More than a week after the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that screenwriter Adele Lim had dropped out of the sequels to Crazy Rich Asians after learning she’d been offered about a tenth as much money as her male co-writer, director Jon M. Chu is speaking out about the controversy. Originally, Warner Bros. had hoped to reunite the creative team behind Crazy Rich Asians to adapt the other two novels in Kevin Kwan’s trilogy, a no-brainer after the first film grossed $174 million domestically. But Warner Bros. executives under studio chairman Toby Emmerich, who told the Hollywood Reporter he backed their play, offered Peter Chiarelli $800,000 to $1 million to return while offering Lim somewhere around $110,000. Lim was insulted and walked away, saying the studio treated the contributions of women and people of color as “soy sauce,” added cheaply for flavor. Chiarelli and Lim are not a writing team; Lim, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, was brought in to rewrite a draft by Chiarelli, as she told the Los Angeles Times last summer:
There was already a great script written by Peter Chiarelli when I came on. But Jon, to his credit, knew that he had a female protagonist and he wanted a female point of view. When I came on we basically talked about how I grew up in this culture. There are so many tiny nuances in the book. For Jon and I to be able to go into our collective childhood histories and find that common ground between our experiences growing up and the character’s experiences in that book.
According to Warner Bros., the disparate offers came down differences in experience, and a cursory glance at the writers’ resumes confirms that there’s a credit gap, although it doesn’t necessarily support the studio’s explanation. Lim has a background in television, having written episodes of Dynasty, Lethal Weapon, Reign, Star-Crossed, Private Practice, Missing, Life Unexpected, Life on Mars, One Tree Hill, Pepper Dennis, Las Vegas, and John Doe. Chiarelli, on the other hand, wrote The Proposal and has a story credit on Now You See Me 2. The reason Chiarelli’s experience was worth so much more than Lim’s, Warner Bros. said, came down to the fact that Chiarelli worked in film while Lim was in TV. Per the Hollywood Reporter, they offered Lim so much less because of “industry-standard established ranges based on experience,” and offering equal pay, just because Lim’s last film was an enormous hit that made them all a lot of money, would “set a troubling precedent in the business.” Troubling!
The idea that TV writing is worth that much less than features is a claim worth examining a little more closely. Credits aren’t an entirely fair picture of a screen or television writer’s experience—Chiarelli has done uncredited rewrites; Lim has been a showrunner and producer—but for a back of the envelope calculation, the amount of screen-time each writer has gotten credit for isn’t terrible. Based on IMDb episode runtimes, Lim has been credited for writing about 21 hours and fifteen minutes of television, while Chiarelli has been credited for writing or providing the story for three hours and fifty-eight minutes of film. So if the only issue here is experience, each minute of television experience accounts for $86.27 of Lim’s $110,000, while each minute of Chiarelli’s far more valuable feature film experience is worth $3,361.34 of his $800,000, on the low end. That makes perfect sense, as long as you believe writing features is 39 times more difficult than writing for television, or that The Proposal is 39 times better than Dynasty. There could be some other reason a studio would offer an Asian woman so much less money than a white man to write the sequel to an Asian-led romantic comedy, but to believe that, you’d have to believe that a movie studio would be less than forthright about the way it does business. Anyway, on Monday, Chu tweeted out a statement saying “you bet your ass I stand with Adele,” and that the “door is always open” if she wants to return to the project, while emphasizing that Chiarelli—who offered to split his fee with Lim—is not to blame for any of this:
It’s wild watching Chu thread the needle between abstractly supporting Lim’s request for fair pay while making it clear he’ll be moving on without her, particularly when he frames her decision to walk away as being about her personal psychology and self-esteem, not Warner Bros. money: “standing up for her own measure of self-worth,” not demanding a fair increase to her net worth. The most interesting part of Chu’s statement is his account of the negotiating process with Lim, which differs slightly from her version of the story.
…because I am close with Adele, when I discovered she was unhappy with the initial offer, the producers, myself 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. Unfortunately, by the time we came up with several different ways to satisfy everyone’s needs, a lot of time had passed and she declined the offer.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, however, it wasn’t exactly an all-hands-on deck situation, at least not right away: production studio Color Force spent five months screening other writers of Asian descent to replace Lim before coming back with a better offer, although Chu was not involved in this process. That, plus the fact that the final offer Lim declined involved Chiarelli donating part of his fee, rather than Warner Bros. paying her fairly in the first place, seems to have had more to do with her decision to walk away than the passage of time, judging from what she told the Hollywood Reporter:
Pete has been nothing but incredibly gracious, but what I make shouldn’t be dependent on the generosity of the white-guy writer. If I couldn’t get pay equity after Crazy Rich Asians, I can’t imagine what it would be like for anyone else, given that the standard for how much you’re worth is having established quotes from previous movies, which women of color would have never been [hired for]. There’s no realistic way to achieve true equality that way.
As Chu put it, “More to do. More to say. More to learn.” Like for instance, maybe Warner Bros. could learn not to make business offers that are unconscionable on their face.