Virus Crisis Closes Off Typical Pipeline Into Hollywood: Temping

Warner Bros Lot North Hollywood April 2 2020

Current and former short-term entertainment workers are hearing little to nothing from agencies, worry about the effect social distancing will have on industry diversity or are considering jobs at Trader Joe's: "I'm thinking I'll give it another few weeks."

In late February, Kelsey made a logical decision that, one month later, would leave her unemployed: She quit a belittling assistant job to temp in Hollywood. The aspiring creative executive at a television production company, who asked The Hollywood Reporter not to use her real name, was making "less than minimum wage" when she reached back out to a former temp agency to ask about openings. After a representative said the industry was offering plenty of work at livable rates, she quit her L.A.-based job and, not long after, was interviewing for two permanent gigs. At one, she was the only candidate being interviewed; at the other, she was one of two — and it was "dream-job" status.

But then the coronavirus outbreak unfolded in California, leading to widespread production shutdowns, work-from-home policies, layoffs and pauses in hiring. The two companies that had been courting Kelsey halted their hiring process; her temp agency's work for clients dried up; and Kelsey is now waiting to see if she will need to take work in another industry. "I just really hate that I was trying to do what was best for myself and then it ended up being the worst possible thing to do," she says.

Temps in Hollywood — employees who take short-term assignments with companies that need extra personnel to complete short-term projects or handle staff absences — have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus work shortage plaguing the entertainment industry. When companies are hard up for cash, "one of the first things we see cut is temporary services," says George Pentaris, market director for Roth Staffing Services, which provides short-term personnel for industry firms like Trailer Park and Uninterrupted.

Though some companies have transitioned to work-from-home setups to maintain business as close to usual as possible, several office-based temps who spoke to THR say they were laid off before the transition to remote work. Temps who are looking for new work (as they and their agencies frequently do, to bring in consistent paychecks), meanwhile, face an austere entertainment job market. According to the president and founder of the longtime industry job board, Brad Hall, new job listings are down on the site by 90 percent compared to weeks preceding U.S. coronavirus stay-at-home policies. While the site normally attracts 1,500 to 1,800 new or updated jobs per week, "last week we had 150," Hall says.

As a result, a reliable pipeline to bring new talent into Hollywood offices — one that typically attracts industry newcomers and aspirants that cannot afford to live on a typical assistant's salary — is drying up, with potential long-term consequences on Hollywood's overall demographics.

Hollywood temp Marissa Monticolo's latest gig, substituting for an assistant at a major network that she prefers not to name, ended before California issued its mandatory "stay-at-home" orders for residents on March 19. Monticolo, who worked a high-profile media job before chasing her dream of working in scripted development, has had a difficult time making ends meet since: Various temp agencies she uses haven't been able to find her new positions since her last gig.

Like many temps, she faced work shortages even prior to coronavirus' impact on the industry. Monticolo exhausted her yearly unemployment benefits while seeking a new gig for a few months around the holidays, a time when entertainment temp vacancies typically narrow. After multiple calls to California's Employment Development Department about whether she is eligible for the benefit, on Thursday the department informed her it would soon be rolling out a 13-week extension to those who have already maxed out on claims.

In the meantime, Monticolo has also received a small amount of income by doing script coverage for a Hollywood writer and has been accepted to receive a grant from the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund. Still, however, she's figuring out how to pay rent. "Here I sit, unable to pay April rent and unsure when I'll have a job again," she says.

Rachel, another entertainment-industry temp who asked to remain anonymous for this story, was let go from a gig at a cable network as the office shifted to working from home. The decision didn't surprise her, given her past experience in the industry: "We're quite disposable. I've worked at so many places where people haven't even bothered to learn my name," she says. Rachel has since filed for unemployment and received a $1,050 Support Staff Relief Fund grant, which will cover her rent for a month. As for the future, "there is zero entertainment work right now," she says, per her conversations with her temp agency. She's guessing she will have to start temping in other industries when offices start open again, likely in the summer: "I will likely have to be less selective in the temp assignments I accept, which sucks, but everything about this time in history sucks."

