Up until a few weeks ago, Stephanie, an aspiring screenwriter, thought her career in the entertainment industry was over. As a black woman, she’s part of a demographic that has long been underserved by Hollywood, and she couldn’t find a feasible way in.
In 2017, at the age of 24, she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles for a job as a post-production assistant, earning $13 an hour. After two years of bouncing around between jobs in production companies – sometimes as a contractor with zero benefits or healthcare – she gave up. She was paying over $2,000 on rent, student loan and car payments, which her salary barely covered, and she accumulated credit card debt that she’s still working to pay off.
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“I was having a really hard time,” she says. “My mom was sick, she didn’t have any money. And I was like, you know what, even though this is what I really want to do, I can’t survive. So last June, I ended up switching industries, and now I work in IT.”
But in recent weeks, hundreds of TV and film assistants (who work closely with producers, directors and writers during and after production) have begun to speak out about their experiences on the bottom rung of the industry, mounting a fight for better pay and fair treatment, which could help to give Stephanie and others like her a fair shot.
The conversation was kicked off in October by an episode of the popular screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes, when co-hosts Craig Mazin, a writer/producer on HBO’s Chernobyl, and the Aladdin writer John August, put a call out for listeners with experience as assistants in Hollywood to share their stories.
Dozens did, one of whom was Liz Alper, a Writer’s Guild of America board member (and currently a producer on ABC’s The Rookie). She coined the hashtag #PayUpHollywood on Twitter and galvanised downbeaten assistants to open up about their experiences by sharing some of her own.
“I’m a professional writer now, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a hard time, and I don’t think things have gotten better for assistants financially or in the workplace,” Alper says. Assistants’ wages, she says, have decreased in the last 10 years, with many working for just $12 an hour, the minimum wage in California. This is despite the fact that the cost of living in the state is rising sharply, with a 3.2% jump between 2018 and 2019.
Within a few weeks of the first #PayUpHollywood tweet, the movement had gained a huge amount of traction online, and a survey, completed by 1,500 current and former assistants published by Variety in December revealed a darker side to the story.
Twenty-three per cent of respondents said they had turned to substance abuse to cope with the demands of the job. Ninety-three per cent said their job causes them anxiety, while 66% reported feeling depressed as a result of their work environment. Another 68% said they had to work second jobs to cover their living expenses, with 47% serving in support roles for upwards of three years.
“I was lucky that my side gig was babysitting and I was getting paid literally twice as much money, in cash,” Brit, 34, who worked as a director’s assistant on network sitcoms for three and a half years in the late 00s, says. But, like many others in her position, she was left without healthcare for significant portions of the year. Some assistants hired as contractors through agencies go without it entirely.
“One time I was hit by a car on set, and it was before my healthcare had kicked in,” Brit says, “so I went to the hospital and they were like, ‘oh, your healthcare hasn’t started yet.’” She left without treatment, and later left her position without the internal promotion she was hoping for.
The disparity between assistants and staff writers is huge. “I’m the highest-paid assistant on a staff,” Joelle, 34, who currently works as a script coordinator at the union-regulated salary of $16.63 an hour, says. “And if I got promoted to a staff writer, my salary would almost quadruple.”
Alper says the low wages are blocking people from lower-class backgrounds, historically less privileged communities and people with disabilities from entering the industry.
“One of the things that I was very aware of was how few writers of colour there were,” Alper, who is mixed race, says, “and quite frankly, one of the things I keep hearing over and over again is ‘I would love to work in Hollywood but I can’t afford to.’”
Stephanie was often the only person of colour on her team, and felt that this put her at a disadvantage.
“I felt like I had to change myself and the way I talked when I went to work, ’cause I didn’t want to freak people out for sounding too black,” she says. “There’s not a lot of black people or people of colour in general in higher positions that can help out and mentor the young people of colour coming in. People go for what they know. It’s like, ‘I’m a white guy named Brad, and I’d rather bring up Matt over here.’”
And it’s not just the wages that are driving workers out of the industry.
“I’ve been verbally abused, I’ve been made to cry multiple times,” Brit says. “I had a boss who had me find him a weed dealer. I had a boss who would go home with women in the middle of the night and call me being like, ‘how do I get home from Brooklyn?’” A male director she worked for asked her to pack up an array of sex toys in his New York apartment and send them to his home in Los Angeles.
Joelle is one of the 71 respondents to the #PayUpHollywood survey who have had an object thrown at them by a superior.
“On one of my post-production [producer’s assistant] jobs, a showrunner was watching a cut that he didn’t like, and in frustration threw a stapler right at me ’cause I happened to be sitting there.” Another time, a staff writer took her high heel at a party and pelted it across the room, demanding that she go and retrieve it. “This was done in front of my co-workers in a joking way, but something like that is so degrading, and contributes to that feeling that you’re less than, and don’t deserve the same amount of respect.”
Joelle says the way assistants are treated is equivalent to “hazing”, that the higher-ups feel like they’ve paid their dues and that they should too. She was also asked to buy drugs for her boss.
Right now, script coordinators like Joelle are the only assistants protected by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union. For this reason, Alper thinks a strike is out of the question.
“We’ve treated assistants as disposable, and my concern is that if there was a walkout or a strike, because they’re not unionised, the next thing to do is hire a whole new crop of assistants and then have thousands of people who are out of work.”
For now, the primary goal of the movement is to spread awareness, with a view to getting powerful people on side.
“Right now we’ve been focusing on educating,” Alper says. “People didn’t realise how bad it’s gotten. We’re holding town halls for the assistants so they’re aware of their legal rights and know who they can talk to when HR or business affairs fails them, or if anyone is pressuring them to do something that is violating labour law. And we’re talking to executives, we’re talking to showrunners. We’re gathering allies so that whatever the next move can be we have the full force of Hollywood on our side.”
And #PayUpHollywood has already started to affect young fledgling writers who were forced out of the industry, like Stephanie. After she tweeted about her experience, an established writer offered her mentorship. All of a sudden, the door has been opened again, if only just a crack.
“This whole movement that’s happening on Twitter has been extremely positive, and I feel more inspired,” she says. “I have an actual outlet and I can connect and network with people, even if I don’t work with them in my nine-to-five.”
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