Back in 2013, Netflix was dipping its toe into the waters of streaming content. The company started out with two flagship series, “House of Cards,” followed by “Orange is the New Black.” Some of the cast of Netflix’s mega-hit series “OITNB” claims they were never ‘fairly compensated.’
The series centers around a wealthy, normally law-abiding woman Piper (Taylor Schilling) going to prison. It was revered not only for its diverse, mostly female cast, but its exploration of the American prison system. The Emmy-winning series became a phenomenon that showed Netflix could compete with cable.
With all the benefits the streamer reaped from the series, you’d think the cast would have been raking in the dough. But most of the series’ recurring guest stars opened up about what they were actually paid.
Kimiko Glenn (Brook Soso), Emma Myles (Leanne Taylor), Beth Dover (Linda Ferguson), Alysia Reiner (Natalie “Figis” Figueroa), Diane Guerrero (Maritza Ramos), Taryn Manning (Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett), and Lea DeLaria (Big Boo) were paid the SAG minimum day rate. Which in this situation was $900 per day. Many of these performers had to keep their day jobs to continue to afford to live.
“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.,” Dover said. “But I was so excited for the opportunity to be on a show I loved so I took the hit. It’s maddening.”
Over the years, several cast members have given cold hard numbers on how little they’ve made in residuals. In 2020, Glenn posted to TikTok, showing her continued compensation for her 44 episodes of “OITHNB” amounted to only $27.30. for Myles, 54 episodes earned her around $20 in residuals. While her 4 episode guest appearances on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on NBC’s traditional network model garner around $600 a year. That math is just not mathing.
Labor exploitation like this are a huge part of the reason the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are currently on strike. Contracts and compensation around streaming content are woefully outdated. Platforms like Netflix don’t actually have any publicly released viewership numbers for every single thing on their service, which can be used to tally possible residuals.
In the case of “OITNB” series, producer Lionsgate decided on upfront payments for the series. The original contract stipulated supporting actors would never earn more than $15,000 per episode (which counts both base pay AND possible residuals) throughout “the life of the show.” Eventually, some would be bumped up to series regulars, but considering most of the cast was considered supporting, that didn’t mean much to most. This sounds a lot like companies having employees only working 39 hour weeks so they don’t have to give them full time benefits.
Lori Tan Chin (Mei Chang), considered going on food stamps because of how little she was bringing in. To rub salt in the wound, Netflix was bragging about record profits/viewership. “They’re telling us, ‘Oh, we can’t pay you this much, because we’re pinching pennies,'” Dover recalled. “But then Netflix is telling their shareholders that they’re making more than they’ve ever made. We have not been fairly compensated by any stretch of the imagination.”
One of the ways streamers do this is by keeping their metrics hush-hush. To the point where the show’s creator Jenji Kohan didn’t even know exactly what the show was pulling in. [Something both the WGA and SAG strikes are looking to correct.] Though Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos did slip up and gloat “OITNB” drew more eyes than HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Even worse, after the prison riot in season 5, the series had the characters split up into different prisons. This left several cast members unsure of whether they still had a job or not. Making it almost impossible to commit to other roles that their newfound success was bringing in. So not only was Netflix barely paying their performers, the company was also making it so they couldn’t make a living elsewhere either.
Keep in mind situations like this are far from uncommon. Even though it has proven to be a huge rival to traditional cable, streamers want to keep their original contract terms. Most of which were drawn up during the early frontier days of the model. Netflix pulled almost this exact same stunt with compensating “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk. At least in that case, he is getting a better contract for season 2. But this model is not sustainable, people need to be able to survive to continue to make the content that makes these businesses money.
The WGA and SAG-AFTRA will remain on strike til a deal is struck, and new contracts can be agreed upon.