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How the dream entry-level job in Hollywood became a never-ending, low-pay nightmare

Hollywood writers’ assistants and script coordinators have banded together in the social media movement #IALivingWage to demand better pay.

How the dream entry-level job in Hollywood became a never-ending, low-pay nightmare
[Source photo: Roberto Nickson/Unsplash]
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Amy Paulette Hartman arrived in Los Angeles in 2012 to embark on her dream: landing a job in TV. At 25 years old with a graduate degree from Tisch Asia, a (now shuttered) branch of New York University’s acclaimed Tisch School of the Arts, she was poised for success.

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Things got off to a promising start. After working as a film producer’s assistant, she was accepted into NBC’s Page Program, where young, ambitious Hollywood hopefuls are rotated around internships in the conglomerate’s film and TV units. That led to a series of assistant jobs, first on the Fox series Minority Report; then on Marvel’s The Defenders on Netflix; then Salvation at CBS; then Mr. Robot on USA Network; and finally a show on Paramount Plus.

In one way, Hartman has been very fortunate. All the shows she’s worked on are well-known and successful, even if none have been on the level of a network megahit like This is Us. Yet she now finds herself, at 34, still grasping for the brass ring of an actual TV writer’s job (i.e., a staff writer position) and struggling to make ends meet on stop-and-go jobs that have never paid more than $17 an hour. 

Long the gateway to a career in television, writer’s assistant jobs—which require taking notes as staff writers brainstorm script ideas and then turning those notes into a concrete road map (as well as being a round-the-clock help desk to writers)—are notoriously low-paying. The current union minimum is $16 an hour. Nonetheless, the job has always held a powerful allure and attracted an avalanche of applicants, as it’s a way for a young person to get their foot in the door, with the assumption that in a few years’ time they’ll move up the ladder.  

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But as Hartman and many others have found, “the ladder has been disappearing,” she says. “For the longest time, back 10, 15, 20 years ago, when the network model was more king, you’d get on whatever NBC show and you’d work for nine months out of the year. There’d be 22 episodes, and by and large the shows would run many seasons. A lot of showrunners and upper-level writers—but especially studio executives—still think that that’s the world we’re living in and that all of us working in these positions are like two years out of college and just paying our dues. But the landscape of the industry has changed dramatically.”

The plight—and pay—of today’s writers’ assistants and other Hollywood craftspeople represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is at the heart of negotiations between that union and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents producers and studios. Areas on the bargaining table, according to a joint statement by IATSE locals, include “sustainable pension and health benefits, reasonable rest, improved working conditions, and livable wages,” not just for writers’ assistants, but also for other support positions such as script coordinators (also a springboard job to TV writing), broadcast technicians, and makeup artists.

The talks broke off in mid-June and are slated to pick back up again this week.

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By all accounts, there is much work to be done. Union leaders have said that “very little progress” has been made so far and that the two sides “remain far apart in the most important areas.” To rally for their cause, in late June writers’ assistants took to social media to share their war stories, uniting under the hashtag #IALivingWage. “Assistant for 6 years before I landed 1st staffing gig. Racked up $77,867 in credit card debt, was homeless for 3 weeks and had to live in my car, and I worked on BIG shows. This was 2010. Assistants still make the same $ in 2021! How is that POSSIBLE?” tweeted Michael Brandon Guercio. 

The fight isn’t just about making life more comfortable for young writers dreaming of succeeding in an industry that virtually prints money for its top creators. (The Writers Guild of America minimum for a TV staff writer is $5,069 per week, not to mention the $100 million contracts signed by top showrunners like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes.) It’s about opening up an industry that has long favored the privileged class in part because the only way in is through low-paying, assistant-type jobs, whether at talent agencies and film studios or in TV writers’ rooms.

It’s no secret that Hollywood has been fueled by white applicants who are able to get by with parental support and/or who have the luxury of not having to make a sustainable living right out of the gate. TV writers’ rooms are so historically white (and male) that it’s practically a trope. As one writer’s assistant told me, “People who have made it, who broke through the mold and had their own show at 26, they went to USC [the University of Southern California], they’re extremely wealthy, or their parents are in the industry. I’m not saying they’re not talented, that’s just the way it is.”

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Elite favoritism continues on up the food chain. “There is a very famous showrunner who only hires people from Yale,” the assistant continues. “It’s, like, known. There’s a lot of that.” (The Harvard Lampoon is another famous feeder route that’s staffed shows like The Simpsons and The Office.) “I think that’s changing a little bit, but you have to go out of your way to hire certain people of certain demographics. We wanted a nonbinary person on our team, and there were only like four people who even had the experience necessary.”

At a time when Hollywood is proclaiming to want to be more diverse and to reflect that in its TV shows and movies, making one of its major on-ramps more accessible seems like a logical place to start. 

More is Less 

On the surface, the problem doesn’t make sense. With more shows than ever on TV and streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max, shouldn’t there be more work for all levels of writers? And more promotions? 

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Alas, no. The reality of more TV and fractured audiences getting their fix not just on Netflix but also TikTok is “smaller rooms, smaller orders,” Hartman says. The days of 22-episode seasons are long gone, or are at least extremely rare, replaced by seasons that last 10 or even just 8 or 6 episodes. This means fewer weeks of work, and fewer writers hired for those weeks. Writers’ rooms that once had a dozen or more writers on staff now have as few as four, which affects the number of assistants hired. 

More episodes also meant more work to go around, and more opportunities for writers’ assistants to get a crack at writing an episode. “When you had episode orders that are 22 or 24, a lot of people would get part of an episode (to write) or an episode as an assistant,” Hartman says. “So even if you were being paid $12 an hour, if you split an episode fee with someone, that’s $12,000. That’s a huge financial boost for those of us in really underpaid positions.”  

