Crazy Rich Bullshit: How big pay disparities reinforce white supremacy

Crazy Rich Asians Crazy Rich Asians, an Asian-centered romantic comedy, grossed a whopping $238.5 million in global box office so naturally you expect the creative team to receive big money for the ensuing two sequels.

You would be wrong. Warner Brothers reportedly offered co-writer Adele Lim $110,000 plus, which she rejected. While $110K is nothing to sneeze at, the figure is shockingly low for such a box office success. Worse yet, the studio gave co-writer Peter Chiarelli $800,000 to $1 million, about 8 to 10 times more than Lim.

Let’s ignore for a second the incredibly awful optics of a white man earning way more than his Asian woman colleague for a movie about…Asians. But it also demonstrates the “heads I win, tails you lose” system that reinforces white supremacy in the United States.

Warner Brothers’ argument is that Lim is not an experienced movie writer while Chiarelli is. That’s true. But tell me how many experienced Asian American women screenplay writers work on big Hollywood movies these days? Answer: not many.

In other words, it’s a rather convenient argument for Warner Brothers to use experience as an excuse to pay Lim less when Hollywood doesn’t hire a lot of writers who are women and people of color in the first place. It’s like that old job hunting joke: “You need more experience.” “Well, how am I supposed to get experience if you don’t hire me?”

The rationale doesn’t stop just at Hollywood. I worked at newspapers for nearly 20 years and women and people of color get paid less than white men presumably because they are newer and lack experience.

But for most of their history, newspapers have exclusively hired white men as editors and reporters. Therefore women and people of color will always face an uphill climb to reach pay parity for the simple reason that the industry has not historically hired them. They will always have less experience than white men.

But here’s one job where experience doesn’t seem to matter as much when setting pay: CEO, who, shockingly, are almost exclusively white men.

According to PayScale, the average salary for a first time CEO is $101,000 per year, compared to the industry average of $158,000.

Do the math and we see first time CEOs make about 36 percent less than the median CEO salary and 47 percent less than a CEO with more than 20 years of experience. Whereas Warner Brothers wanted to pay Lim nearly 90 percent less than Chiarelli.

Boards of directors at major corporations set executive compensation using a host of factors, most notably “peer groupings.” Specifically, they identify companies that operate in the same or related industry and calculate how much those companies are paying their CEOs. Then the board offers a pay package more or less comparable to those salaries.

So experience is not as big of a factor in the C-Suite. If it was a significant factor, then we wouldn’t see what had happened with Yahoo and Verizon.

When Verizon acquired Yahoo in 2017, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was making $1 million in base salary. The telecom giant decided to pay her successor Thomas McInerney $2 million in base salary, about double more.

But here’s the real interesting data point: Mayer, a former top Google executive, led Yahoo for nearly 4 years while McInerney has never been a CEO (although he has held high level executive positions). Outside observers also noted that McInerney faced a considerably less difficult business situation than Mayer did.

If Hollywood really wants to close the pay gap and promote diversity, then perhaps studios should adopt some of the methods companies use to determine CEO pay, mainly peer groupings. In addition to evaluating the financial and artistic success of past writing projects, studios should pay screenwriters like Lim something comparable to what other writers make in similar genres and production budgets.

But basing salary mostly on experience just reinforces the traditional hierarchy of Hollywood and business in general: white men on top and then everyone else way below them.

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