Media Mogul Paydays: How the Biggest CEOs in Hollywood Made Bank in 2021

·18 min read

It was a year of plague, mergers and mega-paydays for the moguls who run some of the largest media companies in the world.

In 2020, there were CEOs who made a show of forgoing their base salaries in solidarity with their workforces, many of which had to undergo furloughs or layoffs as the pandemic shuttered movie theaters and caused production snarls. In 2021, with theaters reopened, production back on track (with some lingering COVID headaches, such as higher costs), and the streaming services that most of these companies launched in recent years in full swing, the lavish pay packages of yore returned with a vengeance.

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Discovery’s David Zaslav and Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel scored nine-figure compensation packages, a Day-Glo illustration of the lengths that board rooms go to reward the men (and it is exclusively men) at the top. Those gaudy figures came largely in the form of stock options, which means the take-home pay could shrink if the market takes a nosedive, but both men are still among the most richly remunerated in this or any industry. And they’re not alone: Disney’s Bob Iger ($45.9 million), Netflix’s Reed Hastings ($40.8 million) and Fox’s Rupert Murdoch ($31.1 million) all enjoyed big paydays, even though shareholders and critics have grown more vocal about their concerns that these business leaders are being too generously compensated.

“Entertainment companies have some of the worst compensation practices for their executives of any industry,” says Rosanna Landis Weaver, program manager of the CEO pay program at shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. “They need to be reformed.”

There are structural problems that make such an overhaul unlikely. Many of these companies, such as Discovery, Comcast and ViacomCBS (recently rechristened Paramount Global) have dual-class stock, giving the controlling shareholders nearly absolute authority to determine how the business is run. It means that the boards of those companies are appointed at the whim of the families with the largest pool of preferred stock, making any external push to tighten belts easy to ignore. It also establishes a standard for media executive compensation at companies without dual-class ownership, such as Disney and Netflix, that allows those business titans to justify their own big paydays.

“Until you get out of the peer group system nothing is going to happen to change the status quo,” says Charles M. Elson, professor of finance in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. “There’s been a lot of blowback and the pay for media CEOs has gotten incredibly high, but they’re not going to come down. The benchmark that they measure themselves against is too high to make any substantive changes feasible.”

That’s to say nothing of the way that bonuses are doled out. Media chiefs receive a series of quantitative and qualitative goals, meaning that if the companies they run miss certain financial targets, they can still get paid because they made a difference in other, less empirical ways, such as overseeing a corporation that had a division that won Emmys or Oscars.

The media business may be slowly recovering from the shock of COVID, but one area where things appear to have returned to normal is in the way that their leaders are enriched for the decisions they make. Total 2021 compensation for the single highest paid executive at AT&T, Comcast, Discovery, Disney, Endeavor, Fox, Netflix and ViacomCBS came to $751.4 million, up 209.2% compared to 2020 and 178.8% compared to 2019, the last pre-pandemic period. To be fair, that’s distorted by the enormous 2021 amounts attributed to Zaslav and Emanuel. If you take them out of the equation, the total compensation for the highest paid executive at each of AT&T, Comcast, Disney, Fox, Netflix and ViacomCBS came to $236.3 million, up 7.5% compared to 2020, but down 2.2% compared to 2019.

Will the good times last? The media landscape that these corporate leaders oversee is shifting under their feet. AT&T has gotten out of the content game, selling off WarnerMedia to Discovery for half of what it paid to buy it just four years ago. The new company Warner Bros. Discovery will now have to pay down oceans of debt all while competing in a streaming space crowded with the likes of Paramount+, Disney+, and Netflix. Those companies are also facing serious questions about how much they can continue to grow, particularly at a time when major markets like China are growing more protectionist.

We’ve made some changes to the way we track compensation. Lionsgate, which most observers think will be acquired by a much larger media player, is not included – though if you’re curious, the company’s CEO Jon Feltheimer saw his total compensation rise to $19.1 million, up from $11 million in the previous fiscal year. He’s been replaced by Ari Emanuel, who finally succeeded in taking Endeavor public in 2021 after abandoning an IPO in 2019. Endeavor has a market cap of $6.5 billion, more than double that of Lionsgate.

We aren’t just measuring this crop of potentates in terms of dollars and cents. Once again, we are including assessments of each company’s strengths and weaknesses from JUST Capital — a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates stakeholder capitalism and examines how corporations treat the environment, the communities in which they are based, and the workforces they employ.

