Experts explain why Jessica Chastain could earn millions more for her next project but Will Smith won’t
Winning an Oscar is a huge honor for actors, of course, but historically it’s also raised the financial status of the winners in terms of salary bumps for future projects and heightened box office for the Best Picture winner.
While calculating the so-called “Oscar Effect” has never been an exact science, experts say that sea changes in the movie business, including the pandemic rise in streaming and its disruption to the theatrical box office, have made that equation more complicated than ever before.
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Gabriel Rossman, a UCLA associate professor of sociology who authored a 2010 study that among other stats included data on the financial boon of Oscar nominations, said winning an Oscar can mean money for a creative, even if the popularity of awards shows has dwindled in recent decades.
“It draws attention to the director, or the actor,” Rossman said. “Even if nobody in the general audience sees the movie [because of an Oscar], casting directors see it. Producers see it.”
However, insiders agree that the amount of money an actor already commands for a movie — or how well the a movie performs at the box office before the Oscar win — remains a huge factor in their asking price going forward. A box office draw like this year’s Best Actor winner, Will Smith — or at least, Smith before he took to punching out Oscar presenters on stage — is less likely to see much of an increase in salary because he’s already at the top of the Hollywood pay scale.
According to a list of top earners culled from various sources and listed InStyle magazine, Smith, as well as fellow Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington — both of whom have recent reported income of $20 million per film — made a staggering $40 million for recent films. For Washington, it came for portraying the corrupt detective opposite Jared Leto in 2021’s “The Little Things” (although a figure is not available, it’s probable that he got much less for his nominated role in the black-and-white art-house film “The Tragedy of Macbeth”). And for Smith, it was for his Oscar-winning role in “King Richard.” They’re unlikely to earn much more than that for subsequent films.
“Blockbuster films and blockbuster stars get less of a box office and salary boost if they win an Oscar,” USC business professor Gene Del Vecchio said. “That’s because most people already saw the film and the famous actor’s fee is already baked in.”
However, for an actor like Jessica Chastain, Best Actress winner for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the Oscar may provide a financial boost, particularly since studies show women have farther to go in general for earnings parity in Hollywood. It has been famously reported that Chastain received $7 million for 2015’s “The Martian,” while Matt Damon received $25 million.
One studio insider — who asked not to be named because “salary is a taboo subject” — said that although Chastain is not a blockbuster name like Smith or Washington, “it’s all about bankability. Maybe [the Oscar] gets someone at Chastain’s level $1 million more on the next indie, but $2 million more to be a villain in the next Marvel movie.”
You might expect to see a genuine newcomer like Best Supporting Actress winner Ariana DeBose command a much bigger paycheck thanks to her Oscar win for “West Side Story” — but one top agent who asked not to be named that might not be the case since Steven Spielberg’s film was a box office flop. “Ariana DeBose [won] best supporting actress in a film that clearly the audience did not connect with,” he said. “That obviously severely impacts her big salary bump ambitions.”
With or without an Oscar, insiders say that today’s actor salaries may be enjoying an increase across the board given the rise of streaming-only and hybrid streaming releases since studios are trying to adjust for top stars’ no longer commanding a backend percentage of the theatrical box office gross. Such outdated contracts can lead to troublesome disputes, lawsuits and settlements with stars down the road (call that the “ScarJo Effect”). “Now producers just want to write a check” up front, one expert told TheWrap.
At the same time, the agent thinks the financial benefit of an Oscar has been devalued because the Academy has leaned toward nominations from little-seen independent films. “These days the salary bump is minimal because for the most part, the films the winners star in are box office duds,” he told TheWrap. “It used to be roughly a $1 million bump, but those days are over.”
With or without streaming, added the agent, “For the most part, I don’t think [an Oscar] means anything anymore.”
In a related financial fallout from streaming, it’s also harder to calculate a box office bump for a Best Picture winner when an Oscar-winning film is released on a streaming platform in addition to theaters — as was the case of newly-named Best Picture “CODA” (or Scarlett Johansson’s “Black Widow”). CODA was simultaneously released in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Aug. 13, 2021.
While an Oscar win for a film can’t really be measured in box office dollars, the fact that a streamer’s movie won Best Picture this year — Apple Studios’ “CODA” — is a bigger game-changer than Oscar is for any single actor.
“In the streaming world, it is less about box office bump and more of a marketing opportunity,” Alexis Galfas, head of tracking and acquisition for Cinetic Media, told TheWrap.. “It gives streamers another bite at the apple to promote their film, this time with the Academy stamp of approval.”
Producer Richard Botto, CEO of Stage 32 industry social network, noted that Oscar’s stamp of approval has lost its cachet in the commercial marketplace — at least in the traditional sense. “The reality is Best Picture means less and less at the box office,” he said.
While Apple gave “CODA” a token theatrical release to qualify for the Academy Awards, the company’s financial incentives for pursuing Oscar glory aren’t focused on boosting ticket sales. “Not only is this to likely provide the winning platform a bump in subscribers, which, of course, is their lifeblood, but more importantly it would validate what the top brass at these companies have been saying for years — the paradigm is shifting,” Botto said. “A win signals that the shift is all but complete.”