Franchises pay big. But originality, when it works, really hits the jackpot.

That's one conclusion to draw from Vanity Fair's fascinating guesstimate at Hollywood's top 40 creative earners of 2010.

The high end of the chart is dominated by three movies, none of them sequels – Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Inception. Their creators evidently didn't take gigantic fees upfront, so their share in the profits was consequently stratospheric.

The rest of the list is chock full of stars, directors and producers cashing in on retreads of previous hits, such as Paranormal Activity 2, The Hangover 2, Sherlock Holmes 2, Iron Man 2, Why Did I Get Married Too?, Men in Black 3, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Breaking Dawn Part 1 and 2, the final double entry in the Twilight franchise.

In at number one, to no one's surprise, is the king of the world himself, James Cameron, consoling himself for missing out on that Oscar to his ex-wife with mind-boggling personal earnings of $248m (£153m). That's primarily his slice of Avatar's $1.95bn worldwide box office, plus DVD, pay TV and merchandising revenues. It doesn't even include the $50m he already earned from the film in 2009.

Alice in Wonderland is responsible for two entries in the top 10, Johnny Depp at number two and Tim Burton at six. Burton took $50m from the film's worldwide gross of $1.02bn.

Depp got $40m (not bad for what was technically a supporting role, but his face was on the poster). He supplemented that with a $35m upfront fee for reprising his Jack Sparrow schtick in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Plus he pocketed a rather outrageous $20m for his puffy contribution to Euro-financed flop The Tourist, for which Angelina Jolie's $19m co-starring fee also earns her 21st place in the chart.

Back at the top, Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio take fourth and fifth spots thanks largely to Inception. Nolan netted $69m and DiCaprio $59m of the $823m gross. DiCaprio also got $3m in loose change from the profits of Shutter Island.

Martin Scorsese's $3.5m back-end from that film, plus his $10m upfront fee for directing the 3D kids movie Hugo Cabret, wins him 32nd place, a film-making legend incongruously sandwiched between Katherine Heigl and Steve Carell.

Those lower reaches of the top 40 are where most of the surprises are. Who knew that Heigl was worth $15m a movie, the fee she earned for cop comedy One for the Money? Or that Vince Vaughn could command $17.5m for The Dilemma, more than the $15m than Robert Downey Jr earned for the Sherlock Holmes sequel? Although after the terrible reviews and limp US opening for The Dilemma last month, that may prove to be Vaughn's high watermark.

Comedy may not figure much in the Oscar hoopla, but it's clearly where the money is. Comedy auteurs Adam Sandler, Todd Phillips and Tyler Perry occupy 7th, 8th and 17th place respectively, while actors Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon also command healthy salaries for comedic roles, along with the aforementioned Heigl, Vaughn and Carell. Even Eddie Murphy (remember him?) sneaks in at 40, for starring alongside Stiller in the action comedy Tower Heist.

Murphy is one of the list's old-timers. Steven Spielberg is an annual fixture right near the top (number three this year) thanks to the $50m he gets from Universal theme park royalties, enhanced this year by $20m for directing War Horse.

Tom Cruise is there too, though perhaps it's a sign of how far his star has waned that he "only" earned $12.5m for writing, producing and starring in the fourth Mission: Impossible movie, Ghost Protocol. Will Smith is still riding high, however, with a $20m fee for coming back to the Men in Black franchise, and a tidy $5.5m in profits from producing The Karate Kid.

Nicolas Cage and, perhaps surprisingly, Vin Diesel, prove their durability as action stars, with Diesel earning $15m for producing and starring in the 5th Fast and Furious film, Fast Five, and Cage earning a total of $21.5m for four films, including Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

It remains to be seen whether Taylor Lautner, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson will still be hanging around the Vanity Fair chart a few years hence. A double payday of $12.5m apiece per film for Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2 wins them 9th, 13th and 15th places respectively.

In 2009, it was Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in a similar position because of their fees for Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2. But somewhat surprisingly, despite the first instalment earning $946m worldwide, no one involved in the film had enough share of the profits to win them a place of this year's chart.

Also absent is the year's top grossing film, Toy Story 3, which grossed $1.06bn, and How to Train Your Dragon, which earned $495m. Shrek Forever After, which grossed $750m, only figures with a $4m bonus paid to Murphy. This is why the Hollywood studios love animation. Only Despicable Me, with a worldwide gross of $541m, seems to have paid out a substantial back-end to producer Chris Meledandri, who earned $17.5m in profit share for 24th place in the chart.


Adam Dawtrey

The GuardianTramp

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