How Netflix is disrupting Hollywood's wage structure

As Ryan Reynolds bags $27m for '6 Underground', women trail behind but the wage gap is reducing

TOKYO, JAPAN - APRIL 25:  Actor Ryan Reynolds attends the world premiere of 'Pokemon Detective Pikachu' on April 25, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Keith Tsuji/Getty Images)
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Netflix is changing the landscape of the Hollywood wage structure, the latest list of actors' fees published by Variety seems to suggest.

The list reveals the highest wage paid to Hollywood actors for a single film this year, and finds that Ryan Reynolds tops the pile, earning $27 million for his role in the partly Abu Dhabi-shot, Michael Bay thriller 6 Underground.

The big studios still dominate the list, with joint second-placed Dwayne Johnson and Robert Downey Jr each receiving $20m from Universal for their roles in Hobbs and Shaw and The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle respectively, though Netflix does manage another entry in the list of the top 17 earners for Ben Affleck, who will receive $8m for his role in Triple Frontier.

Dwayne Johnson attends the 2019 Time 100 Gala, celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world, at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

It's that $27m figure that truly stands out though. There's no doubt that Reynolds is a big draw, but he's not typically considered to be in that elite club of actors, like Dwayne Johnson, who can guarantee a huge payday by name alone and demand a $20m-plus fee.

In fact, Reynold's wages for the whole of 2017 were estimated to be $21.5M, according to the Forbes list of highest-paid actors, which placed him 15th. In 2018, Forbes only published a top 10, which Reynolds didn't make, so he clearly earned less than tenth-placed Chris Evans' $34m that year. Movieweb claims the actor received a $2m fee for his biggest gig to date, 2018's Deadpool 2.

Another case in point is Will Smith. He joins Variety's single-film list with a $17m fee for his return in Sony's Bad Boys for Life. That impressive pay check is dwarfed, however, by the $35m he is reportedly set to receive from Netflix for Bright 2. Forbes reports that Smith earned a total of $42m for the whole of 2018. So essentially, the actor could shoot Bright 2 and put his feet up for a year.

The Netflix effect 

The big structural change here lies in the way Netflix pays actors. With Hollywood studios, a star actor will sign on for an initial fee, then receive bonuses and a share of box office profits if the film is a success. Reynold's $2m fee for Deadpool 2 most likely rose to well over $10m once the film had achieved a global box office close to $800m. Especially since, as a producer on the movie too, he had every motivation to offer its star a generous bonus package.

Netflix does not offer these back end payments. The streamer’s income is reliant on subscriptions, not number of views – in fact Netflix doesn’t even release its viewing figures as a matter of course. So the streamer offers a huge up-front package to attract talent, with no further payments to be made whether a film attracts one view or one billion views.

It's probably a safe assumption that, once Hobbs and Shaw inevitably smashes box offices this summer, Johnson's eventual take home pay will be higher than Reynolds' $27m for 6 Underground, but we may never know the exact amount he received for that specific film as many of the additional payments will come in later, perhaps in instalments over a number of years, and be too caught up in creative accounting for a layman to put an exact figure on the movie.

The wage gap is gradually getting smaller 

Another interesting takeaway from Variety's list is that women seem to fare better on a film-by-film basis than they do in the Hollywood industry overall. The pay gap is still very much in evidence – the highest paid woman on Variety's list is Emily Blunt, who will receive $12 to 13m from Paramount for A Quiet Place 2. That's less than half of Reynolds' fee, and puts the highest-paid woman on the list in seventh place.

Emily Blunt in A QUIET PLACE, from Paramount Pictures. Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Five of the 17 entrants on the film-by-film list are women. That’s only 28 per cent, but it’s still an improvement if we look at it in comparison to annual earnings as a whole.

If we take the top 17 of total annual earnings for 2017, the last year for which figures are available, we find only three women on the list: Emma Stone at 15 ($26m), Jennifer Aniston at 16 ($25.5m) and Jennifer Lawrence at 17 ($24m).

This year, women are not only more numerous on the per-film list, they are also better placed, at number 7 (Blunt), 8 (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman 1984, $10m), 11 (Margot Robbie, Birds of Prey, $9 to 10M), 14 (Kristen Stewart, Charlie's Angels, $7M) and 17 (Jessica Chastain, It 2, $2.5M).

The implication seems to be that on a one-film basis, where an actor's face or skill set is essential to a role (Wonder Woman would be inconceivable without Gadot; Blunt is A Quiet Place), or indeed when they're also producing, as with Robbie and Blunt, they have much more opportunity to flex their financial muscles.

However, when it comes to the day-by-day jobbing roles that make up the numbers between the big flagpole releases, their pay grades are significantly lower.

The list in full

1 Ryan Reynolds: $27 million, Six Underground (Netflix)

2= Dwayne Johnson: $20 million, Hobbs & Shaw (Universal)

2= Robert Downey Jr.: $20 million, The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle (Universal)

4 Will Smith: $17 million, Bad Boys for Life (SONY)

5 Jason Statham: $13 million, Hobbs & Shaw (Universal)

6 Tom Cruise: $12-14 million, Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount)

7 Emily Blunt: $12-13 million, A Quiet Place 2 (Paramount)

8= Brad Pitt: $10 million, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (SONY)

8= Leonardo DiCaprio: $10 million, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (SONY)

8= Gal Gadot: $10 million, Wonder Woman 1984 (Warner Bros.)

11 Margot Robbie: $9-10 million, Birds of Prey (Warner Bros.)

12= Ben Affleck: $8 million, Triple Frontier (Netflix)

12= Idris Elba: $8 million, Hobbs & Shaw (Universal)

14 Kristen Stewart: $7 million, Charlie's Angels (SONY)

15 Martin Lawrence: $6 million, Bad Boys for Life (SONY)

16 Joaquin Phoenix: $4.5 million, Joker (Warner Bros.)

17 Jessica Chastain: $2.5 million, IT: Chapter 2 (Warner Bros.