Today, Vulture published an article detailing the inner workings of payment practices in the television industry. Comprised of interviews with two dozen industry professionals, the portrait Vulture paints is of an industry currently trying to enjoy a massive boom in diversity, profit, and production — all while looking over their shoulders in anticipation of an equally massive bust. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have disrupted the predictable patterns of network and cable television funding, and because they do so without transparency in regard to profits, the industry is in a state of seemingly blind competition.
“Right now everybody is like, ‘Yay! Free-for-all!’ because nobody outside of the deepest, deepest inner circles knows how anybody monetizes anything anymore,” Vampire Diaries creator Julie Plec says in the quote that closes the article. “It’s like a sleight-of-hand trick. It either makes complete sense and there’s plenty of money to go around — or it’s a total house of cards, where a good sneeze could tear it down.”
The state of seemingly limitless demand is in some ways a creative dream, as it creates jobs for people who may have previously been blocked from employment by the old boys networks that once dominated television production. But it’s also a creative nightmare, as no one seems to completely understand how or why they’re getting paid what they’re getting paid.
But even as Vulture contemplated the possibility that television in the age of streaming is building empires on houses of cards, actual House of Cards star Robin Wright announced that she had negotiated her way to equal pay with her costar Kevin Spacey by threatening to go public with her salary. The topic of gender equality did not directly factor into Vulture’s analysis, but Wright’s statements offer a timely example of the kind of opportunity a bubble like this can offer to those who are historically wheeled and dealed out of fair compensation.
When money in the industry is tight, funding deficits are used as an excuse not to pay women fairly — even a major star like Amy Adams was pushed to pick between working and wages for American Hustle. So the time to make steps toward equal pay is now, while no one in charge of financing can reasonably deny that money is flush. If Hulu is going to throw $4 million for 10 episodes with a recognizable but hardly A-list actor like Jeffrey Donovan, then, goddamn it, networks should be able to compensate female leads equally with their male counterparts. And it should be said that while white actresses have received the most press in the fight to be compensated fairly, the same tactics could just as easily be useful for performers of color, who are even more likely to be affected by industry-wide inequality. Find an agent who believes in your value as much as Kevin Costner’s agent believes that turning down $500,000 will result in a better offer, and set some standards now while the flow of cash and opportunity is rising.
For anyone who is not a straight white man in Hollywood, the challenge of the next few years is to raise the bar while no one is too worried about the foundation crumbling beneath it. And while you’re at it, better to follow Robin Wright’s example and make the new standards public — because if Netflix has been keeping its content creators in the dark about their material value even as the bubble grows, I certainly wouldn’t want to enter the negotiating room without precedents when the bubble bursts.