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Kanye West’s Second Coming: Inside The Billion-Dollar Yeezy Empire

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You know when Kanye West is coming. His matte-black Lamborghini SUV rumbles up his gated driveway on the outskirts of Los Angeles like an earthquake, and when he steps out, in a white T-shirt and dark sweats, the obsessiveness kicks in immediately.

First, there’s the house: The lushly landscaped exterior of the property he shares with his wife, Kim Kardashian West, and their four children (North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm) serves as stark contrast to the unadorned alabaster walls within. Nearly every surface is a monastic shade of white. The floors are made of a special Belgian plaster; if scuffed, the delicate material can be repaired only by a crew flown in from Europe. “The house was all him,” Kardashian West later tells me. “I’ve never seen anyone that pays such attention to detail.” 

As I step into the foyer, a handler asks me to wrap my black-and-gray Air Jordan high-tops in little cloth booties. To my left is West’s library, its shelves stacked with the likes of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics. He fiddles with the positioning of a few books that seem off-kilter. Settling into an armchair opposite me, he surveys his interviewer closely. “The first shoe I remember sketching was the Jordan One that you’re wearing right now,” says West, 42. “God does have a way of lining things up.”

West’s precision turned him into one of the world’s most popular musicians. “He went and executed it to another level,” says DJ Khaled, who has spent time with West in the studio and joins him on this year’s Celebrity 100 list of the world’s highest-paid entertainers. But as with Michael Jordan in the 1990s, the key to West’s wealth stems from sneakers. His Yeezy shoe line, which he launched with Nike in 2009 and then brought to Adidas in 2013, has the 34-year-old Jordan empire in its sights, in terms of both cultural clout and commercial prowess. The Jordan line does approximately $3 billion in annual sales; West’s upstart is expected to top $1.5 billion in 2019 and growing.

Kanye Chronicles
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As with the floor and the booties and the book positions, West fixates over sneaker details; he idolizes Steve Jobs, preferring a limited, carefully chosen number of products with an endless array of colorways. The iPod in West’s world: the ubiquitous, chunky-bottomed Yeezy Boost 350s, which come in dozens of varieties of the same shoe and account for the bulk of Yeezy’s sales. “I am a product guy at my core,” West says. “To make products that make people feel an immense amount of joy and solve issues and problems in their life, that’s the problem-solving that I love to do.”

The obsessiveness is unrelenting. When Forbes shot West for a possible cover, he insisted on wearing a black hoodie. Urged to return the next day to try again, West obliged—wearing the same hoodie. He’s been known to edit albums days after they’ve already been released. And when he didn’t feel I was properly absorbing the religious influence on his business (coming from the guy who calls himself Yeezus and is working on an album tentatively titled Yandhi), he called my editor impromptu on a Saturday evening to hammer the point some more.

Kanye Chronicles 2005-2008
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Whatever, it’s working. Mostly because of the shoes, Forbes pegs his pretax income at $150 million over the past 12 months; his team insists the number is even higher, partly due to his Yeezy apparel. In any case, it’s by far the best stretch of his career, good for No. 3 on our Celebrity 100 list.

Rewind to three years ago, when West claimed to be $53 million in debt, just before canceling the back of a lucrative arena tour and checking into a Los Angeles hospital for over a week with symptoms of sleep deprivation and temporary psychosis. West credits his turnaround to religious beliefs (“being in service to Christ, the radical obedience”)—and, on occasion, to being bipolar. Call him creative, call him chaotic—just don’t call him crazy. Like some entrepreneurs with conditions like ADHD and Asperger’s, he sees his diagnosis not as a hindrance but as a “superpower” that unlocks his imagination.

Kanye Chronicles 2009-2013
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“ ‘Crazy’ is a word that’s not gonna be used loosely in the future,” West says. “Understand that this is actually a condition that people can end up in, be born into, driven into and go in and out. And there’s a lot of people that have been called that ‘C’ word that have ended up on this cover.”

West’s design obsession dates back as far as his passion for music. Born in Atlanta and raised in Chicago, he often got in trouble as a middle schooler for sketching sneakers in class. When West’s mother, a college professor, took him to see the Japanese cyberpunk flick Akira, he found inspiration in the film’s shapes and color palettes; he also remembers his father, a former Black Panther, taking him to auto shows, where he became obsessed with the Lamborghini Countach. “There’s a little bit of Lamborghini in everything I do,” West says. “Yeezy is the Lamborghini of shoes.”

