'Crazy Rich Asians' Pay Dispute Raises Key Questions for Hollywood

Adele Lim - Getty - H 2019
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As studios move toward making a greater number of projects involving traditionally marginalized individuals, they face a more nuanced level of discussion about equity and inclusion.

The news that Crazy Rich Asians co-screenwriter Adele Lim has left the franchise amid a pay parity dispute has sparked a widespread conversation featuring the collision of two entrenched Hollywood systems: its longstanding method of establishing pay and the more complicated, invisible but just as longstanding process of how value is assigned to workers who aren't white and male.

To date, most of the efforts around diversity and inclusion have centered on getting underrepresented individuals into the room. The focus is on hiring. There's a general consensus that women and people of color have traditionally not possessed the same amount of access in the industry as their white male counterparts, and so boosting their employment has come to be seen as a modern virtue.

But in doing so, studios, networks and productions companies — as Warner Bros. has found — are facing a number of nuanced situations over how to conduct business in Hollywood going forward.

As The Hollywood Reporter exclusively reported, Warners initially offered $110,000-plus to Lim for the Crazy Rich Asians sequel, and $800,000 to $1 million to her co-writer, Peter Chiarelli. These starting figures were based on how the studio evaluated their respective relevant writing experience, as is standard practice throughout the industry.

How one feels about the fairness of each offer depends how one would answer three main questions:

How is experience defined? Chiarelli broke out with his debut feature, 2009's The Proposal, which became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the decade until it was topped by his second produced screenplay, 2018's Crazy Rich Asians. In between, he also shared a story credit on 2016's Now You See Me 2, and it is not uncommon for feature writers to serve as uncredited consultants on various film scripts.

Lim has worked steadily as a television writer since 2001, most recently as co-executive producer on Fox's Lethal Weapon, but had never written a feature until director Jon M. Chu enlisted her for Crazy Rich Asians (Chiarelli had already been brought on board by producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson of Color Force).

How should film and television writing experience be weighed against one another? How should they quantify the amount of experience logged in a broadcast series writers' room versus the more solitary, less frequent but longer-form practice of feature writing? And how valuable is writing experience compared with lived experience (and must the two be mutually exclusive)? Prior to her career as a writer for American television, Lim was born and raised in Malaysia, the neighboring country to Singapore, where Crazy Rich Asians is set.

And because the aborted dealmaking in question was over the Crazy Rich Asians sequels, how much does the box office performance of the first film – $238.5 million worldwide – factor into the track record of success for each writer?

Who is responsible for addressing or amending institutional inequity? Because of the aforementioned disparity of opportunity access between white men and everyone else, an "experience gap" often exists. (Again, what qualifies as relevant experience may vary. Based on the traditional metrics of experience, have the opportunities to attain such experience been equally accessible to all?)

If not, should any given studio or production be responsible for rectifying a systemic imbalance that it may not be directly or solely responsible for creating? How does a company juggle its "D&I" values against its financial priorities? Is choosing to make business decisions in line with the current, pre-equitable environment a neutral stance, or a complicit one?

How is the value of each team member's contribution determined? It's not uncommon for multiple writers to work on a screenplay during the development of a film. Chiarelli and Lim were hired separately, not as a writing team, and worked independently of one another. Per Writers Guild rules, collaborative writing teams are credited with an ampersand between each name; they were not.

Lim, who called Chiarelli "nothing but incredibly gracious" throughout her sequel negotiation process, was loath to pick out which writer was responsible for what elements ended up onscreen, but told THR that the disparity between their starting offers from Warners made her feel like the studio regarded her contribution as "soy sauce" — an ethnic add-on to her colleague's entrée.

This contention raises an even more challenging subset of questions that get at the heart of unconscious bias: Are women and people of color typically credited only with work that is directly tied to their specific backgrounds? The latest Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study, published on Wednesday, urged employers to "uncouple the link" between a filmmaker's background and the types of stories for which she is considered hirable.

Regardless, is the work of weaving culturally accurate details into a story considered intrinsic and essential? How much, monetarily, is it worth to a studio or production company? When developing stories centered on underrepresented communities, are culturally specific details about character and plot baked into the premise, or are they layered on top after a non-specific general outline is first established? Is this culturally neutral storytelling considered more substantive? (This one's a trick question — everything is cultured, but dominant culture is invisible and given the "blank canvas" default.)

As the industry advances to the next stage in the inclusion conversation — valuation —companies that wish to continue making content featuring traditionally underrepresented groups (and include members of those communities in the creative process) will increasingly contend with these issues.