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If You're from Poor or Middle-Class Families, Hollywood Is Nearly Impossible to Navigate – No Film School

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We are all aware of Hollywood nepotism. 
Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, and Maude Apatow, the daughter of Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann, are two stars that have come into the spotlight with their respective roles in Stranger Things and Euphoria. These two actors, along with a large handful of others, make up a strange role that seems to only exist for those who were born into the industry.
They get to simply be actors. They do not have to be spokespeople for countless brands or constantly take roles that they do not want. They hold a rare position, and in contrast, Sydney Sweeney‘s career has made this apparent. 
Sweeney, an actress who grew up in Spokane and lived in a motel with her whole family while trying to make an acting career work, has a very different lifestyle from many of Hollywood’s well-known and reserved elite. The actor seems to be everywhere all of the time. From television series to films to ads on Instagram or billboards throughout Los Angeles, Sweeney has had her nose to the grindstone throughout her career.

After working steadily in Hollywood for 10 years, Sweeney isn’t less famous than her legacy peers, yet the Emmy-nominated actress can’t afford to take a break like the rest of her costars. Why has the Hollywood industry become impossible for lower-income or middle-class income families to navigate?

'Euphoria' Star Sydney Sweeney says she isn’t able to take a long break and has to continuously work.
‘Euphoria’ Star Sydney Sweeney says she isn’t able to take a long break and has to continuously work.Credit: Getty Images

Euphoria actor Sweeney revealed in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter how frustrating it has been for her to watch her legacy peers navigate an industry that she has fought to be a part of, and how she still feels financially insecure.
“If I wanted to take a six-month break, I don’t have the income to cover that,” Sweeny 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.” 

Sweeney revealed that 20% of her income goes toward paying various people who help her do her job. To pay her bills and pursue her dream of being a mother is almost impossible. 
Her statement quickly received backlash from people who were pointing out that Sweeney is also rich. Many people can’t take a six-month break, but those people also don’t live in a house worth $3 million.
The issue boils down to a misinterpretation of what Sweeney is saying.
While Sweeney did not fully acknowledge her wealth, Sweeney is pointing out the faults of a system that rewards families with wealth and makes it harder for actors and artists of lower- or middle-class families to live a comfortable life without constantly working.  

As Defector points out, Sweeney is basically a freelancer. Many freelancers know everything we have to pay for comes out of our pockets. 
“If I just acted, I wouldn’t be able to afford my life in L.A. I take deals because I have to,” Sweeney told Hollywood Reporter. Sweeney has no choice but to work and do ads while her peers with family connections or family wealth focus solely on their work, maintaining the same lifestyle without any worries. 
The truth is, few jobs in the arts generally pay enough for people without generational wealth to survive. We are starving artists, working to make sure we can maintain a comfortable lifestyle. 

The effects of nepotism on the income gap in the Hollywood system
Sydney Sweeney and Maude Apatow as the Howard Sisters in ‘Euphoria’Credit: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

The wealth divide is becoming more and more noticeable in L.A. There is a soul-crushing feeling that is already pushing down the incoming workforce, making it seem impossible for them to generate any substantial income if they don’t have family money to lean back on. 
Actors are not being paid as they used to be in the age of streaming. For example, the cast of Friends can live comfortably with the $20 million residuals they get each year for the show’s reruns while actors nowadays in streaming series cannot survive on residuals they receive for their shows. 
Defector reports, “[P]assive 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.” 
It’s a complicated situation that SAG-AFTRA is trying to resolve, but the future seems bleak for everyone involved in the arts. 

To put things in perspective, writers are paid less now than they were 50 years ago for the same work. Ernest Hemingway was paid $1 a word in 1936, which would be roughly $21 per word in today’s money. The novelist was a special case as he negotiated his pay, receiving double the average income of other writers, but he was able to live an incredibly comfortable life as a writer. 
The Freelancer, which defines itself as a “guide to the gig economy” maintains a database of rates received by freelancers. Today, the median pre-word rate stands somewhere between 76 cents and a dollar. The rates have hardly changed in almost a century, which is a massive red flag for artists. 

Hemingway’s rate was $1/word in 1936, which means that he got paid $19k in today’s dollars for a thousand-word feature.
Writers, along with many other freelance positions in the industry, should be able to pay their rent, and health insurance premiums, and tuck some money away in savings. Instead, many of us are working multiple jobs just to keep up with bills and the rising cost of living in California. 
Those doors that were once open for artists from any income level to thrive and make a living creating art they were passionate about are now shut by those who want to keep the wealth in the hands of a few.  
Some people in our fields are making very good money. But these people are not making the art. Their salaries are reported by the Hollywood Reporter. 
For example, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav made $246.6 million in total pay for merging Warner Bros. and Discovery. Disney Chair Bob Iger took home $45.9 million last year. We could go on and on.

Personally, I think that is a wild amount of money to give to people who cancel projects on a whim or have the power to remove work from platforms because they feel like it. 

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav made $246.6 for his plan to combine the two companies.
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav Credit: Getty Images

This isn’t new. The Federal Reserve reported that the total wealth of 1% of the U.S. population has reached a record of $45.9 trillion at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021, which is 32.3% of the nation’s wealth. If you want more perspective, the Council on Foreign Relations reported that the top 10% of Americans hold up nearly 70% of U.S. wealth. 
While Sweeney is in the top 15% of the richest people in the U.S., there are still more people above her keeping the wealth to themselves. Sweeney’s story is one about labor, management, and wealth gap struggles that many people from low- and middle-class income families know too well. 

