This letter by a writers room PA who had to pay out of pocket for others’ lunches struck a nerve. Scriptnotes producer Megana Rao has been reading many similar horror stories from assistants, but she’s also come across a few emails that demonstrate writers stepping up for their assistants.
Back in 2016 I was working as a writers PA on a Fox show and it was a great experience. Even though I was just a PA, they allowed me to sit in the writers room while they worked and join them in the edit bay while they watched early cuts of episodes. I was even able to pitch, and a few of my jokes managed to make the final cut.
I was paid minimum wage with no benefits and no box rental, but once my position wrapped, the writing staff pulled their money together to give me an envelope with $500 cash. They also did the same for the showrunner’s assistant and script coordinator. A few of the EPs also gifted us bottles of whiskey and custom t-shirts.
It was a wonderful work experience, probably the best I’ll have in this industry, and I was very sad when Fox cancelled the show. I’m still friends with many of those on the writing staff and they’ve helped me since we parted ways.
Circumstances made this a fairly stressful show for the EPs, but they never took it out on those of us at the bottom of the totem pole.
Showrunner Michael Green has a formula for calculating how much a writers room should gift the assistant(s) at the holidays. (Most assistants don’t get paid for the two-week break.)
A frequent issue we’ve heard is that the hourly rate isn’t everything; for many assistants overtime is what makes the job survivable.
I started a job as a showrunner’s assistant on a network show in May of 2017. I made $15.14 an hour with a 60 hour a week guarantee.
When the show was cancelled in the fall of 2018, I decided to stay with my (amazing and talented) boss under his studio overall deal. My hourly rate went up. HOWEVER, I was only allowed to work 40 hours a week. Yes, allowed. No overtime, period. Luckily, my boss helped mitigate some of the loss by paying me out of his own pocket. Even with my boss’s extra help, my salary still went down that year by $12,000!
Recently, my boss’s show was picked up to series, and I was promoted to writers’ assistant. But the studio policy is to pay their writers’ assistants LESS than showrunners’ assistants, despite the fact that it is a promotion and a much more time-consuming job. My boss was able to fight for me to get a raise, but it was a fight. This is not exclusive to this particular studio, in fact, I’ve heard that my studio pays better than the other studios and streamers.
The studios will also do a move on pilots where one assistant does multiple assistant jobs but only gets paid for one. For instance, I was the showrunner’s assistant on the pilot but also acted as script coordinator. During this time period, because the show was not picked up yet, I was still paid NO OVERTIME, despite the fact that I was working far more than 60 hours a week and doing two jobs.
I LOVE my job. I had the most awesome time during that year of development, and I learned a ton. But if I did not have some help from my parents, I wouldn’t have survived the year of May 2018-May 2019. I DO have privilege, and it was still a very frugal year. It isn’t livable for someone without my privilege, period end of story. Not on its own.
Many assistants without parental help end up taking on second jobs like script reading or even bartending. But they burn out. And they’re completely unable to write on the weekends. How can we expect those people to do their jobs well, much less move up the ladder and become staff writers?
Several listeners noted that they’ve found success when the assistant and showrunner are on the same page before business affairs gets involved.
Before taking this job, I nervously asked about the pay, ready to walk away.However, from the start this showrunner had demanded a guaranteed 60 hours of pay for the assistant position with the previous assistant and demanded that they keep the same rate for me. The previous assistant also assured me that I would rarely be expected to work more than 40 hours–the bosses were happy to sign off knowing that this was the work around that allowed an assistant to make enough to live.Those extra 10 hours of OT, combined with getting free lunch every day, made enough of a difference to take the job. But I still wasn’t making as much as I had working for a partner at a big agency, so things were tight.
A year in, the Big Boss decided to take the company independent even though doing so meant that all of the operational costs of running the company would now be his sole responsibility. Still, as part of the new arrangement he upped my pay to a weekly salary of $1000 ($25 per hour for a 40 hour week) and paid for my health insurance.
There were a ton of other small things that both of my bosses did to take care of me and the others who worked under them. This showrunner is known for promoting heavily from within. He set the tone that continued when he stepped away from showrunning to develop more. WAs, SAs, and WPAs all have consistently gotten to write episodes of the show.
Perhaps these examples aren’t as much advocating on an assistants’ behalf as they are taking personal initiative to make sure assistants are taken care of. But in thinking about it, I never could have taken the job in the first place if it didn’t come with that 60 hour guarantee.From the start he used his pull when he first landed his overall to make sure the starting salary for the assistant role was significantly more than the studio was offering. It was a really great job, and I know from experience, they often aren’t.
Been an assistant for many years now and have gotten over my shyness about asking for a living wage (plus, you tend to be offered the minimum to start, and as an experienced assistant, I feel I can and should ask for more). In general, I’ve found most people respect politeness, and I always negotiate knowing that the studio is a business and is advocating for themselves; it’s not a personal thing. Usually, it’s all sorted out within a few emails.
But after being hired on a new show with a boss I’d never worked for before, Business Affairs simply wasn’t coming up from their number… at all. Someone from the department eventually called me to say my requests were “outrageous.” I explained that I was simply looking to match my quote from my prior show, and I was happy to loop in the showrunner, whom I’d told my previous rate to before I was hired, if that helped.
The person on the phone told me I could do that if I wanted, but offered me some “free advice” — I could tell my boss I wanted more money, but I should ask myself what that said about me. “Why was I taking the job. Was I looking to learn… or looking to get paid?” I was so stunned, I simply said I’d reach out to the showrunner and be in touch once I’d heard back.
Showrunner agreed to my rate immediately. I took the position, but I always wished I’d said something to that Business Affairs person on the phone. You can say no to my rate anytime you’d like, but it’s shameful to imply that asking for fair compensation for a job I am performing for your company in any way means that I am ungrateful for the opportunity.
Assistants are nervous to push for the money they deserve because they really want the job. Not any job — this job. Many Hollywood assistants have resumes that could be earning them six figures in other industries, but they want to work in film and television.
These jobs are worth a lot, but so are these assistants. The industry needs to pay a fair wage.