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Arts And Culture

The Money Is In All The Wrong Places

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

You can always tell who in Hollywood has family money by their Instagrams. People like Dakota Johnson, who have a Hollywood lineage deeper than the Mariana Trench, post only rarely. They post about social justice causes they care about, or personal announcements. Even someone like actress and musician Maya Hawke mostly posts previews of upcoming projects, or selfies on Jimmy Fallon—self-promotion, with some personalized aspects. An actress like Sydney Sweeney, who grew up in Spokane, Wa. and lived in a motel with her whole family while trying to make an acting career work, has a very different-looking feed. Sweeney is not really any less famous than her legacy peers after her roles in Euphoria, The White Lotus, and The Handmaid’s Tale. She has, at age 24, been working steadily in Hollywood for 10 years; her performance in the most recent season of Euphoria earned her an Emmy nomination. Sweeney posts almost constantly, and almost half of her posts are advertisements.

On Instagram, Sweeney has promoted Tory Burch, Cotton on Body, Miu Miu, and Laneige in the last two months. For every image Sweeney posts of herself on the cover of a magazine, there is a branded selfie. She is working.

Two weeks ago, Sweeney was on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. The accompanying profile was full of glamorous photos, as is the custom. In the story that ran under and around those images, Sweeney talked about how frustrating it has been for her to watch nepotism babies breezily enter an industry she fought to be in, and how Hollywood doesn’t encourage loyalty, and how she still feels somewhat financially insecure. This, as you can imagine, created swift and immediate backlash—against Sweeney. Sydney Sweeney is one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood. She is an actor’s actor. She’s young. She’s implausibly hot and lives in a home worth $3 million. The outcry against the issues she raised was trained entirely against her, in large part but not entirely because Sweeney is, by almost all standards, rich.

Specifically, the backlash to what is a very measured and thoughtful interview centered on one section. “If I wanted to take a six-month break, I don’t have income to cover that,” Sweeney said. “I don’t have someone supporting me, I don’t have anyone I can turn to, to pay my bills or call for help.”

Many people, the internet yelled as one, can’t take a six-month break and those people also don’t live in a house worth $3 million. While this is true, it also ignores the context that Sweeney provides in that article. About 20 percent of her income, she says, goes toward paying various people who help her do her job. And the reason she would want to take six months off would be to have a baby. The United States has no mandated maternal leave, and because Sweeney is a freelancer who is contracted out for acting gigs, no show would pay for the healthcare costs related to having a baby. And so she is stuck hustling, and doing ads while her peers with family connections (or even just family money) focus solely on their work and maintain the same lifestyles without any worry or dread.

“If I just acted, I wouldn’t be able to afford my life in L.A,” Sweeney said. “I take deals because I have to.” Again, all of this was happening in a story because this recognizable and very busy young star had just been nominated for an Emmy. It’s a reminder of how thin and permeable this country’s social safety net is, and how few jobs in the arts in general pay enough for people without generational wealth to survive. If Sydney Sweeney—who has been a star for years, and a working actor for a decade—still feels up against her limits before she has even started a family, then something is either not working as it should, or working in a way that is wildly, worryingly universal.

It is also, I think, a reminder that the wealth divide, which has for so long seemed like an old-people problem, is rapidly honing in on young people—even those that have worked hard and succeeded beyond all reason, and who are still unable to enjoy the comfort afforded by their peers’ hidden family money. The shadow of our destiny is racing towards us—a promise that meritocracy was a lie, and that we all live in and with the stagnant reality of that. There is a dread building, a bleakness that is already casting a shadow on the future. Maybe you feel it, too.

“They don’t pay actors like they used to, and with streamers, you no longer get residuals,” Sweeney told The Hollywood Reporter. She cannot do what Jennifer Aniston did a generation ago—be on a network television hit that gets replayed and replayed so frequently for so long that her life would unfold like a 300-thread-count sheet before her. Sweeney could have an entire career of choosing only hits, of never taking a break, and still not reach the kind of money the generation before her made more or less passively once their work was done. That passive income, which is the real American dream, is no longer something that the actual artists—not just actors but writers and directors and everyone else who ever made a dime off of residuals—involved in the entertainment business get to enjoy.

The same situation is happening in media, too. Writers are paid less now than they were 50 years ago, for the same work. Ernest Hemingway was paid $1 a word in 1936. That’s more than $21 per word in today’s dollars. The maximum I was ever paid to write for a glossy magazine in print was $2/word, in 2021. No one (and I really mean no one) in media makes $21/word. That compensation just doesn’t exist. You could be the most popular novelist in the world and not make $21/word to report. You could argue that no writer today is as good or popular as Hemingway was at his peak, but no writer today is even making half or a quarter of what he made, and writers only ever get so famous. If someone were paid $5/word in 2022—which is something I have never heard of happening and is a full $2 more than than anyone I know has ever been paid per word—that would be a quarter of what Hemingway was paid. That writer would be able to pay their rent and health insurance premiums and tuck some money away in savings off a standard-issue story per month, but again, that lucky writer does not exist.

