Why Disney Rarely Pays Movie Stars Huge Salaries

This content is recommended for 30~60 minute sessions. Note that tutors may not be familiar with the content. Make sure you consult with your tutor before using this material. 


After a quick greeting, read the following article out loud. Your tutor will go over pronunciation if necessary.

Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man.” “Iron Man”

[P1] In the past decade, as Disney has led the charge in superhero franchises — like the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its Marvel Studios arm — and given the “Star Wars” saga a rebirth after buying Lucasfilm, it has shown that its intellectual property is king, not the actors. And because of that, the studio realizes the actors don’t have to be paid a huge amount of money.

[P2] 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, then getting hefty back-end deals that would give them a taste of the box office earned by their projects, sometimes even before the studio.

[P3] But for the most part, in today’s industry, it’s more about Batman being on the screen and less about who’s behind the mask. Disney has used that for years to rake in billions 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
[P4] Take, for example, the actor responsible for launching the MCU: Robert Downey Jr., who was cast as Iron Man. When Marvel Studios was getting into the movie business, it was a company known more for being bankrupt than for 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.

[P5] According to the book “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” by the Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz, Downey agreed to a $2.5 million salary, an incredibly small figure for an Oscar-nominated actor cast as the lead of a studio movie. (Paramount released “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2.”) In fact, the biggest paycheck went to Terrence Howard as Rhodey, aka War Machine, who made $3.5 million thanks to his recent Oscar nomination for “Hustle & Flow” — though all the actors received bonuses when “Iron Man” hit box-office milestones.

[P6] But once “Iron Man” became a hit and the MCU gained traction, Downey got a bigger cut. From 2013 to 2015, Downey topped Forbes’ list of the highest-paid actors of the year. By 2015, he earned $80 million thanks in part to his starring role 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.)

[P7] But Downey is the exception. From Emma Watson being paid $3 million up front for the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” — though she had a clause that she would earn $15 million if it was successful at the box office — 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 clear that its characters are the stars.

[P8] “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.”

[P9] Getting involved in a Disney project can catapult an actor to bigger paydays elsewhere — look at Johnson after starring in Disney’s “Moana,” or Chris Pratt, who was in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and is now earning $10 million for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” according to Variety.

[P10] Along with being the box-office champ, Disney is the envy of Hollywood for another reason: Its intellectual property is so bulletproof that once stars find success starring in its films, if they can’t get more out of the house Mickey Mouse built, they’ll find a big check somewhere else.

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/disney-rarely-pays-movie-stars-huge-salaries-2018-5


Read the word/expression and definition out loud. Your tutor will go over anything you do not understand. Practice creating a sentence or two to make sure you know how to use the word/expression properly.

Vocabulary/ Expressions

Expression Definition
saga (n) a long and complicated story with many details
e.g. Her first novel was a family saga set in Iowa.
rake in (v) to earn or receive (a large amount of money)
e.g. The movie raked in over $300 million.
up front (adv/adj) used to refer to money that is paid in advance
e.g. The deal requires more up-front cash than I can come up with.
catapult (v) to cause (someone or something) to quickly move up or ahead or to a better position
e.g. He catapulted to fame after his first book was published.
bulletproof (adj) made to stop bullets from going through
e.g. The car has bulletproof windows.

Discussion Questions

Use the following questions as a guideline to help develop an interesting conversation with your tutor. Feel free to diverge from these suggestions if anything interesting comes up.

  1. Summarize the article in your own words.
  2. What are some of your favorite movies?
  3. Why are actors agreeing to lower up front salary?
  4. What are some of your favorite characters in movies? What makes them iconic? Share your thoughts with your Cambly tutor!


Go over any new expressions or vocabulary that you learned today.

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