AT&T
Randall Stephenson, Former Executive Chairman
2021 Stephenson compensation: $16.4M/-44%

John Stankey, CEO, President
2021 Stankey compensation: $24.8M/+18%

Median Employee Compensation: $107,570
Stephenson/Stankey Pay Ratio to Media Employee: 152/231
2021 Total Shareholder Return: -8.1%

Board: 10 Men/3 Women
Average Age of Board Members: 64

It may be a new dawn for AT&T. The telecom giant is determined to refocus and rebuild, after officially shedding its media business, WarnerMedia, on April 8. But C-suite execs’ compensation remained at historical levels in 2021.

Despite selling off its media business, WarnerMedia, AT&T was not holding back when it came to former CEO Jason Kilar’s compensation during his time at the helm. Though AT&T did not disclose Kilar’s 2021 compensation in its latest proxy statement, judging by his 2020 compensation of $52.2 million, AT&T was willing to invest a lot in him to oversee WarnerMedia.

With WarnerMedia on its way out, it was Stankey’s first full year as CEO, and he pocketed more in 2021. According to company filings, Stankey’s compensation increased 18% from last year to $24.8 million. While his base salary remained unchanged from 2020, his compensation included a non-equity incentive plan, stock awards and personal benefits such as a company car and club membership.

Stephenson retired in January 2021, and was replaced by William Kennard, who serves as an independent chairman of the board. AT&T’s latest proxy revealed Stephenson earned $16.4 million in 2021, which was a 44% decline from the prior year. Meanwhile, after earning $375,000 in total compensation in 2020, Kennard’s pay increased 80% to $675,000 last year. Much like the rest of the board of directors, Kennard’s total compensation included $220,000 in stock awards.

No AT&T executives received bonuses in 2021.

NETFLIX
Reed Hastings, Co-CEO
2021 Hastings compensation: $40.8M /-5.6%

Ted Sarandos, Co-CEO
2021 Sarandos compensation: $38.2M/-2.8%

Median Employee Compensation: $201,743
Hastings/Sarandos Pay Ratio to Median Employee: 202 /190
2021 Total Shareholder Return: +11%

Board: 9 Men/3 Women
Average Age of Board Members: 60

Netflix’s shares have been pummeled recently after the streaming service revealed that it had shed 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter and would lose another two million in the current quarter. That’s led to concerns in the investment community that the company may have hit a ceiling when it comes to attracting new customers, a situation that’s grown only more difficult as competitors such as HBO Max, Disney+ and AppleTV+ have entered the space brandishing big checkbooks. It turns out it’s tough when you’re no longer the only game in town.

But back before the recent nosedive, Hastings and Sarandos saw their compensation packages constrict slightly. Hastings took the bulk of his pay, roughly $39.7 million, in options, drawing a salary of $650,000. Sarandos opted to take $20 million of his compensation in cash, with another $17 million coming in the form of options. Netflix brass has a lot more flexibility when it comes to deciding how they should be rewarded, something that’s been controversial.

The streamer approaches compensation differently from its peers, giving its executives a choice between receiving their earnings in cash or fully vested stock options. Other entertainment players reward their teams with a blend of salary, stock grants, non-stock bonuses and options. Some shareholders don’t love the arrangement. In 2021, nearly half of them voted against the compensation packages for Sarandos, Hastings and other leaders at the company, a sign of the roiling dissatisfaction among Netflix’s investors over these paydays, even if they were ultimately approved.

In public filings, Netflix’s compensation committee acknowledged the concerns of some shareholders and said it might “consider” if changes to the way it pays leaders are necessary, while also saying it planned to preserve the status quo for now. “We continue to strongly believe that our current compensation program’s design is a significant contributor to Netflix’s success, including our ability to attract and retain talent and to align executive and shareholder interests,” the committee said.

DISNEY
Bob Chapek, CEO
2021 Chapek compensation:$32.5M /+128.9%

Bob Iger, Executive Chairman
2021 Iger compensation: $45.9M/+118.6%

Median Employee Compensation: $50,430
Chapek Pay Ratio to Median Employee: 644
2021 Total Shareholder Return: +44%

Board: 6 Men/5 Women
Average Age of Board Members: 59

Disney’s leadership handoff between Chapek and Iger wasn’t always smooth. The pair reportedly clashed in their final months together, and Chapek has been involved in several controversies, ranging from his fight with Scarlett Johannson over Disney’s decision to release “Black Widow” on Disney+ to his stumbling response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. The latter firestorm led to a near staff revolt and a brutal standoff with Gov. Ron DeSantis that could cost Disney the right to essentially self-govern the area around their theme parks in the state.

