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“Orange Is the New Black” Signalled the Rot Inside the Streaming Economy

The innovative and daring show Orange Is the New Black was a worldwide hit for Netflix, but some of the actors say that they were never fairly compensated.

Some cast members, including Kimiko Glenn, are proud to have been on “Orange Is the New Black,” but feel shortchanged out of the wealth that it created.,

 December, 2020, in the depths of pandemic winter, the actress Kimiko Glenn got a foreign-royalty statement in the mail from the screen actors’ union, sag-aftra. Glenn is best known for playing the motormouthed, idealistic inmate Brook Soso on the women’s-prison series “Orange Is the New Black,” which ran from 2013 to 2019, on Netflix. The orchid-pink paper listed episodes of the show that she’d appeared on (“A Whole Other Hole,” “Trust No Bitch”) alongside tiny amounts of income (four cents, two cents) culled from overseas levies—a thin slice of pie from the show that had thrust her to prominence. “I was, like, Oh, my God, it’s just so sad,” Glenn recalled. With many television and movie sets shuttered, she was supporting herself with voice-over jobs, and she’d been messing around with TikTok. She posted a video in which she scans the statement—“I’m about to be so riiich!”—then reaches the grand total of twenty-seven dollars and thirty cents and shrieks, “WHAT?”

The post got more than four hundred thousand likes and nearly two thousand comments, many from disbelieving fans: “Wait how is that even legal??” “how is this even real you were on one of the biggest netflix shows.” This past May, with screenwriters on strike and labor unrest sweeping Hollywood, Glenn reposted the video on Instagram, where she has almost a million followers. This time, not only fans but castmates weighed in. Matt McGorry, who played a corrections officer: “Exaccctttlllyyy. I kept my day job the entire time I was on the show because it paid better than the mega-hit TV show we were on.” Beth Dover, who played a manager at the company taking over the prison: “It actually COST me money to be in season 3 and 4 since I was cast local hire and had to fly myself out, etc. But I was so excited for the opportunity to be on a show I loved so I took the hit. Its maddening.”

When “Orange” premièred, ten years ago this week, it broke ground in multiple ways. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, the show was ribald, off-kilter, playfully knowing about female sexuality, and sharp-eyed about the prison-industrial complex. Although it centered on Piper (Taylor Schilling), a sheltered, blond yuppie adjusting to life in minimum-security lockup, its selling point was the huge, multiracial, largely female ensemble, which, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum observed at the time, represented a “truly impressive array of prisoners, played by actresses of varying ages and appearances, including types rarely shown on TV.” The series was also a breakthrough for Netflix as it was transitioning from a DVD-rental-by-mail service to a streaming company with its own content; “Orange” arrived just a few months after “House of Cards.” With “Orange,” Nussbaum noted, Netflix was “quickly establishing itself as a real rival to cable.” The shift came with a new viewing pattern: binge-watching, in which an entire season could be consumed at once. “House of Cards,” anchored by the star power of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, brought the company instant prestige. But “Orange” was a ground-up phenomenon, with a fervid fan base that would binge, binge, and binge again. The show’s runaway success was a cornerstone that helped build the Netflix brand, which in turn built the streaming economy, which has now taken over pretty much the entire industry.

A decade on, however, some of the cast feel disillusioned about how they were compensated, both during the original run and in the years since. Television actors have traditionally had a base of income from residuals, which come from reruns and other forms of reuse of the shows in which they’ve appeared. At the highest end, residuals can yield a fortune; reportedly, the cast of “Friends” has each made tens of millions of dollars from syndication. But streaming has scrambled that model, endangering the ability of working actors to make a living. “So many of my friends who have nearly a million followers, who are doing billion-dollar franchises, don’t know how to make rent,” Glenn told me. That struggle has brought sag to the precipice of a potential strike, authorized by more than ninety-seven per cent of about sixty-five thousand voting members. (The negotiation deadline, after an eleventh-hour extension, is tonight.) In certain ways, “Orange” was an early indicator of how lopsided the streaming economy would be, and a number of cast members are now conflicted: they’re proud to have been on such a progressive, influential show, but feel shortchanged out of the wealth that it created. “We all took a risk together,” Alysia Reiner, who played the corrupt warden Natalie (Fig) Figueroa, said. “And the reward for Netflix does not seem in line with the reward for all of us who took that risk. I can go anywhere in the world and I’m recognized, and I’m so deeply grateful for that recognition. Many people say they’ve watched the series multiple times, and they quote me my lines. But was I paid in a commensurate way? I don’t think so.”

