Three years ago — October 8, 2019 — a writer who went by “Christian” emailed about their experience as a writer’s PA, explaining how they were expected to do the jobs of multiple support staff on a tiny salary. We discussed their email on the show, including the issue of needing to have a car.
Last week at the premiere event for The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror XXXIII (delightful, btw), I met “Christian” in person. They filled me in on what had happened in the past three years.
Some legitimate progress had been made, which Christian felt could be traced to the #PayUpHollywood movement. Their pay had gone up from minimum wage — but not necessarily to a living wage — and conversations about pay were becoming more open. That’s the good news.
Frustratingly, studios were still balking at reimbursing staff for things like assistants’ use of their own cell phones. Showrunners weren’t willing to engage on getting assistant and support staff properly compensated for their hours. It felt like the same grind for a few dollars more.
Christian ended up quitting work as a writer’s PA to focus on their writing, which had gone neglected for two years due to stress and overwork. I asked what advice they’d give to a writer who was looking at taking a coveted showrunner’s assistant job.
Honestly, do it for one show, one season. Learn everything you possibly can. Make contacts. Then get a job as a receptionist at a law firm so you can have the time to write.
This week, Christian wrote in with some follow-up thoughts.
I wanted to thank you for not only graciously listening to me ramble last night, but asking me how things were going. As you could probably assume from what I said, it’s been a lot of ups and downs.
I won’t bug you further with the details behind my experiences, but just want to make it known that my toxic boss and the refusal to provide pay parity or stipends for what we were legally owed was happening on essentially both the studio’s and network’s biggest drama cash cow. So there really isn’t any excuse for nickel and dime-ing the assistants, other than the fact that they can.
But really, it doesn’t matter what the budget is, there’s no excuse for screwing the lowest paid workers out of fair wages when these corporations are making billions of dollars a year. The money is there. They just don’t care.
It doesn’t help that there’s a huge line of people willing to accept things as they are because they believe getting an assistant job is a ticket to staffing. (The person who took over my desk when I left was a previously staffed writer, who had left the industry for personal reasons, and was so hell-bent on getting a foot “back inside” that they accepted the demotion to Showrunner’s Assistant on a desk that doesn’t promote up and isn’t particularly kind. So there were really no consequences to my toxic former boss or the show for behaving so poorly.)
And I’m not sure that there’s an easy solution, because even though my boss was not supportive, I know countless assistants who do have supportive bosses, and even their bosses have gotten stonewalled when trying to help their assistants get paid what they’re owed. One example: a friend’s boss actually carved out the show budget so that there would be enough to pay each assistant $20/hr (this is back in 2019 I believe, well before union negotiations), and the studio refused to allow the Showrunner to pay the assistants that because it would “start a precedent.”
Even today, I have a friend who got promoted to manager at her POD, but is still getting paid at the assistant rate AND having to cover her former boss’s desk because the studio won’t give the POD the budget for a managerial wage and a new assistant until the POD has “more projects in development.” Currently, this POD has the #1 show on its network, a spinoff in the works, and several other projects being pitched around town.
I feel as though ultimately the only solution seems to be to unionize every assistant position at every level, but that is a hefty, years-long goal filled with complications and extra financial barriers for those who are already struggling to make ends meet, or even just to break in.
And in the meantime, I think the only other thing to do is to make it really, REALLY clear that being an assistant isn’t a gateway to becoming a writer anymore. It’s purely a networking tool at this point, and you should use it to build up connections with supportive writers, then get out and find something that pays better with less hours so you can hone your craft (unless, of course, you are lucky enough to land a boss who actually will lift you up). And, just to note from my own job search over the past few months, almost everything pays better for less hours outside of the entertainment industry.
One more thing that I really think assistants need, and I wish that the WGA or even IATSE offered, was a course on financial literacy. I know this isn’t something that’s a problem specific to assistants, or even to this industry, but it’s something I think every assistant would really benefit from, and it would give them more capability to walk away from bad situations, rather than staying because they need the money.
I think the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from becoming financially literate is that you don’t need a lot of money to learn how to better manage it. I was essentially broke when I started to understand my finances. In fact, I think it’s more important to understand money when you don’t have it. Especially if you’re also trying to pay off debt. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and also contemplating in the context of being an assistant.
Sorry for such a novel of an email. After our conversation, I felt there was a lot I had left out that was more useful than what I had actually said, so I hope that this has been of value for your time.