The wage gap is real. It exists in every industry, at every level of industry, but in the film industry the wage gap isn’t just a product of gender/racial bias, it’s also the result of a scaled compensation system that rewards stars more than anyone else. Professional sports, at least in the US, has largely dealt with this by creating systems with salary caps and revenue sharing agreements, but in film and TV compensation remains a cutthroat, every-person-for-themselves free for all.
There are two stories in the news right now about actresses seeking fair compensation. One is an anecdote from Taraji P. Henson’s memoir about how she got “sofa change” to appear in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the other is a lawsuit filed by Gabrielle Union, accusing BET of screwing around with the production schedule on Being Mary Jane in order to both squeeze more episodes out of her and also not have to pay her mandatory salary increases. And as these women are pulling back the curtain on compensation, another conversation is happening about parity and actors’ wages as wages for gigging actors have plummeted over the last decade.
Taraji P. Henson’s story is pretty familiar. An actor, coming off some heat from a buzzy project—in this case Hustle and Flow—goes into negotiations for a high profile movie, thinking she’s about to get a commensurate bump in salary only to get low-balled by the producers. And she doesn’t have a lot of negotiating power because she’s not quite a star yet and f*ck, it’s such a good project. So she takes the cheapskate offer because what else is there? Not being in this high profile movie?
As a woman and a woman of color, Henson has undoubtedly faced a steeper curve in salary negotiations than white/male actors. But there is some stuff in her accounting of Benjamin Button that is just sh*t all actors face. Like the concept of “paid in prestige”, which producers will use on anyone if they think they have the leverage (such as getting Jonah Hill for $60,000 for The Wolf of Wall Street because he wanted to work with Scorsese so badly).
Or Henson’s detail about having to pay for her own housing while shooting Button—Chris Evans had to pay for his own gym membership while filming The Avengers. Perks are harder to come by these days, and producers often trade them for salary increases, especially with lower-tier actors who don’t have strong bargaining positions. So I look at Henson’s story and I don’t necessarily see an issue that is strictly about how women in the industry are compensated, but how actors overall are compensated.
And the same loss of mid-level compensation affecting movies is hitting the TV side, too. As movie stars have flocked to TV—a move driven in part by shrinking film salaries—they’ve sucked up most of the money, and compensation for less famous supporting actors has gone down, just like it has in film. And most actors with healthy movie prospects, like Gabrielle Union, don’t want to work a full 22-26 episode season, locking up half their year and limiting their film opportunities—thus the prestige TV trend toward shorter seasons of 8-13 episodes—so they’re limiting the earning potential of their co-stars in another way, too.
Duana referred to Union’s situation as “DIRTY”, and it is a pretty low-down example of how contracts for even people with some negotiating power can be twisted. Union is contractually promised a raise before every new season of Being Mary Jane, but by cross-boarding seasons four and five (i.e., filming them simultaneously), they can avoid giving her the raise because they’re shooting as one season. And this is happening to Gabrielle Union, a known actor whose profile is as high as its ever been. Really, no one is immune to salary shenanigans.
Which is why it seems inevitable that eventually someone will propose a system not unlike pro sports with salary caps and revenue kickbacks meant to foster parity. We’ve accepted this as the norm for athletes, so why not movie stars? It’s already been suggested that movie stars consider using their bargaining power to help their third and fourth co-leads get better contracts. But it’s going to be really hard to get the top-flight stars to actually give up some of their own earning potential to help out the gigging actors lower down the ladder than they are—I can’t really see Jeremy “Not My Job” Renner taking an interest in what anyone else is making. Hollywood is not a team sport, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in salary negotiations.
Attached - Gabrielle Union at the London premiere of The Birth of a Nation and Taraji P. Henson at Good Morning America on Tuesday.