The other day, I was listening to Scriptnotes, a podcast hosted by Craig Mazin (creator of Chernobyl) and John August (writer of Disney’s Aladdin), and one of the issues they brought up was the treatment of production assistants (PA’s) in Hollywood. The question they asked their listeners was (paraphrasing), what is going to be the next obvious issue that people outside of Hollywood aren’t talking about yet? And the answer: how little PA’s are paid.
Hollywood has backed many social causes including #MeToo and #TimesUp, and now assistants within the industry are trying to hold their bosses and insiders accountable for fair pay with #PayUpHollywood.
What exactly do assistants do? They do some of what you would expect (e.g. taking care of day-to-day errands, making copies, running out to get food, etc), and some of what you might not know about (e.g. working 12-16 hour days, doing whatever your boss tells you even if it’s unreasonable, etc). And they barely make above minimum wage doing it.
Not only are assistants paid practically nothing, many of them are also expected to have a car. And since cost of living in L.A. has been outpacing the wages, assistants may have to live far away in order to find an affordable apartment. And sometimes, assistants are required to have Bachelor’s degrees in writing, which usually comes with hefty student loans. All of these extra expenses means that assistants increasingly need to come from privileged backgrounds, and thus the industry becomes less diverse than it already is.
Among the issues being aired: expensive job requirements (nice clothes, for example, or a car), workweeks that regularly reach 60 hours or more, untenable working conditions, and the inability to keep up with L.A.’s cost of living. And in an industry that has been attempting to bring diversity to its ranks, low pay drives out those without the wherewithal to live on assistant wages alone. (Source)
Another point brought up during Scriptnotes was working as a hired PA versus being a temporary worker. One assistant wrote in to the show that being a Temp was more lucrative (double the pay, in the $30/hour range) than being hired—so then what’s wrong with temping? Here’s the rub: temporary employees can be fired at any time for just about any reason, and also the company that hires them doesn’t have to pay for their benefits (health care being the most obvious issue here, and another reason why your health care shouldn’t be tied to your employment).
So, if being an assistant is so terrible (because in addition to low pay there is often abuse), why do people stay with it? Usually assistants are trying to break into the industry and accepting lower work is a good way to get to make connections. But, because there are so many people who want to work in Hollywood, and many assistants are not unionized, anyone with a job is easily replaced (and thus less likely to speak up about abuse).
Taylor Brogan, 27, a writers assistant currently on hiatus from a show on a prominent streaming platform, says assistants used to work for one or two years before advancing to a higher level. Now, they typically work five or even 10 years, going from show to show.
“The sense is that you should be grateful to have a job when you have literally hundreds of people in line to take the job you have,” said Brogan, who has worked as an assistant since 2014. “It’s definitely hard not to feel that pressure. I was that person with an advanced degree begging to pick up people’s lunches for $12 an hour. The hope is, eventually this will all pay off for my dream of writing TV and show-running and I’ll make enough to pay off debt. I’m banking on my future.” (Source)
Can the studios afford to pay assistants more? Considering the fact that they routinely pay millions of dollars to hire talent, their bottom line will likely not suffer much by increasing pay for lower-level (but essential) employees.
Many hold in poor esteem the studios, which in their eyes are multi-billion-dollar conglomerates that routinely shell out millions for expensive productions but engage in budget-cutting at the support-staff level to save money — allegedly slashing hours, refusing to pay above union minimums and combining writers’ assistant and script coordinator roles.
“The network show I work on has a huge budget per episode,” says one script coordinator, who prefers to remain anonymous out of concern of professional retaliation. “I’m not breaking that budget by making $16.63 an hour.” (Source)
The treatment of assistants is so bad, one assistant wrote about how their pay was almost garnished because the writers’ room spent too much on lunch:
Hannah Davis, now a script coordinator for the HBO show “Perry Mason,” recalled how during her first job three years ago as a writer’s assistant at a television network, she received a letter from the network’s accountant telling her she had gone over the allotted lunch budget and the overage would be deducted from her paycheck. Davis made $600 a week, and one of her tasks was ordering lunch for the writers room.
“I was a baby PA and it wasn’t cool to tell a writer, ‘Sorry you want extra salmon; we can’t afford it,” she said. She was lucky: The writers offered to pool together $50 a month to cover any future lunch budget overruns. (Source)
Why do employers keep paying less than a living wage for more than full time work? Not only because they can, but because there is this attitude of “I had to suffer, therefore you should too.” As if working for a living is some sort of cruel hazing ritual. Being a PA is already hard (again, 60 hour work weeks, not including networking events or commuting from an affordable apartment) without the meager pay and abuse.
So what will be done about these pay issues? Some assistants have been talking about organizing a strike so that the people around them will actually be confronted with how valuable their work is. The downside to that is that employers may try to hire only non-union workers. Hopefully as this issue gets more visibility, companies will be forced to raise wages and hire unionized workers. It might also be a good idea to see some salary transparency (especially on TV shows and movies based around confronting social justice issues).
There’s no easy answer to how to make things better, but at least we are all talking about it.
Image Source: “Iconic” by RuggyBearLA is licensed under CC BY 2.0