On March 18, 2000, a little-known WWE star named The Rock hosted "Saturday Night Live." Though he had made a few guest appearances on non-wrestling TV shows, for example Star Trek Voyager, The Rock had almost zero mainstream profile at this point.
He wasn't even SNL's original first choice to host. With WrestleMania 16 falling just two weeks away from the air date, SNL producers originally had their eyes on Steve Austin to host. Unfortunately he was injured, so The Rock – the second most famous wrestler in WWE – was tapped to take his place. AC/DC was the musical guest.
Much to the surprise of anyone who wasn't already a massive wrestling fan, The Rock's SNL episode was an enormous success. The Rock's charisma and natural comedic timing, that turned him into the star we love today, delivered 20 million viewers to SNL that night. It was the highest-rated episode of the season.
Side note. To illustrate just how much network television viewing habits have changed in the last two decades, consider this: Aubrey Plaza's episode was the highest-rated of this most recent SNL season. Aubrey's episode, with Sam Smith as musical guest, pulled-in 4.8 million viewers.
But back to The Rock.
Watching along with 20 million other viewers on the evening of March 18, 2000 were the producers of an in-development film project called "The Mummy Returns." These producers were so enthralled with his performance (and the subsequent ratings) that they quickly carved out a small role for The Rock in the film. The Mummy Returns went on to make $435 million at the box office, more than quadrupling its $100 million budget.
Upon that success, the producers approached WWE honcho Vince McMahon with a proposal. They wanted The Rock to star in "The Scorpion King," which would be both a prequel and spin-off of "The Mummy Returns."
The producers had to go through Vince McMahon because The Rock was under contract with the WWE. Vince basically owned The Rock's time and name. A deal was struck. Vince McMahon was made one of the film's producers and The Rock was given a salary of…
Even more than two decades later, The Rock's $5.5 million Scorpion payday still stands as the largest salary paid to a first-time actor in a lead role. Earning $5.5 million in 2002 is the same as earning around $10 million today after adjusting for inflation.
The Scorpion King went on to earn $180 million on a budget of $60 million and launched The Rock's career as an A-list film star.
Fast forward to the present and, The Rock, who today is also known simply as "Dwayne Johnson," has set another extremely impressive film salary record…
Largest Upfront Film Salary
The streaming era has created something of a quagmire for both studios and major stars like The Rock.
Before the streaming era and COVID, The Rock would typically earn a minimum $20 million upfront salary for his acting work. He would then pad his salary with another $5-10 million in earnings through back-end box office profits.
But how do you convince a massive star to appear in a movie that will never earn any box office revenue? For the world's top box office draws, the answer has been upfront base salaries that are so big, back-end points have become a moot question.
When Amazon wanted The Rock to star in the upcoming action film "Red One," which will debut in December on Prime, they had to cut a check as big as The Rock himself. How big?
That is the largest upfront film salary ever earned by an actor for a single movie.
Interestingly, King Richard wasn't originally intended to be a streaming movie. As you may recall, with the onset of COVID, Warner Media put its entire 2021 slate of movies onto HBO Max, free for subscribers. This move didn't sit well with Smith, who even with a $40 million salary was expecting millions more from the back-end. To appease the infamously-emotional Smith, WarnerMedia ponied up a $20 million bonus check, bringing Smith's total earnings to $60 million.
Largest Single-Movie Acting Payday Of All Time (Royalties Included)
Incredibly, even Will Smith's $60 million salary is a far, far, far cry from being the largest acting paycheck of all time for a single movie when back-end royalties are factored-in. That record belongs to one of the biggest action stars from the 80s and 90s for a film he did in 1999. For this film, this action star earned a $14 million upfront salary. And since the movie was a weird script from a young director with a strange name, this action star ALSO got 17.5% of the back-end plus a similar percentage of DVD and licensing proceeds. Can you guess what actor earned the largest single-movie payday of all time? (Click the link in the previous line for the answer)…