Why Disney rarely pays movie stars huge salaries

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Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr Jericho Missile Iron Man 1"Iron Man"Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man."

  • Disney has been the most profitable movie studio in Hollywood for a number of years - and remarkably it hasn't had to pay hefty sums to its actors.
  • The studio has proven that today's moviegoer is more interested in the characters in the movies than the actors playing them.
  • But "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies" author Ben Fritz explains actors can still make some serious bank thanks to being in a successful Disney movie - they just might have to wait a few movies.


On Tuesday, Variety listed the salaries of the biggest movie stars working today.

Daniel Craig led the pack with a $25 million payday for the next James Bond movie, followed by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson taking in $22 million for the upcoming "Red Notice," and then Vin Diesel pocketing $20 million for last year's "The Fate of the Furious."

Out of the projects listed for the 20 actors on the Variety list, none were made by the most profitable movie studio in Hollywood: Disney.

And there's a reason for that.

In the last decade, as the studio has led the charge in superhero franchises (like the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its Marvel Studio arm), and giving the "Star Wars" saga a rebirth after buying Lucasfilm, it's shown that the intellectual property owned by the studio is king - not the actors. And because of that, the studio realized the actors don't have to be paid a huge amount of money.

It's a big shift in how Hollywood has worked for decades.

The 1990s were the high water mark for the movie star. The biggest actors on the planet - Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise - were earning $20 million just to show up on set and then got hefty backend deals that would give them a taste of the box office earned by the projects they were in (sometimes even before the studio).

But for the most part, in today's industry, it's more important that Batman is on the screen than who is behind the mask.

Disney has used that to rake in billions for years, while not giving a major slice to the stars on the movie posters. That's not to say Disney doesn't open the vault for some actors. They just have to work a little harder now.

The $2.5 million man

Take, for example, the actor who is responsible for launching the MCU: Robert Downey Jr., who was cast as Iron Man.

At the time when Marvel Studios was getting into the movie business, it was a company known more for being bankrupt than making hits. "Iron Man" was made for $140 million and Marvel was not going to let any star walk away rich if it was a hit.

According to Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz's book, "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies," Downey agreed to a $2.5 million salary. This is an incredibly small figure for an Oscar-nominated actor cast as the lead of a studio movie (Paramount released, "Iron Man"). In fact, the biggest paycheck on the movie went to Terrence Howard as Rhodey (aka, War Machine), who made $3.5 million thanks to his recent Oscar nomination for "Hustle & Flow" (all the actors did receive bonuses when the movie hit box-office milestones).

But once "Iron Man" became a hit and the MCU started to build traction, Downey got a bigger cut. From 2013-2015, Downey topped Forbes' highest-paid actor of the year list. By 2015, he earned $80 million thanks in part to him starring in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Sony paid him $10 million for being in a handful of scenes in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" last year, according to Variety.)

thorMarvel StudiosChris Hemsworth (L) was only paid $150,000 to star in the first Thor movie.

However, Downey is the exception.

From the live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," in which Emma Watson was paid $3 million up front (but had a clause that she would earn $15 million if it was successful at the box office, which it was), to Chris Evans getting $1 million for "Captain America: The First Avenger," and Chris Hemsworth earning just $150,000 for 2011's "Thor" (the latter two reported in Fritz's book), Disney has made it clear that the characters are the stars.

"I think many stars, and their agents, are realistic and know that the days of getting paid $10 million or $20 million for whatever movie they want to do are largely gone," Fritz told Business Insider. "If they want to remain relevant for global audiences, it's very helpful to be attached to these franchises. Plus, it raises their profile and helps them to get paid more for other movies, including possible sequels and spin-offs to that franchise down the road."

Getting involved in a Disney project can certainly catapult you to bigger paydays elsewhere. Look at Dwayne Johnson after starring in Disney's "Moana," or Chris Pratt after "Guardians of the Galaxy" (he's getting $10 million for "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," according to Variety).

Along with being the box-office champs, Disney is the envy of Hollywood for another reason: Its IP is so bulletproof that once stars find success starring in them, if they can't get more out of the house Mickey Mouse built, they'll find a big check somewhere else.

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