The Hollywood CEO Mega Pay Chart: Top Executives’ Compensation Revealed

Author: Editors Desk
May 7, 2024 at 14:25
Ari Emanuel and Ted Sarandos took home the highest pay of media chiefs in 2023, while David Zaslav became an avatar for criticism of CEO compensation. GRAHAM SAMUELS
Ari Emanuel and Ted Sarandos took home the highest pay of media chiefs in 2023, while David Zaslav became an avatar for criticism of CEO compensation. GRAHAM SAMUELS

Many bosses of entertainment giants saw their pay packages increase during a tumultuous 2023 that included dual strikes, a production slowdown and cost-cutting across the industry.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren didn’t mince any words. “CEO pay is out of control,” she posted on April 22, singling out Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, whose team has had a rocky road integrating two companies since the mega-merger that created the Hollywood conglomerate, dealing with a high debt load and shoring up profits. Zaslav “made $49.7 million last year, +26% from 2022 — despite layoffs, box office bombs, a lagging stock price,” Warren wrote on X. “Meanwhile, WB workers had to strike for higher pay.”



Many bosses of entertainment giants saw their pay packages increase, while others, such as Paramount Global’s just-replaced CEO Bob Bakish and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, experienced minimal drops. After all, exec pay is typically dominated by stock and options awards.

While those amount to paper gains, meaning theoretical gains that only get realized down the line when certain performance targets and improvements are hit, the handsome sums make for bad optics, particularly in an industry like Hollywood that has been turned upside-down over years of tumult and disruption. 

Stock returns in recent years have also often disappointed investors. “Given the poor stock performance a case could be made they are generally overpaid,” Hal Vogel, former Wall Street analyst and CEO of Vogel Capital Management, says.

The trend fits into the picture across the broader Corporate America. “The rise in CEO compensation persisted in 2023,” data firm Equilar noted in publishing its annual Equilar 100, which compiles compensation disclosures by the largest companies by revenue across various sectors. It calculated a median CEO pay jump to $23.7 million, marking an increase of 11.4 percent compared to 2022 for the same set of companies.No Hollywood CEOs made Equilar’s exclusive nine-figure pay club in 2023, but three corporate bosses did hit those highs, led by Broadcom’s Hock Tan, who made nearly $162 million. And Charter’s CEO Chris Winfrey ranked fourth on the Equilar list with his $89.1 million package. Shareholder advisory firm ISS voiced criticism that it included “a front-loaded equity grant” whose amount it called “excessive.” Endeavor and TKO Group CEO Ari Emanuel, whose compensation was disclosed after the deadline for the list, came close to Winfrey’s figure. At many companies, stock awards and stock price gains helped boost top executives’ stock award values. “It’s no secret that stock awards are the primary driver in CEO pay packages,” explains Amit Batish, senior director of content at Equilar.

In some cases, Hollywood CEOs also benefited from decisions to refocus compensation. For example, Warner Bros. Discovery aligned its pay to increase a focus on free cash flow and debt reduction. That paid off for its CEO Zaslav, whose package included more than $23 million in stock awards and $22 million in non-equity incentive compensation. WBD’s 86 percent free cash flow jump last year to $6.2 billion, partially helped by lower production spending during the Hollywood strikes, lifted Zaslav’s pay package, the size of which has repeatedly drawn criticism dating back to his Discovery days. 

Cases in point: 2021 when Zaslav’s Discovery compensation spiked to $246 million, driven by his team striking the mega-deal to create Warner Bros. Discovery and a new employment deal designed to keep the veteran in charge for the long haul, and 2018 when his $129.4 million pay was driven by large upfront grants tied to his company’s stock performance as part of another long-term employment contract. Last year, ISS said Zaslav’s bonus opportunity remains “outsized” despite the updated pay policy, concluding: “Though some positive changes were made in response to shareholder feedback, some changes appear to be merely incremental improvements.” 

The company in contrast has long emphasized his important leadership. For 2023, WBD’s executive pay filing highlighted that Zaslav was rewarded for his work on such things as the “successful” launch of streamer Max and “significant” debt reduction.Bakish’s 2 percent pay decrease, meanwhile, compared with a bigger stock drop and declines in various financial metrics. However, Paramount swung to $56 million in free cash flow for 2023 after a 2022 loss of $500 million. With Bakish recently pushed out as CEO, he is also entitled to a big payday. Equilar says his severance package of more than $50 million includes $31 million in cash.

Even those who earned less last year are earning handsomely. Disney’s Bob Iger, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, and Comcast’s Michael Cavanagh posted the biggest declines among Hollywood power players, but in all cases that was due to special circumstances. Hastings’ pay drop is accounted for by his move from the CEO post to the new role of executive chairman.

Iger returned to the Mouse House to help fix it, with the comparison being for the fiscal year that ended in the fall of 2019, the most recent previous full fiscal year when he served as CEO.

And Cavanagh saw increases across most compensation categories in 2023, with the only exception being his options awards of $7 million, compared with $21.1 million in 2022 when he was rewarded for his elevation to the role of president.All in all, Hollywood executive pay remains high. “Most media CEOs are well above the median of $23.7 million,” highlighted Equilar’s Batish. 

Corporate shareholder “Say on Pay” votes have in some cases sent messages of discontent, but they and major business challenges, such as the strikes, cost-cutting and cord-cutting and streaming losses, have not led to big pay declines in the sector, at least not so far. 

“Challenging times are also when you want to have stable leadership at the top,” Courtney Yu, director of research at Equilar, says. “Having a steady hand during turbulent times may mean these compensation packages are here to stay. While that may not bode well against layoffs and strikes, these are tough challenges that companies want experienced leaders to handle, and that sometimes comes at a cost.”That cost is also highlighted by compensation ratios that companies are required to disclose each year to compare CEO pay to median employee pay. At WBD, for example, the 2023 ratio amounted to 290 to 1, up from 227 to 1 in 2022; at Endeavor, it was 1,184 to 1 when including Emanuel’s TKO pay, or 281 to 1 when focusing on his Endeavor pay. No wonder that Emanuel has been one of the poster boys for critics of Hollywood pay, including with his 2021 package worth $308 million.

Despite criticism, companies have long argued that they need to offer attractive and competitive compensation to attract and retain top executives. 

So it will remain a PR challenge for Hollywood giants facing criticism of high CEO pay at a time of crisis. No surprise that proxy statements listing exec pay often highlight that much of compensation for CEOs is performance-based. Paramount’s compensation committee, for example, sets “challenging, yet realistic, financial and operational goals that, if achieved, will lead to a successful return of value for shareholders,” its proxy argued this year.Few experts predict industry CEO pay to come down over time. Explains Batish: “CEO pay packages are typically designed with long-term goals in mind, and as long as these media companies are meeting performance expectations and goals, then it’s unlikely pay will decline.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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