Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man."

  • Disney has been the most profitable movie studio in Hollywood for several years — and remarkably, it hasn't had to pay hefty sums to its actors.
  • The studio has proved that today's moviegoer is more interested in the characters in the movies than the actors playing them.
  • But Ben Fritz, the author of "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies," explains that actors in a successful Disney movie can still make serious bank — they just might have to wait a few movies. 

On Tuesday, Variety listed the salaries of the biggest movie stars working today.

Daniel Craig led the pack with a $25 million (R315 millon) payday for the next "James Bond" movie, followed by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's $22 million (R277 million) for the upcoming "Red Notice," and then Vin Diesel's $20 million (R252 million) for last year's "The Fate of the Furious."

Of the projects listed for the 20 actors on the Variety list, not one was made by the most profitable movie studio in Hollywood: Disney.

And there's a reason for that.

In the past decade, as Disney has led the charge in superhero franchises — like the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its Marvel Studios arm — and given the "Star Wars" saga a rebirth after buying Lucasfilm, it has shown that its intellectual property is king, not the actors. And because of that, the studio realises the actors don't have to be paid a huge amount of money.

It's a big shift in how Hollywood has worked for decades.

The 1990s were the high-water mark for the movie star. The biggest actors on the planet — Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise — were earning $20 million (R252 million) just to show up on set, then getting hefty back-end deals that would give them a taste of the box office earned by their projects, sometimes even before the studio.

But for the most part, in today's industry, it's more about Batman being on the screen and less about who's behind the mask.

Disney has used that for years to rake in billions while not giving a major slice to the stars on the movie posters. That's not to say Disney doesn't open the vault for some actors — they just have to work a little harder now.

The $2.5 million (R31.5 million) man

Take, for example, the actor responsible for launching the MCU: Robert Downey Jr., who was cast as Iron Man.

When Marvel Studios was getting into the movie business, it was a company known more for being bankrupt than for making hits. "Iron Man" was made for $140 million (R1.7 billion), and Marvel was not going to let any star walk away rich if it was a hit.

According to the book "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies," by the Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz, Downey agreed to a $2.5 million (R31.5 millon) salary, an incredibly small figure for an Oscar-nominated actor cast as the lead of a studio movie. (Paramount released "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2.") In fact, the biggest paycheck went to Terrence Howard as Rhodey, aka War Machine, who made $3.5 million (R44.1 million) thanks to his recent Oscar nomination for "Hustle & Flow" — though all the actors received bonuses when "Iron Man" hit box-office milestones.

But once "Iron Man" became a hit and the MCU gained traction, Downey got a bigger cut. From 2013 to 2015, Downey topped Forbes' list of the highest-paid actors of the year. By 2015, he earned $80 million (R1 billion) thanks in part to his starring role in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Sony paid him $10 million (R126 million) for being in a handful of scenes in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" last year, according to Variety.)

Chris Hemsworth, left, was paid only $150,000 to star in the first "Thor" movie.
But Downey is the exception.

From Emma Watson being paid $3 million (R37.8 million) up front for the live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast" — though she had a clause that she would earn $15 million (R189 million) if it was successful at the box office — to Chris Evans getting $1 million (R12.6 million) for "Captain America: The First Avenger" and Chris Hemsworth earning just $150,000 (R1.8 million) for 2011's "Thor" (the latter two reported in Fritz's book), Disney has made clear that its characters are the stars.

"I think many stars and their agents are realistic and know that the days of getting paid $10 million (R126 million) or $20 million (R252 million) for whatever movie they want to do are largely gone," Fritz told Business Insider. "If they want to remain relevant for global audiences, it's very helpful to be attached to these franchises. Plus, it raises their profile and helps them to get paid more for other movies, including possible sequels and spin-offs to that franchise down the road."

Getting involved in a Disney project can catapult an actor to bigger paydays elsewhere — look at Johnson after starring in Disney's "Moana," or Chris Pratt, who was in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and is now earning $10 million (R126 million) for "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," according to Variety.

Along with being the box-office champ, Disney is the envy of Hollywood for another reason: Its intellectual property is so bulletproof that once stars find success starring in its films, if they can't get more out of the house Mickey Mouse built, they'll find a big check somewhere else.

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