Dwayne Johnson clenches his granite jaw as he squints into the distance. A bead of sweat drips down his forehead before he throws back his head in a belly-shaking laugh. It’s a sweltering summer day in Atlanta, and The Rock is on set doing what The Rock does best. He licks his lips, delivers his lines with panache and swaggers his hulking 6-foot-5 frame out of the shot.
Johnson is rarely out of focus these days. In the last decade, the 46-year-old former professional wrestler has leveraged his indefatigable charm—the kind that drives him, only half-jokingly, to float himself as a potential presidential candidate—to become Hollywood’s most bankable star. His acting earnings last year—the vast majority of his $124 million haul—are the largest ever recorded in the 20 years Forbes has tracked the Celebrity 100 and nearly double the $65 million he earned in 2017.
“The number one goal is to create stuff for the world,” says Johnson, sitting in his air-conditioned trailer in a blue polka-dot shirt and jeans. In other words, ubiquity. Besides a stream of movies, there’s his hit HBO series, Ballers, and one of the shrewdest strategies on social , all decorated with multiple hashtags and millions of likes.
Now he’s pioneering a new way to cash in on that digital fame. In addition to hefty $20 million up-front paychecks and cuts of back-end studio profits—Skyscraper, in which he plays a former FBI hostage-rescue leader—he’ll insist on a separate seven-figure social media fee with every movie in which he appears, according to people familiar with his deals. In other words, rather than have studios dump money into TV ads or billboards, their new paid-marketing channel doubles as their marquee star.
“Social media has become the most critical element of marketing a movie for me,” Johnson says. “I have established a social media equity with an audience around the world that there’s a value in what I’m delivering to them.”
Johnson still does the talk show circuit, the press tours and the other promotional duties expected of stars (especially when the real money comes from box-office back end). But in stipulating that social media channels are separate platforms that require separate fees, Johnson is attempting to set a Hollywood precedent.
For The Rock, at least, the studios seem to have accepted this arrangement: Promotional spending on a tentpole movie can climb above $150 million and still not guarantee a blockbuster. A-list actors tapping their fan base augurs a cheaper, more targeted way for studios to promote a new movie.
“The star power that matters right now is the power of social media,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at ComScore. For now, The Rock is alone in demanding cash for social media on top of his contract. His Central Intelligence costar, Kevin Hart, pocketed $2 million from Sony for tweeting about his own films and others years ago, but the scale of the comedian’s overall paycheck is still dwarfed by Johnson’s. In fact, studios now track social media following and engagement to make casting decisions.
Johnson has always had engagement by the ton. He followed his father and grandfather into professional wrestling, borrowing a piece of his father’s ring name, Rocky Johnson, to become The Rock—a sobriquet that encapsulates both his physique and his attitude.
A 2000 appearance on Saturday Night Live caught the eye of Universal executives, who gave him a cameo in The Mummy Returns in 2001. Impressed, the studio gave his tiny character its own spinoff, The Scorpion King, which went on to earn more than $165 million worldwide on a $60 million budget.