Hollywood assistants are in open revolt. Here’s why
Four years ago, Christina Mondy arrived in Hollywood like many, with big dreams. At 23, hers was to become a showbiz writer. And like many, the Connecticut native was told that, in order to get her foot in the door, she first had to pay her dues as an assistant.
After an unpaid internship at a boutique management and production firm, Mondy landed a job as a full-time assistant at a major talent agency. But instead of pushing her that much closer to realizing her writing ambitions, Mondy says, “it all came crashing down on me.”
Over the course of nearly a year, Mondy worked 50-plus-hour weeks, she said, making $11.25 an hour. Barely getting by, she had to defer her student loans. She said she was subjected to constant verbal abuse by a boss, and that an agent had her stake out a comedy club for weeks to see if a comic he’d noticed on Twitter showed up.
She said she wasn’t reimbursed for gas and was discouraged from seeking overtime pay. When she complained to HR about her treatment, Mondy said, she was told, “Maybe this industry isn’t right for you.” After making a scheduling error, she said, she was fired.
Being an assistant in Hollywood has long ranked among the most thankless jobs in the industry. Subjected to grueling hours, low pay, few benefits or protections and the vagaries of monomaniacal bosses, assistants have largely toiled in silence because it’s been considered a golden ticket to advancement — but no longer.
Now, emboldened by the #MeToo movement and new labor laws protecting gig workers, and galvanized by social media, they are in open revolt, taking the industry to task over its questionable labor practices. More than making noise, they are agitating for serious change during a period of digital upheaval and cost-cutting.
Key findings from a 2017 survey of Hollywood assistants
Mean average salary per month: $3,759
Mean average amount of salary spent on living expenses each month: 70%
People who get financial assistance from their parents: 50.7%
Percentage of people who are not paid for overtime: 32.4%
People who worked as unpaid interns after college: 50%
Note: Based on a survey of 438 assistants
Source: “Awesome Assistants” Facebook group
The plight of Hollywood assistants gained currency last month after “Chernobyl” screenwriter Craig Mazin and John August, writer of “Aladdin,” devoted a portion of their podcast, “Scriptnotes,” to the subject. The screenwriters, former assistants themselves, were deluged with stories after they asked assistants to write to them about their own experiences. Across the board, writers assistants, production assistants, agency assistants, studio assistants and temps told of operating within an immutable system that enabled financial inequity — viewing it as part of the job.
“BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg on assistants’ fair pay fight, upheaval at Deadspin and whether Netflix gave ‘Tuca & Bertie’ a fair shake.
Liz Alper, a TV writer and Writers Guild of America West board member, recently launched the #PayUpHollywood hashtag on Twitter, tackling head-on the rationales given for maintaining the status quo, then created a link where assistants could share their stories anonymously. Within 24 hours, she had received 74 replies.
“I wasn’t surprised by the scope of the reaction,” said Alper, whose career trajectory began as an assistant. “People have been speaking about and telling these stories for a long time. Now, for the first time, the public started listening, and people inside and outside of Hollywood have started paying attention.”
The Times spoke to a dozen current and former assistants across the industry. They all describe a world where they are made to feel at once disposable and grateful, where the expense of living in Los Angeles eclipses their wages, where they have few benefits, little actual mentorship and face the specter of retaliation if they complain.
Deirdre Mangan, a writer on the CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico” who is working with Alper to improve conditions for assistants, recalled having $100,000 in student debt and being able to take her first job as a writer’s assistant 10 years ago only because she lived with her rich boyfriend and didn’t have to pay rent.
She said not much had changed in 10 years. “There is no one speaking up for assistants,” Mangan said. “It’s easy to keep wages the same. If one person can’t take the job, there are hundreds who will take $400 a week behind them.”
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.
The Hollywood assistant pool has long been considered the proving ground for would-be agents, writers, producers and directors. In something of a Faustian bargain, assistants pay their dues, fetching coffee, answering phones, handling mail, maintaining schedules and dealing with mercurial bosses. In exchange, they get to learn the business and make valuable connections up close in real time with the promise of getting their foot in the door. A number of prominent executives, including Endeavor chief and uber-agent Ari Emanuel, Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen and Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke got their starts as assistants.