I spoke to ten actors from the show, many of whom spent several seasons as “recurring guest stars,” meaning that they had substantial roles over numerous episodes but weren’t part of the core group categorized—and compensated—as series regulars. (According to TV Guide, Schilling was paid thirty-five thousand dollars per episode in 2014—far more than a day player, far less than Téa Leoni’s hundred and twenty-five thousand for “Madam Secretary,” on CBS.) “The first thing we say to each other when we see each other, is, like, ‘Yeah, it’s really fucked up—all my residuals are gone!’ ” Emma Myles, who spent six seasons playing Leanne Taylor, an ex-Amish meth addict, told me. “It’s always the first thing to come out of our mouths, because it’s so crazy and unjust. And everyone thinks we’re kajillionaires.” When Myles was cast, for the first season, she was having a rough time (astrologically speaking, she called it a Saturn return from hell): she’d lost a restaurant job, then was displaced by a house fire, then moved into a new apartment that had bedbugs. She was about to give up on New York when she got a three-episode offer for “Orange.” “I would explain to people, ‘Yeah, it’s for Netflix,’ and they were, like, ‘Oh, with the envelopes? That’s cute.’ ”

“Orange” was distributed by Netflix but produced by Lionsgate, which determined the cast’s up-front payments. Myles was paid scale, sag’s minimum rate, which was under nine hundred dollars per day. “They could and would pay us the absolute bare minimum, and there was really no wiggle room,” she recalled. Her contract was appended with sag’s 2012 New Media Agreement, which covered projects “produced for initial exhibition via the Internet, mobile devices, or any other platform known or which hereafter may be adopted” (now known as half of TV). sag had originally codified the agreement in 2009, after a yearlong standoff with the studios. At the time, streaming TV was mostly theoretical, except for the under-five-minute “Webisodes” that “Lost” ran on The contractual terms were—and remain—much worse for actors than those of “linear” TV. (This is a major source of contention in the actors’ current standoff with the studios.) Traditional broadcast series pay residuals for each re-airing, calculated as a percentage of the actor’s salary. The 2012 New Media Agreement entitled Myles to residuals only after the first fifty-two weeks the show was on the platform; the amount was based not on how many times each episode was watched but on a percentage of the licensing fee that Netflix paid Lionsgate to distribute the show. (If this sounds confusing, don’t worry—the actors also find it baffling.) Myles still gets around six hundred dollars a year for a handful of guest spots on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” stretching back to 2004, but her residuals this year for “Orange” have come to around twenty bucks.

Netflix didn’t share its viewership numbers (and still mostly doesn’t), making it harder for the actors to negotiate higher salaries. But the “Orange” cast could tell that the show was a megahit from their overnight fame. “We knew that it was insanely popular,” Myles said. “We’d walk out of our houses in whatever neighborhood we were living in, and people were going crazy.” The comedian Lea DeLaria, who played the lovable bull dyke Big Boo, recalled getting swarmed by a group of screaming teen-agers. “My girlfriend at the time said, ‘Lea, you’re a Jonas brother!’ ”

The fame could be destabilizing; Glenn said that she developed a “panic disorder.” One day, during a yoga class, she recalled, “I was coming out of Savasana, and, when I opened my eyes, there’s a face right in front of me, like, ‘Hi, can I get a picture with you?’ ” On the train, she’d get swarmed by “Orange” fans and worried for her safety. “I would get grabbed,” she recalled. When she joined the cast, in Season 2, Glenn was living in subsidized housing in Flatiron. Because the show didn’t pay for her transportation unless her call time was before 6 a.m., she either had to take the subway to the studio in Astoria or pay for a taxi herself. “The cab rides wouldn’t have been such a big thing if we were paid enough that it didn’t feel like we were spending our paychecks on it.”