Meticulousness served West in his music career, which took off when he caught on as a producer for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records after dropping out of college. He masterminded the sonic skeleton of Jay-Z’s seminal 2001 album, The Blueprint. When West launched as a solo artist two and a half years later, he designed something genre-bending, his early work peppered with Marvin Gaye and Daft Punk samples; West recorded with Coldplay and toured with U2. In contrast to the snarling materialism put forth by the dominant rappers of the day, West presented a more vulnerable sort of protagonist, with three albums featuring higher-education themes. Gone were tales of drug dealing and street skirmishes; in their place were reflections on dental surgery, racial injustice and working at the Gap, punctuated by a witty swagger.

Kanye Chronicles 2014-2018
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His fame gave him a chance to return to his first love: sneakers. In 2007, he created a shoe for the Japanese apparel company A Bathing Ape, complete with a teddy bear logo that appeared on some of his early covers. (Find one of those shoes today and you’ll net several thousand dollars.) It was a start, and he cultivated a cadre of fashion-industry friends like Hedi Slimane, who has served as creative director at Dior Homme and Yves Saint Laurent. “You’re going to do something really strong in shoes,” West remembers the designer telling him. That sort of encouragement gave West the confidence to whip out a notepad when he found himself on a plane with Nike CEO Mark Parker shortly thereafter. Says West: “When he saw me sketch, he said, ‘This guy’s interesting, let’s do a shoe with him.’ ”

Yeezy was born (a shortening of the “Kanyeezy” nickname Jay-Z gave him in the intro to a 2003 song). West says Parker put him in the room with Air Jordan designer Tinker Hatfield, and by mid-2008, West was rocking prototypes of his own Air Yeezy high-top onstage, with the genuine article arriving in 2009. Hip-hop has connected with footwear almost since the genre was born, from Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas shell toes in the mid-1980s to Jay-Z and 50 Cent’s Reeboks two decades later. West was the first to do it at Nike on the level of an NBA superstar.

Says analyst John Kernan of investment bank Cowen, “What he’s done in footwear has been truly transcendent.”

At the same time that West’s business interests were shifting, he began changing too. His mother died in a 2007 cosmetic procedure gone wrong; the following year, he split with his fiancée Alexis Phifer. On his album, 808s and Heartbreak, he ditched rap for heavily autotuned singing. 

Then came the bizarre. He hopped onstage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s 2009 acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the MTV VMA ceremony, insisting that Beyoncé should have won the award instead; the episode generated such an intense backlash that he cancelled his planned arena tour with Lady Gaga and moved to Italy to intern for Fendi. When he returned from his European sojourn, his previous praise for the Creator was superseded by an insistence on his own holiness, particularly his 2013 album Yeezus, where he declared flatly, “I am a god.”

West kicked off 2016 by unleashing flurries of Tweets, asserting that he was $53 million in debt before asking Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion to help fund his creative ideas. Then he embarked on his most ambitious tour yet—one that featured him holding forth atop a platform that looked like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, hovering about a dozen feet above the crowd. West’s rants grew more and more unusual as the tour continued. In one performance, he suggested Jay-Z might be trying to have him assassinated. The year ended with West hospitalized after the tour cancelation. His first appearance after? A pilgrimage to Trump Tower, where he posed with the president-elect (and turned off a lot of his core audience). 

His career, however, has proved antic-proof. And he has channeled his intensity profitably, particularly when it comes to sneakers. As sales blossomed at Nike, particularly after the Air Yeezy II release in 2012, West felt that the company was treating him like just another celebrity dabbler. “It was the first shoe to have the same level of impact as an Air Jordan, and I wanted to do more,” West says. “And at that time Nike refused to give celebrities royalties on their shoes.” (Nike declined to comment for this story; two other sources familiar with the arrangement also say he wasn’t being paid royalties.)

West, however, had always insisted on maintaining ownership of his brand. And when Adidas executives caught wind of West’s dissatisfaction, they invited him to Germany. With the help of Scooter Braun, who started a stint comanaging West around the same time, they created what appears to be an unprecedented deal: a 15% royalty on wholesale, according to sources familiar with the deal, plus a marketing fee. For comparison, Michael Jordan is thought to get royalties closer to 5%, though he doesn’t own his brand.

In 2015, West debuted his first “Yeezy Season,” a showcase for his clothing and sneakers. The next year he leveraged his new album to create a launch party for both sneakers and song, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. His biggest breakthrough: the 350. Marrying his eye for design with Adidas’ Boost technology, which purports to efficiently return energy to runners, West turned trainers into high fashion and made low-top sneakers cool again. The 350’s aggressive stance, leaning forward as if to challenge any foe to a footrace, suddenly had scores of people willing to cough up $200 for a pair of running shoes. Adidas has never released Yeezy’s numbers, but in 2016 West let it slip that his sneakers were selling out surprise 40,000-pair drops in minutes.

