Today, only a few actors make $1 million per half-hour episode of television. And they all happen to be starring on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
The only other time that was accomplished was in 2002 when the cast of “Friends” successfully negotiated their historic $1 million-per-episode pay deals.
How did they pull that off? The simple answer is that all six cast members negotiated together. That meant that each one would be paid the same or they would all leave the hit show.
But there’s so much more to the story, like how did they come up with collective bargaining? And how did others involved in “Friends” feel about it? Plus, how much would their $1 million be worth today?
Here’s everything you need to know about the “Friends” stars’ historic $1 million-per-episode salary negotiation:
All the circumstances were just right.
When the cast won their $1 million/episode salaries (or $22 million per season), the show had just recovered from seasons of declining ratings and was enjoying its highest-rated season in five years. But the stars really wanted to do other things, which meant the show was close to ending. It would end up running just two more seasons, but no one at the time knew exactly. And if NBC felt it could get at least one more year of “Friends,” it would take that. The network needed all the time it could get. None of the shows NBC produced in eight years showed the ability to replace “Friends.”
That year, “Friends” was averaging 24.7 million viewers a week – about two million viewers more than any other show in television. It also rated highly with young viewers, the kind advertisers always want.
To make the timing even more critical, salary negotiations were still open as the show had just four scripts left in the season. The writers had to know if they needed to write a proper series ending.
It was also getting terribly close to network upfronts, which are annual presentations of the season’s upcoming schedule to potential advertisers. If NBC didn’t have “Friends” on its schedule, it would’ve been disastrous for advertising sales.
The odds were stacked against NBC and looking really good for the show’s stars.
David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston took a loss so they could band with their costars.
According to accounts of the events, the “Friends” cast didn’t just decide to band together for a million dollars in 2002. They had been negotiating their salaries together since the show’s third season. But that required two of the stars to take initial pay cuts.
As the central couple of the show, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston made more money than the others. After the hit first season, Schwimmer was being courted with movie offers and his agents felt it was time to renegotiate his “Friends” contract. But he had enough forethought to convince his costars to act as a mini-union and insist on being paid equally.
That may have cost Schwimmer and Aniston initially, but who knew how long they’d stay the most popular actors on the show. By negotiating as a group, they not only gained leverage, but some job security. The show could easily drop one actor, but how could they write around the loss of all of them?
According to various sources, here’s how much the cast made each season per episode:
Season one: $22,500
Season two: $22,500 to $40,000
Season three (when they began collective bargaining): $75,000
Season four: $85,000
Season five: $100,000
Season six: $125,000
Seasons seven, eight: $750,000
Seasons nine, ten: $1,000,000
“A million dollars an episode is kinda ridiculous.” —”Friends” cocreator
Not everyone believed that the “Friends” cast deserved their $1 million-per-episode haul.
Last year, “Friends” cocreator Marta Kauffman called the salary “inflated.”
“A million dollars an episode is kinda ridiculous,” Kaufmann said. “Let’s be honest, that’s a lot of money.”
Star Matt LeBlanc was also asked that year if he believed that the cast was worth the hefty salary. He believed that “worth” had no real bearing on the topic.
“I’ve been asked this question before, but phrased as, do I think we were worth it? Were we worth $1 million? To me, that’s such a strange question,” LeBlanc told The Huffington Post.
“It’s like, well, that’s irrelevant. Are you worth it? How do you put a price on how funny something is? We were in a position to get it. If you’re in a position in any job, no matter what the job is – if you’re driving a milk truck or installing TVs or an upholsterer for a couch – if you’re in a position to get a raise and you don’t get it, you’re stupid. You know what I mean? We were in a position and we were able to pull it off. ‘Worth it’ has nothing to do with it.”
$1 million then vs. now.
Sure, “The Big Bang Theory” stars are making a million per episode now, but times were a bit different 14 years ago.
With inflation, The “Friends” stars’ $1 million salaries in 2002 equate to being paid $1.4 million in 2016 dollars, according to the US Bureau of Labor. Maybe “The Big Bang Theory” stars should renegotiate.
On top of that, the “Friends” cast not only made $1 million an episode, but they also have had years of syndication payments (a bump they won during season-six negotiations). Can you imagine a time when “Friends” episodes weren’t in reruns somewhere on TV since the 90s? Last year, USA Today reported that each of the stars receives $20 million a year in syndication payments.