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Hollywood’s Pay Gap Shame: Why Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg Are Just the Beginning

The "All The Money In The World" headlines are the start of the next big controversy Hollywood won't be able to avoid.

“All the Money in the World”

The story is shocking. Michelle Williams — front and center at the Golden Globes for her nominated performance anchoring “All The Money In the World” — made $80 a day in per diem for the film’s reshoots, while co-star Mark Wahlberg squeezed $1.5 million out of Sony as it endeavored to replace accused child rapist Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer. The attention-grabbing headline is likely the first of many that will shine a light on Hollywood’s gender and racial pay inequality.

On the surface, the circumstances surrounding Wahlberg and Williams’ additional photography fees are unique. Sony and Ridley Scott needed to quickly remove Spacey from its major holiday release, and Wahlberg held Sony over a barrel. Williams, like so many involved with the movie, was motivated to salvage the project and take positive action in the wake of the avalanche of ugliness dominating the film industry following the Harvey Weinstein revelations. “I said I’d be wherever they needed me, whenever they needed me,” Williams told USA Today. “And they could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted. Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort.”

In general, the actor and actress have taken very different career paths. Over the last decade, Wahlberg made conscious effort to become one of Hollywood’s few eight-figure salaried actors and carve out a real place of power and influence for his Closest to the Hole production company. Williams, a four-time Oscar nominee, has done everything she can to get the best-possible roles that allow her to grow as an actress. Yet, in the unique circumstances of “All The Money In The World” and the contrasting approaches to salary and career, there also lies a fundamental difference between men and women in front of the camera.

The Scarcity Model

Jennifer Lawrence'Mother!' press conference, Toronto International Film Festival, Canada - 10 Sep 2017

Jennifer Lawrence

Stacey Newman/REX/Shutterstock

For the last three generations, actresses came of age in a time of great scarcity for three-dimensional women’s roles; this particular brass ring is a career-defining challenge. Beyond any gratitude mentality, basic economics tells us that competition drives down price. (Not to mention the nationwide gender pay gap; according to the most recent American Association of University Women study, it stands at 80 percent and is on track to close in 2116.)

Jennifer Lawrence gave voice to this perspective when she wrote about discovering, as a result of the Sony hack, that she made less money than male co-stars.

“I didn’t get mad at Sony,” wrote Lawrence. “I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.” Later in the piece she added: “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.'”

A Market Shift

“Black Panther”

At the height of the Hollywood studio system, top actresses were bigger draws than male stars; that meant female-centric movies, higher pay, and some degree of power in deciding roles. That radically changed in the second half of the 20th century. As the great critic Molly Haskell beautifully captured in her aptly titled book, women went from “Reverence to Rape.”

2017 is arguably the most important year for women-centric stories in Hollywood since that shift, as the success of “Wonder Woman” and an award season dominated by female-led stories has proved to be critically and financially popular — a less-than-shocking concept, considering 51 percent of the audience is female.

For actors of color, pay issues have an even steeper climb. At a time when Hollywood’s bottom line is increasingly dominated by international box office, they face the (unproven) myth that racially diverse films “don’t travel.” It’s slowly being dismantled as the data-driven and internationally minded Netflix demonstrates they believe the opposite is true as they spend billions on diverse original content.

There’s reason to hope 2018 could be a turning point. White male stories increasingly are viewed as stale, and early word out of Sundance is that not only is this one of its most racially diverse festivals — which sets the tone for the year’s non-blockbuster moviegoing — but also the best films are in its diverse offerings.

“Black Panther” is poised to send “Wonder Woman”-like shockwaves through Hollywood in February, as Disney (which now owns basically all franchises) clearly sees the value in diversity as witnessed with the “Star Wars” relaunch, “Coco,” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” Meanwhile, the incredible success of “Get Out” has filmmakers of color like Dee Rees and Justin Simien preparing their unique spin on low-budget, high-profit genre fare.

Shame and Survival

Natalie Portman and Ron Howard

At some point today, virtually every producer and studio production executive will open their computers and ask, “Where and how can I shave X dollars off this budget?” No one asks how they can pay actors more —but the last 72 hours could flip the script on that scenario. Sunday night’s Golden Globes was about many different things, but ultimately it was a display of female power.

Some of the industry’s most important women claimed the stage and didn’t mince words as they created moments of inspiration and intentionally awkward truth. Women in the industry felt empowered — and angry toward the hypocrisy of the men in the room. In the case of a star like James Franco, it led to another social media #MeToo moment, but it also gave rise to something more unusual.

Women in the industry — who are significantly represented in studio executive and producer ranks — were intensely aware that most of the women on that stage (except Oprah) had been vastly underpaid. The men — shrinking in the corner, paying lip service to 50/50 by 2020 pledge — were the ones making real money, which in the entertainment business equals power and respect.

The truth is, we don’t need examples like Williams/Wahlberg in “All The Money In The World.” Proving egregious cases of pay inequality don’t require Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow dedicating six months of reporting; the evidence sits on laptop spreadsheets. Budgets and contracts pass through many hands, and many went to work on Monday determined to use their power to highlight the problem. In most cases, the unspoken threat was simple: shame.

This morning was a rotten one to be a Sony executive. After moving heaven and earth to expensively scrub Spacey from its movie, the story is now about Wahlberg’s jaw-dropping greed and attempts to mask the glaring inequality of pay. This no doubt has also sent a ripple effect through WME, which represents both Williams and Wahlberg and has already contended with the Adam Venit problem.

The question I’ve heard from multiple sources is, can CAA and WME really keep their stranglehold on top talent if they knowingly negotiate such pay imbalances? One casting director predicted the next Michael Ovitz or Ari Emanuel will be the one who builds a pit bull rep for getting young, diverse stars paid. The worst nightmare for the now Wall Street-funded corporate agencies is when someone like a Jay-Z sets up shop and fills the role himself.

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