One of my first jobs in Hollywood was as an assistant. It was 1994. I was just finishing film school, and felt lucky to get a job working for two busy producers. I spent my days answering phones, reading scripts and making copies. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was exactly the position I knew I needed, learning how the business works.
My assistant salary1 was enough to pay rent, buy groceries, and see all the movies I could. I wrote on nights and weekends. Like every assistant I knew, I aspired to bigger things. I managed to get an agent, get some meetings, and eventually get hired to write a feature. In all, I spent about two years in assistant-dom.
Since then, I’ve had nine incredible assistants — all of them aspiring writers — so I want to believe I still have a connection to what that experience is like. But my sample size is obviously limited.
On a recent episode of Scriptnotes, we asked listeners to write in with their experiences as assistants, focusing on the impact of their low wages. To my surprise, we got by far the most mail we’ve ever received on a topic — more than 100 emails at last count. Scriptnotes producer Megana Rao made a 26-page reading packet for us that covered the highlights, from which we excerpted sections for the podcast.
In this post, I want to go into deeper depth on a few issues. As on the show, we’ve changed names and identifying characteristics in these emails.
There is a widespread assumption that assistant jobs are for those “right out of college.” But in 2019, this is fundamentally not true.
Most of my friends who are getting their first staff writer jobs right now logged at least a decade in assistant positions. I became a WGA member and still had to keep taking assistant jobs for years after that, and so did many of my peers. Now of course, some folks get big breaks quicker than others, and move out of assistant jobs much faster — that’s always been the case. But for the vast majority of us right now, the days of being a writers’ assistant for one year and then getting a staff job are mostly over.
A staff writer job used to be viewed as an apprentice job (hence staff writers not getting script fees). Nowadays, showrunners are increasingly wanting experienced writers in those positions, often with multiple episodic credits already. There’s so much more competition now that showrunners can afford to set the bar that high.
However, if assistant jobs are still being paid like they’re for people who are “right out of college,” this becomes an enormous problem as assistants get older. It’s one thing to make such a paltry salary at 22, when you’re living the Ramen lifestyle, and have roommates, and are on your parents’ health insurance, and you’re maybe still driving their car, etc. But if you’re making basically the same amount at 32, when your financial needs have changed significantly, these jobs actually become MORE unsustainable the longer you’re in the industry and the more experience you have.
To me, this is the crux of the issue. Decision-makers — people in their 40s and 50s — imagine these jobs as being filled by their younger selves. What are they complaining about? they ask. I was an underpaid assistant, too!
These decision-makers are making two fundamental mistakes. First, they’re assuming that assistants are pretty much exactly like, well, me in 1994: white Americans just out of college with no kids and little debt who often have parents that can help out with expenses.
Second, these decision-makers are ignoring how much has changed since they were assistants two decades ago. A non-exhaustive list:
- Los Angeles has gotten much more expensive.
- Assistants stay assistants longer than they used to.
- Owning a car is still essential, and costs more.
- Medical insurance is pricier.
- Short seasons make it harder to advance.
This last point merits a closer look. Barry again:
I currently work on a successful tv show. I worked for five months on the first season, then we took nine months off, then I worked for five months on the second season, they we took AN ENTIRE YEAR OFF before the third season started.
It should be pretty clear why the folks who make the least amount of money — and have the fewest contacts, and don’t have agents/managers repping them for other jobs — are going to be hit hardest in a scenario where the new world order is that the majority of jobs only last a couple months. This is a huge difference even from when I started in the industry, where getting a job on a hit show would AT LEAST mean that you had a few years of steady work before you had to start looking again.
In the old days of 22-episode season orders, it was not uncommon to promote a writer’s assistant to staff writer after the second or third season. At that point, the showrunner had plenty of experience seeing what that writer could do. But almost no streaming show runs for 40 or more episodes — and if they do, it would be after many years, with frequent breaks.
I am a Writer’s PA (WPA). I have been working as an assistant in various executive and personal capacities for more than five years now. This is my third show as a Writer’s PA, though I’ve also been a Showrunner’s Assistant (SA) in the past.
You may be asking why I’ve been working for five years as an assistant, with SA experience, and am working as a WPA now. To keep a long story short, with streaming keeping rooms small and wrapping before production starts, there’s not a lot of growth potential for assistants on streaming shows. None of the ones I’ve worked so far have heard whether or not they’re getting renewed, and with wages so low, there’s only so long you can hold out on unemployment before having to take the next gig, even if it is a demotion.
Unintentionally or not, making sure assistants are not paid enough to build up a savings cushion between gigs is one of the ways in which the system benefits our employers. Many of us are so desperate to pay rent that we’ll accept the low-ball offer, because at least we’re getting paid. Those of us who try to negotiate are dropped from consideration for someone more desperate and ready to accept the low pay.
I’m still getting paid minimum wage. Because that is the “industry standard” for WPAs. Because being a WPA is considered an entry-level position, even when most showrunners are looking for–and receiving resumes from–assistants with experience.
What’s worse is that this production model of “room first, production later” is putting a LOT more responsibility on the Writers’ Room support staff. I’ve opened two rooms now, both without the help of a production office or production accountant. I’ve done the work of a production coordinator, office manager, and production accountant. I was the financial approver for the Writers’ offices on two of my shows, which meant any time we needed the studio lot where our offices were located to do something for us, I had to “approve” the studio charges.
The studio also made it VERY clear that they wouldn’t hire a Script Coordinator until production started (so after our rooms wrapped). Well, no surprise, there are script coordinator duties that have to be done the second writers start to write, so the burden to proof, distro, and handle contractual paperwork fell to me. Many times I found myself contemplating the ironies of being the lowest paid assistant on the show, stuck doing the highest paid assistant’s duties without title or pay bump. (Note: I was recently informed by an IATSE Union rep that this breaks union rules. I had no idea.)
Again: these are just two out of more than 100 emails we received on this topic. Then on Sunday, the #PayUpHollywood hashtag started trending with more horror stories.
I don’t know why the dam suddenly broke open, but my hope is that by engaging assistants, showrunners, agents and executives we can start to grapple with the inequities that are making assistant jobs unsurvivable for many folks who want to work in this industry. Both on the podcast and this blog we’ll be sharing more stories and solutions as they come up.
- I originally put this as $550/week — $952/week in 2019 dollars — but I’m now doubting my memory. Was it actually $425, or even lower? I don’t have any pay stubs or tax returns to check. Perhaps a better yardstick is rent: It was enough that I could afford to live alone in a 1-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, which in itself seems incredible. ↩