| A PIECE OF THE ROCK

Dwayne John­son is al­ready the high­est-paid ac­tor in Hol­ly­wood. By turn­ing him­self into a mar­ket­ing chan­nel, he’s fig­ured out a way to make mil­lions more.

Forbes - - CONTENTS - By natalie Robehmed

Dwayne John­son is al­ready the high­est-paid ac­tor in Hol­ly­wood. By turn­ing him­self into a mar­ket­ing chan­nel, he’s fig­ured out a way to make mil­lions more.

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 polka­dot 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 me­dia. On In­sta­gram, where he has more than 108 mil­lion fol­low­ers, he de­liv­ers in­spi­ra­tional videos of him­self talk­ing di­rectly to his iPhone, of­ten in his trav­el­ing gym. Other posts—lever­ag­ing an­other 13 mil­lion Twitter fol­low­ers and 58 mil­lion on Facebook— in­tro­duce movie trail­ers, show John­son in de­vel­op­ment meet­ings and cel­e­brate his “cheat day” pancake stack, 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 up­front pay­checks and cuts of back­end stu­dio profits—start­ing with July’s Sky­scraper, in which he plays a for­mer FBI hostage-res­cue leader—he’ll in­sist on a sep­a­rate sev­en­fig­ure 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.

Af­ter a string of mid­dling ac­tion movies and then three sac­cha­rine fam­ily movies (Tooth Fairy, any­one?), The Rock re­booted his ca­reer by dou­bling down on the brawn that first earned him a fan base. “My wrestling past has in­formed me in terms of hav­ing a real con­nec­tion with an au­di­ence,” he ex­plains. “It has to be au­di­ence first. What does the au­di­ence want, and what is the best sce­nario that we can cre­ate that will send them home happy?”

Such a give-the-peo­ple-what-they-want phi­los­o­phy may not win him Os­cars, but it will make bil­lions at the box of­fice. Ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts, John­son has high ap­peal in all four quad­rants tracked at the mul­ti­plex: male, fe­male, over-25 and un­der-25.

For stu­dios, he’s a de­pend­able hedge against a North Amer­i­can box of­fice that dipped 2% in 2017 to $11.1 bil­lion. The in­ter­na­tional lan­guage of blow­ing stuff up doesn’t re­quire trans­la­tion, and his forte is ex­actly what sells abroad. (More than 64% of his box-of­fice grosses come from in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences.) Thanks to John­son’s mixed Samoan and African-Amer­i­can her­itage, his melt­ing-pot looks make him a lo­cal hero around the globe.

As John­son suc­ceeded, he upped his busi­ness game. Five years ago, with his ex-wife and man­ager, Dany Gar­cia, he launched Seven Bucks Pro­duc­tions, geared at trans­form­ing The Rock from an ac­tor into an en­ter­prise. When John­son ap­pears in a movie, the Seven Bucks cre­ative, pro­duc­tion and digital team of eight work on ev­ery el­e­ment, from de­vel­op­ing the script to aid­ing pro­duc­tion and help­ing guide its pro­mo­tional roll­out. The com­pany also runs a YouTube chan­nel and cre­ates mo­bile con­tent for John­son’s so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

“Hav­ing a very large foot­print helps us ex­e­cute,” says Gar­cia, a for­mer wealth man­ager who also runs a tal­ent-man­age­ment firm while over­see­ing Seven Bucks Pro­duc­tions along­side John­son. “We would never do any­thing half-assed.”

The im­pact cre­ated ex­tends to John­son’s en­dorse­ments, which in­clude Apple and a re­cently con­cluded Ford part­ner­ship. With the ad­di­tion of a for­mer Droga5 ex­ec­u­tive, Seven Bucks Cre­ative, a team of two, crafted John­son’s Project Rock cam­paign with Un­der Ar­mour, in which John­son has a best­selling ap­parel line and a new branded set of head­phones.

The nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion: projects where John­son isn’t nec­es­sar­ily front and cen­ter. “This is our next step,” Gar­cia says. “Let’s take own­er­ship, de­velop prop­er­ties and look into prop­er­ties that we can retell.” Over the next few years, Seven Bucks will roll out The Jan­son Di­rec­tive, star­ring WWE col­league John Cena, and Shazam!, a su­per­hero ac­tion ad­ven­ture.

The name Seven Bucks is an in­side joke, a re­minder of a bleak pe­riod early in his ca­reer, when he was cut from the Cana­dian Foot­ball League and ar­rived broke in Tampa in Oc­to­ber 1995.

“I had a five, a one and change,” he re­calls of his net worth, adding that as an op­ti­mist, “I rounded up to seven.”

Now his net worth is closer to $165 mil­lion. It’s a jour­ney that, he claims, puts him right on time. “What I’ve learned from [Dis­ney CEO] Bob Iger is when you’re go­ing to do some­thing right with global ap­peal,” John­son says, “it’s go­ing to take time—a decade, two decades, pos­si­bly more.” What will the next two decades look like? Fit­tingly, he speaks like a hash­tag: “It’s lim­it­less.”

1 Box-of­fice gross is pro­jected.

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