Hollywood's wealth disparity by the numbers

The ongoing strikes have shed light on a growing financial gap in entertainment

WGA and SAG-AFTRA members strike in front of the Fox backlot.
The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are part of a push to close Hollywood's wage gap
(Image credit: Amanda Edwards / Getty Images)

The entertainment industry is at a watershed moment, with Hollywood at a standstill due to the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. The unions represent Hollywood screenwriters and on-camera talent, respectively, and while the demands of each are not the same, a growing wage disparity in the industry is a large sticking point for both.

Both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA went on strike after negotiations broke down with the AMPTP, the union representing the major Hollywood studios and streamers. The WGA said that the unwillingness of AMPTP to negotiate "closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession." SAG-AFTRA's leadership said that actor compensation "has been severely eroded by the rise of the streaming ecosystem."

The strikes come at a time when "several major companies in Hollywood...touted major profits and a surge in subscribers to their streaming services," HuffPost reported, and studio heads continue to see rising salaries. But just how large is the gap?

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What do Hollywood's highest-paid studio executives make?

Disney CEO Bob Iger made headlines after saying the demands of the strike were "unrealistic," resulting in significant backlash. In 2022, his contract gave him the possibility of earning up to $27 million with bonuses, according to an SEC disclosure. While this makes him one of the highest-paid Hollywood executives, Iger looks primed to make even more: He re-upped with Disney earlier this month, and could make "$31 million annually under the new terms, depending on his performance and the company's stock price," the Observer reported.

Another large studio, Universal Pictures, is a subsidiary of Comcast, whose CEO, Brian Roberts, had "compensation worth $32.06 million," per The Hollywood Reporter. Then there is Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who has similarly stirred controversy over his alleged misgivings about the strike. Zaslav was paid $39 million in 2022, Variety reported.

In all, "Pay for Hollywood's top executives soared during the height of the pandemic, climbing to $1.43 billion in 2021," the Los Angeles Times reported. In the last five years, Iger made a total of $195 million, Roberts made $170 million, and Zaslav made nearly $500 million, the Times added.

How much does the industry make?

While film and television are still recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority of industry players are still bringing in billions of dollars. The largest of these was actually a streaming service — Netflix, which saw revenues of $31.6 billion in 2022, according to The Hollywood Reporter. However, unlike traditional studios, Netflix "is all about subscriber revenue, making comparisons with studios difficult."

This is not to say that the traditional studios are not also doing well; Universal, the oldest of Hollywood's "Big Five" movie houses, saw revenues of $11.6 billion, The Hollywood Reporter said. Zaslav's Warner Bros. also saw reported revenues of $13.8 billion. The smallest revenue from a major studio in 2022 belonged to Paramount, which brought in $3.7 billion. Despite this, though, Paramount actually had "the biggest year-to-year percentage change in profit," mostly due to the massive success of "Top Gun: Maverick" bringing in $1.5 billion at the global box office.

So even with the landscape of Hollywood changing via streaming, "There's still big bucks to be made in making movies," The Real Deal reported, noting that "[new] movie studios are going up like wildflowers."

What do writers and actors make?

The majority of screenwriters and actors aren't rich, and "87% don't even qualify for healthcare under the contract that just expired," the partisan More Perfect Union tweeted.

Writer salaries are reportedly shrinking, and "in the 2013-14 season, 33% of all TV series writers were paid minimum; now half are working at minimum," the WGA reported. While exact pay depends on experience, the average yearly salary for a screenwriter is $51,544, according to ZipRecruiter, though some working on headlining shows can make six figures. This is still significantly less than the studio executives, though, as David Zaslav's salary is "384 times the average pay of a Hollywood writer," CNBC reported.

The average gig actor in Hollywood makes $27,465 per year, ZipRecruiter reported, with the high end of the pay scale marked at $40,766. This job also depends on many variables, and U.S. News & World Report puts the median pay closer to $47,000. Like screenwriting, though, "The biggest stars command some of the heftiest paychecks in the world, [but] they are part of a small percentage of working actors," Backstage reported, and "making a living as an actor is not impossible — but it is very, very difficult."

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Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.