But the path to advancement for assistants has been narrowed by industry shifts. While there is more content being produced than ever, thanks largely to a growing streaming universe, studios and agencies are contending with economic pressures caused by shrinking DVD sales, box office returns and TV syndication revenues. Shorter seasons, longer hiatuses and the increase in limited series have greatly impacted residuals and opportunities while introducing more financial insecurity.
“The main thing to keep in mind is the fact that being an assistant in Hollywood has been viewed as a mechanism to get access to and basically be a producer, an agent, or become something with a higher-paid, significant profile,” said Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute’s Center for Regional Economics. “The catch is that it’s gotten more expensive to live and work in Hollywood, and with short-form shows and quicker productions there is greater disruption without a guarantee of advancement.”
At the same time, assistants’ wages have largely remained flat. Although there is no independent data on salaries, wages have generally not adjusted for inflation and have increased largely because of mandatory minimum-wage laws.
And in an industry that has placed a premium on diversity, assistants’ low wages serve as yet another barrier to other voices seeking entree into the business.
The private Facebook group Awesome Assistants (now shuttered) collected salary and pay information from over 400 assistants across the industry in 2017. It found that the average monthly salary was $3,759, with 25.3% of those supplying numbers saying they worked 50 hours a week, 12.6% working 60-plus hours and only 9.4% working a 40-hour week. The survey also found that 50.7% of the assistants received financial assistance from their parents.
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.”
Assistants at several talent agencies described an overall ethos where they were discouraged from putting in for overtime, and that the practice has accelerated at some agencies in recent months as a way to cut costs. The Writers Guild of America in April instructed members to “fire” their agents in a dispute over industry practices.
A former WME assistant described how the agency’s assistants were expected to get their work done between the hours of 9 and 6 but that it was nearly impossible to do so.
“There was an onerous process in place to submit overtime,” said the former assistant, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. “The mentality was, don’t use [it], and no one told you how to apply for it. Within the company it looked bad if you did, like you weren’t dedicated to the job.”
He recalled a cohort who was in the office so late he ended up sleeping there. “But he didn’t get overtime,” he said.
A spokeswoman for WME disputed the claim that the agency discouraged overtime pay. She said each assistant automatically had 10 hours of overtime allotted into their paycheck each week, with further overtime requiring supervisor preapproval.
Representatives of Creative Artists Agency and ICM Partners declined to comment.
By one estimate, there are over 4,000 assistants working in Hollywood. The vast majority of them aren’t unionized, but last year script coordinators and writers assistants banded together to join Local 871 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The move extended employment protections and such benefits as pensions and healthcare. It also established the minimum scale for writers assistants at $14.57 an hour, and $16.63 an hour for script coordinators. Those rates will increase 3% next January.
According to Jessica Kivnik and Debbie Ezer, who both worked on the unionizing effort, previous attempts to organize under the Writers Guild of America were rebuffed.
“Other people in classifications approached the WGA asking for assistance in organizing but were refused,” said Kivnik, a script coordinator on the Amazon series “Bosch.” “We came to IATSE 871 not specifically out of preference but of necessity.”
A spokesman for the WGA said in a statement it supported improving working conditions for Hollywood assistants but that “their job duties don’t include writing services under the jurisdiction” of the Writers Guild of America West.
Ezer, a former lawyer and currently a script coordinator, said it was important to unionize. “I wanted to see basic protections at the assistant level because they are the most vulnerable,” she said. “None of us are in these positions because we want to be assistants for life. We all want to move up.”
But almost immediately, a number of assistants said, the studios pushed back, with many using minimum rates as standard wages.
In the furor after the “Scriptnotes” podcast, there was talk of a walkout or strike. There were also stories of show-runners going to bat for assistants, but their largesse remains a stopgap measure since it is studios and production executives who control the purse strings.
Many like Liz Alper and Deirdre Mangan are working to translate the current noise into permanent action. They are collecting data on salaries and working conditions for assistants and examining whether existing state law needs to be updated.
Given that most assistants aspire to other roles in Hollywood, formal unionization may not make sense, says Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” whose current season features an assistants strike. But he supports short-term organization of assistants to identify concrete next steps.
“What is a fair wage for an assistant to get in this day and age?” he asked. “I would love for some maybe informal standards to be set. I would love to put pressure on companies to maybe sign a pledge of some sort.”
Last year, after slogging through a few more assistantships, Mondy walked away from the industry altogether.
“I’m not done with writing,” she said. “But I’ll never be an assistant again.”
Times TV editor Matt Brennan contributed to this report.
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