Should Actors’ Contract Negotiations Be Public Like Athletes’?

L-R: Stephen Curry, Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim, James Harden Photo: Ezra Shaw/CBS/Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Last week, the latest front opened in what you might call Hollywood’s Parity Wars. Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left the CBS show Hawaii Five-O after reportedly seeking, and being denied, equal pay to their white co-stars, Scott Caan and Alex O’Loughlin. In doing so, they joined a growing group of women and actors of color who have spoken out against the entrenched pay disparity that exists in both television and film, including Natalie Portman, Hillary Swank, Amy Adams, Robin Wright, Taraji P. Henson, and many more.

At the same time the Hawaii Five-O boondoggle was boondoggling, an interesting process was happening: NBA free agency. A new concept — the $200 million club — began to take root in professional basketball: Two-time MVP Stephen Curry signed a contract that will pay him $201 million over the next five years to remain with the reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors, and then just days later, the All-Pro James Harden topped Curry’s record deal, with the Houston Rockets guaranteeing their star guard $228 million over the next six years.

What’s notable for an industry observer isn’t the size of these deals: It’s the fact that, like just about all sports contracts, they’re public knowledge. Anyone with internet access can determine with a Google search how much any of their favorite athletes make, and then they can compare this information across teams, leagues, and races. The reasons why these contracts are public knowledge is complicated — it has to do with league salary rules, including caps and luxury taxes, as well as the inherent value for athletes to be able to compare their earnings to each other — but it raises a fascinating question: What if salaries in TV and film were public as well? Could we avoid the disparities and injustices that seem to plague entertainment? Or is comparing athletes and actors apples and oranges, considering the hugely different nature of their respective businesses?

Jen Chaney: When it comes to the NBA, and other professional sports, too, the players’ unions allow that salary information to become public because, as you suggested, Kevin, it gives the players negotiating power. As a general rule, I think that kind of transparency is advantageous to what I’ll call “the workers” in any environment. I’ve written a little bit about this issue in the past, and I’ve been told by people in Hollywood that what actors are getting paid is not usually a secret to the people working on a particular film or TV show. That information gets shared among agents and managers for the same reason it gets shared with regard to sports figures: so the playing field is established and actors can advocate for a raise or walk away from a job if they feel it’s not paying them adequately. Emma Stone talked about this recently when she said some of her male co-stars have taken pay cuts so that she — who was being offered a lower fee — could have parity with them. She and her co-stars could not have done that if they hadn’t been aware of what everyone else was getting paid on those projects.

The value of having that information be more public is clear for the actors: Everything is laid out there on the table so they know who is getting what and can use that information to advocate for themselves without the need for any guessing games. (This may not be good news for agents since their ability to find out all this information would no longer be as valuable.) I also think it would be a good public service around issues akin to the Hawaii Five-O situation, where we can blatantly see patterns where people of color or women are not being paid at the same level. Transparency is crucial to addressing those problems.

What’s hard, though, is that the reasons why some actors get paid more than others are often vague at best. If you’re a player like Steph Curry, your stats and your draw as the star player on the Warriors provide data points that can be used in negotiation. If you work in, say, government, where all salaries are made public, there are specific salary ranges that apply at certain levels. Seniority works in your favor.

But all actors have are their last couple of quotes, i.e. what they were paid for their most recent projects and a perception of their appeal, which is just that: a perception. If an actor was in a movie, the box-office success of that film can be a data point. But if she was in a super-buzzy Netflix show, how does an actor demonstrate that it’s a big deal when Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers? Show the studio all the tweets from people who loved her character? It’s tricky.

I’m still in favor of the kind of transparency you’re describing, which I think would have to be spearheaded and pushed for by the Screen Actors Guild. But I also think the way that actors’ salaries are determined is a much more ambiguous process, and that’s part of the problem that would need to be addressed, too.

