The highest paid actors--How Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio and others stack up in their earnings, and why their salaries are skyrocketing

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
March 03, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Written and reported by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Steve Daly, Daniel Fierman, Gillian Flynn, Jeff Gordinier, David Hochman, Jeff Jensen, Dave Karger, Chris Nashawaty, Joshua Rich, Jessica Shaw, Daneet Steffens, and Benjamin Svetkey

Both movies opened the same day. Both made almost the same money — about $15 million their first weekend — claiming the No. 2 and No. 3 slots at the box office. And both were headlined by two of Hollywood’s hottest young heartthrobs: Leonardo DiCaprio and…um…Chevy Chase.

Obviously, something here is amiss. How is it possible that The Beach, starring the king of the world, earned only a few dollars more than Snow Day, a kiddie romp starring a 56-year-old ex-SNL comic so far off the radar that when his name popped up on The Martin Short Show, Steve Martin cracked, ”I think he’s dead”? Does it mean that Chase, who we’d guess wasn’t paid much more than a million dollars for his role in this almost-made-for-TV film (a Nickelodeon production), is now nearly as big a star as DiCaprio? Or does it make DiCaprio (who probably pocketed 20 times as much to star in what was supposed to be Fox’s biggest release this spring) the most overpaid actor in Hollywood?

Actually, it means neither. Because the formula that determines a star’s value — i.e., the number of zeros in his or her paycheck — isn’t quite so mathematically pure as you might think. Along with the tangible, measurable variables — how many seats they can fill on opening weekend, how many they can refill on the second weekend, how many they can fill in overseas theaters — there are other, more ephemeral elements. How, for instance, do you calculate a star’s ability to generate buzz? To sell their film on the talk-show circuit? To make magazines (like this one) want to put them on their covers? In a word, to excite?

Here at Entertainment Weekly, we’ve been pondering who’s worth what in Hollywood and why. We’ve scoured the record books to find the savviest deals ever made and spent hours parsing the definitions of phrases like ”back end” and ”cash up front.” And, of course, we’ve deconstructed the reported asking prices of everyone from Mel Gibson to Hilary Swank.

What we’ve found sometimes surprised even us. For instance: While DiCaprio may not be worth $20 million (as The Beach‘s dwindling ticket sales continue to prove) he’s still worth a lot more than Chase (who actually ended up filling more seats with Snow Day, which has now surpassed The Beach at the box office). In this case, Leo’s paycheck had less to do with box office than it did with bragging rights. Fox was the first studio to get DiCaprio when everybody wanted him — and was willing to pay whatever it cost. In other words, it wasn’t so much about the size of the movie as it was the size of…something else.

Still, the news for Chase isn’t all bad: At least he isn’t dead.

The most obvious measure of star power is how much money an actor gets to step in front of a camera. Here are 15 big names — and how they rate in the Hollywood checking order.