Despite the Beatlemania-like fame, many cast members had to keep their day jobs for multiple seasons. They were waiting tables, bartending. DeLaria continued doing live gigs to keep up with her rent. Diane Guerrero, who played the fashionable inmate Maritza Ramos, worked at a bar, where patrons would recognize her. “How could you tell this complete stranger how much you’re getting paid for being on a television show?” she asked. “Because everyone’s reaction would be, like, ‘Oh, my God, I love you on that show! But also, what are you doing here?’ It was this incredulity that was teetering on offensive.” Myles was working in a basement for a financial firm, acting in live simulations for aspiring financial planners. One day, one of the candidates paused on the phone and said, “You sound exactly like the Amish meth head on ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ Has anyone ever told you that?”

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For a while, there were more substantial residuals—only because Netflix didn’t cover every territory on the planet, and Lionsgate could resell the rights to cable channels overseas. All that dried up as Netflix went global and the show aged, and the residuals slowed to a trickle. “As the seasons progressed, we started to get more disgruntled about money, mostly because of how incredibly popular the show was,” one actor told me. “And then it felt, like, Well, my friends on network shows are incredibly wealthy.” The series regulars were eventually paid up to two hundred thousand dollars per episode, while the supporting cast made no more than fifteen thousand. Lori Tan Chinn, who appeared in six seasons as the inmate Mei Chang, told Time that she’d made so little on the show that she couldn’t afford the boxed sets; she considered going on food stamps, until she was cast on the Comedy Central sitcom “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens.” Beth Dover recalled, “They’re telling us, ‘Oh, we can’t pay you this much, because we’re pinching pennies.’ But then Netflix is telling their shareholders that they’re making more than they’ve ever made.” She added, “We have not been fairly compensated by any stretch of the imagination.”

Starting in 2015, “Orange” won three consecutive sag Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. But the cost of attending the ceremonies rankled some actors, who would have to fly themselves to Los Angeles and supplement the small stipends (if anything) they’d receive for beauty needs. “As the show got more and more known, my budget went down and down and down for any type of hair and makeup for awards shows,” Taryn Manning, who played Pennsatucky, said. Another actor recounted feeling “inadequate” because she couldn’t afford a designer dress and—like many in a cast that included a range of body types—couldn’t just grab a size 0 off the rack. “It sounds like champagne problems,” Glenn said. “But it’s expected of you.”

Before one sag Awards ceremony, the cast attended a house party thrown by Ted Sarandos, then Netflix’s chief content officer and now its co-C.E.O. Several actors remember that Sarandos gave a toast bragging that more people watched “Orange” than “Game of Thrones”—a rare sliver of transparency about the ratings. (One actor called it a “whoops” moment.) But the cast found the line less uplifting than galling; if the show was really more popular than “Game of Thrones”—whose top cast members have been said to make more than a million per episode by the end—why were the salaries for “Orange” so paltry? DeLaria told me, “I remember all of us thinking, ‘Give us the money!’ But we were always saying, ‘Give us the money.’ We were keenly aware that we weren’t being paid.” She added, referring to her residuals, “I get twenty dollars! I would love to know: How much money did Ted make last year?” (Twenty-two million in salary, plus stock options.)

At the end of the fifth season, the series took a creative left turn: the inmates, having staged a prison riot, are split into separate buses, and the main characters are sent to maximum security. The change in setting was refreshing, but it meant writing off much of the supporting cast. Several actors said that they hadn’t even been told what was happening. “Everyone was under the impression that an entire bus of people was basically getting fired,” Myles recalled. “Those looks on our faces as inmates are being loaded onto those buses—‘Where are we going?’—that was not acting. That was real.” She no longer had an episode guarantee, but she was assured that she was still on the show. “They were, like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll call you when it gets closer to that time.’ And they didn’t call me for two years.” Being in limbo could make it difficult to find other jobs, if casting directors assumed that they were still on “Orange.”

