Economics, Feminism, Top Stories

Crown and Consternation

UK survey conducted in 2014 found that, in the previous year, only 1 in 50 actors had made more than £20,000 (the UK mean income was £29,172). 46 percent of actors made less than £1,000, and a further 30 percent only made between £1000 and £5000. With this context in mind, consider the outrage produced by the recent revelation that the £40,000 Claire Foy received for every episode of The Crown in which she appeared was less than the amount paid to her male co-star, Matt Smith. Foy played Queen Elizabeth in the hugely successful Netflix drama, and Smith played the Duke of Edinburgh.

Apparently, the large sums involved do not affect the principle at issue. And that principle is important. Confusingly, however, it has been impossible to discern what this principle actually is. A variety of alternatives have been offered, but none of them makes much sense. For example, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, by now well known for her views on equal pay, tweeted the following:

This, then, is the principle of character rank. Foy plays the Queen, ergo she must earn a king’s ransom. In the first episode of the series she is still Princess Elizabeth and her father, played by Jared Harris, is the King. So, by this particular yardstick, Harris should have been paid the most for that single episode. Would Foy receive her pay bump when her on-screen father’s heart stopped beating or when her character swore her oath at the coronation 3 episodes later? Under this principle, when a character is demoted the actor presumably takes a pay cut. Such a pay system would make military films especially difficult. Harve Presnell, who played General George C. Marshall for a single scene in Saving Private Ryan, would command a higher salary than Tom Hanks, who played a mere captain throughout. Successful actors might have to instruct their agents that they are “only available for parts of colonel and above.”

For other critics, the title was the salient factor. “It’s called The Crown,” mocked Twitter, and although several characters wear a crown, the crown is worn by Foy’s character and therefore she must be paid the most. Adoption of this principle would make producers of Waiting for Godot especially happy and require that the mechanical shark in Jaws (or its operators?) be paid more than its human counterparts.

Of the principles implied, that of screen time at least enjoys some semblance of logic. If Foy does more work, she ought to get more money. I don’t know how the respective screen time between the two leads compares but, for the sake of argument, let us grant that hers was longer. There’s still no good reason to suggest that sexism is the cause of any pay differential. For a famous example that also applies to the title principle, consider that Christopher Reeve, who rigorously worked on his physique for the long and demanding shoot of Superman the Movie, was paid $250,000 for the first two films. Gene Hackman, however, got $2m while Marlon Brando received around $3.7m for a mere 10 minutes screen time and 12 days on set. His percentage of the gross meant he ended up with nearly $19m in total, 76 times what Reeve was paid and for a fraction of the work. For his role as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, Jack Nicholson ended up earning over 12 times what Michael Keaton received for playing the title role. Edward Norton had more screen time than Brad Pitt in Fight Club but Pitt earned $17.5 million and Norton, $2.5 million.

But in these examples, a man is earning less than another man so there is no apparent injustice. The producers assessed the value that the various people brought to the project – in terms of talent, fame, and prestige – and they paid accordingly. Hugh Grant played the lead in Notting Hill and yet he was paid about half the amount of his Hollywood co-star, Julia Roberts. Strangely, nobody has sought to chastise the producers for the gender pay gap in that instance, either.

Announcing the pay difference on The Crown, the executive producers explained that Smith’s higher pay was “due to his Doctor Who fame.” For many, including myself, this is sufficient to settle the matter. Smith had played Doctor Who, and Foy had played no previous role that offered comparable fame and exposure. And so the more famous actor got paid more money. Fame is currency. Familiarity, trust, and critical regard attract audiences. By the same token, Foy will now be in a position to command a greater salary as a result of her appearance in The Crown than a comparatively less famous male co-star. Is this not a perfectly sensible system that, to some extent, reflects the demands of the market? Ignoring the prestige and quality of a particular project, an actor’s pay check is ultimately determined by how much it costs to have them working on your project when they could be making money on somebody else’s project elsewhere. Time is money and different actors’ time is worth different amounts. Both Foy and Smith would be unavailable for other work for the same length of time.

The producers of The Crown have promised to ‘rectify’ the situation. But this word implies that there was a valid complaint in the first place. They have already recast the role and hired Olivia Coleman. She is no doubt pleased to discover she will be the most highly paid actor, but in the absence of a coherent or principled gripe, this seems like little more than a PR response to the confusion of others. In the future, the producers will recast again with an even older actress of their choice. What if the favoured choice for her on-screen husband costs more than the minimum amount she is willing to be paid? Will the producers select a less suitable actor for the part or will they pay her more than is necessary to uphold their arbitrary pledge? Are they, in other words, about to give away free money to avoid baseless charges of sexism? If so, there are plenty of people working on that production who earn a great deal less and at whom they could throw it.

