1. Oprah Winfrey
The media mogul’s earnings fell by a staggering $125 million from last year. However, even with the drop, she remains the highest earner on the list, just inching out director Michael Bay. It’s been a challenging year for Winfrey, who signed off from her 25-year syndicated show and immediately turned her attention to struggling cable network OWN. The bulk of the earnings dive comes from lost income on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but her diversified portfolio includes O: The Oprah Magazine, spin-off shows like The Dr. Oz Show and a radio deal with Sirius. She does not earn a salary at OWN, which has faced ratings disappointments and financial issues since it premiered in Jan. 2011. As chairman and CEO of the joint venture with Discovery Communications, she hopes a recent restructuring, new programming and a distribution deal with Comcast will turn the network around.
2. Michael Bay
Bay nabs the title of top-earning director this year thanks to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The 3-D film brought in $1.1 billion at the box office. Bay has a great deal on the films, taking a solid chunk of the profits. He also earns big from Transformer toys. Adding to Bay’s coffers this year: a Transformers ride at Universal Studios in Hollywood. Bay has earned the right to finally do a small film. Pain & Gain has a budget well under $50 million.
3. Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s DreamWorks moved into television in a big way this year with four new shows, including Terra Nova and Smash. On top of that, the prolific producer stepped back into directing with two movies that hit theaters last Christmas, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. Both films were nominated for Oscars.
4. Jerry Bruckheimer
Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was one of the highest-grossing films of 2011, bringing in $1 billion at the global box office. That was a nice change from 2010 for Bruckheimer, when his two big films, Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice stumbled at the box office. In the new Hollywood, though, even Bruckheimer can’t get away with an out-of-control budget. Disney made everyone take big cuts for The Lone Ranger.
5. Dr. Dre
The ageless super-producer’s latest hit isn’t a song, but rather a line of headphones. In August handset maker HTC paid $300 million for a 51% stake in Beats by Dr. Dre, the headphone company he co-founded with Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine in 2006. Each owned about a third of the company, pocketing about $100 million apiece, before taxes, from last summer’s deal.
6. Tyler Perry
Perry continues to be a busy, well-paid director/producer/writer/actor. His low-budget films, like the recent Good Deeds have built-in audiences and don’t need to earn a ton of money to become profitable. Perry’s most successful film was 2009’s Madea Goes to Jail, which earned $90 million. He also has a successful TV empire that includes House of Payne, Meet the Browns and For Better or Worse.
7. Howard Stern
Dwelling in the walled garden of satellite radio has been good for Stern’s bank account, and it’s probably spared him some FCC fines, but you can tell he misses being part of the broader culture. A new role as a judge on America’s Got Talent gives him some extra visibility, along with a reported $15 million a year. It also gives him something to do with the free time he gained after signing a new contract that pays him less money in exchange for fewer days on the radio. Stern’s relationship with Sirius appears to be cooling, and his defeat in a lawsuit against his employer over unpaid bonuses won’t help.
8. James Patterson
There’s a reason Patterson’s earnings just keep going up: Every year, he seems to write more books. In 2011, he released 14 titles, a group that includes adult thrillers and fantasy/sci-fi novels aimed at younger readers. A platoon of co-writers help to supplement his output. An adaptation of his “I, Alex Cross” is in the works, with Tyler Perry stepping to the role previously played by Morgan Freeman.
9. George Lucas
Thanks to the massive success of the Star Wars franchise, Lucas earns more money just by waking up in the morning than many people will see in a lifetime. But Lucas plows much of that money back into his company Industrial Light and Magic, which provides effects for movies like Battleship and The Avengers. Lucas’ passion project, Red Tails about the Tuskegee airmen, fizzled at the box office, bringing in only $50 million.
10. Simon Cowell
Hits like American Idol don’t grow on trees, as Simon Cowell discovered this year. The British music producer and TV impresario made headlines when he promised his new show, The X Factor, would at least match his old talent show in the ratings. It didn’t, but the U.K. version of the show minted a breakout act, One Direction, for Cowell’s label, Syco Records.