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Hollywood or not, it’s every free agent for themselves

Linda Nazareth is senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Actress Michelle Williams says yes to doing retakes on the movie All the Money in the World for a measly grand, even sacrificing Christmas with her daughter to get the film to market on time. Her co-star, Mark Wahlberg, says I don't think so when asked to work for scale and squeezes the producers for $1.5-million (U.S.) for his troubles.

In the popular retelling of this, she's a victim, he's part of the problem and the whole thing is an example of why women are treated like meat in Hollywood and in the broader economy as well. A blaze of bad publicity for Mr. Wahlberg had him donating $1.5-million to the Hollywood legal defence fund Time's Up, in what no doubt was an attempt by his PR people to make him look like a sensitive guy. But did he do anything wrong in the first place? If something was not fair, whose fault was it exactly?

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The reality is that actors such as Ms. Williams and Mr. Wahlberg are free agents, which is basically the definition of not fair. Although there is an actors' union that sets minimum pay scales, as in sports, actors cut their own deals. As it turns out, that meant that not only did Mr. Wahlberg get more for the retakes, he got more for his initial role as well, $5-million to Williams's $625,000 according to The Hollywood Reporter.

That disparity also seems unfair in the same way that it is unfair that actors get paid more than nurses. In both cases, the unfairness has nothing to do with value to society, but rather value to the bottom line. Yes, the two actors had approximately equal screen time, and Ms. Williams is arguably as much of a star in that she has been nominated for four Oscars to Mr. Wahlberg's two. In reality though, her compensation was set by economic forces that cannot easily be blamed on those cutting the cheques.

First of all, no one forced Ms.Williams to accept any particular offer, whether for the initial pay or for the retakes. That she decided to be a team player and work for scale is admirable, but hardly necessary. Of course it made sense to negotiate for as much as possible, a path that Mr. Wahlberg took and she did not.

The crux of the not-fair argument, though, is that Ms. Williams may have had less bargaining power than Mr. Wahlberg in the first place because there are simply fewer roles for women in Hollywood.

As of 2016, women were the sole protagonists in just 29 per cent of Hollywood films. That is perhaps because there are fewer women behind the camera, but also because films starring women tend to make less money, so are less likely to be greenlighted in the first place.

A man who was in a brain-dead fantasy that brings in the crowds can point to his value to the bottom line. A woman who was in a critically praised, Oscar-nominated gem that made little money cannot. Accordingly, she is going to get paid less. That is not fair, but if there is anyone to blame for men being in higher-grossing movies, the fault lies with the audiences that go to them and make them profitable.

The issue of fairness, though, is an important one, particularly as we look to a broader economy where more and more people will be free agents. The reality is that it will not be a fair system, not by a long shot. Increasingly, more workers will be negotiating their own deals, with employers striving to keep everyone in the dark as much as possible.

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The winning move as we head to the everyone-is-a-free-agent system is presumably for everyone to negotiate as hard as possible for themselves, while acknowledging that employers are free to go elsewhere. More important, free agents – in Hollywood or outside of it – need to understand and quantify their value to the bottom line and demand compensation for it. Equal pay for contributing to equal profit is, after all, only fair.

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