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Hollywood’s ongoing problem with straight-to-stream movies: Will Smith pays co-stars’ bonuses from his own pocket


By Sarah Finnan
08th Nov 2021

King Richard / IMDb

Hollywood’s ongoing problem with straight-to-stream movies: Will Smith pays co-stars’ bonuses from his own pocket

Will Smith paid his co-stars bonuses from his own pocket, but Hollywood doesn't seem to have learned much from the problems caused by straight-to-stream movies.

As with just about every other aspect of life, the onset of a global pandemic wreaked havoc on the film industry. Months – if not year-long – production halts, travel bans, Covid scares, premiere restrictions, quarantine… the list goes on.

Then, there’s also the small topic of straight-to-stream movies. By no means a modern problem, it is one that has been exacerbated by recent events and though no one could have predicted what was to come, it does seem that Hollywood should have learned from their past mistakes by now. 

Just this year Scarlett Johansson engaged in a very public legal fight against Disney. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the details, the actress filed a lawsuit against the company for allegedly violating an agreement to exclusively release Black Widow in theatres. A vicious – incredibly gendered – feud ensued before both parties quietly settled their dispute and came to a private resolution. 

Those were unprecedented times, we were told. Cinemas closing and stringent worldwide lockdowns meant that theatre premieres weren’t a feasible option. The simultaneous release of the movie on the Disney+ streaming service was an unforeseen decision made to allow viewers to watch safely at home… but contracts exist for a reason and ScarJo was right to make her case. 

A few weeks later and the entertainment industry finds itself in a similar position, with Warner Bros deciding to follow Disney’s lead and move King Richard to a day-and-date release, which would see it premiere in cinemas and on HBO Max simultaneously.

Without an exclusive theatrical release, actors lose out on theatrical returns. A staple of most acting contracts, the idea is that if the film succeeds then so does its actors and studios aren’t pressured to pay them upfront. It’s an insurance policy of sorts, studios aren’t paying actors for a flop and actors can assure they get a percentage take on their highest-grossing films.

Smith – who stars in and produced the upcoming movie – is believed to have been paid as much as $40 million for his involvement in the project. Money has always been a bone of contention, admittedly not just in Hollywood, but it’s an industry of excess and one that throws cash around as if it were merely just paper. That said, not everyone is always compensated fairly… and for many, a straight-to-stream release spells bad news for their earnings. 

This is not brand new information though, and Smith was not going to let his colleagues do without. Instead of going down the legal route (which rarely ends without casualties), Smith is rumoured to have paid bonuses to his co-stars out of his own pocket. “Smith enjoyed a hefty payday,” two different sources told The Hollywood Reporter, before adding that he then “personally wrote checks to the cast which includes Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play Venus and Serena, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis, among others”. Describing the payments as “a nice bonus”, the source confirmed that it came from Smith “as compensation for the pivot to simultaneous HBO Max release strategy”.

Directly involved in the actual making of the movie, some might argue that this was only right of Smith. He has a duty to his fellow cast members, and if a simultaneous HBO and theatre release date was never stipulated, then actors are probably liable to sue… or kick up a fuss at the very least. While I don’t have a very thorough understanding of how things work, I can only presume that Smith did not co-sign his colleagues’ contracts though. Which would mean that he may feel obligated to respond, but he’s not actually (read *legally) obligated to. As many of his King Richard cast members have already said, he’s just a very good person. 

“Being on set with him was an absolute blast,” Singleton said at the recent Elle Women in Hollywood event. “He made sure that everyone felt comfortable and safe and had a great time – it was never a dull moment – ever.” Added Sidney: “He made sure everyone felt included and felt the love. He has such a big heart.” High praise from two people who have seen him in action.