Kanye West in Los Angeles
Kanye WestJAMEL TOPPIN FOR FORBES

His wife—West and Kardashian married in Florence in 2014—gets an assist here, opening up West to her family’s hundreds of millions of social media followers (they routinely sport his Yeezy shoes and apparel). 

The partnership works both ways. Kardashian West seeks out her husband’s opinion on all of her projects, from the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood mobile game to her recent shapewear line. When she brought him mockups for the latter, West wasn’t impressed. He sat down and drafted a new logo before personally redesigning the packaging. In any case, West’s advice isn’t limited to the creative side. “He’s just taught me as a person to never compromise and to really take ownership,” says Kardashian West, who ranks No. 26 on The Celebrity 100. “Before, I was really the opposite. I would throw my name on anything.”

Given their hectic schedules, Kardashian West and West often trade ideas at what he calls “bedtime true-crime story meetings,” where she watches police procedurals while he shows her mockups.

“I’m just blessed through the grace of God to go from tweeting at Mark Zuckerberg” to ask for money, West says, to where he is today. He can laugh at himself a little now. “People wondered, ‘Why did you tweet at Mark Zuckerberg?’ And I was like, ‘Hey, I heard he was looking for aliens.’ ”

Speaking of aliens, if you really want to see how West’s creative process works, then a visit to the Star Wars planet of Tatooine is necessary. Inspired by Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, West has been working with a team to design prefabricated structures that sport the same austere aesthetic, with the goal of deploying them as low-income housing units. Just after midnight he ushers me into his Lamborghini for an impromptu visit, barreling back down the road with Bach blasting on the sound system. After about 15 minutes, we arrive at a bungalow in the woods.

A team of four is still clattering away on Apple laptops inside, ahead of a meeting the following morning in San Francisco with potential investors. Around them, the walls are plastered with written notes and sketches. West peers over the shoulders of his charges, instructing them to change a font here or brighten a picture there.

“He pushes people to do their best and pushes people even outside of their comfort zone, which really helps people grow,” Kardashian West says, citing West’s relationship with Louis Vuitton designer and Off-White label founder Virgil Abloh. 

After a half hour or so, West appears satisfied with the state of the presentation and motions me toward a back door. We stroll out into the chilly, starless night, and I follow him up a dirt path deeper into the woods for several minutes until he stops at a clearing and looks up, wordless. There, with the hazy heft of something enormous and far away, stand a trio of structures that look like the skeletons of wooden spaceships. They’re the physical prototypes of his concept, each oblong and dozens of feet tall, and West leads me inside each one. 

He tells me they could be used as living spaces for the homeless, perhaps sunk into the ground with light filtering in through the top. We stand there in silence for several minutes considering the structures before walking back down to his lurking Lamborghini and zooming off into the night.

Kanye West with yeezy shoes
JAMEL TOPPIN FOR FORBES

For a company that makes Lamborghini-inspired sneakers, Yeezy’s headquarters are remarkably nondescript: a blocky blue-and-gray building just off the main drag in Calabasas. It’s not far from where he’s been hosting his recent Sunday Services—gatherings where popular songs are repurposed with Christian themes by gospel choirs and famous guests from Katy Perry to Dave Chappelle.

When I meet up with West after his return from San Francisco, he doesn’t even mention the investor meeting—already fixated on something else enormous out back. In the parking lot behind his office, laid out in concentric circles, is the sum total of West’s creative output at Adidas: a trove of sneaker prototypes baking in the midday sun, variants of his 350s in a rainbow ranging from blood orange to creamy pistachio alongside a few yet-to-be-released gems like the almost triangular Yeezy basketball shoe (which, he adds almost proudly, has yet to be approved by the NBA—echoing the days when the league fined Michael Jordan for wearing his eponymous sneakers because they violated uniform rules).

West scoops up a 1050 Vortex Boot, which debuted in prototype form at Madison Square Garden in 2016. “I just looked at this line right here,” he says, motioning to a thin strip of blue masking tape on the sole. “I’m going to make this part of the boot. The inside of this will be blue. And I just go with the flow.”

There are about 1,000 pairs laid across the lot, it seems, but when I ask West for the exact tally, he seems almost offended at the notion of reducing his creations to numerals. “You can’t calculate love,” he explains. “If you get a surprise cake from your grandmother, and you didn’t know she was in town, do you start asking her about the batter and specifically the frosting?” 

