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Some actors can demand fairly exorbitant salaries for their films or TV work. When a show is a hit, the stars have a ton of control as they know they play a large part in the series' success. In the early 2000s, the cast members of Friends were able to negotiate $1 million per episode for themselves, and one of the show’s creators thinks that was more than a little nuts.
The exact word used by Marta Kauffman was “ridiculous” when she was discussing the million dollars per episode the cast pulled down. The Wrap has her comments from a recent Television Critics Association press tour.
”A million dollars an episode is kinda ridiculous...Let’s be honest, that’s a lot of money. I think it’s inflated. And there’s something unrealistic about it. Not everybody is going to get a million dollars an episode. So I think actually what we’re all doing [now] is actually more reasonable and makes more sense.
It’s $144 million for a 24 episode season with six lead actors, to be exact. That’s what Season 9 of Friends cost NBC just from a casting standpoint. Season 10 was slightly cheaper as there were only 18 episodes in the show’s final year.
Kauffman’s comments came in response to a question comparing her experience on Friends with that of her current series, the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie. She does point out that a 24-episode season takes up the vast majority of an actor’s year, giving them less time to make money elsewhere. The Netflix show, being only 13 episodes a season, means actors don’t “feel like they have to get a car every time they do an episode.”
If the Grace and Frankie stars do want a raise down the road, it will be slightly more complicated to get one. Since there are no “ratings” per se for Netflix, and they don’t release viewing numbers, there’s really no way for an actor to know what kind of negotiating power they have. It’s unknown what the Netflix show’s stars make, though with names Like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie has a much higher pedigree than Season 9 of Friends did. Then or now.
Former Friends actor Matt Leblanc has spoken about the mythic pay day in the past saying simply he and his cast-mates were “in a position and we were able to pull it off.” At the end of the day, they were the lead actors on the most popular show on television. If you saw an opportunity to make several million dollars a year, wouldn’t you? Legally, of course.
The Friends move did set a precedent though. The three leads on The Big Bang Theory are currently making $1 million per episode as well. It just goes to show how big a business TV really is. Still, when you can go from making $20 million for a season of TV, to making the same amount for a two hour movie, that’s power.