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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