Grandmother?

“These things are made to bring incalculable joy,” he continues. “So to ask me to somehow translate this to numbers is to ask your grandmother exactly what the recipe of the cake was.”

West claims to not be a “numbers guy,” but he has reached an inflection point where someone in the Yeezy orbit needs to be. His brand built its following through its limited releases and surprise drops, much like Air Jordan. The latter, according to NPD retail analyst Matt Powell, has lost a bit of its cachet in recent years as Nike moved to fill declining volume in other areas of business with its iconic sub-brand. “What makes celebrity products sell so well is scarcity,” he says. “So if they make it too broadly available, I think it crashes the business model.”

Adidas seems to be aware of this. “We are continuing to manage volumes in a very disciplined manner so that for 2019 Yeezy sales will not make up a significant share of Adidas’ overall expected sales growth,” says the company’s chief executive, Kasper Rørsted. “Not because brand heat is decreasing, but because we have a disciplined approach to managing volumes and product lifecycles.”

In other words, he’s not willing to chase sales at the expense of prestige, instead continuing to build buzz with surprise drops. The May release of the glow-in-the-dark 350 v2 sold out immediately, even though it rolled out at 6 a.m. in some countries. In June, customers lined up around blocks in Moscow to get a reflective version of a sneaker that had already debuted in the U.S. There are even more far-out concepts in the works, including a shoe made out of algae that will biodegrade completely over time in landfills—or almost immediately if sprayed with a certain type of bacteria.

Perhaps most impressively, West still owns 100% of Yeezy. This is the reason he became a centimillionaire many times over much earlier in his life than Jordan. Given Yeezy’s success, West should eventually join the NBA legend—alongside sister-in-law Kylie Jenner and mentor Jay-Z—in achieving billionaire status, though the never-modest West would claim he’s there already. And then some. “We’ve yet to see all of the beauty that would be manifested through this partnership,” West says. “We’ve only experienced a small glimmer of light.”

Additional reporting by Monica Mercuri and Natalie Robehmed.

-Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes Staff

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Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai

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The South African actor and musician was impressed with the city’s architecture, food and work ethic. 


South African actor and musician Anga Makubalo, known by his stage name NaakMusiQ, calls the Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai a luxury destination.

NaakMusiQ, who hails from Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, shot to fame after appearing in the award-winning South African soap opera Generations and has since been in a number of television shows.

He has also had a chart-topping music hit, Ntombi ft Bucie.

NaakMusiQ’s first trip to Dubai, known as the melting pot of the Middle East, was last year on an Emirates flight when he traveled Business Class. The fashion-lover admits to being a light packer, although there are some items he would never travel without, such as cologne, a pair of sneakers, and his music.

READ MORE | Executive Travel: Nomzamo Mbatha’s Kenya

“I also carry my scripts all the time. Because of the long flights, I can get tired of watching a movie, I can get tired of listening to music, so the next best thing is to get into my script and get a head start.”

He has been to Dubai before, but only transiting the airport connecting to another flight, so this was his first official trip into the glistening city.

“Dubai is everything that people say it is,” he says. “We went to the mall. It was crazy! I’ve never seen anything like it before. [The Dubai Mall] has a full-on aquarium inside. In the middle of the center, there’s like this huge fish tank. It’s crazy! That was probably the highlight of my visit.”

The actor was also intrigued by the city’s architecture and skyscrapers.  

“I’m actually very huge on architecture. It’s actually something I wanted to study. Their engineering is absolutely insane. The way they’ve built this place and the designs – it’s luxury, one after the other. We drove for hours admiring the architecture because I’m such a nerd when it comes to that. I love it.”

Dubai has a sizeable African expatriate community, and no dearth of African culture. As a musician, NaaqMusiQ had been invited to the city.

“Africans that have immigrated to Dubai request their favorite African artist to come over so that they’re still connected to Africa and home. The nice thing about that is, as much as it is our people that have invited us there to perform, they have influenced people from there [Dubai] and other parts of the country [UAE] to come and listen to our music.

“Because they’ve become residents there, they have friendships where they introduce African music to the people of Dubai. So when we went there, there were quite a lot of people, even though some couldn’t sing along, there were a lot of people who went crazy when my song [Ntombi] played.”

During his time there, NaakMusiQ was also taken to restaurants serving African food. This came as somewhat of a surprise for the actor that the Arab city boasted a range of eateries specializing in African cuisine.

“We had a lot of Kenyan food that I hadn’t tasted before, which was really nice. They’ve got Tanzanian food, they’ve got South African food, Zambian food; it’s just a whole African experience there. And they do well actually.”

