It’s a Thursday at the end of the month, which can mean only one thing if you’re an assistant in entertainment: payday. After pulling a long 60-hour week plus overtime, you are counting on every penny of this check to pay your rent, your car payment, your student loan bill, and pray you have enough left to make a small dent on that credit card. You check your bank account for the deposit…
$700. Or maybe, for you, this check looks more like $500 after tax. For many, it’s less.
To some readers, this may sound like a reasonable amount of money. But those of us living in cities like New York or Los Angeles – because that’s where the jobs are – know all too well that these wages won’t come close to covering our cost of living.
Maybe you have to ask your parents to send you some extra cash to cover your expenses, and that’s only assuming you have parents with the financial means to help. You can’t possibly ask for a raise; your big-name Hollywood employer “can’t afford” to pay you more, or so it has been explained to you every time you try to negotiate. You start to believe it’s not even worth fighting anymore. Maybe you pile on more debt, hoping beyond hope that a promotion (and, uh, a raise?) is near. Maybe you’re forced to quit and move back home. Welcome to Hollywood. This is how it’s always been. You have to pay your dues.
What is #PayUpHollywood?
Assistants across the industry have had enough, and are speaking out against stagnant wages, high barriers to entry, and limited opportunities for growth with the hashtag #PayUpHollywood. A recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast hosted by screenwriters John August (Aladdin) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), accompanied by the hashtag started by TV writer Liz Alper, rekindled the fire assistants are now using to light the way to better pay.
The primary motivation behind the #PayUpHollywood movement is to call out the hypocrisy of an industry that – to the public – bemoans a lack of diversity at the top creative levels. Behind the scenes, however, major studios and their executives are the ones enforcing the low pay that prohibits a truly diverse workforce from growing at the bottom. Today’s assistant wages are only livable for those who already have another significant source of income, i.e. contributions from their parents.
Why now? Hollywood assistants have always been paid low wages. You knew what you were getting yourselves into.
Part of what’s kept this system going so long is that a lot of us with privilege have not been straight-up about how we can afford to survive at the wages we make. The truth is: we can’t! And if we can’t, that means that our friends whose parents don’t have the means to financially support them really can’t. We need to level the playing field, and the way we do that is with cold, hard, cash, which this industry has in abundant supply. A lot of us have seen the budgets. We know where the money is needlessly being spent. Studios: we know what you’re doing, and we need you to do better.
Here are some of the major issues #PayUpHollywood seeks to address:
The Education Wall
If you are fortunate enough to have an assistant job in the entertainment industry, chances are you have a bachelor’s degree. Many have a master’s. Most industry employers require or “strongly prefer” a college degree for even the lowest-level coffee-fetching gigs. Graduating from a top film school like USC or NYU will help you get noticed by employers who also attended those schools.
Internships (whether paid or not), for those lucky enough to be able to live and study in LA or New York, provide extremely valuable industry connections to the already-privileged. If you couldn’t afford to go to college, or you live far from any major industry hub (LA, New York, Atlanta, or Vancouver, to name the big ones), you’re already starting at the back of a very long line of hungry assistant-hopefuls. These are the people who can afford to work for minimum wage.
Studios, agencies, shows, production companies, and the like need to remove the college degree requirement from their entry-level job posts. You absolutely do not need a $200,000 film degree to pick up lunches and answer the phone. Ideally, an assistant job should serve as your industry education.
Requiring a college degree, plus experience in the form of internships, all but guarantees that only the most financially privileged people have a shot at rising through the ranks. In David Rensin’s book “The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up,” one insider even admitted that the practice of requiring a college degree was designed to keep “minority applicants” out of their office. It’s yet another paywall to the industry that needs to be torn down.
“Sorry, we can’t promote you right now.”
I recently asked assistants on Twitter, “How long have you been working at the assistant level?” I have received over 50 responses to date, with many people answering that they’d been assistants for more than five years. Some more than ten.
The advice we received from our industry elders was that starting at the assistant level would be the fastest and most effective way to achieve our aspirations of becoming writers, directors, producers, or execs. Today, many of us find ourselves still scraping by on low assistant wages with several years of experience, and no promotion in sight.
This stagnant mobility could be due to a number of factors: higher-ups staying in their jobs longer out of financial necessity, studios consolidating positions across all levels to save money, and the prevalence of short-order seasons in which assistants only work for a few months at a time before they’re off to the next gig or, more likely, unemployed. With no growth, many assistants find themselves financially unable to tough it out for the long haul.
It used to be the norm that a person entering the industry at the assistant level would be able to move up in under five years, be it as a staff writer or a lower-level creative exec. But now, it is not realistic to expect that we can survive on such low wages for such long periods of time. The sustained paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle wreaks financial havoc on even the most privileged among us. Struggling for so long with no light at the end of the tunnel forces many of us to leave the industry altogether, even after a significant investment of time.
Out-of-Pocket or Out-of-a-Job
Another hidden financial issue we face today is an expectation to cover some work-related costs out of our own pockets. This could look like a production assistant having to cover lunch-budget overages (even when they paid with a company card), or being discouraged from reporting accurate mileage in order to be reimbursed for gas.
Studios and accounting departments put an ill-conceived onus on the lowest-level employees to be responsible for keeping highly-paid writers and production staff on budget. Often, these are people who are not used to being told, “no,” particularly not by someone who ranks so far beneath them. Some assistants figure it’s not worth risking their job to fight the overages, and will pay out of their own pockets to avoid the potential conflict.
Okay, so what can I do to help?
- Talk to your boss or a trusted coworker of authority: none of us want to sound like we are complaining, but our silence is what maintains the status quo. Over the past few weeks, industry higher-ups have been shocked at the stories they’ve heard about assistant wages and treatment. They didn’t know! Because we didn’t tell them! There are good people working at all levels of this industry, but they can’t be our allies unless we make them aware of the issues.
- Higher-ups: look for ways to help. Can you contribute to a birthday fund at the beginning of the year? If you’re a showrunner, can you negotiate higher pay for your support staff as part of your contract with the studio? Remember, you are the ones that create the products that earn their profits. You have the bargaining power here. Please use it to better this industry at all levels.
- Assistants need to organize and support one another. Reach out to your assistant friends (particularly if they are women or people of color) and ask how they are doing and how you can help them. Be transparent about your wages, particularly if you have financial help from outside sources. This industry thrives on assistant competition. It’s that competition that keeps all of our wages low. Speak to each other. Support each other. Your livelihood depends on it.