What this means is that the door a writer could step through to make a career 50 or even 20 years ago, the one opening onto a life where someone who works hard and does well could buy a house on the strength of that work alone, has been slammed shut.

That’s not because there isn’t money to be made in any of these industries, either—not just Sydney Sweeney’s, but mine, too. Some people are making very good money in these fields, and have been for a long time. They just aren’t the people making the art—the product, if you want to think about it like that. They aren’t the people whose names you know, whose lives can upend overnight because of the attention and lack of privacy that fame brings. They are people who profit off art without actually making it.

In Hollywood, those people are easy to know because they literally have their salaries reported by The Hollywood Reporter. In 2021, Endeavor mogul Ari Emanuel made $293.7 million in stock awards. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav made $246.6 million in total pay. Disney Chairperson Bob Iger took home $45.9 million. Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings made $38.2 million; his co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, also made $38.2 million. I do not care that some of this money was made in “options” or “bonuses” or the other kinds of ways that rich people hide how they pay themselves. That’s how much they made; that much money, which might have gone anywhere and to anyone in the way that money does, instead wound up stopping with them.

And that same Hollywood Reporter article has a paragraph that says this:

Nearly all entertainment executives on The Hollywood Reporter’s annual chart again came in above the median $20 million pay seen in the annual Equilar 100 study, which looks at compensation disclosures from companies across all sectors. Observers are not surprised. “Pay in other sectors is generally lower,” Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management and a former Wall Street analyst, says of media-telecom sector exec pay. “But the top hedge and private equity fund leaders make much more in a good year. They also risk easily having a really bad year. Seems that in media and entertainment, this rarely happens. The media CEOs often just risk taking a relatively modest 10 percent or 20 percent cut.”

The money produced by art has not disappeared. The issue is not that the people of the world value television less than they did in the 1990s. The reality is that the people with the most money have devised, at every turn, new and more bulletproof ways for them to make and keep more money, and for the people who make things to make less. This is the eternal story of labor and management; it just has hot people in it, in this case.

There is no argument to be made that Sweeney is destitute. She is still (if we count her house) a millionaire. A Global Wealth Research Report from Credit Suisse reported that there were 22 million millionaires in the United States in 2021. That puts Sweeney in the top 15 percent of the richest people in the United States. I do not want to make a habit of defending millionaires. But people are making far more money than Sweeney for doing work that both demands and contributes far less. Why should any CEO make more than the actresses whose labor and beauty they sell? Why should a second-year management consultant at every major consulting firm make more than every single writer I have ever known? It’s not even a question of principle. People buy things: services and products and experiences and feelings. How is it that the creation and provision of those things is valued so little, when it is so essential?

It’s a rhetorical question. The wealth that exists in this country does not come from making things that people love. People spend money on that, obviously, but they’ve done that long enough that those industries have had time to optimize for their own preferences. The money that sustains all this is, in enough cases that it is worth noting here, coming from young rich people’s even richer parents. It is coming from giant corporations awarding it, whether out of ideological commitment or just force of habit, to people who sit behind desks all day. Some of those people might also make art, but they are not the norm. The structure built around these valuable creative products is bloated in ways that starve and imperil that creative process, but those privations also hold it in place. Baseball executives, when they are talking about the same sort of thing, like to use the phrase “cost certainty.”

Here is the crux of the issue: If Sydney Sweeney cannot afford to take six months off, it is a safe assumption to make that no one in Hollywood without family money can. That means that even one of the most famous and in-demand actresses working right now is less secure than every nepotism baby who sauntered into an audition because their dad had been the legal counsel for Warner Bros. or whatever. It’s easy to see how this makes the art those studios produce worse, but also easy to see how it persists. It’s also not a world I want to live in. I don’t want to exist in a place where the people who make the most money off art don’t make it at all; I don’t want to live in a country in which our best actresses can’t afford to take a break and have a baby. I don’t want anyone to have to live like that, as it happens, but even by the standards of this moment that fact seems both cruel and a waste.

The whole of American society, at this moment, is a layer of various anxieties and resentments without any sincerely shared values pinning it all in place. Some of those resentments are more deserved than others; the millennial generation stands to inherit a whopping $68 trillion from the Boomer generation. What is being coined The Great Wealth Transfer is already beginning. Sweeney’s peers, who are mostly the children of very rich people, are going to become even richer by doing nothing. Millions of millennials are going to become very rich by doing nothing. Among the many benefits of this will be that they can post only when they want to. They will be able to take jobs they care about instead of ones they need.

But Sweeney isn’t one of those people. She comes from a family that could not afford to financially support her at all when she finished school. She will not have the luxury of relaxing as her inheritance pours in. Everyone deserves to be able to take six months off to have a baby. Everyone. The fact that Sydney Sweeney cannot is a reminder that the reason American workers do not have paid family leave is also the reason each generation has more nepotism babies than the last. We do not tax rich people enough and they do not pay their fair share; the fact of that, over decades, has intruded upon and warped every aspect of American life. Sweeney has to work, like everyone else, and has to do so for whatever she can get, and she has to do it knowing that what reaches her was the absolute minimum figure that people who are paid much more than her had determined that she would be willing to take. She’s not alone.

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