READ MORE | Executive Travel: JJ Schoeman’s Prague

While NaakMusiQ didn’t interact with the natives of Dubai, he did get a sense of what they are like. The hustle and bustle of the city left him greatly motivated.

“Everyone in Dubai is there to work. Everyone is there to hustle. People think that Dubai is this big, fun place, which it can be, but even people from there aren’t out partying every night. It’s people from the countries that are visiting that are out partying. Everyone else is really working. Some people are so hectic when it comes to business and money that they don’t have a life outside of their work.

“When they do have nights off, they choose to be at home or to put in extra hours working. It just made me want to work harder. That is the impact… Everyone there wants to do better. The standards there are incredibly high. What we would consider as good here is probably entry-level there,” says the hit-maker who now plans to return to Dubai wealthier and with more cash to splurge.

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Stone Town: From Freddie Mercury To The Farms

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The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.


Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.

The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.

Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.       

There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.    

‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean. Picture: Renuka Methil

Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.

The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.

“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.

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His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.

Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.

“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”

Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea. 

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I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.

In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.

The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.

“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.

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Marvel Money: How Six Avengers Made $340 Million Last Year

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Since its premiere in April, Avengers: Endgame has been sending shockwaves across the Marvel multiverse, with a worldwide gross of $2.77 billion and counting after the movie’s return to theaters last month. With its domestic gross sitting at $848 million, Endgame is the second-highest-grossing film ever both in the U.S. and overseas. 

That means a payday not just for Marvel Studios but also for the Avengers themselves, who have negotiated their way to superpowered deals. Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list of the world’s highest-earning entertainers this year features six Endgame heroes, from Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor) at No. 24 overall with $76.4 million (not all of his earnings were from Avengers) to Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) at No. 83 with $41 million. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Chris Evans (Captain America) also assembled and made the cut. Together, the team earned $340 million.

“Celebrities such as Downey and Johansson currently have extreme leverage to demand enormous compensation packages from studios investing hundreds of millions of dollars in making tent-pole films, such as The Avengers series,” says entertainment lawyer David Chidekel of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.

Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president, seems to agree: “We started saying that the character is the marquee name, and I think that’s still true, but I think we’ve been very lucky and thankful that the actors that imbibe these characters have now become them,” he told Forbes of the highly compensated group in 2017.

Marvel signs actors to multi-movie deals that also include promotional commitments. These deals often start off in the seven figures, which helps explain why newer superheroes like Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) and Tom Holland (the latest Spider-Man) didn’t make the Celeb 100 cut. But as actors stay with the MCU, their salaries increase. Veteran Marvel stars can command an upfront salary as high as $20 million (Downey). Others top heroes can earn in the neighborhood of $15 million (Hemsworth, Johansson, Evans), while second-tier characters make about $8 million (Rudd). 

But the real money comes in later. All of this year’s listees proved so valuable to Marvel that they were able to negotiate for a piece of the profit—also known as contingent compensation—on both the ensemble Avengers films and their individual superhero films.

“A studio’s incentive to grant contingent compensation to various actors, writers, directors and other key personnel is simple. Movie studios depend upon tent-pole films to support their financial performance,” says Chidekel.

These points pay off. Avengers: Endgame, for example, has made about $700 million in profit from its box office run so far. For Downey, who has around 8% in back-end points, that translates to about $55 million, for a grand total of $75 million for the one film. 

Even smaller characters like Cooper can command about 1% of the back end, which would translate to $7 million for Endgame. For their star vehicles, these actors can negotiate an even bigger cut of the profit. 

“The percent of budget cost have certainly skewed heavy, particularly on the Avengers movies, to cast now, whereas maybe in the early ones it was more visual effects or below the line,” Feige said in 2017. “But that’s okay because [the actors] are the best effects.”

These sky-high paychecks have proved to be a worthwhile investment for the studio. With a built-in audience of comic book fans, scripts that are both funny and socially aware, and a powerful marketing strategy, MCU films have grossed over $22 billion since 2008. These actors continually return many times their salaries in box-office dollars. For instance, while Downey earned that eye-popping $75 million from Endgame, the film grossed $36.90 at the box office for every dollar he was paid. Those on the lower end of the earnings spectrum, like Rudd, produced over $100 at the box office for every dollar they were paid.

“Certainly the strange alchemy of seeing characters you’ve never seen before teamed up together on screen, if they were different versions of those characters, it wouldn’t be as fun,” Feige said. “It’s expensive but well worth it.”

We think Nick Fury would agree. 

-Madeline Berg; Forbes Staff

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