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How Have Movie Stars' Salaries Changed Over Time?

Written by
Andrew Tavin, CFEI
Andrew Tavin is a personal finance writer who covered budgeting with expertise in building credit and saving for OppU. His work has been cited by Wikipedia, Crunchbase, and Hacker News, and he is a Certified Financial Education Instructor through the National Financial Educators Council.
Read time: 5 min
Updated on November 14, 2023
young woman with short hair biting her nails and wondering how have movie stars’ salaries changed over time?
Movie star salaries have actually gone down in recent decades, but don't worry, shares of the box office have been keeping Hollywood's biggest stars in the green.

With the Oscars coming up, it’s a great time to reflect on the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Many people would suggest that movie stars are a bit overpaid, including famous adamantium-clawed Australian movie star, Hugh Jackman.

But many of those same people are still enthralled by their lifestyles and wealth. So let’s just indulge that fascination for an article or so and find out how movie star salaries have changed over time. Before we dig in, let’s just address some possible ambiguity of how movie stars make their money.

“Keep in mind that many movie star ‘salaries’ are now achieved through TV, endorsements, etc.,” explained director, producer, and author Dan Mirvish. “For many actors, they take a cut in salary to work in awards-caliber and independent films. Standard wages on an indie range anywhere from as little as $125 a day (SAG Ultra Low Budget scale) to $70,000 for a total shoot (this is called SAG Schedule F and is a standard for many films).”

The Golden Age.

Cinema’s earliest stars weren’t often individuals. They were a train coming out from a tunnel or a group of workers leaving a factory. La Voyage Dans La Lune might have been one of the first sci-fi films, but the only face you could probably recognize from it would be Bleuette Bernon, and even then only if she was wearing white face paint and had a spaceship in her eye.

However, you wouldn’t have known that’s who the moon was from watching the credits. Because there were no credits. Early silent films rarely, if ever, credited the actors who appeared in them. That is, until Florence Lawrence.

The early studio heads were worried that crediting actors and actresses would cause them to gain a level of notoriety that would allow the performers to demand higher wages. But Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, decided to try the opposite approach. After secretly spreading a rumor that actress Florence Lawrence had died in a streetcar accident, he took out ads “debunking” the rumor and revealed that she was actually still alive. He then gave her the first American screen credit for her starring role in The Broken Oath. This was the beginning of the “star system” and the origin of movie star salaries.

Before working for Laemmle, Lawrence had been earning $25 a week from director D.W. Griffith. That’s about $660 today. Within a couple years The Broken Oath debuting, Lawrence was earning $500 per week, the equivalent of $624,000 per year when inflation is factored in.

Soon afterward, a British comedian by the name of Charlie Chaplin made his way to the United States. After a quick rise to fame, Chaplin was able to sign a studio deal that provided him with a $150,000 signing bonus and $10,000 a week salary. Or, to put it in modern terms, a $3,658,733 signing bonus on top of $243,915 per week.

Through the mid-century.

While many Americans lost their livelihood during the Great Depression, movie star salaries stayed high. Gary Cooper, star of Souls at Sea and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town earned $370,214 ($6,455,786 today) in 1937.

Salaries continued to hover around that area after World War Two. Charlton Heston, for example, was paid $250,000 in 1958 ($2,172,205 in modern money) just for appearing in Ben Hur. The following year would set a new record for salaries, however, when Elizabeth Taylor said she would only appear in Cleopatra for $1,000,000 ($8,629,100 now), though delays in filming brought her total compensation up to $7,000,000 (currently $57,442,739) by the end of production.

A payout that huge was still the exception, but salaries would get a jolt in the decades to come. Why? Two big reasons were the growth of big franchises and stars getting a cut of the box office. And one movie, in particular, is a good representation of both.

Leave the money, take the points. 

Although stars had been cutting deals to get a percentage of a film’s profits since the silent days, it wasn’t until the age of the blockbuster that these deals really started printing money for the actors who signed them.

One of the most famous Hollywood paydays went to Jack Nicholson, for his role as The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. At the time Batman was being cast, Nicholson’s standard fee was $10,000,000. But for Batman, he agreed to take $6,000,000 so that he could get a cut of the box-office AND the merchandise sales. This gamble paid off for Nicholson many times over, as he earned around $60,000,000 (around $121,503,306 today) in total from the caped crusader caper.

But Nicholson didn’t appear in anymore Batman movies. As Robert Downey Jr. showed, you’ll start really pulling in the big bucks once you’re a vital part of a multi-billion dollar franchise. His Marvel salaries are not definitively known, but the following is based on the reasonable estimates of those who cover the industry.

When Downey Jr. was first cast in Iron Man, he was considered a bit of a risky proposition due to his longstanding struggles with addiction. To that end, he was paid “only” $500,000 for his starring role as Tony Stark. It was, of course, an enormous success that launched not only a franchise, but a cinematic universe. By the time Iron Man 2 rolled around, Downey Jr. was able to pull $10,000,000. When Avengers: End Game rolls out, Downey Jr. will have likely earned around $240,500,000 just from the Marvel films. That doesn’t even factor in his other roles during that time in franchises like Sherlock Holmes, which was profitable enough to justify a similarly profitable sequel.

Of course, that’s across the span of an entire decade. If you’re looking for an impressive one-time check, Keanu Reeves’s box-office cut plus salary from The Matrix: Reloaded amounted to over $126,000,000 ($174,988,159 today), the largest single payout for one movie to this day. It was filmed back-to-back with Reloaded, so Reeves pulled in $206,000,000 ($286,091,752) for that one job.

That all being said, as Mirvish mentioned up top, many movie stars don’t actually get the bulk of their income from starring in movies. George Clooney is a perfect example, who topped the list of highest paid movie stars in 2017, not for any role, but by selling his tequila brand for $700,000,000.

It’s like that famous line says: there’s no business like show business, except the tequila business, which is apparently even more profitable. Enjoy the Oscars everybody!

Article contributors
Dan Mirvish

Dan Mirvish is a director, screenwriter, producer, and author. He's just finished the award-winning, critically-acclaimed feature Bernard and Huey, scripted by Oscar/Pulitzer-winner Jules Feiffer, and starring Oscar-winner Jim Rash and David Koechner which screened in over 30 film festivals on 5 continents and is currently in theatrical release by Freestyle Releasing/Entertainment Studios in the US. Dan is the author of the bestselling non-fiction book The Cheerful Subversive's Guide to Independent Filmmaking from Focal Press/Routledge. His film Between Us, an award-winning feature starring Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs, played in 23 festivals in 7 countries, and got a 50+ city theatrical release in the US, and sold to 144 countries, plus screening on Netflix, Showtime, Starz and all digital outlets. Dan was mentored by Robert Altman on his first film, Omaha (the movie), which led him to co-found the upstart Slamdance Film Festival. His film Open House prompted the Academy Awards to controversially rewrite their rules on the Best Original Musical category. Mirvish also co-wrote his bestselling, critically-acclaimed novel I Am Martin Eisenstadt based on the fake McCain advisor who took credit for Sarah Palin not knowing Africa was a continent. A former speechwriter for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, Dan has a master's degree from USC film school, is a member of the Directors Guild of America and has guest lectured at more than 25 film schools and universities.

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