It recently came out that All the Money in the World star Michelle Williams was paid less than $1,000 for reshoots where her co-star Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million.
You might argue that the circumstances are unique. Williams said she willingly did the reshoots for a lower salary because it was all in the service of replacing child rapist Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer. Wahlberg instead clearly saw an opportunity to force money out of the filmmakers and went for it.
But this unusual situation keeps with the trend of how men in cinema are paid more and women paid less.
Let’s look at some other examples. A lack of franchise releases may have knocked Jennifer Lawrence off the top-earner lists for 2017 but she’s usually the best-paid actress in the world. She made $46 million in 2016 mainly from the final Hunger Games film and Passengers. This sounds like an impressive figure until it’s compared to overall 2016 highest-earning actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s $64.5 million in the same year.
Let’s take Scarlett Johansson. She was the only film actress to join Lawrence in the 2015 edition of Forbes’ Celebrity 100. This was only because Johansson benefited from a rare fair deal in Hollywood where she earned the same amount as her co-stars Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Diane Keaton did not receive back-end pay for her lead role in Something’s Gotta Give while Jack Nicholson did. Gwyneth Paltrow has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the wage gap between her and Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man films. Even Meryl Streep gets paid less than her co-stars.
There’s an important link between the pay gap and the sexual harassment which the #MeToo movement/hashtag has formed in response to. Harassment can contribute to the pay gap in a couple of different ways. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, abusive behaviour can create occupational segregation that forces women out of the film industry, decreasing women’s overall earnings. Some women may have gravitated to safer female-dominated fields which historically earn less than positions in male-dominated careers.
Harassing environments can also cause women’s productivity to suffer. Severe harassment can cause women to disengage from work or even leave their jobs.
To boil a multi-faceted issue down to one percentage point, it can be said that women in the US make 78 cents to every dollar a man makes. This goes down to 64 cents for black women and 56 cents for Hispanic women. This imbalance stands for representation of women of colour in film.
Actors of colour face the unproven myth that racially diverse films don’t travel. This is slowly being dismantled as the internationally minded Netflix has been finding big success with diverse original content.
We don’t need extreme examples like Williams and Wahlberg to illustrate this. All we need are laptop spreadsheets. The budgets and contracts for movies always shaved off money where they could. That usually meant shaving a lot off the wages for actresses in a cultural context where that’s acceptable.
But now it’s getting a lot less acceptable after the Golden Globes. Some of the industry’s most important women spelt out the deliberately awkward truth. The awards turned into a display not just of power but of anger against the hypocrisy of the men in the room. It gave rise to a few things. Oprah gave a speech that had some on social media unironically encouraging her to run for the US Presidency in 2020. There was also another #MeToo moment about James Franco.
But there was something else too. The women in the industry taking to the stage were keenly aware that most of them had been vastly underpaid. The men who made the real money were left shrinking in the corner.
The solution here relies on regulation. Different countries have different laws on equality and forcing film studios to give fair wages. It’s clear that the legislation that exists in the US at presented is ineffective and too limited. Standards need to be put in place and higher-ups who fail to meet those standards need to face serious consequences for their failures. The system will only be fixed if we grasp it with both hands and force it right.