By Nina Metz / Chicago Tribune
With a worldwide box office of more than $238 million, “Crazy Rich Asians” was a hit for Warner Bros. and a sequel was inevitable. But a recent story in The Hollywood Reporter has revealed a major hiccup in those plans.
Two people are credited as screenwriters on the original movie, Peter Chiarelli (a white man) and Adele Lim (an Asian woman originally from Malaysia), who adapted the book — the first in a series by author Kevin Kwan.
But as reported by THR, Lim has walked away from the “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel after learning that the studio’s initial offer to Chiarelli was in the $800,000 to $1 million range; Lim was offered a fraction of that at “$110,000-plus.”
Warner Bros. did not respond to inquiries from the Tribune. And Lim’s representative said she was unavailable for further interviews. But the pay gap is so vast — and a high-profile example of systemic inequities that persist in Hollywood — that it warrants a closer look.
When Hollywood says one thing, but does another
“Crazy Rich Asians” was one of the few American-made studio films to tell the story of Asian lives that is set entirely in the present day, starring an all-Asian cast. That Warner Bros. backed author Kwan and director Jon M. Chu’s vision is significant, because as Kwan has noted several times, that wasn’t always the case with other parties circling his book.
“There was initial interest from a producer who wanted to change (the heroine) Rachel Chu into a white girl,” he told THR in 2015. “I tell that story to book clubs in suburban middle America and they go crazy: ‘Why does Hollywood think we would want to see this movie with white people?’”
But with Warner Bros. producing, Constance Wu was ultimately cast as the lead.
One might interpret that as the studio seeing enormous value in a story told from the point of view of an Asian woman.
But the Warners’ offer to Lim suggests quite the opposite.
“Being evaluated that way can’t but make you feel that this is how they view my contributions,” she told THR writer Rebecca Sun, who summarized Lim’s feelings this way:
That “women and people of color often are regarded as ‘soy sauce’ — hired to sprinkle culturally specific details on a screenplay, rather than credited with the substantive work of crafting the story.”
Last year I wrote about the pay gap that affects black actresses in Hollywood and I spoke to Ohio State University’s Timothy A. Judge, who has studied the way gender affects compensation in Hollywood.
Here’s what he told me:
“One thing we’ve learned from social-psychological research in the last 10 or 15 years is that when we make decisions about people — when we evaluate others — we have biases that carry a lot of history that we don’t consciously process or recognize.
“So what you often see is this neurotic tendency to profess one set of values — fairness — but when you look at their decisions, there’s a discrepancy.”
Earlier this week, “Crazy Rich Asians” director Chu posted a statement on Twitter saying that he stands with Lim but also that “negotiations are tough and more often than not messy — no matter who are you are in this industry.” Upon learning of Lim’s unhappiness with Warners’ offer, he along with the producers and studio executives “leapt into action to ensure we got to a place of parity between the two writers at a significant number. It was both educational and powerful to hear all facets of the debate.”
Imagine if Chu or Chiarelli had made it clear from the outset: We know there’s a long history of women of color getting paid less and that’s not OK — before negotiations begin, let’s ensure that doesn’t happen.
The fig leaf of “industry standards” pay ranges
THR doesn’t quote anyone from the studio but it does report that “Warners explained to Lim’s reps that the quotes are industry-standard established ranges based on experience and that making an exception would set a troubling precedent in the business.”
Here’s what that’s likely referring to: Prior to “Crazy Rich Asians,” Chiarelli had two movie credits to his name (2009’s “The Proposal” and 2016’s “Now You See Me 2”). Lim had none — but she did have extensive TV writing experience at a very high (co-executive producer) level, mostly recently on Fox’s “Lethal Weapon.”
But, the studio thinking goes, because Lim had no movie credits prior to the first “Crazy Rich Asians,” it’s logical that her offer would be much lower than Chiarelli’s.
Valuing movie credits over television credits seems like an arbitrary distinction considering how cinematic and serialized TV has become in recent years.
“It does feel a little bit like a remnant from a time when only network TV existed,” said screenwriter Tze Chun, who — after Lim’s story came to light — tweeted about his own experiences regarding pay. “It’s a justification from business affairs to pay less, and they can make that justification if they want. But if you’ve spent 15 years in writers rooms and you’re a high level TV writer, I’m guessing that your experience is pretty valuable compared to a feature writer.”
Nancy Qian is a professor of managerial economics & decision sciences at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and this is her take:
“The Warner Bros. response that they have a formula for determining pay seems like an excuse, since they can always build in more components to the formula to give it more flexibility, such as take into account expertise on the subject, the number of other people with similar expertise, the success of the last project, and the evaluation from co-workers.
