Mary Pickford and the First Million-Dollar Film Contract

Getty / Getty

These days, women with multimillion-dollar film contracts aren't unheard of (though they’re still not as common as men with seven-figure paychecks). Sandra Bullock made $20 million upfront for Gravity, and another $50 million or so for her share of the box office pie. Angelina Jolie took home an estimated $15 million for Maleficent, and Jennifer Aniston commands $5 million per picture.

But none of that would have been possible without “Little Mary” Pickford, a child actress and vaudeville star known for her corkscrew blonde curls. She was just 17 when she switched from the stage to the silver screen, starring in films called “flickers” that were 12 minutes long at most. While most flicker actors made $5 per day on the set, Pickford felt she was worth $10—and she got it. Her fame grew as “America’s Sweetheart,” and by early 1916, she was making $2,000 per week. To sweeten the pot, producers gave her a $10,000 bonus for every completed movie. This amounted to a salary of roughly $150,000—almost $3.5 million by today’s standards.

No longer content with acting in other people’s movies, Pickford signed with Adolph Zukor of Famous Players Films Company, which would eventually become Paramount. The contract specified that Pickford and her company, Pickford Film Corporation, would produce all of her own films. In addition, Pickford herself would bring home $1,000,000 during her two-year contract. That’s nearly $22,000,000 today, putting “Little Mary” right at the top of today’s A-list earners. Not bad for a kid who started acting to help support her family.