you need? What do you charge? How do you have margins that make sense in this business environment?”
Nonetheless, if streamers are looking to cut back, talent reps fear that the mid- and lower-level actors will feel the pinch the most. “The day players and people further down the call sheet, they will likely either get paid less or appear in fewer episodes,” one agent says.
Meanwhile, insiders say salary renegotiations have also become harder. At the height of $1 million-per-episode salaries for the leads of “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory,” they reached those paydays toward the end of their series runs because the shows made a fortune for their studio (in both cases, Warner Bros. TV) via rich syndication deals. Salaries for stars on new shows during that era usually topped out at around $150,000.
TV’s move to a “cost-plus” license fee model means backend participation — like the kind stars used to get on network shows — is paid out upfront in the form of higher fees rather than future profit-participation points.
But actors have been willing to embrace the cost-plus model because most series are shooting only eight to 10 episodes per season in order to attract A-listers. “By doing that, they’re getting a little extra incentive knowing that it’s guaranteed [money], but it’s not going to be the game-changer kind of backend that we were used to on ‘Big Bang’ and ‘Modern Family,’” a veteran talent agent says.
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