The Foy/Smith pay differential is not the first complaint of its kind. Multiple instances brought to the public’s attention have been met with the same indignant claims of injustice. The unequal salaries Ruth Wilson and Dominic West received for the TV series The Affair provides a recent example. Complaining about her situation, Wilson declared that her aim is not more money but merely equal pay. If that doesn’t mean more money for her then it means a pay cut for her co-star. But, once again, a sober comparison of the two performers’ respective careers shows a clear reason why West’s agent was in a position to demand more than Wilson’s. West is a bigger name, has spent longer in the industry, has earned more credits, and, consequently, enjoys a higher media profile.

The affair of The Affair is a further call for equal pay for equal billing, so long as the actors are of different gender. If The Affair were about a gay couple, and a male actor of Wilson’s stature played opposite West, who imagines a pay differential would be producing righteous hashtags, pointed questions, and agonised soul-searching? A pay gap between two men is the product of market forces, but a pay gap between a man and a woman is attributable to either the market or to patriarchal oppression, depending on whom it favours.

This demand to ignore market rates and determine pay on some other unspecified basis doesn’t appear to rely on a practical working principle. Apart from providing a new incentive to strengthen or diminish roles for reasons independent of the quality of the end product, equal pay for equal billing would reduce the benefit of casting a relatively unknown in a prestigious role. Budgets are, after all, not limitless and if casting decisions are to be dictated by politically imposed costs, it will create some perverse and unintended consequences. Why take a chance on somebody willing to work for less if you are required to pay the same amount for a more established name?

If there is a problem here, it is not that female actors are underpaid but that male actors are overpaid. Acting is unionised and it is therefore subject to minimum rates. The people we are discussing here earn much more than that minimum. It is fair to say that no actor on a big production is working for less than they are prepared to accept. All the women in the high profile examples that elicit public outcries are, by definition, those who were paid enough to turn up. A pay gap based on discrimination would therefore require us to believe that executives are donating money to male actors out of apparent largesse – presumably based on patriarchal solidarity from male producers and some as-yet-undefined reason from their female counterparts.

There are wider complaints about the industry. Too few women are represented at various levels, too few stories focus on women, there are too few roles for older women, and so on. These complaints may or may not have greater validity, but they won’t be rectified by nonsensical pledges about parity of payment on specific projects. In the absence of demonstrable sexism, I don’t care that Claire Foy earns less than Matt Smith, and nor do I care at all if Dominic West takes a pay cut. But the silliness with which this issue is discussed is profoundly annoying, particularly as it seems to have much in common with other spurious identity-based complaints.

Our habit of reflexively assuming that discrimination explains aggregate disparities in outcome is both well established and endlessly debunked. Alas, to little avail. Pointing at specific cases, highlighting a demographic difference, and then declaring discrimination to be the sole cause without further evidence, is a tactic favoured by those who consider themselves thoroughly modern, and who might consider “It’s The Current Year!” to be an unanswerable argument. But this thought process is pre-medieval – an unreflective instinct of pattern-seeking mammals who habitually see conspiracies in misattributions of cause and effect. Just as infant deaths were once blamed on a neighbour’s malevolent witchcraft and crop failure on insufficient animal sacrifice, today’s hashtags blame identity-group discrimination for pay differentials when perfectly logical alternative explanations are readily available.

The complaints about pay gaps have already seen some female actors earn more money. Public pressure and shaming can do that. If high earning actors wish to piggyback nonsense to further enrich themselves that’s up to them, I suppose. That’s the market too. The same applies when actors demand whatever money they demand for whatever reason they demand it. But it doesn’t make any of this more noble or less ridiculous. When Jennifer Lawrence and Robert Downey Jnr both make $80m in a year instead of the $50m and $80 they earned in 2015, respectively, perhaps a great victory will have been won. I just can’t fathom what that victory is.


David Paxton is a writer and a former MENA Security Consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidDPaxton


  1. Grumpy Liberal says

    Far too many people think of pay levels in terms of cosmic justice. This is a dangerous mistake. Some minor meddling in a rich country is relatively harmless but it needs to be kept to a minimum, because the price mechanism accomplishes many vital functions.

    The proximal cause of a pay offer is that it’s what someone is willing and able to pay in exchange for services. It’s none of our business what Claire Foy got paid. More distant causes include things such as the alternative uses of that person’s time and skills, the degree to which the employer thinks the employee will be able to improve the business, etc etc. I worry when decisions are influenced too much by moral outrage from people who don’t know the first thing about prices.

