Assistants' dreams deferred by strike

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With his first child on the way and dreams of writing for television, Jeremy Howe thought he had a perfect plan: His job as a writers' assistant on the TV show "The Game" was set to wrap up in January, when his wife is due.

But the Hollywood writers strike has left him unemployed sooner than expected. Now he's looking for a way to pay his family's $900 monthly health insurance bill.

Howe, 26, and hundreds of other assistants -- entry-level staffers who do Hollywood's grunt work in exchange for a chance to learn the business -- are among those least able to afford the economic fallout of the two-week strike. With starting pay around $7.50 an hour, many have little money saved and must take other jobs to make ends meet.

Though not union members, many assistants are staying true to their better-paid bosses.

"Hopefully, very soon, I'll be in the writers guild," Howe said. "When the strike is over and the writers get the deal they deserve, I want to know that I did whatever I could to help."

Others are reluctant to complain publicly about the walkout.

Yet on industry Web sites and blogs, some people calling themselves assistants gripe about their mounting bills and condemn writers for putting them out of work after failing to learn their names after months of working together. For all they've done for the writers, many say, the reward is -- unemployment?

At the core of the contract dispute is compensation for shows offered on the Internet -- a medium that appeals to a number of tech-savvy, young assistants who aspire to create their own online programming and want a piece of the profits.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has said it's offering writers a share of licensing fees paid by Web sites to stream shows. However, the union rejected the offer, saying the payments wouldn't begin until six weeks after a show goes online and viewer interest is nearly exhausted.

Writers also want a cut of revenue from non-skippable ads contained in many shows streamed free online. The alliance slammed the door on that demand.

Howe said he worked and networked his way up from the mailroom at CBS to his current position, which pays $10 an hour, plus overtime.

"Take away the strike, and this is a really good job to have," he said. "It's hard to get."

When TV writers gather in conference rooms to trade jokes and punch up scripts, the assistants frantically type the changes into a laptop -- a precious opportunity to learn the craft.

The experience "has shown me how to create a passable script," said Ryan Harris, a writers' assistant on the ABC show "Carpoolers."

He and his writing partner recently won an award for best spec script for a sitcom at a writing expo. He hopes the glow of the achievement lasts while he waits out the walkout.

For him, supporting the strike is "a pay-it-forward thing." He and other assistants were planning to join a picket line at Fox studios on Monday in a show of solidarity with striking writers.

Chevonne Collins, another assistant on "The Game," has logged shifts on picket lines along with guild members.

"Maybe I'm too loyal, but I feel they're fighting for all of us," she said while marching outside CBS studios.

"When I moved here, I didn't know what it took to get started in this business -- buying groceries and coffee and lunch," said Collins, 25, who has a masters degree in television, radio and film from Syracuse University.

"My parents are like, isn't this strike enough to make you come home?" she said.

Collins said the strike has tempted her to move back to Chicago, but she intends to hang onto her dream of selling her own sitcom, even if she struggles to pay the rent on her Hollywood apartment.

She got a pink slip from her bosses last week, then to work the next day to wrap up some paperwork and clean out the refrigerator.

"I scored a lot of groceries, which is good because I'm going to need them. Maybe they'll save me from eating out of the garbage can," she said.
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