Morale slumped. “It was a miserable time in my life, even though it was a big success,” Manning said, of her years on the show. “Just so much doubt. Never knowing if you were a moment away from being killed off.” (Her character overdoses in the penultimate episode.) Though more actors were promoted to series regulars as time went on, many who appeared consistently were stuck as recurring guest stars. “As an actor, that’s a carrot that is always getting held in front of you,” Guerrero said. “If you dedicate enough, and if they like your character enough, you get the possibility of maybe one day being a series regular.” Some actors described the atmosphere on set like that of a fun sleepover, but others said that a hierarchy emerged, exacerbated by a wide disparity in pay. “It wasn’t just money. It was also respect,” DeLaria said. Marie-Lou Nahhas joined during the final season, as an Egyptian-born inmate at an ice detention center. “When I came on, the baggage of the frustration was already there,” she recalled.

How could a show so popular pay so little? One reason was the sheer size of the ensemble, mostly unknowns. At the beginning, the show was an experiment, and the tight budget was seen as a trade-off. “We were working in outlaw country,” Tara Herrmann, one of the writers and executive producers, told me. They were free to say or show most anything, she said, excepting erect penises and, in some international markets, swastikas. “We didn’t have to answer to corporate sponsorship. In a way, that’s why I always felt, like, O.K., so maybe the payouts aren’t as lucrative, but the offshoot is we get all this creative freedom.” She recounted a meeting with Netflix, in which she’d been told that the actors were getting a raise. “They were sure to explain that the pay bump wasn’t contractually obligated but a compensation they felt was overdue. I remember saying that I’d hoped the raise would put our cast on par with our sisters at ‘Game of Thrones’ or any big HBO show. But I don’t think it did.”

Kohan (who declined to be interviewed) had little say over the actors’ salaries, and she and her staff were just as in the dark about the ratings as the cast was. The day after the final season’s première party, Herrmann went on, “Jenji and I were brought to a conference room, and they finally shared the numbers with us: a hundred million users had seen at least one episode, and I want to say at least half had completed all six seasons. From an artistic standpoint, those numbers are breathtaking. And, from a business perspective, absolutely staggering. After revealing the numbers, the executive asked us, ‘How does hearing this make you feel?’ Jenji was silent and looks to me, and I said, ‘Like I want to renegotiate my contract.’ ”

As forward-thinking as “Orange” was, some people I spoke to saw Hollywood’s old blind spots at work. DeLaria observed, “I think some of this was because we were a female-centric show. I don’t think there’s anybody out there who doesn’t know that women are paid unequally to men. We can point at this show and really see it.” One representative blamed Lionsgate for lowballing the cast, particularly the actors of color: “The show was very much an ensemble. However, there was significant disparity between the pay of certain non-minority cast members and many actors of color who were the fibre of the show.” (Lionsgate and Netflix declined to comment on the record.) That disparity likely had roots in the narrative evolution of the series, which initially centered on Piper and her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) but grew into a true multiracial ensemble piece. Danielle Brooks, who played Taystee, arguably the show’s emotional anchor toward the end, has said that she was paid less on the final season than the lead child actors made that same year on “Stranger Things.”

All this is particularly ironic, given the show’s pointed critique of an exploitative capitalist machine, a carceral system that makes inmates work for pennies. Granted, prison is many times worse than a stingy Netflix show, but the parallels, Glenn said, were “uncanny.” sag’s call to arms has only reminded the “Orange” cast that their role in the streaming revolution has a dark underbelly. “We need to update the system,” Dover told me. “They’re finding ways to cut our wages, and so the middle-class working actor is screwed.” Although the show launched some cast members—Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox—into high-profile careers, others have struggled. That’s not uncommon in show business, but usually starring on a worldwide hit leaves you with some financial cushion. “When you’re a kid, you have this idea: once I’m on something that people actually see, I’ll be rich, and I’ll have a house that has a bathtub,” Myles said. “And you look around after being on a hit show, and you’re, like, Wow, I’m still in the same one-bedroom apartment. Was this how it was supposed to be?” ♦

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Michael Schulman, a staff writer, has contributed to The New Yorker since 2006. His most recent book is “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears.”