Make art or make money — that’s been the conundrum for A-list actors going back to the days of the first talkies. And unlike the tumult that has rocked the movie business in the past year, that is one Hollywood tradition that has remained entrenched and unmovable. The five top-earning Oscar nominated actors this year made a combined $41 million over the past 12 months—less than half of the $87.5 million the highest-paid actor Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) earned last year. Only one of them, Viola Davis, made last year’s lists of top-earning actors or actresses, and it was thanks to her television role on How To Get Away With Murder, not her nominated starturn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

“In a world where accomplished performers have decent choices, the material and the talented director often mean more than the money,” says Ken Ziffren, a partner at leading entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham. “To get nominated, even though they may not win, by SAG or for the Oscars, can also materially improve economics in the future.” The top-earning Oscar contender, Sacha Baron Cohen, illustrates the dichotomy between the popular and the films deemed award-worthy. He is nominated for two Academy Awards on Sunday night: One for his role as political activist Abbie Hoffman in the drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, and the other for writing the adapted screenplay for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a sequel to the hit 2006 comedy, Borat, which Amazon acquired for $80 million.

The statuettes he’s up for may look the same, but the money he made doing the two films couldn’t be more different: He earned about $20 million for Borat — twenty times the $1 million he received for Trial. The yawning pay discrepancy illustrates the choice that industry players have had to make for decades: do a big-budget blockbuster for fat cash or a prestige film for acclaim and, less cynically, the love of the craft. In rare cases, as with Borat, the two can overlap, but more often than not, the performers vying for an Oscar aren’t taking those roles for the money.

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