Remember the glory days of TV and movie bonuses? Like 1995, when NBC gave each of the Friends Porsche 911s? And 1999, when Will & Grace actors all got Porsche Boxsters?
Turns out the good old days never really went away — it’s just the cars that have changed. According to sources, Warner Bros. purchased trendy Tesla electric vehicles for both Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins after Wonder Woman shattered box-office records, and another for The Conjuring director James Wan, who is shooting Aquaman for the studio, while Lionsgate gave one to Jenji Kohan in 2013 after Orange Is the New Black became an overnight phenomenon.
Of course, Teslas aren’t the only extravagant thank-you gifts networks and studios are gifting to their top talent. Sometimes they offer sentimental props: Universal gave Chris Pratt one of the motorbikes he rode in Jurassic World, while Marvel handed director James Gunn the 1978 Ford Cobra driven in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Designer accessories also are being gifted: Rolexes and Louis Vuitton bags went to Fox’s Empire cast after the hip-hop drama’s rise in the ratings. And then there’s every star’s favorite perk: private jet time. Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner got $100,000 worth from Lionsgate (the Friends each got 200 hours back in the 2000s).
But the gift that keeps on giving is always cash, and plenty is being passed out, as well. In recent months, two breakout TV casts have taken home bags of money: Insiders say the main This Is Us ensemble received $250,000, while the Stranger Things kids each were given an additional $60,000.
There is, it turns out, a cold, hard logic behind all this generosity. Giving castmembers cars, jewelry and money can be a shrewd way for studio execs to stave off the inevitable calls for contract renegotiation. “The studios are putting their finger in the dam because they know that these people are going to come back and want so much more, so they’re just buying a little bit of time to ensure good favor,” says one veteran entertainment attorney. That likely played a part in the This Is Us bonuses; according to one source, 20th TV and NBC handed them out after certain actors’ reps tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate following season one. “It’s been my experience that the studios do not typically act out of the kindness of their hearts,” says another high-profile lawyer. “They do it because they’re getting a lot of pressure and they’ve said no, and they do not want to have a palace revolt on their hands.”
Another way that studios are leveraging gifts to their ultimate advantage is with bonuses tied to awards performances. The practice is more common in film, where Oscars and Golden Globes tend to have an impact on ticket sales (one rep says award bonuses range from $250,000 to $1 million). But it’s becoming more common in TV, as well. “If it’s someone who is winning awards, it’s a way to build in another likely revenue stream,” says one attorney with award-winning clients.
Oftentimes, award bonuses are written into contracts. The industry caught a rare glimpse of what one looks like when Weiner’s leaked Mad Men documents revealed he received $25,000 for each nomination and $125,000 for each win in the drama’s latter seasons. Sources say that Kohan and Transparent’s Jill Soloway have similar award bonus structures in place. They’re also a creative way for stars to squeeze as much money as possible out of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, where backend profits are typically more elusive. Adds one TV agent, “When you’re representing people of a certain caliber and are entering a negotiation on a project that is on a streaming service or a premium cable outlet, these are more and more common asks — if they aren’t already on the table.”
Award bonuses, by the way, aren’t only for creators — actors can sometimes get them, too. In fact, Jon Hamm got a check for $25,000 in 2008, when he won a Golden Globe for playing Don Draper, and sources say Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba and Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor received similar sums for their Emmy wins. But award bonuses are especially rare in broadcast, and sources say that 20th TV and Warner Bros. don’t offer any at all, with one source noting the latter even has been reluctant to renegotiate on a few hit shows. Scoffs one rep, “Peter Roth thinks that he can just give people hugs and compliment them at the party and that’s going to make them happy to work at Warner Bros.”