Assistants' #PayUpHollywood Wage Fight Enlists Showrunner Allies

The organizing effort has inspired several boldfaced names to fight for a better pay structure for assistants: "I would like to see the entry-level salary in Hollywood be $20 per hour plus benefits."

For Hollywood assistants, fighting for visibility may be the first step toward achieving better work conditions. After launching the #PayUpHollywood hashtag in mid-October to highlight claims of low pay, organizers hosted a town hall on Nov. 24 that previewed a wage survey in which 1,511 industry workers have participated. Now for step two: Releasing new data and mobilizing powerful allies.

Showrunners Adam Conover (truTV's Adam Ruins Everything) and David H. Steinberg (Netflix's No Good Nick) and writer-producer-creator Ayelet Waldman (Netflix's Unbelievable) are among those negotiating for higher assistant pay on projects they're developing, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

"I would like to see the entry-level salary in Hollywood be $20 per hour plus benefits," says Waldman, who is securing that rate on her next project. "I don't think, given the amount of money people are making, that's unreasonable." (Many assistants make California minimum wage, $12 per hour.)

Allies are also attempting to help assistants in other ways, informed by the town hall, which was live-streamed, and the assistant dialogue they're reading on Twitter. Conover, who is currently interviewing for an assistant, says he's now asking candidates how they would approach confronting him about being overworked, if that were to happen. When Steinberg noticed that Netflix was sending Writers Guild members $50 in credit during For Your Consideration season — the equivalent of three months of the service — and learned that it could be gifted, he began looking for assistants to donate it to and asked fellow showrunners to do the same. (Assistants often need to be well-versed in current entertainment but complain they cannot afford their own streamer subscriptions.)

"You would not believe how hard it was to find an assistant who pays for their own Netflix," he notes. "Every single person I talked to said, "Oh, I don't pay for my own Netflix, I’m on my parents' account." (Steinberg eventually found an assistant to gift his credit and says a "handful" of other showrunners, whom he wouldn't name, did the same.)

The organizing effort — which originated with an October discussion on the Scriptnotes podcast hosted by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and John August (Aladdin), and which WGA board member Liz Alper (The Rookie) then turned into a hashtag — aims to convince studios and agencies that assistants' pay structure is unsustainable.

The final survey data, released early on Tuesday, shows that 78 percent of assistants identify as white, with no other ethnic category surpassing 10 percent; about 64 percent of assistants take home $50,000 a year or less; and 52 percent receive financial help from family or friends. Sixty-seven percent of respondents reported working a second job to make ends' meet.

At work, 81 percent of assistants said that they performed "personal errands" for their bosses during work hours, while nearly 34 percent said they ran those errands after work hours. Fifteen percent worked over 60 hours in a week and 104 respondents had an object thrown at them at work.

"Assistants are happy to pay their dues, but they deserve to be paid a living wage while they do it,” #PayUpHollywood co-founder Deirdre Mangan said in a statement about the data. “With studios paying 10 figures for For Your Consideration campaigns and agencies pushing for half-billion-dollar equity raises from IPOs, industry profits are at an all-time high. Can they really not spare an extra few hundred dollars a week so that the human beings who make their work possible can live safely and sanely?”

Steinberg also compared assistant wages to expensive norms for a studio: "If you're talking about a half-hour or one-hour [show], you could pay all the assistants 50 percent more money for the cost of one song," he said.

Alper says she's spoken confidentially with several executives in the industry about improving conditions (but declined to give names), and so far, the movement has prompted Verve, which reps Alper and August, to conduct its own anonymous survey of its assistants about their pay conditions. Verve did not respond to THR's request for comment by press time. THR reached out to the five major studios and other agencies for comment on how or if they are responding to #PayUpHollywood and also did not receive a response by press time.

Moving forward, organizers aim to spotlight nuances of the assistant experience by holding town halls focused on specific issues, such as mental health. "Some of the messages that I receive and some of the stories I get talk about how these assistants feel suicidal because they're trapped in a financial situation," Alper says. Her #PayUpHollywood cofounder Mangan (Roswell, New Mexico) is eager to hold an assistants-only meeting on the topic.

Reps from IATSE Local 871, which represents some script coordinators and assistants, want to see if some tasks described at the town hall overlap with those in its contracts. (Local 871 did not respond to a request for comment by press time.) And #PayUpHollywood is forwarding potential legal cases to the California Employment Lawyers Association and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund to offer assistants free legal advice.

Alper notes that the #PayUpHollywood survey tallied assistants in Atlanta and New York, in addition to L.A., and is spreading to other cities: "This is about an entire generation of entertainment up-and-comers who need us to help, and need everyone who's in a position of power to recognize that we've been doing them dirty for a very long time."

A version of this story appears in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.