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  3. ga gamba says

    When Jennifer Lawrence and Robert Downey Jnr both make $80m in a year instead of the $50m and $80 they earned in 2015, respectively, perhaps a great victory will have been won. I just can’t fathom what that victory is.

    I diverge from Mr Paxton’s views here. I frequently come across “They’re already overpaid” and “Boo-hoo, she only got $20m and not $25m” in readers’ comments sections. Seems to me envy underlies such sentiment. Discrimination is discrimination full stop. The important question is: has discrimination happened?

    But this thought process is pre-medieval – an unreflective instinct of pattern-seeking mammals who habitually see conspiracies in misattributions of cause and effect.

    That’s a fine sentence there and I’ll use it as the foundation of my comment.

    Actors come with price tags based upon their previous work, their suitability for the role under discussion, their availability, the quality of their agents’ negotiation skills, and their respective Q scores, which measures their popularity with the public.

    Matt Smith, who had starred in Doctor Who, a series broadcast worldwide, over an almost four-year-long period, had more prominent work than Foy. If playing a historical figure, the actor’s resemblance to the person matters, and both Smith and Claire Foy are suitable. If actors have to undertake some training, from voice to body building, this adds to the cost and delays the shooting’s start. The more skills and attributes an actor possesses prior to negotiation will be part of the producers’ equation. How many other actors are suitable alternatives will also weigh in the negotiations.

    In-demand actors have many more work alternatives than those starting out and also those whose careers are in decline, and they tend to be in negotiations for several projects at any given time. An actor signed to other projects only has particular windows of availability; this is especially true for TV actors who tend to shoot other projects during hiatus. But let’s not forgot the availability of all the other principals has to align too. Those who are highly sought after have the luxury of choosing projects based not only on pay, but also on their co-stars, director, location, the appeal of the story, and even their desire to win awards – big-budget superhero films tend not to win awards outside special effects, score, and editing.

    It’s well known actors have chosen to accept much lower salaries because the project appeals to them for non-financial reasons. Conversely, we have seen actors appear in films deemed “beneath them” because the cheque was commensurately large. Actors who want to break out of their typecast may opt for lower pay to win a role that achieves this – think of Bill Murray staring in the film The Razor’s Edge, which didn’t break him out of the comedy genre, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia , a role which not only proved his non-comedic acting skills, it won him an Oscar and got him his wanted comedy-to-A-list-drama crossover.

    Though I could go on, I think I’ve covered sufficiently many of the reasons why money is not the sole factor for an actor accepting a role.

    Presumably, reporters who cover Hollywood and celebrity are inquisitive and intelligent enough to know these things, and to ask questions why differences exist. It can’t be an “unreflective instinct of pattern-seeking mammals who habitually see conspiracies in misattributions of cause and effect,” can it? Yet why does this reductive they-weren’t-paid-the-same narrative figure so prominently? It’s astonishingly simple-minded. Why is the why missing? Does reporting from this angle appeal to simpletons? Perhaps, but I like to give readers the benefit of the doubt.

    I think it’s due to advocacy journalism, which tends to reduce complex issues to a five-word “analysis” that can fit on a placard: “Women aren’t paid the same.” Click bait certainly is a culprit; with decreasing advert income media find emotively reported subjects attain and retain eyeballs. Add social media mobs and activists who exploit such stories to not only further their goals but to extort money from people (Mark Wahlberg coerced to “donate” $1.5m and similar demands placed on Smith) and it’s a potent nexus using “misattributions of cause and effect” and intimidation.

    Ultimately, it’s up to the actor to negotiate the best deal for him/herself. They all have the right to decline an offer. But, because female actors lack agency and are infantilised, they are not yet strong and independent enough to attain their wants and certainly cannot be expected to accept the outcomes of their decisions – “power imbalance” right? Perhaps guardians ought to be assigned to aid them navigate life.

    • Jan de Jong says

      Ofcourse discrimination happened. Life is not possible without it.

      • ga gamba says

        I’m sure you understand the argument is about unlawful discrimination such as that covered by the Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and relevant state and municipal laws.

    • mousel chu says

      ” If playing a historical figure, the actor’s resemblance to the person matters, and both Smith and Claire Foy are suitable.”

      Not sure this logic applies. Nearly all historical figures were of average or below average beauty, and yet are perpetually portrayed by people whose telegenics as much as their talent have got them the role. If the true intention was to aim for the most apt depiction, rather than a more glamorous equivalent, then I am sure we would see a whole host of very different leading actors.

