I'm Sick of "Pay Your Dues" So I Created #PayUpHollywood (Guest Column)

PayUpHollywood_Illo - THR - H 2019
Illustration by: Massimiliano Aurelio

Liz Alper, a TV writer-turned-activist, points out how industry executives can make changes in work conditions and salary: "Stop saying, 'This is how it's always been.'"

Do you remember the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who? The story follows Horton the elephant, who discovers a speck of dust that contains an entire microscopic civilization called the Who. All the other animals want to destroy this speck because they're assholes who don't believe the Who exist. Horton, doing his best Elizabeth Warren, tells each little Who girl, boy and non-binary to shout as loud as they can so the animals might hear them. The Who scream, "We are here! We are here!" at the top of their lungs, praying they're heard, but unsure if they will be.

For the past few months, I've invested time and energy into #PayUpHollywood, one of two movements I helped create this year to fight for inclusion in entertainment. #PayUpHollywood shines a light on how little assistants in every part of the industry make and how prevalent workplace abuses and labor law violations are becoming.

It's a necessary fight. But it can leave me feeling like I'm stuck on a speck of dust, screaming at the top of my lungs, unsure if our words are breaking through.

Do you know that feeling? Maybe you're a studio exec begging business affairs to pay your coordinator an extra $100 a week, only to be told the company doesn't want to set a precedent. Or you could be the PA who's been covering the cost of writers room lunches because accounting hasn't given you petty cash, and your personal credit card is maxed out. Or maybe you're that person whose boss called you a c—t six times this morning and you're sick of having to dodge scripts aimed at your head because "that's Hollywood."

This movement is, at its heart, about reaching out a hand to those who need it, about promoting inclusivity in all aspects of entertainment, recognizing that the systems we have in place are contributing to keeping diversity out of our industry, and that "this is how it's always been" is not an answer, but an excuse to avoid putting in the hard work, meaningful funds and listening required to evolve.

And we as an industry need to evolve. In November, #PayUpHollywood launched an anonymous survey for support staff to gather data on pay, work conditions and cost of living. What we found is that 64.2 percent of assistants reported taking home $50,000 or less annually (the average L.A. apartment rents for $30,204 a year). Studios dole out that much on a single FYC screening. Netflix was happy to spend nearly $60 million on an Oscar campaign for Roma, but 67.6 percent of assistants have had to get a second job so they could afford to work their entertainment job. This is what the industry calls "paying your dues."

It's hurting Hollywood. The "pay your dues" mentality has put up a pay wall that keeps out people who aren't from wealthy or privileged communities while guilt-tripping the ones who make it into accepting scraps and tolerating abuse. Assistants are where the next generation of Hollywood creative executives and powerhouses come from. It won't be about who works the hardest or whose ideas are the most original or who hustled the longest. The next generation will be made up of those who can afford the buy-in, those who are privileged enough that money isn't an issue.

And that's why we — me, my #PayUpHollywood teammates Deirdre Mangan and Jamarah Hayner, the assistants community and all our allies — stand on this dust speck, screaming that it shouldn't be like this.

Every person in a position of power in Hollywood has a choice right now: to stay in the cycle of how it's always been or change work conditions and pay. They can survey their own companies and reassess how much a person must make so they don't have to work a second job. They can insist assistant abuses are investigated and offenders punished. They can speak up loudly the next time an assistant has an object thrown at them by a supervisor. (In our survey, 104 assistants reported having something thrown at them; the top projectile is a stapler.)

We can remind our co-workers and ourselves that assistants are human beings, not mobile Alexas. We can make it clear that allies are here for them if they need help — maybe they're being told not to log overtime or worried about what their boss' constant late-night texts for personal requests are doing to their health. Ask assistants what they need. Listen. Stop saying, "This is how it's always been." Start asking how it could be.

This story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.