The explosion of demand for high-end TV series and the emergence of deep-pocketed new buyers such as Netflix and Amazon has been an enormous windfall for marquee talent. Just ask Robert De Niro, David Letterman or Katy Perry.
Stars with brand names are more in demand than ever as dozens of competing outlets search for anything that will help a show stand out from the pack. The new business models that govern streaming services have also had the effect of raising upfront payments to top talent because traditional forms of generating a profit from a hit series — through international sales and off-network syndication — are no longer an option.
Among the winners in the past year on the drama side were Robert De Niro, who is in line to receive an eye-popping $775,000 per episode for the untitled Amazon drama series from director David O. Russell. Other big gainers include “Shameless” stars Emmy Rossum and William H. Macy ($350,000 per episode) and the “Ozark” duo of Jason Bateman and Laura Linney ($300,000 per episode).
On the flip side, lesser-known actors such as Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz started out with modest (by comparison) episodic fees ($40,000) for the first season of “This Is Us,” although they are surely poised to add more zeroes in the future. Claire Foy has been collecting awards and praise for her work as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s “The Crown,” but her Season 1 episodic fee ($40,000) reflects the markedly lower pay scales for British productions.
It’s good to be Dwayne Johnson. The versatile superstar has become one of TV’s highest-paid comedy players thanks to the success of HBO’s “Ballers” ($650,000 per episode). Meanwhile, Donald Glover is betting on the long-tail theory with his FX series “Atlanta,” agreeing to more modest fees ($75,000 per episode) upfront in exchange for a larger share of the backend.
The “Will & Grace” quartet of Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes are back in the top echelon for the NBC revival series ($250,000 per episode). The “Modern Family” ($500,000 per episode) and “Big Bang Theory” ($900,000 per episode) troupes had high-profile contract negotiations that plumped some paychecks. But it’s not all about the money. The original five stars of “Big Bang” agreed to slight pay cuts to help fund raises for their co-stars Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch.
How badly did Netflix want David Letterman on its platform? Enough to pay him an estimated $2 million per episode for a six-episode commitment for an in-depth interview series. That number has sent jaws dropping throughout the unscripted TV community. So did Katy Perry’s deal to preside as a judge over ABC’s new iteration of “American Idol” ($25 million).
Nevertheless, it’s two daytime syndication stars who pace the race for big paychecks among reality, news and host talent. Ellen DeGeneres has seen her salary and profit participation on “Ellen” soar in recent years ($50 million). “Judge Judy” boss Judith Sheindlin is right behind her ($47 million), and she stands to reap another eight-figure check this year on the sale of the show’s library to CBS.
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