The state of California barred employers this year from asking prospective workers how much money they made in previous jobs. The new law was designed to redress wage disparity; women and minorities are often paid less than white men at early career stages, and that pay gap tends to stick with workers through the years.
The law has had a dramatic impact in television, where it has killed the long-enshrined quote system by which studios would determine what to offer an actor for a project based on his or her pay history. While studio executives say that the change has helped promote pay equality, it’s one of several factors complicating the casting process in the current television economy, where budgets continue to climb and more money is being concentrated at the top of the call sheet, leaving others to do with less — and producers to get creative.
The first effects of the new law were felt last development season, according to Ayo Davis, head of casting and talent for ABC.
“Going in, it was ‘Oh, my God, what do we do?’” Davis says, “because we were so indoctrinated into basing things on what that person’s last quote was. But once you step back and take a look at it, I think we all feel it’s important to pay across gender and race.” For ABC, she adds, “we are being much more thoughtful in our discussions about budget and compensation. And I do think it makes a difference.”
One talent agent who spoke anonymously with Variety reported that the California law has in fact driven up salaries for women of color. Roles for those actors have historically been scarcer than they have for white male actors — meaning fewer opportunities for performers to drive up their quote.
Now that studios are no longer able to negotiate based on a quote, many are structuring offers to actors with more thought given to “what casting directors and producers consider their value to the project,” according to Grace Wu, exec VP of casting for NBC. That approach, she says, “has helped people that have been marginalized in the past. Which is really, I would say, women and people of color.”
But those gains have not been cost-neutral.
“It has driven our budgets up some,” says Davis. “We’re still expected to drive toward excellence, so we’re not going to skimp on talent.”
Dawn Steinberg, exec VP of talent and casting at Sony Pictures Television, says she has also seen costs climb, though not necessarily due to changes to the quote system. “I think budgets have gone up just because of the nature of having to produce the best TV show and needing to make more of a splash,” Steinberg says.
With well-funded players such as Amazon and Apple looking to compete with deep-pocketed adversaries such as Netflix, AT&T and Disney, top-tier salaries in TV are skyrocketing. Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston will each be paid $1.1 million per episode for their upcoming untitled Apple dramedy. Javier Bardem will also make $1.2 million per episode on Amazon and Amblin TV’s untitled miniseries about 16th-century explorer Hernán Cortés. Julia Roberts will make $600,000 per episode for Amazon’s “Homecoming.”
And those salaries don’t represent the totality of what a star can earn on a show. Aniston, Witherspoon, Bardem and Roberts are all listed as an executive
producer on their respective projects, and each will command an additional fee for that service. Rel Howery will make $75,000 per episode to star in Fox’s “Rel,” but that’s in addition to his compensation as an exec producer and co-creator. On the forthcoming third season of “Stranger Things,” 14-year-old Millie Bobby Brown will draw more than just the $350,000 per episode that Netflix is set to pay her as an actor; she’s set to collect additional fees (though without a producer credit).
“With all the content being produced on streaming, there’s been an inflation for top-tier talent,” says Wu.
With so much money being spent at the top, filling out an ensemble with experienced mid-tier actors can be difficult.
“We say this to agents: ‘If we pay your client that, I’m going to have less money to surround them with really talented, really good actors,’” Steinberg says. She adds, “If you’re shooting in L.A. and an actor wants to stay at home and they’re raising a family and they want to send their kids to school here, yeah, they may take less to shoot a show in town. I think it’s harder for them to start lowering their fee when they’re going to be away for a long time.”
The other challenge presented by the entrance of players such as Amazon, Apple and Netflix into the scripted television field is the volume of programming being made — more than 520 original scripted series expected to air on TV in 2018, according to FX research, with most of that growth coming from streaming platforms.
“Because there are over 450 shows across all the platforms, I think availability of actors is the most changed issue, which is an amazing problem to have for actors,” says Seth Yanklewitz, exec VP of talent and casting for MGM.
With many cable and streaming series producing seasons of 10, eight or even six episodes in length, stars have flexibility to balance work in television and features. But mid-tier actors are jumping from series to series to cobble together work that’s as steady as what they might have found in the past by doing a single broadcast show.
Broadcasters, meanwhile, are being more flexible to attract top talent.
Gone are the days when a network could expect an actor to appear only on the same air as the show on which he or she stars. Many of the top performers working in broadcast are doing so on shows with shorter-than-normal seasons — such as “The Conners,” “The Good Place,” “Will & Grace” and “Empire” — so that they don’t have to be bound to a single project or brand.
But for much of broadcast, a 22-episode season order is still the norm. And with so much other television work happening year-round, finding actors willing to commit to the traditional development and production process is not always easy.
“There’s just so much content being produced that a lot of people, frankly, are working when we’re casting,” says Wu. “There just aren’t the people that you might go to for a lot of these ensemble roles or supporting roles.”
That has forced studios to adjust their approach. And that change has brought positives with it too.
“It’s opened up opportunities for people who may not have been considered before,” Wu says, “which I find more exciting and better for our shows.”
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