Scarlett Johansson and the film industry's gender pay gap

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson is the highest-grossing female film actor of all time, but is she really the biggest star?

Not necessarily. The list on which Johansson has risen to number 10 is a running aggregate maintained by Box Office Mojo, a box office analysis website, that compiles a table containing films in which actors are featured players, whether leads or not. Hence Johansson’s total includes films such as The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier, in which she was part of an ensemble cast, and the recent Jungle Book, for which she voiced Kaa. The most successful film in which she is indisputably the star is Lucy (released in 2014), seventh on her list. But that still took an impressive, if not jaw-dropping, $463m worldwide.

So what about her “bankability”? How does the industry measure that?

Bankability is essentially the amount of value an individual brings to a specific film. The monetary horsepower of, say, Johnny Depp as Captain Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films is very different to that of the same actor in The Rum Diaries. So bankability indexes aim to ascertain an actor’s value to “average” non-franchise films, where it is not skewed by an associated brand. This is highly prized commercial information, naturally, but some open-access bankability analysis is available online via The Numbers. As of December 2015, the film industry’s most bankable person is Steven Spielberg. The most valuable male actor is Samuel L Jackson, second to Harrison Ford on Box Office Mojo’s ranking, with Adam Sandler just behind. You have to drop to No 20 to find the first woman, Angelina Jolie Pitt, with Sandra Bullock at 21. Johansson does not make the top 35. On the other hand, Forbes magazine calculated that Johansson was the third-best acting investment in Hollywood – behind Chris Evans and Mila Kunis – in terms of box office returns compared to salary paid.

Is all this evidence of film industry sexism, or is it just the market at work?

On one level, these metrics are an unadorned agglomeration of audience behaviour, with the male stars on Box Office Mojo’s list – Ford, Jackson, Morgan Freeman – benefiting from minor participation in spectacularly successful franchise movies. Johannson, too, has benefited from Hollywood’s current preference for effects-driven films that downplay the significance of the human stars. But it’s telling that, at 31, Johansson can rise to the top of the women’s list in a relatively short career. Of the male place-holders above, the youngest are Depp and Tom Cruise – both 53 – while the oldest are Freeman and Michael Caine, at 79 and 83 respectively.

But it does raise the question: where are the female equivalents? The bias is borne out by research: a study by Hannah Anderson and Matt Daniels for Polygraph suggested that the amount of dialogue women actors spoke in Hollywood films declined sharply in the 42-65 age group – while for men it rose a significant amount. Conclusion: women are right to complain that acting opportunities dry up after 40.

Is the box office itself sexist? Do men go to films more?

In short, no. Statistics for 2015 released by the Motion Picture Association of America show that movie-going, as a whole, breaks down pretty much exactly 50/50 across the genders. If anything, there’s a slight skew towards women. But individual films, do appeal more to one gender than the other – though usually not by much. According to the MPAA, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is 58/42 to male, while Inside Out is 54/46 to female.

Is Hollywood missing a trick because of its own prejudices? Is affirmative action needed?

Citing films as varied as Pitch Perfect 2, Mad Max: Fury Road and Fifty Shades of Grey, Hollywood bible Variety published an article headlined: Female-Driven Movies Make Money, So Why Aren’t More Being Made? Crucially, one of their quotees, Peggy Rajski, head of producing on New York University’s graduate film programme, points out that “the numbers speak for themselves … Clearly women aren’t the only ones going to see these movies.” There’s no need, it would seem, to talk of a women’s movie industry ghetto.

Meryl Streep, who has won acting awards on a Williams-sisters level, has put her money where her mouth is, identifying the paucity of women scriptwriters as a fundamental problem, and setting up a writer’s programme. The Sony email hack showed how executives acquiesced in gender imbalance over pay; suggesting that they are happy to treat women as second class. Only by going on the offensive have high-profile actors – Jennifer Lawrence, and Charlize Theron – managed to achieve some sort of clawback. Initiatives such as We Do It Together aim to improve opportunities – but it’s too early to assess any impact.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Andrew Pulver, for The Guardian on Friday 1st July 2016 16.33 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010