The structure built around the valuable creative products does not value the artist and the artwork. Instead, the system becomes bloated, leaving only room for those born into the system or those who can maintain a consistent work pace long enough until they finally “make it.” But making it isn’t really a viable option anymore, and Sweeney is living proof.
People who make the most money off art don’t make the art—and that’s the problem. 

How the income gap makes it impossible for lower and middle class people to navigate Hollywood
The cast of ‘Euphoria’Credit: Getty Images for HBO

I am not saying that being a “nepotism baby” automatically means that they get handed the jobs and roles that they want. But their family’s wealth does make it easier for them to get their foot in the door and gives them the choice to not take on jobs or roles that they don’t want to take. 

What I am saying is that the Hollywood system is greedy and benefits from gatekeeping the wealth of the industry. Artists not born into the system are often not properly compensated for their work. Many of us are frustrated by the lack of progress we are seeing with our labor and are tired of sacrificing what we want to do for the sake of financial security. 
Everyone deserves to live comfortably and pursue their dream job without heavily relying on their next paycheck. It’s absurd, really, that this is a problem that many of us, including well-known actors like Sweeney, have to face. We’re not sure what the solution is, but something has to change.
Let us know your thoughts down in the comments!     
Go Alyssa! It takes guts to point to these longstanding-and-getting-way-worse things.
August 12, 2022 at 9:01AM
Why do you think that article or point of view takes guts? It’s pretty obvious, low-hanging fruit for a columnist. Perhaps for Sweeney, it took guts, because she now may have something to lose. Or, it could be a strategy of hers to gain some leverage for fear of backlash if she becomes somewhat blacklisted.
Becoming aware of how people, or “the world”, work(s) is a stage of human development that usually takes place in one’s teens or, hopefully at least, early 20s. The Pareto principle will always be at work. By the way, what evidence or historical context do you have that these things are getting better or worse? You think that in 1920s Hollywood, or 1940s, or 50s, etc. that people were more generous with how they distributed their roles or wealth? I thought the common “wisdom” was that everything was worse in this country in the past?
August 14, 2022 at 9:18AM
Could not agree more. And if you think it’s bad in scripted… unscripted will blow you away
August 12, 2022 at 9:58AM
I say it all the time, this industry has too much money and it never flows in the right direction. Everything is set up to take money from the people who make films and line the pockets of people who don’t.
August 12, 2022 at 11:51AM
Isn’t this also part of a larger societal issue. You see this in every industry. The rich kids are able to take a chance on a small business or a summer backpacking Europe and so on. Life is hard for everyone who isn’t rich or already well connected in their industry.
August 12, 2022 at 12:50PM
While I agree with the overall argument of this article, I still can’t get behind Sweeney saying she doesn’t feel financialy secure while simultaneously living in a 3 million dollar house. If she wants to take a 6 month break, or not feel like she has to constantly be freelancing, she’s already made enough money to do just that, if she’d invest it properly and live off the income of those investments. And maybe live in a $1.5 million dollar house, lol? She’s clearly spending too much, which is a common problem when people start earning a lot. The term is called “lifestyle inflation” and it is something most people succumb to as their income goes up.
August 13, 2022 at 12:23PM, Edited August 13, 1:05PM
Sounds like Sweeney needs live below her means. Apparently, she has a net worth of $5 million, so cry me a river. Plenty of us live well with a lot less. She clearly does not know how to budget or invest. She wants all the nice things in life asap and views them as necessities. The real problem is her expectations. She is comparing her life to the lives of other Hollywood actors, probably her neighbors. She needs a reality check. Seriously, how out of touch could you be to publicly complain about how you’re poor with a $5 million net worth?
August 13, 2022 at 5:56PM
Not sure why this is even an article. Hollywood is a closed circle. A pipe dream, unless you’re in the inner circle. Always has been.
If you happen to be that 1 in a million from the outer circle to make it in, living like Hollywood royalty will dry you up quickly.
August 14, 2022 at 5:43AM
People need to keep in mind that she lives in California and pays 42% in taxes. Add to that about +20% in fees that comes out of her gross pay for her lawyer, manager, agent, publicist. That’s 62% of her paycheck, before sees a dime of it. If she is getting $25k per episode of Euphoria, do the math. Add to that the cost of clothes, makeup, travel etc. It ain’t a pretty financial picture and she is competing with people worth tens, hundreds or billions of dollars.
Housing in CA is x3-4 times the national average. The average cost of a house in LA is $991,000. $3 million will not buy you a mansion in LA, but a nice 2-3 BR house in one of the remaining safe areas like Brentwood. She’s too recognizable to live in a cheaper area, so she needs to stay in certain sections on the Westside. Forget about a gated community for that money.
So, while she’s not exactly going hungry, her overhead due to location and her job is huge. Hence she has to work nonstop to pay the bills. And due to streaming she will not see the residuals that past generations of actors enjoyed and built their wealth. If she remains relevant for the next 10 years and invests she’ll be fine, but she will never see ‘Friends’ money, unless SAG renegotiates streaming residuals.
Everyone in Hollywood is in the same boat, unless you’re in the executive class.
I got to give her some credit, because she did grow up poor and beat the odds to get where she is.
She lives in an economically dysfunctional state and works in a biz that is becoming increasingly stacked against the very people that make it rich. Things have changed dramatically in Tinseltown since Silicone Valley rolled in a few years ago and the change has not all been for the better.
August 14, 2022 at 4:26PM, Edited August 14, 4:32PM
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