“Every situation is different,” she added. “But it wouldn’t be crazy to see this as Lim getting hit by two forces — on average, for the same level education and work experience, 1) women get paid less than men and 2) Asians in the U.S. get paid less than Caucasians.
“The question of why is subject to debate. The causes that have been raised include less aggressive negotiation, less self-promotion, as well as employer perceptions — that they view women and Asians as less valuable or essential. For example, for Asians, you often hear that they are less creative, not good at leadership positions, etc.”
Industry standards aren’t set in stone
Not only are industry standards not set in stone, sometimes they’re not even followed.
How do we know? Chun said as much on Twitter. I asked him to expand on that.
“Each time I was commissioned by a studio to write a script, I was paid more than the offer they made to Adele — even though I have no produced studio credits. I was paid almost double what they were offering her.”
Chun made two indie movies before moving over to television, where his credits include “Once Upon a Time” and “Gotham.” Those three studio scripts he wrote were never produced, not an uncommon occurrence in Hollywood.
“I thought I was a good control subject because I’m Chinese but I’m male. And the fact that I was paid double what a really successful TV writer and screenwriter — who was responsible for one of Warners’ biggest hits in the last few years — was astounding to me.”
I asked why he thinks it happened.
“I think they’re lowballing as a matter of course. That being said, I think there’s always an internalized racism and sexism when it comes to looking at female writers — and especially female writers of color. There’s an internalized feeling that they are not worth as much as other writers. And I think that was portrayed pretty starkly in this offer. I would have felt very disrespected by that offer if I was her.
“When it’s about bumping up what they pay, business affairs always has this thing where they’re like, ‘We don’t want to set precedents.’ For me it’s like, let’s look at it from the opposite point of view: They had no problem with Adele’s first feature breaking precedent and being the most successful Asian American studio movie ever made. But also, studios break precedents all the time!
“What studios have to realize,” said Chun, “is that an offer is an expression of what the studio perceives the value of a writer to be. And for the offer to be that low? There’s no way to see it as a devaluation of Adele’s contribution.”
Chun was recently named showrunner for the animated comedy TV series “Gremlins: Secrets of Mogwai.” The show is being made for WarnerMedia’s forthcoming streaming service HBO Max. I asked if he felt comfortable speaking openly since he works for the same parent company responsible for “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“Somebody has to say something,” he said. “Yes, I’m working with them on this show. But I can’t let that determine what I talk about and what I don’t talk about — especially when it’s as important as this.
“If you haven’t spent your entire life thinking about your race and your gender because of power structures that exist, then you don’t think about it when you hire people,” he added.
What counts as experience
The vast disparity in offers would also appear to disregard any kind of life experience and first-hand cultural knowledge that Lim brings to a project specifically about the lives and loves of Asian women.
Apparently Chiarelli felt the same, reportedly volunteering to split his fee with her. Lim turned that down and her reasoning is sound:
“Pete has been nothing but incredible gracious,” she told THR, “but what I make shouldn’t be dependent on the generosity of the white-guy writer.
“If I couldn’t get pay equity after ‘CRA,’ I can’t imagine what it would be like for anybody else, given that the standard for how much you’re worth is having established quotes from previous movies, which women of color would never have been (hired for). There’s no realistic way to achieve true equity that way.”
Or in other words: If inequalities in Hollywood are systemic, then the system itself has to change.
Past success matters
Last year in an interview with THR, HBO’s head of programming Casey Bloys tackled pay inequities head-on: “We just finished our process where we went through and made sure that there were no inappropriate disparities in pay; and where there were, if we found any, we corrected it going forward. And that is a direct result of the Time’s Up movement.
“I’m sure they (the actors) were happy,” he added, “but they also shouldn’t have to fight for it.”
That’s Lim’s point as well.
But here’s where Bloys really interrogates the issue of “industry standard” pay ranges — and there’s no reason this shouldn’t apply to movie studios as well, especially when the project is a sequel:
“When you’re putting a show together, people come in with different levels of experience and maybe some people have won awards or something that makes them stand out,” he said.
“But when you get into Season 2 or 3 of a show and the show is a success, it is much harder to justify paying people wildly disparate numbers, and that’s where you have to make sure that you’re looking at the numbers — that they don’t end up just on the path they were on from the pilot stage. So, the thing that has been interesting about the whole movement is that it really is reminding everybody to do what’s right, and I think it’s retraining all of our thinking.”
Maybe Warner Bros. didn’t get the memo.