      • ga gamba says

        I think you may have mistaken resemblance for doppelgänger. Both Smith and Foye resemble the characters they portray Philip as a young man was quite handsome, and depending on how one views these things he is arguably as attractive if not more so. Foye looks more like Elisabeth than Miranda Hart, Sharon Horgan, Sydney Sweeney, Kathryn Newton, Melanie Field, and Idris Elba (who must always be mentioned). Indeed Foye is more attractive.

        If the true intention was to aim for the most apt depiction, rather than a more glamorous equivalent, then I am sure we would see a whole host of very different leading actors.

        I think you’re putting words in my mouth because I didn’t state “the most apt depiction” their true intention. That’s your take. Further, you neglected availability; you chose to isolate resemblance when producers cast a character for several reasons which I listed. The sum is greater than it’s parts.

  4. Fabio says

    If some kind of doctrine of equal pay for male and female leads begins, this will hurt talented actresses who are starting their careers. Producers will be forced to stick to established female stars, while aspiring actors will have more chances to launch their careers. This is just the 185th way feminism has found to hurt women.

    • Richard Radillo says

      How do I like this posted? Eventually, people will figure out you can’t apply this to every job in the world. Unfortunately, this was a break out role for Foy. That’s just a fact. We can judge what has actor or actress has more fame then others. We aren’t the Studios that invest money in these projections.(even though this is an Netflix series. They still have a budget.) If you don’t like what Netflix is doing or any other studios are doing then unsubscribe or don’t pay to watch. Other then that just enjoy the content that was made to entertain. If you disagree or think this is to vague, let me know.

      • Bill says

        The same argument holds for Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. She did a great job and is now a big name, but before that role she was a relative nothing yet they try to compare her pay against other Marvel Comic Hero movie lead roles. They leave out that the prior roles determine the payscale, not the current role. Gadot will command a much higher payday now, in a new negotiation, than she did when she was unknown. No different than Jennifer Aniston who likely made little in Leprechaun but makes much bigger dollars now as a result of her name recognition and potential box-office draw. That’s why the likes of Jennifer Lawrence can make big money for a movie that tanks. The SJWs like to look at what a movie/series makes “now” and insist that the producers should have divined the success ahead of time to set salary. I’m betting they went “hmm, Dr. Who fans will pay to see this” and paid a premium for Smith as a hedge to bring in those additional dollars.

  5. ThereAreDozensOfUs says

    @Richard Radillo
    “If you don’t like what Netflix is doing or any other studios are doing then unsubscribe or don’t pay to watch.”
    Couldn’t possibly agree with you more. The insane majority that actually think that Foye was hard done by paradoxically see nothing wrong with still subscribing to Netflix and enjoying it’s services (and by extension it’s so called unethical business practices). They won’t vote with their wallets because that’s hard, but they’ll vote with Twitter because that’s little effort at all.

    When I first saw the cast for The Crown my first thoughts were;
    “Prince Phillip – Matt Smith (cool);
    King George – Jared Harris (Moriarty – Nice);
    Queen Elizabeth – Who?”

    That’s why Matt Smith got paid more, in the end.

  6. Andrew says

    Reading this is like eating the tastiest intellectual candy. It’s so good to see thorough thinkers exploring the truth. Desert islands amid a sea of ignorant righteousness, and youre helping them become less deserted. This truly has brightened my day.

  7. When it comes to the pay for movie stars – or for company directors for that matter – SJWs seem to live in a world where trickle down economics works.

    If only there were more super-rich women then all women would somehow be richer.

    On average that might be true but a woman in a poorly paid job is still in a poorly paid job no matter who her boss is.

    The real pay gap is between those who are paid a lot and those who are paid a pittance.

  8. “Equal pay for equal work” would make more sense if there were such a thing as equal work.

    Aside from the lutta continua types, the well meaning but weakly educated folk who think it’s unfair that the actress got paid less than the actor, are merely underlining the fact that they don’t understand what the players are hired to do – sell tickets.

  9. What ever happened to “free market”. If they’re not paying you what you think you’re worth, refuse the part. If Meryl Streep co-stars and gets paid more than the male lead, I’m good with that. If he doesn’t want to do the part for that he can refuse it. These are grown people who sign contracts ahead of time. Nobody is forcing them to do it.
    If you want wage parity I don’t actually think there are any jobs left where males and females do exactly the same job side by side and get paid different amounts. If parity is a primary issue, find one of these jobs instead.
    If you choose a competitive, bidding-process type business, don’t complain about pay disparities. What a star is “worth” to act in a movie is completely subjective. Perhaps we should also complain that male painters’ paintings are worth more than female painters.

  10. It’s Cathy Newman, (I wonder if she’s thinking of changing that to NewWoman?)

    We all know what she thinks and that she’s too obtuse to evaluate anything that might challenge her mindset… poor thing.

    Not worth the effort.

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