Pay Disparity on the Silver Screen

On Behalf of | January 29, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Think fast: Can you name three pictures in which the actor Jeremy Renner has appeared?

I ask this question because: (1) I wonder if I am uniquely out-of-step with pop culture; and (2) Renner is at the center of a growing conversation about Hollywood’s gendered pay gap. Due to the recent Sony leaks, we learned that  Renner — still not quite a household name, in my book — was nonetheless paid more in back-end compensation than Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, his co-star in 2013’s American Hustle. According to the leaked information, Lawrence and actress Amy Adams were both paid less in back-end than their male co-stars for Hustle.

The Renner-Lawrence pay disparity isn’t the only one that has Hollywood buzzing. Earlier this month, Oscar-winner Charlize Theron made headlines when she won a $10 million pay boost after she learned that co-star Chris Hemsworth was offered more than her for the sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. More broadly, surveys show that Hollywood’s brightest female stars routinely make less than their male counterparts: For example, Angelina Jolie was the highest paid female actress in 2013, but tied for only ninth-place overall.

A number of commentators have used these examples to highlight the importance of pay transparency, which remains the exception rather than the rule among private employers, including Hollywood studios.  We’ve discussed what pay transparency might mean for both women and for businesses on this blog as well. (Last spring, President Obama signed an executive order making it illegal for federal contractors to retaliate against workers who discuss their pay, and requiring contractors to submit pay information to the Department of Labor.)

I was interested to read a Southern California Public Radio interview on the pay issue with former Disney studios executive Nina Jacobson, a producer whose credits include “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the “Hunger Games” series. Jacobson pointed to precedent as an overall driver of pay disparity:

“[W]hat happens is that history becomes embedded in the process and dictates the future. So if you have historical differences in what men and women have been paid, and if precedent becomes the driver that is underlying most deals — even if you decide that you’re going to pay somebody differently than they were paid on their last gig — you’re still basing your new deal on their old deals. Historical quotes and historical biases in what men and women get paid become codified, and it’s hard to break them. Studios don’t look at pay equality as their priority in making deals on movies. Profitability is their priority.”

It’s hard to see how profitability accounts for the Renner/Lawrence disparity. I did a quick survey of their box office totals on one industry website, which claimed that Renner had a leading role in six films with a total domestic box office of $283 million, while Lawrence had a leading role in nine films with a total domestic box office of $1.3 billion.