Star power: Negotiate to take your career to the next level

In Hollywood’s Golden Age, a small number of actresses hit upon a new dealmaking model that could inspire you to negotiate more creatively at work.

By on / Salary Negotiations

Thanks to a series of cultural events and news stories, job negotiation—and the question of how to succeed at it—has become a hot topic among women professionals and businesspeople more generally. First came Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013) and corresponding movement, which encouraged women to take on leadership roles and negotiate their salaries. Then, in December 2014, leaks of data hacked from Sony Pictures revealed instances of female stars and executives earning significantly less than their male counterparts for comparable roles and positions. Actress Jennifer Lawrence, for one, publicly vowed to negotiate harder for herself and to stop worrying about whether her tougher stance would lead her to be perceived as unlikable and difficult.

Interestingly, in the 1930s, many Hollywood actresses negotiated assertively for themselves with great success, achieving better deals than their male costars in the process, as Chapman University professor Emily Carman reveals in her new book, Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System (University of Texas Press, 2016). Well-known actresses of the day—from Carole Lombard to Barbara Stanwyck to Irene Dunne—bargained effectively for stellar independent deals, blazing a trail for male and female stars alike and shaking up Hollywood’s entrenched studio system.

Carman’s archival research into these stars’ savvy dealmaking suggests creative strategies that both women and men can use across industries to improve the outcomes of their employment negotiations. We begin with Lombard’s career as a case study, then detail three approaches you can use to take your career in a bold new direction.

A case study: Lombard breaks free

Beginning in the silent-film era, the major movie studios developed a system of negotiating long-term option contracts with male and female actors. Under the so-called studio system, stars received a regular paycheck and job security but sacrificed creative control over their careers. Despite her considerable star power, Bette Davis, for instance, never achieved the ability to choose her roles while under long-term contracts with Warner Brothers throughout much of the 1930s and ’40s, Carman writes in Independent Stardom. Moreover, the deals were often lopsided: Although a star could not exit his contract early, his studio typically had the right to decide every six months whether to continue his contract or release him.
Although many actors appreciated the stability of lengthy studio contracts, others chafed under them. Lombard was a prime example. At the end of a frustrating long-term deal with Paramount, which typecast her as a glamorous clotheshorse in second-rate films, Lombard chose by the mid-1930s to become, in essence, a freelancer, Carman explains. Working with the top talent agent at the time, Myron Selznick (brother of the legendary film producer David O. Selznick), Lombard negotiated for a broader range of lead roles in two concurrent three-picture deals with Paramount Pictures and Selznick International Pictures. By 1937, Lombard had emerged as Hollywood’s leading comedienne, while also earning praise for her more dramatic performances.
In addition to gaining creative control over her career through freelance deals, Lombard used them to improve her finances. Soon she was routinely earning $100,000 per film—an impressive figure for anyone at the time—while also cannily negotiating for a cut of the studios’ box-office profits.

In 1939, Lombard and Selznick negotiated a six-film “contract like no other” with RKO, according to fan magazine Photoplay, which included story approval, a requirement to be paired with an established leading man, and an innovative profit-participation arrangement for the final two films in the deal.

“She has one of the best agents in the business, but she really does not need one,” director Garson Kanin said of Lombard, writes Larry Swindell in his book Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard (William Morrow and Company, 1975). “She makes her own deals and does as well as anyone could.” Tragically, before making the last two films in her RKO contract, Lombard died in a plane crash at age 33.

Lombard wasn’t the only actress in the 1930s who bucked the Hollywood system—well before men were doing so—in favor of independent stardom. Dunne, Stanwyck, Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor, and others navigated the exclusively male-run studios to score deals that led to commercial and artistic success, writes Carman.
How did these women manage to negotiate such favorable deals when many of their colleagues remained stuck in routine studio contracts? How did these “independent stars” avoid the type of backlash that women who negotiate assertively so often face today? Three strategies answer these questions and offer guidance to us all.

1. Calculate and capitalize on your negotiating power

In the 1920s, an estimated 75% to 80% of filmgoers were women. Well into the 1930s, film studios catered to the demands of this largely female audience by casting glamorous actresses such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford in leading roles, writes Carman.

The audience’s near-insatiable demand for movies starring women gave promising and established actresses great power at the negotiating table. A small number of ambitious actresses, including Lombard, took full advantage of their bargaining power as female talent. In their pursuit of freelance deals, they signed with skilled agents but didn’t passively allow those agents to take control or advantage of them. Working through a top-notch agent, Dunne, for instance, parlayed her success on Broadway into a thriving freelance film career in Hollywood, negotiating with RKO, Universal, and other studios for innovative terms that included a percentage of gross receipts, script approval, and the freedom to take the stage in New York between films.
Yet most actresses didn’t take advantage of their bargaining power in the 1930s. They chose the security of a studio contract over the risks of freelancing, which would have required them to gamble on the success of particular films and the fickle tastes of the public. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the studio system, which has often been compared to indentured servitude, began to crumble in favor of freelance deals.

