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