Shows today also can’t be relied on to last very long. “It’s one show in a blue moon that even makes it to a second season,” Hartman adds. “I’ve been on so many one-and-done shows. It’s heartbreaking, because you make inroads proving yourself to writers and impressing them with your pitches. I’ve been on shows where I was going to be promoted to staff writer, then it got canceled, then you start all over.”

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Veteran TV producer Rob Long, who got his start as a staff writer on Cheers when he was 24, echoes this sentiment. “Because the shows have such short runs, you’re starting from the beginning each time. Everyone is, not just writers’ assistants but also low-level writers. So you do see a lot of stalls in people’s careers.”  

COVID-19 tightened the squeeze when TV show productions were put on hold or slowed down, and many writers’ assistants saw their hours cut down to 40 per week from 60, the industry standard. There was the option of taking unemployment, which at $1,000 a week was actually more money, but that would mean losing a job that, even with its challenges, is still considered a sought-after prize. “Studios basically said, we know that you can make more on unemployment, so let us know if you want the job,” said one writer’s assistant. “It was very much a situation of, you can lose your dream job or make a living wage.

“I’m not trying to demonize the studios. We know they’re people, too,” this person continues. “But when we’re being talked down to like we’re nothing but typewriters and grammar spell-check people . . . You just look and you’re like, what do you think it is that we do?”

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Neither the AMPTP nor IATSE would comment for this story, citing ongoing negotiations.

For Nicole (Colby) Bachiller, COVID-19 meant no more free lunch. (Overflowing “craft services” buffets have long been a perk for anyone working on a TV show.) “When everyone decided we needed to work from home, unfortunately they took away the one thing that a lot of support staff rely on, which is lunches,” she says. “A lot of us use those lunches to be able to feed ourselves for the entire day.” 

Bachiller, 29, who at the time was working as a script coordinator on the Starz show Step Up: High Water, also had to contend with higher utility bills thanks to her new work-from-home setup. “There was one point I was genuinely worried about how I was going to pay for my electricity bill,” she says. 

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Stepping Up

This isn’t the first time writers’ assistants have spoken up. In 2019, a year after writers’ assistants and script coordinators banded together and became unionized in IATSE Local 871—which granted them a minimum pay rate, health insurance, and other benefits—they took to social media to demand better pay and working conditions. Despite gains they’d made as union members, they found that studios were still using their minimum pay as a standard rate, as opposed to a basement, and weren’t always guaranteeing them 60-hour weeks. It’s not that assistants love to work excruciatingly long weeks, but they rely on the hours to bulk up their measly paychecks.

Back then, the rallying cry on Twitter was #PayUpHollywood.  

Now, two years later, the battle is back on, though with much more at stake. The current basic agreement between IATSE and the AMPTP expires July 31, and comes on the heels of a pandemic that has wrought havoc on the industry at large, but especially those without a financial cushion. “This time is different, because when you start to organize like this, you no longer believe the fairy tale,” Long says. “You no longer believe that it’s definitely going to happen, it’s just a matter of waiting. Because then suddenly you wait and you’re in your forties or whatever and you’ve put everything off, you’re still living with a roommate, living in an apartment with cottage cheese ceilings. I think everyone in show business goes through this. For writers’ assistants, it’s their time to go through it.”  

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Marisa Shipley, a freelance art department and set decoration coordinator who is a member of Local 871, recently tweeted that she’d “spent dozens of hours processing payroll data” for the union. She said that “based on average rental prices in the ZIP codes where our members live, we show an average rent of $1,770.88 for these craft members, which would require a yearly income of $70,835.30 in order to not spend more than 30 percent of income on rent, at which point you are rent burdened.” That would mean $20.08 an hour for union members working 52 weeks out of the year at 60 hours a week, and $25.95 an hour for those working 39 weeks at 60 hours a week.

The talks also come as the nation continues its seismic racial reckoning, which has made diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives an imperative across industries, including Hollywood. The entertainment industry has vowed to improve diversity in its executive ranks and in front of and behind the camera. 

Writers’ assistants argue that making their jobs more sustainable is another important piece of the puzzle. 

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“We need to show studios that if they want more diverse content and they want to champion inclusivity—why is it they neglect the one thing that would help meet those goals?” Bachiller says. “The only people who can do these jobs are those who are already privileged or those who are willing to go into a lot of debt to do this job.” 

Bachiller is Filipina and she says she is often one of the only people of color at work. “Most of the people in the rooms are male and white and straight. At least those in power,” she says. “Those in lower positions are more female, but mostly white, honestly. Even in L.A., as diverse as it is, it’s still pretty hard to see anybody (of color). There are a handful of us, but they’re not in any position of power.” 

Tweeting the cause 

The idea for the #IALivingWage social campaign was Bachiller’s and came a few weeks ago, when she was crying to a fellow script coordinator over the state of her livelihood, which she said has led to an “obscene” amount of credit card debt. “I was just genuinely concerned that my last negotiations didn’t go well. The studio kept saying, ‘We can’t go above the minimum.'”  

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In the midst of the conversation, Bachiller told her friend, “‘Okay, just like with #MeToo and #PayUpHollywood, let’s flood social media about how this is still not okay.'” And so the tweets began, an avalanche that has showcased tales of inequity as well as support from showrunners, actors, and cultural icons like Roxane Gay.

“I didn’t realize how bad it was until people started sharing their stories,” Bachiller says. “It’s comforting to know you’re not alone in your struggles. But it’s also really fucked up.”

Disclosure: Fast Company editorial staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America East.

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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