A new investigation from the Hollywood Reporter has uncovered the kind of compensation that character creators are receiving from Marvel, and the figures are staggeringly low—with the co-creator of Black Widow’s breakout character Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh, serving as just one example.
Citing the legalese hidden in the fine print of the “Special Character Contracts” that writers and artists sign when creating a new character for Marvel, the trade notes that “When she co-created Yelena, [writer Devin] Grayson knew Marvel would own the character. But like many creators before her, she signed a contract known as a Special Character Agreement, one that outlines a Marvel-initiated payment system should Yelena appear in other media.” This contract outlined compensation if Yelena Belova appeared in film, television, video games, or toy lines.
Although Grayson and the original Belova artist, J.G. Jones, were expecting $25,000 each, the final cut was instead $5,000, 20 percent of the sum originally promised. The contract also stated that Grayson would receive $2,000 for each episode Belova appeared in (or $1,000 if that payment was split with Jones)—but after the release of Disney+ series Hawkeye, which featured Yelena, Marvel’s payout was only $300 per episode.
Ultimately, Marvel reaches these reduced sums through fine-print legalese in the contracts that undercuts the original offered compensation through a shared-offering model, where that originally stated $25,000 might be split among multiple character creators. So the folks who worked on Red Guardian (played by David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) would likewise be entitled to only part of the original $25,000. This is misleading, Grayson states, because of the prominence of the original $25,000 and the wording surrounding that sum before the exceptions take place.
Additionally, if a character appears as a cameo and not in a main role, the dividends drop dramatically. A cameo is legally defined as appearing in 15% or less of the film—which means that at 22 minutes, Sebastian Stan’s performance as Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier can be considered a cameo appearance. Ed Brubaker, who helped bring Barnes back to life in 2005, has been vocal about the kind of disparity that exists between him and the folks working on movies.
Some creators just prefer to skip signing altogether. According to the trade report, “Some who spoke to THR say it is more beneficial for a creator to avoid signing any paperwork with Marvel, noting Special Character Agreements give the company wiggle room to pay essentially whatever they want and include an NDA clause that muzzles creators from speaking out... Joe Casey is among the creators who did not sign an agreement. The writer co-created America Chavez, a key character in the $954 million-grossing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and has received no payment for her use in the film.”
Although Casey hasn’t received anything for America’s appearance, he’s not constrained by an NDA. He wants to push the needle for people like Grayson, Jones, and Brubaker, whose creations have allowed Marvel to capitalize on their work without fair compensation. “The fact is, Marvel owns America Chavez. That’s not in dispute on any level, but there are still systemic flaws in the way that creators are neither respected nor rewarded,” Casey said to the Hollywood Reporter in an earlier interview. “For me, it’s not about money. It’s not even about the respect. I would never expect to be respected by a corporation. If I’m in a position where I can afford not to take their insult of an offer, and be able to talk about it, maybe the next guy—where that kind of money could change their life—would get a fair shot of receiving that money.”
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