When I was young and announced to my family that I was going to become an actor, the first thing my cousin said was: “Can you buy me a yacht?” And I said: “Yes.” My cousin remembers this answer and reminds me about it every six months. So, with my foolish promise in mind, I’ve decided to dust off the calculator and crunch some numbers. How much do actors get paid? Let’s follow the money. Dirty, sexy money.
Actors are paid a wide variety of wages, determined by such things as their level of fame, expertise, agent/representation and type of work. Given that some actors are paid millions, while others work for free, it is difficult to determine exactly how much actors get paid. The best you can do to explore this topic is to avail yourself of the many determining factors of a performer’s compensation.
All yacht jokes aside, it’s very important to know your worth as an actor. Oftentimes, particularly in the early stages of our careers, we will settle for very low paying or unpaid work, but this isn’t sustainable long-term if you want to make acting your full-time job. Let me remind you right now that what you do takes a whole lot of skill, and you deserve to be paid for your time. How much you are paid depends on many different factors, so let’s dig in!
Project Type & Budget
The type of project you’re working on has a lot to with how much you get paid. More prestigious, high-profile jobs are going to pay out a lot more than a no-budget film shot on iPhones. Even across the different media, commercials, screen work, theatre and voice acting all have different pay rates. Let’s do a quick financial breakdown on each:
Commercials and voice acting are some of the more lucrative jobs the average actor can land; they take less of your time and pay you well for it. As an example, I was paid $5,000 AUD for two days of shooting for a nationally broadcasted commercial. Pretty good money for the time I spent on set.
Covering film, television and any streaming companies: these tend to pay out incredibly well. That said, you’re unlikely to book enough bit parts on a series of shows, or cameo in enough big-budget films to make a sustainable living. If you’re able to land a leading role in the next big Marvel blockbuster … what the hell are you asking us about pay for? Go call your money manager! The pull of screen work for actors is often that their fortunes can change with a single phone call.
How much do actors get paid in theatre? Again, it depends on the type of project. A mainstage theatre production pays very well—and, perhaps more importantly—for an extended period of time. You might not be making yacht money as a servant in The Mousetrap, but you could be making it for years on end if the show is popular enough. On the lower/independent end, most theatre jobs pay out in a profit-share agreement, meaning you’ll make a percentage of the box office once expenses are covered.
Voice work pays modestly, but can be a big earner if you can line up a large number of gigs. Post COVID, many actors have their iso-inspired recording studios at home, meaning you could book a gig in the morning, record before lunch and be spending by sundown! As with any other medium, there are voice actors working on shows like The Simpsons who are being paid a literal fortune for every episode. Good work if you can get it!
Sidenote: Join Your Union
If you’re serious about turning acting into your career, join your union. Actors who are union members will generally earn more than non-union actors and have the support of the union should anything go haywire on a production. If you’re based in Australia, check out Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA); memberships are billed yearly and are fully tax-deductible. For the U.S, SAG-AFTRA is the most well-known actor’s union, but are quite selective and require proof of employment covered by SAG. You need to have worked professionally as a background actor for at least three days or in a principal role for at least one day. You also need to have been a paid-up member of one of the recognised unions (ACTRA, AEA, AGMA or AGVA) for at least a year. In the U.K, Equity membership requires proof that you to have earned at least £500 working professionally as an actor.
There are lots of benefits to joining your union–so many that it’s a whole article within itself–better pay is just about guaranteed. So, join your union.
Star Power & Experience
Your reputation plays a big role in how much you get paid. Production companies will pay famous actors more their face becomes a recognised brand and has the potential to bring in an established audience. Because of this, actors with a lot of clout can usually set a higher base rate for their work. Some actors even negotiate a kind of profit share with the production, taking a cut of the overall earnings of the project which, if it does well, is likely going to be a lot.
Less famous actors are also entitled to something similar called “residuals“, which compensates them for their work being streamed or broadcast after its first showing. Residuals support many actors through lean times, although rates in the streaming era have been labelled by many as unfair, and exploitative of legal loopholes.
Many jobs in the world have something called a pay scale which is a structured system outlining the range of salaries or rates for different positions. Acting has the same kind of system. Lead roles pay more than supporting roles; if you’re more well known, you’ll likely be cast in more lead roles that pay out better.
Genre & Role
If a certain genre is popular, working in that genre can pay more because there will likely be a larger production company behind it. Disney, with its stranglehold on properties like Marvel, Star Wars and live-action cash-ins enjoys huge financial success due to the popularity of these genres. If everyone suddenly realised how stale and overused those brands were, the company would be in serious trouble. Give people what they want and you get paid accordingly. Simple.
The demands of a role are a huge factor in determining pay, across all mediums. Lead roles have more screen or stage time and usually have more character development. Because they require more from the performer, they usually compensate at a better rate. Complex roles that involve emotionally intense scenes, physical transformations or stunts might also influence the amount of pay.
International Variations in Pay
Alright folks: strap in for a round trip of the world, as we tour the different structures of pay in different film industries. While we’re not going to cover the whole Small World Ride, we are going to examine each of the major film markets and how their structure/box office draw affects an actor’s purse.
