Is one Robert Downey worth two Jennifer Lawrences?

By Helaine Olen
February 28, 2014

Economist Greg Mankiw recently published a column in the New York Times, holding up the actor Robert Downey Jr. as an example of why many deserve outsize pay. Why should we begrudge Downey a $50 million payday for The Avengers? The film brought in $1.5 billion globally. Downey’s take was a mere 3 percent of the haul.

It certainly sounds like a reasonable sum when put that way. What, after all, is a little income inequality when it comes to talent and the ability to get people to pay for a movie and popcorn? But when you see Jennifer Lawrence sashay down the red carpet this Sunday at the Oscars, you might want to pause for a moment to consider the Hunger Games franchise, the status of women in Hollywood, and which sex our society believes deserves monster paychecks.

Hunger Games producers first signed Lawrence to a deal in 2011. She was still a relative unknown, albeit one with an Oscar nomination on her credits. So they could sign her to play the lead, Katniss Everdeen, for less than $1 million — a relative pittance for such a high-profile movie.

The film went on to earn $400 million in the United States, and $691.2 million globally. Using the logic of Downey’s payday, Lawrence should have received $20 million for the second installment in the Hunger Games series.

Yeah, right.

Instead, Lawrence received a $10 million salary for starring in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which went on to gross $830 million internationally. This feat allowed Lawrence to achieve the third spot on the most recent Forbes’ “Best Actors for the Buck” list, right below fellow female stars Emma Stone and Mila Kunis.

You know us ladies. We always offer good value. Gendered salary gaps will accomplish that.

As a recent Women’s Media Center report pointed out, Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson all earned between $30 and $35 million last year. That sum makes Jolie Hollywood’s highest-paid female thespian. That same sum, however, barely puts the two men on to the top 10 list of male earners.

Lawrence came in second, taking in $26 million for all of her work — including her Oscar-nominated turn in “American Hustle.” This payday wouldn’t even get her a mention on a list of top earning male stars. Kristen Stewart, who led the Twilight series to $3.3 billion at the box office, came in third at $21.5 million.

To be sure, this isn’t exactly pity party time. Breakout stars of both sexes make amounts of money most of us can only dream about — $10 million and $30 million might not be $50 million, but those amounts are not chopped liver either.

Nonetheless, compared to male earnings, the women of Tinseltown remain second-class citizens. A recent study on age, gender and compensation for film stars, conducted by a group of researchers led by Irene De Pater at the National University of Singapore, found that women’s earnings per film increase until they turn 34, falling precipitously thereafter. Men, on the other hand, can expect to see a rising paycheck until they reach 51. After that, their earnings remain relatively static.

Yet there is no rational financial explanation for this pay disparity. Despite Mankiw’s claim, the presence of a marquis star in a film, and expected box office tallies is a less than perfect science — as any number of Hollywood bombs tells us.

What we do know is that older male actors add no more value to a film’s bottom line than women of any age. A paper published last year found the presence of thirtysomething actresses does not appear to cut into movie revenues, despite their lesser pay.

An actor over the age of 42? That’s another matter. A studio is kissing a whopping 17 percent of potential revenue goodbye.

Downey, in case you are wondering, turns 49 in April.

So why cast someone who possibly cost The Avengers untold millions in revenue?

Maybe we should look to who is in charge of things. The Women’s Media Center says women make up less than 20 percent of executive producers, producers and directors on the most successful 2013 films. And they don’t seem to get the breaks men do.

As Variety reported, Catherine Hardwicke, the director who took the first Twilight film to a $400 million success, received a smaller payday when she directed her next film, 2011’s Red Riding Hood. You would be hard-pressed to think of a male director who made less money after helming a worldwide hit like Hardwicke. And she knows it. “Of course there are double standards,” she said in a recent interview.

Yes, these films make money and, as a result, both Hollywood executives and Mankiw can make a compelling argument that Downey and the other men on this list deserve their eight-figure paydays. But to make the argument hold, they also need to acknowledge that Lawrence, Jolie and other women in film are not getting paid anywhere near enough.

I’m not holding my breath.


PHOTO (TOP): Actress Jennifer Lawrence, from the film American Hustle, poses as she arrives at the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California, January 18, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Jennifer Lawrence, best actress nominee for her role in Silver Linings Playbook wearing a white Dior Haute Couture arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Angelina Jolie gives her autograph to fans at the Japan premiere of her partner Brad Pitt’s movie World War Z in Tokyo, July 29, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Robert Downey Jr. at the premiere of Iron Man 3 in Hollywood, California, April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni


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Maybe we should have special laws and taxes for Hollywood that will distribute income more fairly and equally.

More government involvement is clearly needed in Hollywood when the working poor 20-somethings are making a dismal $20 million and should be elevated to at least $50 million that seasoned actors in their 40s reel in.

Posted by FlamingLiberal | Report as abusive

“Downey, in case you are wondering, turns 49 in April”

Jennifer Lawrence is 23. There is an article:
“U.S. Median Household Incomes by Age Bracket: 1967-2012″ t/updates/Household-Incomes-by-Age-Brack ets.php
“the 45-54 age bracket lays claim to the peak earning years for U.S. households”
The age bracket the Lawrence falls into earn less than half of the peak earner bracket in almost every field. The Downey/Lawrence income differences here are much better explained by age rather than gender.

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

At this point in their respective careers, yes Mr. Downey is worth more than Ms. Lawrence. Mr. Downey has acted in over 80 productions over 40 years. For some of his movies he was paid next to nothing. I think it was $100 a day for Richard III. Those who want “government involvement” remind me of my mother telling me that for any individual who has money, there is always another who wants to decide how he spends it.

