Hollywood pay gap is alive and well
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ writer Adele Lim illustrates dilemma
With a worldwide box office of more than $238 million, “Crazy Rich Asians” was a hit for Warner Bros. and a sequel was inevitable. But a recent story in The Hollywood Reporter has revealed a major hiccup in those plans.
Two people are credited as screenwriters on the original movie, Peter Chiarelli (a white man) and Adele Lim (an Asian woman originally from Malaysia), who adapted the book — the first in a series by author Kevin Kwan.
But as reported by THR, Lim has walked away from the “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel after learning that the studio’s initial offer to Chiarelli was in the $800,000 to $1 million range; Lim was offered a fraction of that at “$110,000-plus.”
Warner Bros. did not respond to inquiries from the Tribune. And Lim’s representative said she was unavailable for further interviews. But the pay gap is so vast — and a high-profile example of systemic inequities that persist in Hollywood — that it warrants a closer look.
When Hollywood says one thing, but does another
“Crazy Rich Asians” was one of the few American-made studio films to tell the story of Asian lives that is set entirely in the present day, starring an all-Asian cast. That Warner Bros. backed author Kwan and director Jon M. Chu’s vision is significant, because as Kwan has noted several times, that wasn’t always the case with other parties circling his book.
“There was initial interest from a producer who wanted to change (the heroine) Rachel Chu into a white girl,” he told THR in 2015. “I tell that story to book clubs in suburban middle America and they go crazy: ‘Why does Hollywood think we would want to see this movie with white people?’”
But with Warner Bros. producing, Constance Wu was ultimately cast as the lead.
One might interpret that as the studio seeing enormous value in a story told from the point of view of an Asian woman.
But the Warners’ offer to Lim suggests quite the opposite.
“Being evaluated that way can’t but make you feel that this is how they view my contributions,” she told THR writer Rebecca Sun, who summarized Lim’s feelings this way:
That “women and people of color often are regarded as ‘soy sauce’ — hired to sprinkle culturally specific details on a screenplay, rather than credited with the substantive work of crafting the story.”
Last year I wrote about the pay gap that affects black actresses in Hollywood and I spoke to Ohio State University’s Timothy A. Judge, who has studied the way gender affects compensation in Hollywood. Here’s what he told me:
“One thing we’ve learned from social-psychological research in the last 10 or 15 years is that when we make decisions about people — when we evaluate others — we have biases that carry a lot of history that we don’t consciously process or recognize.
“So what you often see is this neurotic tendency to profess one set of values — fairness — but when you look at their decisions, there’s a discrepancy.”
Earlier this week, “Crazy Rich Asians” director Chu posted a statement on Twitter saying that he stands with Lim but also that “negotiations are tough and more often than not messy — no matter who are you are in this industry.” Upon learning of Lim’s unhappiness with Warners’ offer, he along with the producers and studio executives “leapt into action to ensure we got to a place of parity between the two writers at a significant number. It was both educational and powerful to hear all facets of the debate.”
Imagine if Chu or Chiarelli had made it clear from the outset: We know there’s a long history of women of color getting paid less and that’s not OK — before negotiations begin, let’s ensure that doesn’t happen. (Chicago Tribune/Tribune News)
From left, Ken Jeong, Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina and Jing Lusi attending the Crazy Rich Asians Premiere held at Ham Yard Hotel, London, UK, on Sept. 4, 2018.
Adele Lim arrives at the 50th NAACP Image Awards Nominees Luncheon held at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood CA on Saturday, March 9, 2019.