The equal pay gap in Hollywood is still supersized: the top ten male actors combined earn three times that of their female equivalents. Last year, the two best paid male and female actors were Emma Stone and Mark Wahlberg. She made £20m (NZ$38.7m), and he made £52m (NZ$100m). She won an Oscar, and he did not.

While it's hard to weep for multi-millionaires, that pay gap gives an A-list stamp of approval to a culture of inequality in the film industry which resonates elsewhere.

In this year, of all years, as women (and men) have called for equal pay - from journalist Carrie Gracie at the BBC, to female shop assistants paid less than warehousemen at Tesco - the picture beamed out of Hollywood seems particularly egregious.

In worse news for women, it was suggested this week that the Hollywood gender pay gap "is a manifestation not of sexism, but the brute reality of economics," according to researchers at North Carolina State University, who found that having a male star in a film adds 12 per cent to box office, while having a female star adds nothing whatsoever.

Advertisement

The only response to that is an irritated shout of Mamma Mia - Here We Go Again! Because what people seem to have failed to realise was that the survey was undertaken between 1990 and 2010, and since then there has been an earthquake in Hollywood, and the tremors are still being felt, particularly in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein case.

The two best paid male and female actors were Emma Stone and Mark Wahlberg. She made $38.7m and he made $100m. She won an Oscar, and he did not. Photo / AP
The two best paid male and female actors were Emma Stone and Mark Wahlberg. She made $38.7m and he made $100m. She won an Oscar, and he did not. Photo / AP

Women are making millions for the studios at the box office – the Mamma Mia sequel is outperforming the first film, and has taken £39m from UK audiences so far, ready to leapfrog the new Mission Impossible offering.

But female contributions are not yet being properly recompensed, and international smash hits tend to be superhero films, starring Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Ant-Man and anyone else with a bit of Kryptonite and an XY chromosome.

Hollywood has always followed the money, and around 10 years ago a tipping point occurred as Twilight and later The Hunger Games proved that female-led young adult series were box office gold. Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence were anointed as stars and began their brilliant careers.

Over at Disney, the first two animations co-directed by women, and featuring feisty heroines – Brave, and the super-successful singalong, Frozen – raked in far more than the pastel Princess formula previously served up by men.

Meanwhile, The Incredibles 2, where Mr Incredible babysits and Mrs Incredible (Holly Hunter) fights villains, is the most successful children's animation ever. Could that be because cinemagoers are 52 per cent female anyway, and that ticket-buying mums love that role swap?

As Screen International's Charles Gant says: "Hollywood studios always used to assume that female audiences would go and see a movie about a man much more readily than male audiences would go see a movie about a woman.

In other words, a movie about a man is just a movie, but a movie about a woman is a movie about a woman. Then they'd be surprised when female-driven films turned out to be hits."

But the real eureka moment for Hollywood executives was the revamped Star Wars - The Force Awakens in 2015, the best-selling film ever at the UK box office, which starred Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as joint leads.

The studio had so little faith in their female star that their merchandisers at first failed to make a plastic toy model of Ridley's character Rey, and just supplied Boyega's Finn and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, thinking small boys would eschew a girl heroine. But when Rey was added to the pack, her figurines flew off the shelves. Plus Boyega and Ridley were paid equally.

Twilight proved that female-led young adult series were box office gold. Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence were anointed as stars and began their brilliant careers. Photo / AP
Twilight proved that female-led young adult series were box office gold. Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence were anointed as stars and began their brilliant careers. Photo / AP

To show how far we have come in male-female balance, just consider the initial Star Wars trilogy, in which - aside from Carrie Fisher's gold bikini-ed Princess Leia - all the other women characters spoke for a combined total of one minute, three seconds, out of a total 386-minute run time.

Mia Bays, who heads Birds' Eye View, a charity which promotes female-led films in Britain, asks: "How are female actors supposed to maintain any value when they're rarely the lead?" and points to a Centre for Study of Women in Film and TV report which shows women had only 24 per cent of lead film roles in 2017. "Male actors have a much wider pool of roles and characters. Women have fewer chances."

For years, women were denied superhero roles, but when Wonder Woman burst onto the scene last year, there was proof at last that Amazons were nice little earners.

The film's director, Patty Jenkins, was offered the sequel and demanded "men's rates", between $7 and $9m, before she signed up. To put that into context, director Christopher Nolan did worse business at the box office with Dunkirk, but was paid $20m.

"What it underscores for me is the consistent, persistent underestimation of women," says Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood, which campaigns for equality and inclusion in film. "By not having the guts to trust women and people of colour, studios are doing a disservice to all of us, and to our culture."

Of course, the success of the superhero film Black Panther – now the third best-selling film of all time in American cinemas – revealed another hungry audience previously ignored by the studios.

(There is a sequel in the works for that too.) And female superheroes are on a roll: this week's Ant-Man and the Wasp featured Evangeline Lily as the latter protagonist; next year, Brie Larson appears as Captain Marvel, and we can only hope that she is as bankable as Captain America.

London casting director Shaheen Baig senses change in the air: "There has been a really diverse range of female-led films in the past couple of years. Hits like Bad Moms, Hereditary, Moana, Girls' Trip and indie ones like Ladybird, Three Billboards and The Shape of Water. There is a desire and audience for them. If we commission female writers and hire more women, the financial statistics will eventually equal out."

The public prominence of the Time's Up and #MeToo movements in the last year has also brought change. The British group Equal Representation for Actresses, supported by Gemma Arterton and Olivia Colman, is demanding more roles for women with its "50-50 by 2020" campaign.

Two thirds of British theatre roles go to men right now – meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch has said he will not take a role unless the women involved are paid equally. Tom Hiddleston is one of the stars of new the Time's Up video "Leading Lady Parts," which lampoons the traditional casting couch, and the absurd physical demands levelled at female actors.

The complex female roles in television have also caused a nervous frisson in the film world. "I have started to see a change in the projects I'm being sent and more women's stories are coming through," says Baig. "I don't want film to become a dying art but television has been much braver with shows like Killing Eve, Big Little Lies and the Handmaid's Tale.

"The film industry needs to catch up. It's starting to look dated"

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph.