Well, the social and entertainment media press dam finally broke on Hollywood’s exploitation of entry-level workers.
#PayUpHollywood, the new hashtag, seeks to underscore how entry level industry support staff are struggling with stagnating wages.
It’s egregious because most of people and businesses that pay these “low wages” (celebrities, executives, agents, producers) are traditionally liberal minded and wealthy.
Unfortunately, exploitation of low level employees is widespread in every area of the entertainment business. In fact, the glamour industries are some of the worst at it.
This has been going on for decades. I know it well. Because I lived it.
In 1995, after college, my first full-time job was at Savoy Pictures in Santa Monica for $16,000 a year as a development assistant. That was about $1,333 per month before tax. Per hour, that was about $6.25. And that’s in California. It was a minimum wage. I barely survived. My plan was just to survive as long as I could do it. And I busted my ass at the job, too, working 60-70 hours per week.
After Savoy closed down, I got landed a job as an assistant at ICM, one of the largest talent agencies in Hollywood. I was luckier than most others. One would think, right, that ICM would pay far more – a decent wage like maybe $30,000 per year, at least, right?
It paid about $20,000 per per year plus overtime, which amounted to about $25,000 per year. I couldn’t afford anything beyond the basics of rent, utilities and food. My old Mazda was a rusty beater. I had no hope of ever being able to afford a car, let alone a house, or pay off my college loans.
Every day, along with all the other assistants, all we did was try and hustle our ways into higher paying jobs somewhere, anywhere else. It was our #1 priority. We were all desperate. But higher paying jobs were scarce. I had no idea how anybody survived, frankly. Some assistants come from well to do families, but many others did not.
Some lucky ones would land assistant gigs to high level executives or producers and/or celebrities in the $40k a year range. Those lucky ones were few and far between. There was no middle ground to aspire to: you either ascended the byzantine nature of the hierarchy to the top 1% as a creative or executive, or you stayed at the bottom.
Of course, all the executives and agents I worked for made well over $100k per year, plus perks and expense accounts. That really frustrated me to see the gulf between the have and have nots. And our clients, some made millions.
Did the clients/agents ever show appreciation by giving us bonuses? I never got any – maybe a bottle of wine.
Meanwhile, I had to go home every night, after a grueling 10-12 hour day, to my tiny shared apartment and scrounge enough money for cheap eats. But as I had the proverbial one foot in the door and there were other non-financial perks, I stuck around for a couple years. I had good times, for sure, but man, it was a hand-to-mouth existence.
Everybody was expendable. There were always a hundred people lined up after you, willing to take your job. The wolf was always at the door.
The glamour industries (movies, music, publishing, advertising) all work that way. It’s unfortunate because it’s not like there was a lack of money to pay us better; rather, the people at the top are just unwilling to share their wealth for whatever reason. Low level employees, without unions, have zero leverage.
When this hashtag story went viral, I was shocked to learn wages in Hollywood have barely increased since the 1990s; they’ve actually decreased due to inflation.
After I left ICM, I stumbled around in various assistant jobs working for typical Hollywood jerks and tyrants like John Goldwyn (then President of Paramount) and struggling independent producers who had no money.
After a couple years, I had enough. As much as I loved the art of movie making, the movie business itself was for the birds.
As soon as I left the movie business, my salary went up working in another industry, with real bonuses and perks. I was thankful to have escaped the Hollywood trap. God knows where I would have ended up if I stayed.
A small handful of fellow assistants I worked with eventually (after decades of toil) ascended to the upper reaches of the business, while the majority of others did not and left the biz. That’s pretty much America in a microcosm right now.