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"Women all across the board are just not valued”: an agent explains why white men rule Hollywood

Cosmopolitan's interview is a revealing look at a secretive industry.

Jennifer Lawrence, who spoke up against the pay gap, is working against a stacked system.
Jennifer Lawrence, who spoke up against the pay gap, is working against a stacked system.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The film industry is a vast, complicated, and frequently shadowy system propped up by tradition and ego. Actors bear the brunt of media scrutiny, due to their pop culture prominence and relative accessibility to those asking questions. But with so much money at stake, it's nearly impossible to convince the people making decisions behind the scenes in Hollywood to be frank about how they make those decisions.

Agencies are the best example of just how guarded Hollywood can be. As the gatekeepers between talent and film studios, agents wield an enormous amount of power, and they pride themselves on their ability to keep sensitive information under wraps. Getting honest answers from them is rare simply because of what they do. But Jen Chaney at Cosmopolitan got an agent to speak on the record — although anonymously — about how exactly she and others negotiate in Hollywood.

The agent's answers are heavy with industry jargon but offer a rare look into the mechanics of striking entertainment deals. She explains some of the different considerations clients and agents face, and notes that women almost always have to calculate differently than men during negotiations. And, yes, as a female agent, she has some more personal, pointed insight on the process than a male agent ever could.

On how women can rarely negotiate as hard as men: "Women all across the board are just not valued"

One of the most revealing parts of the interview comes when Chaney brings up how Jennifer Lawrence has said that she regrets not being more aggressive during pay talks, and asks how Lawrence could have handled those situations differently.

While the agent says that Lawrence had agents and managers who were undoubtedly negotiating on her behalf — "some of whom, if not all of them, are men" — she also points out that the only thing Lawrence could have done was walk away, and notes that walking might not have been a feasible option for Lawrence, as is the case for most actresses: some ways, the deeper issue is how much she and women are valued as a whole. It's like, "Oh, well, we can always just get another actress." [Whereas] with Leonardo DiCaprio you think, There's no one like him. But Jennifer Lawrence, you just get someone else. Women all across the board are just not valued.

On how to make women and minorities more valuable in Hollywood: "The roles need to be better"

Having leverage is crucial in Hollywood. Without it, demands become nothing but a wish list. On this subject, the agent is incredibly frank:

Here's the thing in terms of leverage though: If it's a high-level star, then you have more leverage. Well, who's a high-level star? It's a white guy. You don't have a lot of African-American high-level stars. You don't have a lot of women who are movie stars, especially women at a certain age ... A mid-level actor versus a high-level actress — it's like, you'll definitely be able to get more money for the actor.

And there's Hollywood's diversity problem in a nutshell. As far as the studios are concerned, white men still have more value — more "bankability" — than everyone else.

As for the fix, the agent delivers some bad news — it's about the roles:

This is harder and trickier ... the roles need to be better. We had a client who passed on a project because she wasn't being paid the same as her male co-star. We totally supported it, totally agreed. But in the script, this character, she was just the wife and there wasn't that much for her to do and the size of the male role was bigger. So everyone said, not only did he have higher quotes, but he worked more days, more hours, more weeks, and it's more to do.

So not only do the women want more money ... they want more work.

In the instance the agent describes, her client's fight for equal pay was complicated by the fact that the female role simply didn't have as much meat to it as the male one. But the same scenario could have happened (and has happened) in any number of film projects.

While roles are slowly improving for women and nonwhite actors, white and male are still the defaults. The systemic traditions that hold others back — including the pay gap — have no hope of changing until that point of view changes first.

You can read the full interview at Cosmopolitan.