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'The Hunger Games' producer on why women get paid less in Hollywood

The hack of Sony's computer system revealed that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her main male counterparts, including Christian Bale (center), in
The hack of Sony's computer system revealed that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her main male counterparts, including Christian Bale (center), in "American Hustle."
Francois Duhamel

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When Sony Pictures was hacked late last year, much of the initial focus was directed towards Seth Rogen and James Franco's comedy, "The Interview," international cyber attacks and freedom of speech. But as time has passed, the conversation has shifted to something else revealed in the Sony e-mails: pay equity in Hollywood.

Documents and e-mails between Sony studio executives showed that some actresses were paid less than their male counterparts for substantially equal roles. In one instance, Jennifer Lawrence didn't make as much as her "American Hustle" co-stars, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper.

Those revelations provoked Charlize Theron to investigate her compensation for appearing in Universal Pictures' "The Hunstman." Upon learning that she was making significantly less than Chris Hemsworth, Theron negotiated a new deal for herself that brought her salary in line with her co-star's. 

To better understand salaries in the movie business, we spoke with former Disney Studios executive Nina Jacobson. While at Disney she worked on projects such as "The Sixth Sense," "Remember the Titans" and "Pirates of the Caribbean." She's now a producer with credits that include all the "Hunger Games" movies. We talked with Jacobson about the determining factors for salaries in Hollywood, Charlize Theron's laudable actions, and the vicious cycle behind Hollywood's gender pay gap.

Interview Highlights:

How is an actor's pay actually determined in Hollywood?

Precedent is the biggest factor, although increasingly in Hollywood it's much more of a free-for-all in which each movie is evaluated based on what it can afford. Obviously that's very subjective, but a number is chosen, and then as a producer your job is to back into that number, which means figuring out, I have this much money to spend, these are my most important roles, so how am I going to allocate the resources that I have? Sometimes on a movie where you're trying to get a caliber of talent that you really can't afford, you'll make a back-end driven deal.

Meaning you'll give them some share of the profits.

Yes, exactly. And that might allow you to put together a great ensemble cast on a movie that can't afford to pay all of those people their going rate.

But is there any reason why that way of thinking, that process of casting a movie, would yield a disparity between what men are paid and what women are paid?

Well, yes, because what 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.

So for all the talk in Hollywood about being progressive and supporting equal rights, when it comes to actually cutting the checks, fairness has nothing to do with it.

Generally speaking, it doesn't. Studios will take advantage of the historical pay gap because that means that you'll spend less money, and therefore, arguably, make more money. However, there are increasingly cases in which the talent just says, Well no, then I won't do it. I won't do it for less than my co-star, and I won't do it for what you want to pay me. And if the studio wants that person badly enough, they will cut the check, even if it breaks precedent. It doesn't make them very happy.

And that's what we've just seen with Charlize Theron. When she found out she was paid less than Chris Hemsworth for the prequel for "Snow White and the Huntsman," she thought she deserved to be paid equal to him, and I think she actually got the raise, right?

Yes, she did, and every girl in Hollywood applauded that outcome. She's not the only person who is making that case; there are others who are doing the same. I know that these fights are taking place on multiple movies at multiple studios, in part because of the fact that it's very much on people's minds right now. But even before that, your pay should be related to how valuable you are in a certain movie or television show. If your value is equal to your male counterpart, it's frankly completely unacceptable for you to be paid less just because you're a woman.

And I think we've found this with an actress you've worked with. In "American Hustle," Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than some of her male co-stars even though her part and her acting were just as important as any of the men she was working with.

Yes, and she did just as much of the work to sell the movie. She was every bit as much of a contributor to the success of that movie as any of her male counterparts, so how is it remotely fair for her to make less? It's not fair, and it's really not acceptable, and the fact that there is an outspoken conversation happening on the part of certain actresses in town is good for everybody.

We've talked a lot about actors, but one of the things that came out of the hacked e-mails at Sony was that Hannah Minghella, who has the job that is equivalent at Sony to Mike De Luca in production, was making $1 million less. So it's not just actors, but also women executives, women directors, women filmmakers, women screenwriters. Is there a disparity across all lines of business inside the business?

I think the likely answer is yes. Historical earnings obviously have an enormous influence in an executive job, just as much as an actor's quotes have a bearing on his or her salary going forward. An executive, or a writer or a director's quotes will dictate what their next gig is worth, and so I can't speak to any of the specifics in that case in terms of what were the historical precedents for the people involved.

As somebody who really wants to see more women hired, I will often try to stack the deck a little bit by putting as many women as I can on the lists for potential projects. And yet what happens with hiring is that...let's say that you're trying to hire somebody to write an action movie, and that of the writers who have credits that appeal to you for that particular movie, 90% of those writers are men. Then no matter how much you want to hire a woman, there's a 90% chance that you will end up hiring a man, because the list was so heavily weighted toward men in the first place.

This is the same type of perpetuation that you talked about in terms of income — it becomes its own cycle.

Exactly, and it's hard to break that cycle. And in this business — a business in which margins matter just as much as in any business — it's hard to tell people, Forget your margins, just do the right thing. This person's quote is less than that person's quote, but she's a woman, so you should do the right thing and make their quotes equal. It's very hard for a studio, or any financial entity, to embrace spending more than they think they need to, just to be fair.

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