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Filmism.net Dispatch November 1, 2023

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Once again it seems I need to start a whole new Filmism.net Dispatch just to revisit past dispatches because some news tidbit or analysis has appeared in the media confirming something I wrote about recently.

This time it's about Netflix and their data-driven obsession/business model of applying structured metadata to every possible aspect of a movie or TV show.

A few editions back I talked about how finely-tuned the mechanism for doing so is.

Now a recent science story that reported on Netflix's strategy said it breaks content down into 80,000 (no, that's not a misprint) microgenres!

But to today's topic, and I know it seems like I'm picking on Hollywood pretty mercilessly lately, but that's only because of how much popular influence it has and how many of its motifs and ideas leach into our culture.

Despite the number of people who actually go to the movies still being in the toilet following a few years of lockdowns and the rise of streaming, you can say 'I'll be back', 'Show me the money', 'If you build it, they will come' or 'They're here' to 10 people in the street and eight will smile and nod knowingly.

A couple of months back, references to Barbie and Oppenheimer were so pervasive you couldn't escape them, everywhere from memes to news headlines. The awareness about those two films travelled much farther than the number of people who actually saw them.

Anyway, an area I've seen Hollywood weigh in on that matters a great deal to the rest of the world (and rightly so) is the wage gap between men and women.

It's still very real, and despite getting slightly better in recent years the World Economic Forum calculated last year it would take almost 150 years for the gap to completely close.

And Hollywood, where the top tier talent command salaries high enough to make your eyes water (considering what they do to earn it) can sometimes be a flashpoint of discussion about that inequality.

Remember the flap over All the Money in the World, Riley Scott's unwatchably dull soap opera about the Getty family (I tried to watch it during a plane flight and it put me to sleep)?

It had already been shot when costar Kevin Spacey was named and shamed in Me Too accusations, and they called stars Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams back to re shoot all Stacey's scenes with Christopher Plummer, who'd be the new J Paul Getty.

They reshot all Stacey's material with Plummer in less than two weeks, but it later emerged that Wahlberg had received an additional $1.5m for his work on the reshoots where Williams had been paid only $1,000.

While the rest of the world wrung its hands in outrage, those who had knowledge of and decided upon the situation (the actors themselves, the agents who negotiated how much money they made and the studio who paid them) battened down the media hatches, hoping it would all go away.

Why? Because of a very particular property in the economics of the entertainment industry, and one that affects all of us to some degree, of not biting the hand that feeds one.

There's an old axiom that you can believe anything if your salary depends on it. Just watch energy and resources people explain (with smart-sounding terms and apparently clear consciences) how their industry isn't destroying the environment with its commercial activities.

I wonder the same thing every time I hear anything from Linda Yaccarino, that poor woman Elon Musk appointed to run Twitter.

Every time he makes a change apparently inspired while getting stoned during a 3am rewatch of 2001: A Space Odyssey, she's left to explain why it was a carefully considered business decision that will benefit users and shareholders.

When she leaves/he fires her some time in the future, I look forward to the tell-all talk show Q&A or memoir confirming what we all know; that he's an impulsive, dictatorial technocrat and she was running on a thankless treadmill keeping up with his ill-judged edicts and trying to spin them so they made sense.

Similarly, when it comes to Hollywood, one of my favourite things to do is watch big names turn themselves inside out justifying horrendous gender wage gaps so as not to bite the hands that feeds them.

Everyone makes the right noises, of course. As Julia Roberts said to an interviewer in 2022 who asked about getting equal pay; 'I didn't feel so boxish about it, but I felt like, Come on, which is my nature — not to be all up-in-arms about something, but to say, 'Let's get real. Let's be fair.'

Read that sentence back and it almost makes sense in English, by the way, but Roberts is indeed a trailblazer for equal pay in Hollywood.

She was such a big star in the 90s she became the first actress to command a $20m salary (for Erin Brockovich). But just as crucially, she doesn't name names in that comment. As soon as you ask them to talk about a project they're working on then and there, they squirm.

In a Vanity Fair profile to promote Don't Look Up, the interviewer put Jennifer Lawrence on the spot about making less than co-star Leonardo DiCpario despite being the movie's co-lead;

'When I talk to Lawrence next, I point out the bitter irony of her making less than the man below her on the call sheet.

'"Yeah, I saw that too," she says, choosing her words carefully. "Look, Leo brings in more box office than I do. I'm extremely fortunate and happy with my deal. But in other situations, what I have seen—and I'm sure other women in the workforce have seen as well—is that it's extremely uncomfortable to inquire about equal pay. And if you do question something that appears unequal, you're told it's not gender disparity but they can't tell you what exactly it is."'

See what Lawrence did there? She took a proudly feminist standpoint to fly the flag for the gender wage gap cause by acknowledging how difficult it can be to navigate, and in the very same breath she justified her own case, going as far as claiming that she was happy to receive less money for the same job as her male co-worker!

I saw the same thing myself as a film reporter when I interviewed director Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman. Another journalist asked her about the wage gap, obliquely referring to co-star Chris Pine getting paid much more than Gal Gadot even though the latter was the star of the show.

She responded; "Wages are never equal across the board because there's a system for how people get paid according to former quotes. However, I agree it's a major problem.

"There is a serious issue at play when you see people we know and love getting paid less than other people in things they do together. Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest star in the world in the movies she's done and she's not being paid for that.

"That will be a hard and complicated thing to do but hopefully there's more and more transparency about that... You'd be surprised... depending on the box office they've bought in and how it works and when their contract is signed."

In other words, Jenkins said the exact same thing Lawrence told Vanity Fair (ironic too that she used Lawrence as an example of why pay inequality is wrong and Lawrence herself also deflected the point).

Jenkins thinks it's a terrible thing and goddammit, she knows women are all sick of it and as a society we have to do something about it... just not in this case where it's justified because Chris Pine has bigger box office than Gal Gadot.

And that's one of the problems with the wage gap in general. We can all imagine a company paying a woman only 80 percent of what they pay a man because we all convince ourselves she brings in only four fifths of the value to the company that he does.

Even if it's essentially the same job, we'll instinctively assume that it's worth less because a woman's doing it. And everybody's happy.

Men are happy because they get paid more and usually run the companies and institutions that pay people to work (and thus save money), and women are happy because they're taught from birth to be grateful for anything they get and not ask for more.

If a man digs his heels in and says 'no, I deserve this' we're impressed because he has a set of balls. If a woman says it we just think she's being a bitch.

Women are aware of that and that's why our culture makes it so hard for them to speak up. Williams only got paid dick for the All the Money in the World reshoots because she agreed to it, after all.

Maybe she believed in the project or maybe Ridley Scoot convinced her there was no more money to pay anyone (like he told reporters), even though Wahlberg or his agent were smart enough to know they needed him and used that position to their advantage, cashing in big.

And nobody complains, except in the more general 'we have to change society' terms, because none of us want to bite the hands that feed us.

I wonder if an actress (or an actor on her behalf) on the publicity circuit promoting her movie will ever be ballsy enough to say; 'the economics of this movie are bullshit. I had the same agent as my male co-star, they negotiated a far higher salary for him than I got-" (exactly what happened with All the Money in the World, incidentally; Wahlberg and Williams were both represented by WME), '-and I blame the producer and the studio of this very film for furthering harmful economic practices that propagate the gender wage gap'.

Maybe it's time people in Hollywood started pointing fingers and naming names instead of just issuing vague platitudes about 'needing to do something', and then the power it has over the cultural zeitgeist will make a difference to something more than just Barbenheimer memes.

On screens lately... Well, I haven't been watching very much. So nothing there to report until next time.

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