In public filings, however, all is right in the Magic Kingdom. In awarding the two Bobs their full bonuses, the compensation committee praised Chapek for his work on diversity, equity and inclusion, the growth of Disney's streaming services, and for the CEO's efforts to “reimagine the theme park experience” so guests could safely return during COVID. Iger gets credit for “award-winning original content” on Disney+ and Hulu such as “WandaVision” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” even though it’s unclear what direct role he played in the creation or success of those shows.

Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of the company’s co-founder Roy Disney, has blasted the yawning chasm that exists between Iger and Chapek’s pay packages and the wages of Disney’s many park employees as “obscene.” She’s directed a new documentary, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” that highlights the economic struggles of a group of these staffers. Disney has made efforts to bolster those wages, reaching a deal with its largest unions repping Disneyland park employees last year to boost minimum starting pay to $18.50 an hour from $15.50 by 2023. Pay might be increasing, but it will currently take the average Disney employee 644 years to match what Chapek earns in one.

VIACOMCBS/PARAMOUNT GLOBAL
Bob Bakish, CEO
2021 Bakish compensation: $20M/-48.7%

Median Employee Compensation: $94,580
Bakish Pay Ratio to Median Employee: 212
2021 Total Shareholder Return: -13%

Board: 5 Men/7 Women
Average Age of Board Members: 66

ViacomCBS underwent some rebranding this year, with the media company changing its name to Paramount Global. The move came as the company has put a renewed emphasis on building out its streaming platform Paramount+ as it looks to compete with the likes of Netflix and Disney+. By the close of its most recent quarter, Paramount+’s total subscribers reached 32.8 million. But regardless of its moniker, Paramount Global and Bakish continue to face questions about their ability to succeed in an industry dominated by global behemoths and tech giants, with many analysts believing that the company will eventually be an acquisition target for a larger player.

The company has been spending more money on content to bolster its streaming operations, while also seeking to divest itself of some splashy real estate – selling CBS’s Black Rock headquarters in August for $760 million and off-loading its Studio City lot for $1.8 billion in November. Bakish, who took a steep pay cut last year, was credited with helping to oversee those deals by the compensation committee, as well as for “growing our number of global streaming subscribers and increasing global streaming revenue.”

Paramount Global stands out in one significant way. It is the only media company in our core group that has a board that’s majority female, with Shari Redstone serving as its chair.

FOX
Rupert Murdoch, Executive Chairman
2021 Rupert Murdoch Compensation: $31.1 M/-8.4%

Lachlan Murdoch, CEO
2021 Lachlan Murdoch Compensation: $27.7M/-5%

Median Employee Compensation: $80,732
Lachlan Murdoch Pay Ratio to Median Employee: 343
2021 Total Shareholder Return: +40.5%

Board: 7 Men/1 Woman
Average Age of Board Members: 62

The Murdochs took pay cuts in 2021 for the second year in a row as a concession to COVID-19. But they still managed to pull in sizable paydays, that included generous stock option awards. Lachlan Murdoch, installed as CEO of the television and cable news company, had a base salary of $2.25 million, as well as stock, options and other incentives of nearly $22 million. His father, Rupert Murdoch, pulled in a $3.7 million base salary, as well as stock, options and other incentives valued at more than $17 million. Lachlan also had more than $1 million in residential security as part of his compensation. Both men are hailed in public filings for guiding Fox through production delays and shutdowns brought on by the pandemic and for forgoing their base salaries for five months in 2020.

Fox says it tries to “promote through the nomination process a diversity of background and expertise among Board members.” That doesn’t appear to extend to gender diversity. Only one member of its eight-person board, Anne Dias, is female. Discovery is the only other company among those we examine that has such a similarly male-dominated group of directors.

The 91-year-old Rupert Murdoch still seems to love the game, but should he decide to step down, he is entitled to a retirement package of $13.9 million.

COMCAST
Brian Roberts, Chairman & CEO
2021 Roberts compensation: $34.0M/+3.9%

Jeff Shell, CEO — NBCUniversal
2021 Shell compensation: $21.6M/+30.3%

Median Employee Compensation: $83,840
Roberts/Shell Pay Ratio to Median Employee: 405/257
2021 Total Shareholder Return: -2.2%

Board: 7 Men/3 Women
Average Age of Board Members: 65

As the telco continues to oversee NBCUniversal’s strategy to steer a streaming-oriented course for itself amid a pandemic-conscious film market, overall annual compensation for Roberts and Shell rose from 2020 to 2021, even as total shareholder return declined 2.2% year over year as of the last trading day of 2021.

Per Comcast, the “faster than expected rebound of [its] businesses” due to adequate strategic adjustments in response to the pandemic allowed the company to compensate its leaders sweetly. Up 3.9% from 2020, Roberts’ $34 million 2021 take included an $8.6 million bonus for hitting 125% of the target set, though the company’s proxy statement does note Roberts requested the computation of his bonus be adjusted to the reduction of his new annual salary of $2.5 million, as if that had gone into effect at the start of 2021.

