As the film and television industry posts record profits and there are more TV shows on the air than ever, many Hollywood assistants are still making less than $15 an hour. Those assistants are saying it’s time to #PayUpHollywood.
#PayUpHollywood is an initiative spearheaded by Writers Guild of America (WGA) board member (and former Hollywood assistant) Liz Alper and Dierdre Mangan, supported by a number of my IATSE 871 union sisters, including Amy Thurlow, Debbie Ezer, Jessica Kivnik, and Olga Lexell. The hashtag has sparked a discussion of the low pay and long hours that assistants have long endured as “paying their dues.”
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#PayUpHollywood has made a lot of noise on social media, exposing widespread workplace issues that plague Hollywood assistants. In addition to stagnant wages, assistants are discussing working unpaid holidays, being pressured not to report overtime, paying for staff lunch overages out of pocket, eating personal computer and software costs, struggling with student loan debt, a lack of sick leave, and other egregious workplace problems.
When you set about breaking into Hollywood, you usually take a job as a production assistant. From there, you specialize, becoming a wardrobe assistant, camera assistant, casting assistant, or, like me, a writers’ assistant. Behind every red-carpet gala, behind every award-winning close-up, behind every pulse-pounding action sequence, there is an army of us.
All have a couple things in common: We desperately want to make it in our chosen trades and we don’t make very much money. Television writers’ assistants make $14.57 an hour for a job that functionally requires a college degree. As Thurlow told Variety, “The issue really is that wages have been stagnant for so long that the gains we’ve made just aren’t enough in the face of cost-of-living increases.”
Writers’ assistants are the court stenographers of the TV world, responsible for capturing everything discussed on a daily basis and filtering it into notes that can become an outline that can become a television episode. Script coordinators are paid a couple bucks more ($16.63/hour) for the herculean task of ensuring that every version of every script is formatted correctly, typo free, and contains no names or brands that it shouldn’t.
If the writers’ assistant is the stenographer, the script coordinator is the on-call nurse. I say on-call because it is not unusual for them to be compelled to their computer at 3 a.m. after a new draft has been prepared on set in Toronto, Budapest, or Dubrovnik.
For decades, the expectation has been that people will toil away at these jobs for years as they build up the experience and connections necessary to become a writer. In theory, that may sound like a nice apprenticeship for a bright-eyed post-collegiate. In reality, this means that people in their late-twenties and thirties are making near minimum wage as they have children and put down roots in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles costs an average of $1,360 per month.
These jobs require 60 hours a week or so for writers’ assistants and usually more for script coordinators. You are expected to develop your own writing in your spare time or you “must not really want it.” Many assistants work additional jobs, supplementing their income as Uber drivers and Starbucks baristas, along with 13 million other Americans.
Then there is the schmoozing that is required to rise up the ranks, which often involves a few craft cocktails a couple nights a week. After all, if you don’t have access to the influential alumni networks of Harvard or USC, you’ll have to cobble together your own group of allies if you ever want to make it in this town. Remember, it’s all about who you know.
While you’re at it, you might want to take some classes at UCB or UCLA Extension or enter your script into some contests to up your odds. That will cost you too. Oh, and have you thought about making a short film and submitting to festivals?
Women on #PayUpHollywood are discussing additional financial challenges they face in the chic world of Tinseltown. Thurlow told me: “I would also say needing to look cute and trendy, especially as a woman, is also a barrier. Everyone talks about how casual the industry is but there’s still a certain expectation. One job I had, my boss shamed me for using a tote bag instead of a proper work bag.
Breaking into Hollywood, it turns out, is very expensive.
There is a perception that this “dues paying” creates an environment where the hardest working and most talented rise to the top. The reality is that those who have the financial privilege to work a low wage job for years without being forced out by economic circumstances are more likely to get the elusive rewards. The dirty open secret of Hollywood is that a lot of the survivors make it through the well-kept gates thanks to financial subsidies from their parents or well-off partners.
Caroline Hylton, a script coordinator, told me, “Most of the people who can afford to hang on are the ones whose parents are helping out, or footing the entire bill — and that’s rarely minorities, and certainly not anyone from a low-income background. Income inequality is where this problem starts. Diverse voices can’t all be the offspring of the privileged.”
Hollywood is set up to prevent the poor from breaking in. While Hollywood has been focusing on diversity fellowship initiatives (which, for what it’s worth, are great), the best way to change the look of white male Hollywood would be to remove the financial barriers to entry. Any study of poverty will tell you that it disproportionately impacts women and people of color.
One of the best ways to lower these financial barriers is unionization. For example, 75 percent of the members of my union — IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 871 — are women, but only 36 percent of staffed TV writers are women.
Not only do union members make more money than their non-union counterparts, but expanded benefits like health care can make the difference between keeping our head above water and drowning in debt. Writers’ assistants and script coordinators recently received some much needed relief. Last year, both crafts joined IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 871. Under our first contract, we won modest wage increases and many assistants got quality health care for the first time. More importantly, these assistants now have a safe space to discuss workplace issues and strategize improving working conditions.
Though 871 and other IATSE locals represent thousands of assistants in various departments, there are thousands more in need of union protection.
Of course, it is my hope that IATSE will organize every one of these workers, but American labor laws are stacked against workers who want to form a union. Corporations often stamp out unionization efforts through legal means — such as forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings with their boss — and even illegally firing workers for supporting a union. Moreover, Donald Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the agency that enforces U.S. labor laws — is making it harder for the workers to join together in unions and bargain for a fair contract.
High industry turnover makes organizing production assistants even more difficult since these workers jump on and off of productions, switch departments, get promotions, or simply leave the industry. But, hopefully, as more assistants unionize, we can fight for protections for the most vulnerable and precarious entertainment workers.
Though there is still a long way to go, we are making strides. The most valuable thing a union does is bring workers together. When we come together, workers see that what they’re experiencing isn’t specific to them. You aren’t a bad worker; you are in a bad system. You aren’t worthless; the system makes everyone feel that way. Once you get a taste of what solidarity looks like, you aren’t afraid to ask for more.
The expectation is that overworked and underpaid assistants will be adequately nourished by the promise of future success. But you can’t eat your dreams.