Hollywood Assistants Speak Out Over Low Pay, Start Hashtag

Black and White Hollywood Sign

#PayUpHollywood, which trended in Los Angeles on Sunday, seeks to underscore how industry support staff, who traditionally put in a good deal of overtime, are struggling with stagnating wages.

Twitter may be filled with the grousings of underpaid writers and aspiring writers about their workplaces. But on Sunday and Monday, the tenor of the conversation changed as the social platform lit up with Hollywood assistants explicitly calling out their workplaces, current and former, for what they argued were untenable wages that restrict the pipeline of talent into the entertainment industry.

Hashtagging their stories #PayUpHollywood — which trended in Los Angeles on Monday night — former and current assistants told stories of pay gaps, wage stagnation, "combo" jobs where assistants cover multiple desks at once with no bump in salary, and having to use personal credit cards for business expenses. Some social media users recalled working several jobs to break even, feeling financially crunched during show hiatuses and being required to have a car for jobs. Others broke down the costs of living in L.A. and how a traditional assistant's wage, which tends to be California minimum wage ($12 per hour) or a bit higher with over 40-hour work weeks, contributes to a grueling L.A. existence.

"Nothing is going to change unless we speak out and change it ourselves," showrunner's assistant Kiran Subramaniam, who tweeted several times about her own experience, tells The Hollywood Reporter about the hashtag. "We're not going to be assistants forever. ... We should be wanting to make it better, not have a weird hazing, 'I lived through this' [mentality]."

The recent discussion around assistant working conditions and pay originated with an email that former assistant Kelley Mathys wrote to the screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes, hosted by John August (Aladdin, Dark Shadows) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl, this year's Charlie's Angels). "Loved the podcast today and I thought the question of current 'open secrets' that we will one day have to reckon with is a really interesting one to think about," she wrote. "I think there will be a big 'come to Jesus' moment in the next few years about how low assistant pay is still a massive gatekeeper to the industry and preventing meaningful movement for diversity."

Inspired by the email, August asked listeners to write in with their own assistant experiences, which generated "the most mail we've ever received on a topic," he wrote on his blog, more than 100 emails in total. (August and Mazin have not responded to THR's request for comment.) Around the same time, TV writer Liz Alper (The Rookie) started the #PayUpHollywood hashtag, which began trending on Twitter, with current and former assistants recounting their own stories. "As an avid Twitter person I started to see it snowball and blow up," says writers' assistant Savannah Ward, who contributed several tweets to the hashtag. "So I was like, 'OK, this is real, people are actually being honest about stuff for once in public. I'm going to get in on this.'"

Many assistants in the industry still won't speak publicly for fear of retribution, as Jamie Tunkel put it succinctly on Twitter: "Just know that for every story posted, there’s 100 just like ‘em that remain silent — we all still live in fear of 'you’re never gonna work in this town again.'"

Indeed, many people who used the #PayUpHollywood hashtag cloaked their employers' identities or spoke more generally about assistants' situations. "It's a pretty tricky topic, but a few years ago I decided that it is just too important to not talk about wages," says a writers' assistant who asked to remain anonymous. "There has been so much stagnation in every industry but especially in entertainment … that some wages haven't risen in 20 years — which is absurd in a lot of regards, but even just in regard to inflation and cost of living."

Much social media discussion centered on the hashtag cited August's account of his own former assistant job as evidence that salaries had stagnated: In a tweet, he recalled making $550 a week in 1994 as an assistant, which would amount to about $952.88 in today's dollars, far more than most assistants are currently making. "I was making $525 in 2011," Hillary Levi wrote

Proponents of the hashtag are hoping that it catches the attention of industry leaders who may not know how little assistants are currently making but could be in a position to change company policies. 

One source, who wished to remain anonymous but is a coordinator for an animated TV show, noted that the goal of the hashtag isn't necessarily to get employers to pay their workers more — rather, it's to make a choice: "If they want to keep the pay low, then they need to lower the expectations," she says, adding that the expectation that an assistant have a car, nice clothes for the workplace, a college degree, experience in the industry and "money to network" needs to be adjusted if salaries are to remain low.

The way low assistant pay limits diversity in Hollywood has been another frequent topic of discussion under the hashtag: Low wages in jobs that offer a direct connection to the industry, many say, favor those who already have money or parental or family support. "This business is turning very, very classist very quickly," says one assistant who asked to remain anonymous.

The animated TV show coordinator argues that for the situation to change, "it's important for people in power and particularly men in power to use their privilege and power within the industry to bring light to this point." Already, some bold-faced names are lending their support to the hashtag on Twitter, including The Good Place writer Jen Statsky and Into the Badlands executive producer LaToya Morgan, but many social media users have argued that more need to weigh in. 

Others suggest more radical approaches to change assistant pay. One current assistant, who wished not to be named for fear of employer retribution, says they hope the hashtag will inspire assistants to show how they are integral to the industry: "I want all the assistants to unify and not go to work next Wednesday or next month. I've never worked at an agency, but agencies wouldn't run without assistants."