Overseeing Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal and Sky, the biggest contributor to Roberts’ compensation going up in 2021 was his stock awards, which rose 27.7% to $13.5 billion. More notable was Shell’s 2021 compensation, which saw a dramatic 30.3% increase to $21.6 million, due mostly to a bonus of nearly $10 million that was up 70% from 2020. Per Comcast, NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock experienced “significant growth in monthly active accounts and revenue” as the business unit “innovated to create new pay windows for early viewing opportunities to better monetize [its] content and intellectual property,” an acknowledgement of Universal’s shortening of its theatrical window for new films that are set to stream on the service around 45 days after they hit theaters.

Outside of entertainment content, theme parks performed “exceptionally well” under Shell as NBCUniversal opened its new Universal Beijing Resort destination in September. It’s clear Comcast remains confident in Shell’s leadership of its principal entertainment house, but Shell’s compensation is still a far cry from former NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, who in 2019 took in $42.6 million.

DISCOVERY
David Zaslav, CEO
2021 David Zaslav Compensation: $246.6M/+ 554.1%

Median Employee Compensation: $82,964
David Zaslav Pay Ratio to Median Employee: 2,972
2021 Total Shareholder Return: -20.2%

Board: 11 Men/1 Woman
Average Age of Board Members: 71

Let this sink in. David Zaslav made nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in 2021. Yes, much of that money ($202.9 million, to be precise) is made up of options that theoretically could be worth a whole lot less or even nothing if Zaslav can’t make Discovery’s $43 billion mega-deal with WarnerMedia work. And it’s a big if, given that Warner Bros. Discovery, the new conglomerate that Zaslav oversees as of April, enters the world with some $50 billion of debt. But Zaslav’s gaudy payday is still staggering. To put it in perspective, an average employee at Discovery would have had to start banking money nearly 3,000 years ago to match what Zaslav pulled in over 12 months. That means they would have needed to first head into the office while Egypt was still ruled by the pharaohs, Greenland was getting colonized by Erik the Red and the Vikings, and Rome wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of Romulus and Remus.

The board of directors cycled through the superlatives to describe Zaslav’s time at the helm – alternating between descriptors like ”exceptional” and “extraordinary” and giving him kudos for a “tremendous” year, as well. Clearly, they like what he’s doing. Zaslav entered into a new deal that will keep him at Discovery through 2027, though it’s unclear what other company would be able to match his windfall. In 2021, Zaslav didn’t just receive his full $22 million bonus, Discovery’s board of directors threw in one-time discretionary bonus of $4.4 million in recognition of his “exceptional leadership during the pandemic” and for his work conceiving of and closing the WarnerMedia mega-deal. In order to pay down all the debt that’s been accrued as part of that deal, Zaslav and his team have pledged to find $3 billion in cost-saving synergies. In other words, there will be layoffs.

ENDEAVOR
Ari Emanuel, CEO
2021 Ari Emanuel Compensation: $308.2 M/+2,040.3%

Median Employee Compensation: N/A
Ari Emanuel Pay Ratio to Median Employee: N/A
2021 Total Shareholder Return: +45.4%*

Board: 9 Men/3 Women
Average Age of Board Members: 51

There’s a new member of the mogul club. Ari Emanuel, the hard-driving super-agent who cobbled together a media conglomerate from the likes of UFC, Professional Bull Riders and WME, was rewarded handsomely when the company went public last April. His pay package, which is largely in the form of stock options, dwarfs even that of Zaslav. And he’s not the only big winner at Endeavor – Vice Chairman Patrick Whitesell had a compensation package valued at $123.1 million, much of it also in the form of stock. Of course, that could all be worth substantially less if Endeavor’s shares go south.

Both Emanuel and Whitesell are under long-term employment agreements that will keep them at the company until 2028. Neither man is likely to see this kind of windfall again -- their pay packages should be substantially reduced going forward because most of their 2021 compensation was tied to the IPO.

Emanuel also got a $4 million base salary, a $10 million bonus, and $431,120 from business management and tax advisory services as well as the use of the company’s private plane, reserved parking charges and personal cell phone expenses. Endeavor hasn’t been public for a full fiscal year, so the company isn’t legally required to disclose its median employee salary. That means it’s unclear how Emanuel’s payday stacks up to his colleagues.

*Endeavor went public on 4/28/22, so this is not a full calendar year result.

Carina Cozminschi, David Lieberman, Kaare Eriksen and Heidi Chung contributed to this report.

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