Posted by Slaney | Report as abusive

The girl who does the stapling always wants as much money as the guy who cleans out the sewer. Fact of life.

Posted by Popeye123 | Report as abusive

Hollywood – and advertisers in many industries – have always favored the young male demographic, because they tend to spend money more freely on consumer goods.

Being a movie star was best described in a bit by David Cross (who has been in big movies) – actors sit around in luxury trailers playing video games, then go pretend for 25 seconds, then take a break.

There’s no doubt that sexism is common in Hollywood, but on a list of priorities fighting sexism, it’s at the bottom.

Posted by dmblum | Report as abusive

Easily the most ignorant, biased article I’ve read today (which is saying something, these days). This is a perfect example of confirmation bias.

The Women’s Media Center (and the author of this article) should try doing their homework. Study after study on the subject of pay disparities have concluded that women make MORE than men, given equal qualifications and experience. The reason they make MORE is because there is this pop-culture sense that they make less… so managers just pay them more in the hopes they won’t look sexist. Similarly, black women, with equal qualifications and experience, make more than white women… this time because managers are worried they’ll be called a racist.

Mainstream journalism is dead.

Posted by whatever654321 | Report as abusive

Robert Downey was born in 1965, and Jennifer Lawrence was born in 1990. That means that Robert Downy has has 25 years longer than Jennifer Lawrence to build his franchise.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Well, for my money, I’m at least twice as likely to see a movie with Downey than with Lawrence based on name alone, so yes, based on that criterion, he is.

Posted by VicL | Report as abusive

Actors are not salaried factory workers. Their agents negotiate with studios for their fees. If one is not getting what she thinks she is worth, she should blame her agent, not society at large.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

Lets not even get started on the salaries black actresses earn. Wait how about black, disabled actresses. ‘Someone’ should really force ‘them’ to use a black, disabled, female actress to be in Iron Man(?) 5. That would solve a great injustice.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

I wonder why female models make way more money than male model and this author doesn’t reference that fact.

Posted by Archon | Report as abusive

Downey’s fifty million is not upfront salary but total compensation of all kinds, including all the back-end streams. Lawrence’s ten million is her upfront salary. So you’re comparing apples and oranges. You don’t seem to have tracked down her back-end pay, which at least on the second film would have been substantial. And that factoid about actors over the age of 42 costing 17 per cent of revenue — even if that’s real (which I doubt), averages don’t apply to individuals. Robert Downey Jr had been in 3 Iron Man movies which were enormously successful. To suggest that casting him in Avengers cost that movie money is ridiculous. There’s no question that women are discriminated against in Hollywood (mainly because moviegoing audiences patronize bang-bang movies more than any other category, and those mostly star men), but this whole essay is ridiculous, a tissue of non-sequiturs.

Posted by tribecan | Report as abusive

Twilit zone hypothetical; if women had all the top jobs in Hollywood… (somebody write that script!) …would the pendulum swing the other way? Race, gender, religion, or hair style, people divide into tribes, to claim resources. Solve these inequities and others will take their place. It’s simply who we are. The question is, where are we going and who’s driving? I wish I had a window seat.

Posted by nozone | Report as abusive

Not having RDJ would have been detrimental to The Avengers. He’s the biggest star, the franchise actor. His persona even off camera is almost exactly what you’d expect from the original character.

His portrayal of Tony Stark is perfect. He even looks exactly like him. Without RDJ, The Avengers would have certainly suffered at the box office and I’d be willing to bet Iron Man 3 would have killed the franchise of it was even ever made. Comic book fans are very fickle but among the most passionate of all fan bases. They have decided RDJ is iron man and that sentiment well likely last until RDJ refuses to ever play Tony Stark again. The two movies are really not comparable.

Posted by FrenchToast789 | Report as abusive

I cannot fathom why you would compare the top paid actor in Hollywood against an up-and-coming 23 year old.

You clearly don’t understand the leverage Robert Downey Jr. has in several Marvel franchises. That aside, you aren’t citing statistics or showing how sexism is present. There are so many factors involved in deciding these contracts that it boggles my mind you think that gender is main difference between these individuals.

Posted by RUBIC0N | Report as abusive

Yes. One RDJ is worth two Jennifer Lawrences. She has been around for what…four years? Her big role is completely replaceable. Downey is Iron Man.

Fun Fact: The first Hunger Games book was written in the same year the first Iron Man movie was released.

Posted by NandoStevens | Report as abusive

Women have a shorter shelf life in the industry and therefore less track record. That’s what the studios are paying for. The certainty of a 20 year track record.

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

Most of the movies studios make do star men. They are also vapid and pathetic,although money making. Maybe because they take up most of the cinema screens…

How much do you think Matthew McConaughey got paid for The Dallas Buyers Club? The whold budget budget was under 5 million dollars.

Posted by Susanschneir1 | Report as abusive

Besides the Hollywood resume difference, there is always the possibility that a women will give birth in the middle of a project – like Pope Joan. That is the actual reasoning for the glass ceiling. AND that’s why women who have higher incomes are NOT having children.

This is also the reason for the AMNESTY program. To increase the population – like we really need to add more poverty and unemployment. Nearly half, 47%, of illegal-immigrant households consist of parents with children. This proportion is more than double that of U.S.-born households, where just 21% are parents with children. Over the years, the number of children of illegal immigrants has increased significantly. NOW at 6,000,000. cating-illegal-immigrants-is-costly/nQjS w/

Posted by claudial | Report as abusive

And Sandra Bullock is worth three Jennifer Lawrences: avity-sandra-bullock-make-70-683561. What’s your point again?

Posted by karenw25 | Report as abusive