By Nina Metz
Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Mo’Nique (Oscar winners each) have all spoken on record about their experience. In a more roundabout fashion, so has Tracee Ellis Ross, who picked up a Golden Globe this year for her performance on Black-ish.
In her Oscar acceptance speech earlier this week, Frances McDormand championed the idea of an inclusion rider, wherein stars can use their leverage to ensure producers hire a larger number of actors otherwise marginalised in Hollywood. That’s great.
(Even if Netflix has been the first to openly reject the idea: CEO Reed Hastings said this week he would rather just talk about inclusion than contractually agree to it.)
But just as important is what people are getting paid.
Especially when research shows that among box office hits, movies about women outearn movies about men. And with Black Panther set to hit the $1 billion mark in a matter of days, it’s obvious movies starring black actors have the potential to make big money.
Here’s Viola Davis in a recent interview with Porter magazine explaining why pay disparities are an issue: “If Caucasian women are getting 50 percent of what men are getting paid, we’re not even getting a quarter of what white women are getting paid.” Actresses like Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman deserve everything they get, she said. “But guess what — I deserve it too. So does Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry. We’ve put the work in too.”
Davis is at the top echelon of actors who are both famous and respected — and even she’s experiencing this. So is Spencer, who revealed at a Sundance panel in January that when she and Jessica Chastain teamed up to star in a comedy together, she had to spell out the realities: “I told her my story and we talked numbers and she was quiet, and she had no idea that that’s what it was like for women of colour.”
When Chastain negotiated her contract, she stipulated that Spencer get the same deal. And it worked; Spencer got five times her previous rate. “She had been underpaid for so long,” Chastain said on Twitter. “When I discovered that, I realised that I could tie her deal to mine to bring up her quote. Men should start doing this with their female co-stars.”
Why are black actresses — in-demand actresses who win awards — not getting the same deals as their peers?
“One thing we’ve learned from social-psychological research in the last 10 or 15 years is that when we make decisions about people — when we evaluate others — we have biases that carry a lot of history that we don’t consciously process or recognise,” according to Ohio State University’s Timothy A. Judge, who studies how and why people are successful in their careers.
“So what you often see is this neurotic tendency to profess one set of values — fairness — but when you look at their decisions, there’s this discrepancy.”
Four years ago, Judge published a study called Age, Gender and Compensation: A Study of Hollywood Movie Stars and the disparities abound.
He looked at 265 Hollywood film actors who had at least one leading role in a movie between 1968 and 2008, and accounted for mitigating factors such as experience, where they appeared in the credits and their earnings history. Here’s what he found: For women, earnings increased until the age of 34 and then they dropped off, whereas men saw their earnings increase until age 51 and then remain stable thereafter.
“One thing we did not do in that study was look at pay for African-American actors or other people of colour, and that was because there were not nearly enough actors” in starring roles. In other words, the sample size wasn’t big enough to be statistically significant. Let that sink in. There weren’t enough actors of colour in starring roles to qualify for the study. And in fact, I couldn’t find anyone who has done a comprehensive research about black actresses and what they’re paid.
“I would be pretty surprised,” Judge said, “if we did an analysis looking at race or ethnicity and didn’t find a similar result to our age and gender study. We have a lot of evidence that Hollywood isn’t any different than other industries. It’s a hard truth to confront. The problem is when we” — in this case, studios and producers — “don’t believe that these biases are affecting decisions.”
Let’s talk about Mo’Nique, who was recently offered $500,000 to do a comedy special for Netflix. She thought she deserved more; Netflix felt otherwise and declined to negotiate. So Mo’Nique went public, asked fans to boycott the streaming platform and posted the details of Netflix’s offer on Instagram.
The proposed terms would bar her from doing another special for one year, and after that Netflix would have first right of refusal. She also wouldn’t be allowed to perform any of the material from the special for two years (on camera or radio); after that, she would still have to get permission from Netflix to do those jokes at all.
There’s a reason Netflix puts these restrictions in place: They want the special to be exclusive. But you affect a comedian’s ability to make money when you tell them they can’t go on TV and tell their own jokes. Mo’Nique has said this played into her decision to reject Netflix’s first (and only) offer. She also knows Netflix has paid other comedians more. Millions more.
Amy Schumer, for one. “According to a source, Schumer was initially paid about $11 million for her special,” Variety reported last year. And that was just her initial deal. “She received significantly more compensation after she raised the question of fairness relative to the (Chris) Rock and (Dave) Chappelle deals,” which were even higher.
Mo’Nique’s call for a boycott (which was mostly ignored or derided) was probably a strategic mistake.
“It’s hard to get people on board when you’re saying, ‘I don’t like the deal I got so you should boycott,’” said Imani M. Cheers, the author of The Evolution of Black Women in Television: Mammies, Matriarchs and Mistresses. “If she would have said, ‘I think this is a larger issue and I am one example,’ I think it might have been received differently.”
But something interesting happens (and by interesting I mean not surprising) when we look at how Hollywood determines a performer’s worth. While you’d think the mindset is all business, the reality is much fuzzier.
Mark Wahlberg is a good example because we know specific numbers. Forbes makes a list every year of overpaid actors. Two years ago he was on it. Last year, he topped the list at No. 1. I want to stress this: He was the most overpaid actor based on box office — which for this discussion is a similar metric to selling out arenas because it tells you: Is this person drawing audiences?
Last year, Wahlberg was paid $5 million to appear in All the Money in the World. His co-star Michelle Williams was paid $625,000. Producers decided Wahlberg was worth $5 million even though the movie was unlikely to appeal to fans of his Transformers and Ted films. Even though his co-star had twice the Oscar nominations on her resume. Even though he is demonstrably not a good return on investment. (Domestically the movie has made only half of its budget back so far at $25 million.)
On the face of it, paying Wahlberg $5 million makes no business sense. In the “what have you done lately” test, he scores badly — but regardless, he made eight times more than his female co-star. He (and/or his reps) are hard-line dealmakers, as we saw with fees paid for the movie’s reshoots; Wahlberg’s $1.5 million to Williams’ $1,000.
When negotiating with white male actors, producers and executives are sometimes basing their math on (generous) wishful thinking. Despite all evidence to the contrary. Black women are not getting that same benefit of the doubt — and in fact it’s the opposite.
Producer Nina Jacobson, who used to head up Disney’s Buena Vista studio, has called this phenomenon “bias disguised as knowledge.”
So while it might seem logical to think that in Mo’Nique’s case, Netflix is just looking at the numbers, we’ve seen how Hollywood picks and chooses who they hold to that standard.
“I applaud Mo’Nique for speaking out about what she felt was pay inequality,” said Cheers, who is also a professor of media at George Washington University. “When Mo’Nique makes the statement that she’s the most decorated comedian and she’s mocked, it’s appalling because no-one even questions when a man states his worth and what he thinks he should be paid.”
Women are pegged as difficult when they bring up the pay gap, and that goes double for women of colour. Judge told me about another study where he looked at the correlation between agreeableness and earnings. “And what we found is that being disagreeable greatly benefits men, but it doesn’t benefit women. So this double standard, we have proof of it.
“And knowing that, if you’re an agent representing an African-American actress, would you argue that they should engage in Mark Wahlberg tactics? Our data suggests, you can try — but it’s not going to do you any good.” —Chicago Tribune/TNS
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