When it comes to career advancement, not everyone is a risk taker or trailblazer. But you won’t actually know if a move would be risky until you’re well educated about your true bargaining power. For example, although feature film audiences are no longer largely female, as they were in the 1930s, the common belief that young white males dominate today’s movie audiences is also outdated. In fact, film audiences have been split roughly 50-50 across gender in recent years, while the numbers of African American and Hispanic moviegoers have skyrocketed, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

In your own job negotiations, arm yourself with evidence of your bargaining power and use it to correct common stereotypes and misinformation—both your own and others’. In addition, identify creative opportunities for tradeoffs. In the 1930s, for example, some actors proposed reducing or even eliminating their up-front salaries in exchange for a share of back-end profits, a move that often led to financial windfalls for them while tempering the studio’s up-front commitment.

2. Take steps to avoid a backlash

“If I’m honest with myself, there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight,” Jennifer Lawrence writes in her 2015 Lenny Letter essay on the gender pay gap in Hollywood. Lawrence’s fear is supported by research by Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues showing a backlash effect for women, but not men, who negotiate for higher compensation: They are viewed as less nice and as less appealing colleagues than women who do not ask for more.
Just as women face a backlash for negotiating counter to stereotypes of women as passive and likable, we all risk being penalized for acting contrary to stereotype-based expectations. How did female stars of the 1930s negotiate assertively in Hollywood without suffering a backlash? By carefully managing their public relations, Carman explained in an interview with Negotiation Briefings.

Displaying further evidence of a keen business acumen, Lombard was one of the first major stars to hire her own publicist, and she also negotiated with studios for approval of her publicity campaigns. By actively courting the press, Lombard retained her celebrity status even when her films underperformed. By contrast, despite deftly negotiating their own freelance contracts, stars such as Bennett and Miriam Hopkins saw their fortunes wane when they overlooked the value of good publicity and marketing, according to Carman.

In today’s world as well, a positive image and good PR can head off a negotiation backlash. When Lawrence aired her frustrations with her past negotiations and vowed to do better going forward, she underscored her likable image and provided a strong justification for future bold requests and demands.

Similarly, in Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to cite the gender pay gap when opening salary negotiations. “In doing so,” Sandberg writes, “women position themselves as connected to a group and not just out for themselves; in effect, they are negotiating for all women.” Women may be able to avoid a backlash by displaying a communal motivation. More broadly, job negotiators of both genders may find that they can offset aggressive requests by carefully cultivating a positive reputation, whether in the press, social media, or their network.

3. Look for “off-casting” opportunities

Because actors often face long idle periods between films, in the 1930s, studios often struck “loan-out deals” with other studios for their stars on long-term contracts, Carman writes in Independent Stardom. For example, RKO might loan out a star for a month to do a film with Columbia, which would pay the star’s RKO salary that month, plus a surcharge of several weeks’ pay—which would bypass the actor and go straight to RKO.

Such side deals were often viewed and treated as burdensome to actors. For example, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer loaned out Clark Gable to Columbia for the 1934 film It Happened One Night as a form of punishment for being difficult.

By contrast, a small coterie of actresses recognized loan-outs as opportunities to expand their range and star power through “off-casting”—that is, playing against type, Carman writes. When renegotiating long-term contracts with Paramount in 1934 and 1936, for example, Claudette Colbert bargained for loan-out deals that granted her top billing—including a costarring role with Gable in It Happened One Night, for which she won an Oscar.

We often fail to progress in our careers because others view our skills too narrowly. To avoid being pigeonholed, we need to seek out opportunities to “off-cast” ourselves, Carman tells Negotiation Briefings. By taking creative risks, fostering opportunities for new and challenging roles, and reframing burdens as potential benefits, we can expand our bargaining power and take our careers in unexpected, exciting directions.

3 strategies for award-worthy negotiations

1. Calculate and capitalize on your negotiating power. Don’t believe the conventional wisdom on your bargaining position; instead, challenge expectations with hard data.

2. Take steps to avoid a backlash. Cultivate a positive reputation to improve the odds that your innovative requests will be well received.

3. Off-cast yourself. Avoid being typecast in stifling roles by seeking out opportunities to expand your skill set.

Produce your own negotiations

What if your bargaining power remains weak, or the possibilities you’re offered seem too narrow? Look for ways to produce your own opportunities to negotiate.
In Independent Stardom, Carman reveals that some stars, including Constance Bennett and Ida Lupino, began producing their own films when their careers began to wane. “Today, many women in Hollywood continue on this path,” Carman told Negotiation Briefings, “including Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Salma Hayek, to name a few.”
Even if it’s not feasible to start your own business, you may be able to create new negotiating opportunities through freelance work, internships, and training.

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