Joe Adalian: I think Jen’s last point is key to this discussion: Actor paydays are determined by factors far less clear-cut than those of athletes. There are metrics in Hollywood, too, and in some parts of the industry, it is possible to tie salary directly to performance. If you’re a solo recording star, or part of a band where all members contribute equally, it’s pretty easy to negotiate a deal that gives you $2 for every digital download or sale of a CD. You sing, people pay, you get your cut. But TV (and movies) are different. They’re almost all ensembles of a sort, whether small (like Five-O’s four-person main crew) or massive (the small army of Orange Is the New Black regulars), and not every part of said ensemble is equal. And I don’t mean “not equal” in terms of perceived star power, though that’s also a fact of life in Hollywood.

I’m talking about the fact that even when there’s a core ensemble on a show, not every actor is asked or expected to carry the same creative weight. Someone may appear in every episode and take up roughly as much screen time, but from the point of view of the writers — and the networks paying for the show — that actor simply isn’t as crucial. In the case of Five-O, New York Times TV critic Mike Hale — a consistent viewer of the CBS drama— made the case that no matter how beloved Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are among fans of the show, they simply haven’t been at the show’s core. “For better or worse, Mr. Kim’s and Ms. Park’s characters — Lt. Chin Ho Kelly and his cousin, Officer Kono Kalakaua — are definitively supporting characters,” Hale wrote. “They’re onscreen as much as the leads, and they get their own story lines. But the show is built around the bantering, bromantic, Lucy-and-Desi relationship between Steve and his sergeant, Danny (a.k.a., Danno) Williams (Mr. Caan).”

It’s this disparity that likely explains why CBS couldn’t bring itself to pay all four leads on Five-O the same amount of money. Salaries might not be public, but as Jen noted, agents are pretty darn good at figuring out who’s making what. Other agents would’ve found out, and they’d have used it as leverage the next time the co-stars of, say, NCIS: Los Angeles try to negotiate new deals. Adding another layer of transparency and making the salary figures public wouldn’t have changed CBS’s negotiating stance, not one bit.

Kyle Buchanan: I think the thing that might hinder that salary transparency in the movie world is that it’s no longer about earning a titanic upfront fee, as Jim Carrey did when he was paid $20 million for The Cable Guy. Nowadays, paychecks are derived from a complicated formula combining upfront pay, back-end deals (like a percentage of the film’s eventual box office), and sometimes an additional producer credit. And though some big stars used to make top quote even for mid-budget dramas, those movies are getting increasingly squeezed out of the marketplace, and the notion of a quote has become modular. Jennifer Lawrence is not charging Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! the same figure she charged Sony to co-star in Passengers.

The upside here can be vast for a star: If your movie is a hit and you took a reduced fee upfront in exchange for a big chunk of the back end, you could make many millions more than the traditional ceiling on upfront pay. However, I do think it turns salary transparency into something of a shell game: With so many variables that make up a paycheck, it’s harder to know where to look when comparing your salary to a co-star’s. Steve Carell and Emma Stone deserved equal pay on Battle of the Sexes, but did they negotiate as a team? Likely not, and if their contracts involved bonuses and back end that each star’s reps bargained for separately, there’s no guarantee they’ll earn the same amount when all is said and done.

Kevin Lincoln: I think one of the most interesting things you guys have touched on is the abstract quality of what actually makes an actor quote-unquote worth the money. It’s interesting: In sports, the matter of signing a player to a certain amount of money over a certain number of years is a process that comes with a great deal of uncertainty, risk management, and value judgement, but over time, a consensus opinion will form regarding whether that contract is good or bad — whether that player produced in accordance with the number of dollars they’re making, or whether they did not. And while there can be different opinions regarding what success means — for example, with the Golden State Warriors, it’s championship or bust — there’s still a clear metric by which it can be measured: winning.

