The five top-earning Oscar nominated actors earned a combined $41 million over the past 12 months—less than half the $87.5 million the Rock made last year as the world’s highest-paid actor.
Make art or make money — that’s been the conundrum for A-list actors going back to the days of the first talkies. And unlike the tumult that has rocked the movie business in the past year, that is one Hollywood tradition that has remained entrenched and unmovable.
The five top-earning Oscar nominated actors this year made a combined $41 million over the past 12 months—less than half of the $87.5 million the highest-paid actor Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) earned last year. Only one of them, Viola Davis, made last year’s lists of top-earning actors or actresses, and it was thanks to her television role on How To Get Away With Murder, not her nominated starturn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
“In a world where accomplished performers have decent choices, the material and the talented director often mean more than the money,” says Ken Ziffren, a partner at leading entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham. “To get nominated, even though they may not win, by SAG or for the Oscars, can also materially improve economics in the future.”
The top-earning Oscar contender, Sacha Baron Cohen, illustrates the dichotomy between the popular and the films deemed award-worthy. He is nominated for two Academy Awards on Sunday night: One for his role as political activist Abbie Hoffman in the drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, andthe other for writing the adapted screenplay for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a sequel to the hit 2006 comedy, Borat, which Amazon acquired for $80 million.
The statuettes he’s up for may look the same, but the money he made doing the two films couldn’t be more different: He earned about $20 million for Borat — twenty times the $1 million he received for Trial. The yawning pay discrepancy illustrates the choice that industry players have had to make for decades: do a big-budget blockbuster for fat cash or a prestige film for acclaim and, less cynically, the love of the craft. In rare cases, as with Borat, the two can overlap, but more often than not, the performers vying for an Oscar aren’t taking those roles for the money.
That said, an Oscar win is often the right mix of publicity and validation to help increase future earnings potential. Take Angelina Jolie, who was the world’s second highest-paid actress last year with $35.5 million in earnings. Prior to her Academy Award-winning performance in Girl, Interrupted, Jolie had mainly acted in independent films that failed to garner a wide audience—or big paychecks. Her supporting actress win in 1999 changed her fortunes: She landed the titular character in the 2001 video-game inspired adventure film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. By 2004, she was commanding $10 million per role, plus backend, for big budget flicks, and that number has only gone up since. Forbes estimates she received $20 million for her recent starturn in Maleficent 2. More recently, 20016 Oscar winner Brie Larson moved on from smaller budget fare to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Captain Marvel. Her first starturn as the superhero, 2019’s Captain Marvel, was the first female-led superhero film to gross over $1 billion at the box office. Forbes estimates she made more than $10 million in total for the film.
Here’s a look at this year’s Oscar paydays:
#5 | Daniel Kaluuya: $3 million
After earning his first Oscar nomination in 2018 for starring in Get Out, Kaluuya is the favorite to win the award for best supporting actor this year for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah. While he and co-star LaKeith Stanfield earned the same amount of money for their work on the project, Kaluuya collected an extra check for an XBox ad based on his Get Out role.
#4 | Glenn Close: $4.5 million
While Hillbilly Elegy may have failed to be a critical favorite as Netflix hoped, one of the film’s stars, Glenn Close, still got her Oscar nomination. Fees for the eight-time Oscar nominee and her co-star Amy Adams likely commanded about 10% of the film’s $45 million budget. Indie flick Four Good Days also contributed to her payday.
#3 | Chadwick Boseman: $5 million
The late star, who died in August 2020 from colon cancer at age 43, worked until his final days and was nominated for his portrayal of Levee, an ambitious horn player in Ma Rainney’s Black Bottom, which was released posthumously. A certified commercial star after his role as T’Challa in Black Panther, this is his first Academy Award nomination. Boseman also collected a check for a supporting role in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
#2 | Viola Davis: $7 million
Davis can command top dollar for buzzy television roles—like that of Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder—and her L’Oreal campaign but takes smaller checks for passion projects. That said, after winning an Oscar in 2017 for her last role in another August Wilson adaptation, Fences, she was likely able to negotiate a raise for her nominated role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Forbes estimates her paycheck for that film to be $3 million.
#1 | Sacha Baron Cohen: $22 Million
Amazon reportedly shelled out more than $70 million for the mockumentary Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and as the star, producer and writer, Baron Cohen got an impressive cut of the profits. For Aaron Sorkin’s highbrow drama about the trial of a group of Vietnam War protesters accused of inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, meanwhile, “everyone worked for a fraction of what they are usually paid,” one top entertainment agent said.
METHODOLOGY: The earnings above are pretax and fees, and reflect all projects that have been released in the past 12 months. Earnings estimates are based on data from MRC Data, Box Office Mojo and IMDB, as well as interviews with industry insiders
By Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff
By Dawn Chmielewski, Forbes Staff