Monday, November 4, 2019

Why Hollywood Assistants are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore

So let's have a talk about the realities of being a Writers' Assistant, but not about the demands of the job. If you're interested in those, check out my Writers' Assistant Rules here.

There's a conversation that's recently exploded in Hollywood, an inevitable release of tension that had been building over a year for those who'd been paying attention. The short version: Writers' Assistants and Script Coordinators unionized about two years ago, finally locking in salary rates that made their wages livable... provided certain conditions like a 60-hour a week guarantee applied. Studios, seeing an opportunity to step on the throats of peons who dared to stand up for themselves, started cutting hours and overtime, sending takehome pay back into the Stone Age.

With this resentment building up over the last year, it's not a surprise that John August and Craig Mazin's recent episode of Scriptnotes, "Assistants Aren't Paid Nearly Enough," became a flashpoint for conversation. That conversation exploded on Twitter when writer Liz Alper coined the hastag #PayUpHollywood, which became the center of conversation for how assistants are exploited and underpaid. Many former and current assistants aired their grievances publicly.

For those who didn't want to share their stories openly, Liz provided a like for anonymous submissions. You can find that here.

This weekend, there was tangible proof this conversation was reaching beyond twitter, as the LA Times covered this movement. A choice excerpt:

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.

Stories like this are not uncommon, but I want to add some elements that no one talks about when you first chase a Writers' Assistant job. I’m going to explain in very clear terms why making assistants scrape for any kind of raise is nothing more than an exercise in power-tripping that doesn’t save any real money. Current union minimum rate for writers’ assistant is $14.57/hr. At 60 hrs a week that’s $1019.90. It’s... livable.

60 hours a week used to be the standard. But like I said earlier, studios are departing from that to punish the unionization. Some approve NOTHING over 50 hours, which makes that rate come out to $728.50/wk That’s a loss of over $300/wk, $1200/month. That’s a rent payment for someone.

But hey the studio saved $300/week. In a 20-week room, that’s $6000 for the entire season!

Do you know how pathetically little $6000 is in terms of a show’s production budget? A STAFF WRITER (the lowest paid writer on staff) on that same show is making $4,170 a WEEK. That’s $83,400 a season.

$6000 saved is SEVEN PERCENT of what the CHEAPEST writer makes.

The next level up is Story Editor, who makes $6,797 a week, or $135,940 a season. So that $6000 saved is 4.4 PERCENT of their salary.

Imagine how small that % gets when I’m comparing it to a showrunner getting script fees on top of their hefty paycheck. Or hell, the non-writing (often non-WORKING) Executive Producer fees. Studios and show accountants are screwing assistants over for comparative PENNIES.

It’s not about saving money. It’s about disrespecting assistant because they can. They’re telling them how little they are valued. Remember that.

OH! Also if they’re messing with your hours it screws your insurance. On your first show, you need 600 hours in a period to qualify for 6 month of coverage, then 400 hours banked/per coverage period after that.

60 hours a week means in 20 weeks you earn 1200 hrs... a year of coverage. 50 hrs a week means you earn 1000. EXACTLY enough for a year, so you’d better not miss ANY hours. (Paid Holidays only pay you 8 hours a day, not 12, so if Labor Day falls in your 20 weeks, you come up 4 hours short.)

And at 40 hrs/week... well you got six months of coverage and another 200 hours banked, so you’d better hustle and get a new gig fast!

There are no compelling reasons to put assistants through this hell by not adhering to a 60-hour guarantee. They do a lot of work and provide invaluable help to the shows they work on. This is not a job where you can plug in just anyone and expect them to thrive. The fact that there are hundreds of people seeking these jobs for every one that gets employed does NOT mean that all of them are capable of doing it.

The main reason assistants put up with this is because there used to be an expectation of an apprenticeship component to these jobs. If you put in your time, you'd get a script and maybe even get staffed in a timely fashion. It wasn't expected you'd sit at the assistant level for nearly a decade before getting your shot, but that's another grievance that's coming to the forefront. Assistants are speaking up about how many of them are dealing with bosses who have no interest in advancing them.

If you want to see an example of a showrunner who really gets it, listen to friend-of-the-blog Jeffrey Lieber. Here's his take on the pace that writers' assistants should be advancing at.

Jeff gets it. If only we had a town full of showrunners like Jeff Lieber, they could really stand up to studios who would be happy to pay assistants with a lump of coal. Then again, with enough pressure, coal becomes a diamond, so let's keep that pressure up.