The United States & Hollywood
Aside from the base salary, there are a few different contributors to how much an actor will earn when they work in Hollywood. “Backend points” are a system we spoke about earlier that pays out a percentage of a film’s profits. Some actors will also receive bonuses for their work if they are nominated for awards or achieve certain box office milestones. A portion of the revenue from international distribution, streaming rights and syndication can also be negotiated as payment through backend deals.
Some of the top earning actors in the US include:
- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who reportedly makes around $20 million per movie.
- Robert Downey Jr., who made somewhere around $75 million for starring as Iron Man in the MCU.
- Scarlett Johansson is one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood; she actually sued Disney for the simultaneous release of Black Widow in cinemas and on streaming services, as this affected the box office numbers that would determine her percentage.
Are you spotting the trend of popular genre here? I sure am.
India & Bollywood
Bollywood actors are usually paid an upfront fee that is negotiated on a per-film basis. Similar to Hollywood, some actors negotiate a profit-sharing scheme where they are paid a percentage of the film’s total earnings. Music is a big part of Bollywood films, which can result in royalty payouts for actors if they are featured in songs from the film’s soundtrack. Bollywood actors will also make money through endorsements of brands, television show appearances and expanding into the international film industry (which can offer higher pay and global exposure.)
Some of the top-earning actors in Bollywood include:
- Shah Rukh Khan, also known as “The King of Bollywood”, has been among the industry’s top earners for many years.
- Salman Khan, whose box office earnings have been some of the industry’s highest.
- Akshay Kumar whose versatility and prolific output secures his spot as one of Bollywood’s top earners.
- Amitabh Bachchan is a veteran of Bollywood and continues to earn a significant income through films, endorsements, and voice-over work.
Endorsements are a big part of earnings for Bollywood actors–all of the actors listed above and other top earners are known for making money through advertisements as well as their films.
The budget for European films is generally lower compared to that of Hollywood films, which can result in lower pay. Profit-sharing is not as prevalent in the European industry; actors are paid a fixed rate or salary without receiving any substantial backend points. Public funding is more prevalent, too, which constricts budgets and allocates more money to production than actor salaries.
There is a different kind of emphasis placed on theatre and film in Europe. The project goals are often more culturally or artistically orientated, rather than commercially. The cultural and artistic value placed on theatre and film is arguably more significant than in the US and India, which means that actors are usually willing to work for less pay if they believe in the creative vision of the project. Plus, many European stars choose to work in Hollywood in order to fund local, artistically-driven passion projects or philanthropy.
Chinese and Asian Markets
The Chinese film market is one of the largest and most lucrative markets in the world, and had the leading box office revenue in 2020 and 2021. This is having a significant impact on the salary of actors around the world as more cross-cultural exchanges between Western and Asian film industries are being made. The rise of the Korean film industry has also been very significant in recent years, bringing Asian actors onto the global stage and more Western actors into Asian industries.
Into the Future
Globalisation means that more international film markets are collaborating; as a result, more international opportunities are available for artists to work overseas. Hollywood studios, in particular, have increasingly targeted international box offices with productions, because global success of a film means more money in the pocket of those involved. There is also a higher demand for dubbing (when actors who are fluent in the local language give voice-over translations of the film) making it a great time to be a voice artist. There is, however, more competition in casting as a result of globalisation. More international actors are being given more opportunities to audition for international projects. On the plus-side, there is also more opportunity for actors to negotiate higher fees if they are in greater demand.
The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
Sit down in an acting class, any acting class in the world, and look around you. Odds are, most of the faces you see will have their jobs taken by AI in the next ten years. Artificial intelligence is an existential threat for many in the arts industry; for this reason, it is important to be aware of how it is being deployed by studios and producers and how it might affect your pay packet.
The one on everyone’s mind is AI’s potential to replicate actors digitally: be it their voice, or their entire likeness. This raises some interesting questions around the rights human beings will have to their own likeness and voice, and the ethics of casting actors who may long since have died. Will they still make money off digital replicas of themselves after they’re dead? Or will using a deceased person’s likeness be outlawed?
While the news is decidedly “not good” in all directions, we are still in the early days of AI’s proliferation in the creative industries. Make it your job, as an actor, to stay up to date with current trends. For now: join your union.
How much do actors get paid? How long is a piece of string? Some people will work hard their whole careers to scrape up beer and rent money; others will land their first lead role at sixteen and never look back. One thing we can say for sure: if you’re looking for fame and fortune, you’ re probably barking up the wrong career-tree.
Finally, it’s important to mention that for all the modifiers and outliers in this article, the uncertainty of an actor’s pay packet grows even more fraught and unfair if they are from a diverse background. There is still not enough being done to ensure income equity across all abilities, genders and ethnicity in the entertainment world. And it is essential that we think very carefully about the industry’s future with how quickly the world is changing. (Maybe join your union?)
The best you can do is fight to get paid what you’re worth. Look for the better opportunity, the favourable rate or the agent who will negotiate for you like they’re firing two guns at once. And if the money isn’t there: find the jobs you love. They might not buy your cousin a yacht, but they’ll keep you happy ’til your ship comes in.
Hope this helps. See you around the traps!