Why does Game of Thrones need to pay the stars so much? Weren’t their contracts before they became famous?
A series as long as “Game of Thrones” involves multiple contract renewals. There would not be one single contract negotiated beforehand that was intended to cover the entire run of the series, for a few reasons, e.g. because there wouldn’t be the automatic guarantee of renewal at the time of initial negotiations; the showrunners wouldn’t have known then how long the series would run if it were allowed to run in its entirety; and asking for up-front commitments of actors for several seasons is a tall order.
There’s nothing unusual about this. Contracts are renewed at intervals throughout a show’s run, and the actors’ salary demands escalate as the show gets more popular and the actors become more integral and harder to replace. The network can either pay up, take the risk of a recast, or call the whole thing off. It’s one thing to offer a green actor a modest salary early in a show’s run, but you can’t keep the salary that same when the show’s popularity has probably given the actor other opportunities to consider, and when the show would suffer if the actor departed. The actor’s leverage relative to the network’s increases as time goes on, if the show is successful, which it’s obviously in everyone’s interest that it is.
The “Friends” cast is probably the best example of actors’ escalating leverage. The cast was paid something like $22K per episode in the first season, and their salaries increased each season after subsequent contract renewals. Note that, as I pointed out before, the contract that they initially agreed to was just for one season, not for anything beyond that; for each subsequent season they signed new contracts. By the series’ end, each of the six core actors — bearing in mind that the show could not have replaced or cut any of them by that point — were earning $1 million per episode.
The “Friends” actors all also, notably, negotiated their salaries collectively, ensuring they would each make the same amount of money. While “GoT” obviously has far more actors to consider in contract negotiations, the core five actors — Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Emilia Clarke — do negotiate as a collective in the same sort of way. Imagine recasting any of them at this point in the story, or even at any point past the first season.
That’s why their pay goes up.