Sports isn’t perfectly fair, not by a long shot — otherwise, Colin Kaepernick would be on a football team right now. But a reasonable valuation can be applied consistently across athletes’ performance. With actors, and the ultracomplicated ecosystems they’re a part of — which include directors, writers, crew, financiers, distributors, and a whole mess of unions — such a standard seems highly unlikely, especially when the precedent is obviously going to favor the people with more experience, access, and systemic power, a.k.a. white males. Do you think that’s true? Or is there a better way to handle this issue that has so far eluded the industry?

Maria Elena Fernandez: So very true. Salary negotiations for TV actors can seem completely arbitrary. What are the factors? Experience? Star power? Critical acclaim? How much does an Emmy nomination or win boost a salary? How are levels of raises established? There are no rules. And even white men aren’t immune from what can seem like really random decisions. Take Two and a Half Men. Chuck Lorre created that show with Charlie Sheen in mind. Even though there were two men in the title, and both men — Sheen and Jon Cryer — had an equal amount of screen time, Sheen was billed as the lead and came in with a higher salary, eventually making him the highest-paid actor on TV at $1.8 million an episode. During the course of the show, Sheen earned four Emmy nominations. Cryer, always considered a supporting player though his character was pivotal, won two Emmys and was nominated five other times. Even when Sheen imploded and was fired from the show, and Cryer was elevated to “lead” status, his highest salary on the show was $620,000. Ashton Kutcher, who was brought in to replace Sheen, earned $750,000 an episode. (Sheen then went on to star in an FX comedy, where he eventually made $2 million an episode.) Those at the top of the game are making so much money, are they going to be willing to play in a system where somehow it all becomes even and they give up this sense of status, privilege, and prestige? I doubt it.

JA: Maria is so right about just how random actors salaries can be in TV. Jeffrey Donovan makes around $175,000 per episode to star in Hulu’s Shut Eye, pulling down more coin than the per-episode fee Variety estimates Mandy Patinkin earns for Showtime’s hit Homeland ($150,000 per episode) or Scott Bakula makes for CBS’s NCIS: New Orleans. We don’t know exactly how many people watch Shut Eye, but it’s not exactly broken out as a buzz magnet, and odds are it’s almost certainly far less than the weekly tune-in for any show on CBS. But Hulu really wanted to be in business with Donovan and, before The Handmaid’s Tale, it was desperate to make a splash with a drama. Other networks were also said to be high on Donovan, making it easier for Hulu to give him what he wanted. And that, perhaps, is the real issue: Who’s making the decisions about which actors are “hot” and deserve that extra salary bump or piece of the back end? What sort of (possibly messed-up) notions do they have about what makes a star and who will put butts in seats? Fact is, TV networks (and streamers) are still dominated by white executives, despite some progress toward diversifying corporate suites. I think changing that fact would go a lot further toward closing the pay gap in Hollywood than publishing every actor’s salary.

JC: This is what these conversations always eventually circle back to: Who are the decision-makers, and are they the kinds of people who will be inclined to, for example, make Daniel Dae-Kim and Grace Parks the leads of their own series, thereby bumping up their salaries and making their quotes higher for whatever show or film offer may come next?

That’s the crux of what made that Hawaii Five-O issue so frustrating to so many. The fact that their characters may have been envisioned as supporting players invariably leads to the question: Well, why isn’t there more of an opportunity for them to be the leads? Ultimately, making salaries transparent isn’t something that should be done for the sake of public information. I see it as a one of many steps in the process toward ensuring that there’s more equity for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, and better representation onscreen as well. The two things are intertwined, which is why, as Joe noted, it’s so important to have producers and people at the executive level who really feel strongly about achieving those goals. You can be a white man and feel strongly about that, of course. But these issues will naturally resonate on a much deeper level with people who have dealt with them in their own lives and understand how important to see African-Americans, Asian-Americans, women, etc., taking center stage.

Television has been a little bit better on this front than movies; its landscape is so vast at this point that there’s bound to be better representation. But even on the TV side, the process of getting from greater inclusion to, say, Issa Rae getting paid Jeffrey Donovan money, is slow.

Should Actor Contract Negotiations Be Public Like Athletes’?