Aspiring writer Marina Kato Hoag was also let go from a temp assignment at a cable network in mid-March. The recent American Film Institute graduate, whose short film Día De Las Carpas won a DGA Student Film Award in 2019, started temping after graduation (where she was her class's speaker) because, she says, she couldn't wait around for the right opportunity: "I had to pay my rent." Since finishing her temp gig early, she has applied for unemployment and the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund and is looking ahead to other options. "I have asthma so I'm not trying to work at a grocery store, but, like, I might work at a grocery store," she says.

Joseph, a former reality show producer who began temping as he looked to jump into scripted work, is one of the rare short-term employees who has managed to keep his entertainment gig as coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the industry. But while he is able to work from home in his current role at a major television studio (Joseph asked to remain anonymous for this story), his search for full-time scripted work has come to a complete standstill. "I was actively interviewing for stuff, trying to get the next gig. Obviously that has come to a halt," he says.

Looking into the future, the temps who spoke with THR didn't express much optimism that their situations would improve significantly as the industry begins to welcome staffers back to offices and productions start again. The summer, when some companies are projecting they will be able to return to the office, is a typically fallow time for temps in entertainment: "No one's hiring temps in the summer because they have summer interns," Rachel says. (Time will tell: Several summer entertainment internships have been paused or canceled amid the coronavirus outbreak.) Moreover, the face-to-face interactions with employers that temp workers usually hope to enjoy in order to stand out and qualify for long-term work has disappeared as companies have either shed their temp workers or moved them to a remote basis.

A larger concern for many temp workers is the chilling effect that coronavirus layoffs and work hiatuses could have on the diversity of the workforce. As a recent film school graduate, Kato Hoag is concerned the post-coronavirus creative landscape will favor incumbents rather than new talent: "For me and my classmates that were graduating at this time, this is sort of like a nuclear bomb. They're going to be hiring all TV writers who are already in the game and not us," she says, speculating that Game of Thrones writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff will be able to use this period of unemployment to write their "masterpiece" while others seek to pay rent. She adds that temps typically come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in Hollywood to begin with. Temps are "middle-class people of color and women," she says: "[Hollywood] is an industry that was talking about inclusion but in these times acts against it."

The coronavirus crisis may additionally walk back some of the wage increases that support staff have won amid the #PayUpHollywood movement. Advocates of the movement have frequently noted that low assistant pay restricts entry-level employees to those who can afford to live in New York and L.A. on salaries slightly above minimum wage. In recent weeks, agencies including UTA, CAA and Paradigm have reduced wages and/or hours for employees during the coronavirus outbreak. "Assistants had finally started making some headway with wage increases, but now that so many people are out of work, employers will be able to go back to paying next to nothing," Rachel says.

Brad Hall of sounds a rare note of optimism as temps struggle to stay above water during this social distancing period. On his website, local news outlets are still hiring, as well as digital-focused businesses, YouTubers, agencies taking advantage of other agencies' layoffs to beef up their workforce and companies looking for assistants. "People are starting to crawl out of the hole," he says. "We're having employers update their postings — certain positions being on hold, certain positions being pulled completely and then certain positions continuing to move forward." Traffic fell 50 percent on his site in the first two weeks of work-from-home policies due to what he believes is a false perception that no one is hiring: "When you have several high-profile companies laying people off, it just feels that nobody's not hiring and it's just simply not the case," he says.

Pentaris adds that coronavirus has forced some companies to work with temps on a remote basis, a practice that was previously "taboo." "There has been a shift in that during this pandemic to companies [that] have had more of a willingness to allow them to go remote. So I think it's going to, in the long run, have a pretty big effect on the workforce as a whole," he says.

Potential long-term improvements to temping stemming from the coronavirus crisis, of course, offer little comfort to those who are currently struggling to pay their bills on time. "I've thought about going to work at Trader Joe's and other industries that need workers right now," Kelsey says. "I'm thinking I'll give it another few weeks, and then act on what do I need to do."