Kiran Subramaniam, who worked as an assistant at the ICM talent agency in Los Angeles.Credit...Andrew Cullen for The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — Kiran Subramaniam was in her mid-20s when she was hired as an assistant at ICM, one of the Big Four talent agencies in Los Angeles. The job paid $12 an hour. One day, her boss, an agent, tossed a small package at her head after she had placed it on his desk in a way he didn’t like. She ducked, but it grazed her face. When she threatened to quit, he apologized, saying he had thrown the box as a joke. Ms. Subramaniam decided to stay — like a “sad sack,” she said.
Not long afterward, the boss told her that he had parked his Porsche somewhere and couldn’t find it. She left the ICM building and walked past Cartier and Chanel, inspecting the Porsches along Rodeo Drive, none of which belonged to him. She expected another bad reaction when she got back to the office, but all he said was, “I’ll either find it or buy a new one.”
This is the life of the Hollywood assistant, a job that has long served as a proving ground for future executives and producers, schooling them in the ins and outs of the entertainment industry and showing them the reality behind the glamorous facade. But while previous generations put up with it, the new crop of Hollywood’s entry-level workers, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, have banded together in an effort to get better pay and better treatment from their sometimes mercurial bosses.
“I just don’t think we can be silent on certain things anymore,” Ms. Subramaniam, 31, said.
On a recent Sunday, Ms. Subramaniam, an aspiring TV writer who is no longer working at ICM, was among a group of more than 100 assistants who gathered for a town-hall-style discussion. They shared workplace horror stories and talked about how their wages had not kept pace with escalating rents. Increasingly, they said, the industry works against people who do not have outside financial backing, meaning that low-level jobs tend to go to people who can afford to take them.
Many at the meeting had taken part in an online survey tagged #PayUpHollywood. More than 100 of the 1,500 respondents reported that a boss had thrown something at them, and the majority said they made $50,000 a year or less. In a city where rent is $2,500 a month, on average, they would be considered rent burdened, a term the Pew Research Center uses to describe people who spend a third or more of their income on housing.
The #PayUpHollywood survey was put together by Liz Alper, a member of the Writers Guild of America West board of directors; Deirdre Mangan, a writer on the television show “Roswell, New Mexico”; and Jamarah Hayner, a media consultant who has worked with Senator Kamala Harris and Michael R. Bloomberg.
The veteran writers John August and Craig Mazin recently brought attention to the plight of assistants through their podcast, “Scriptnotes.” At the town-hall discussion, Mr. August, whose script credits include the indie film “Go” and the Disney blockbuster “Aladdin,” said the industry was stacked against younger workers in a way it hadn’t been when he started out.
“Traditionally, you start and you climb up the ladder,” he told the audience. “Some people can’t even get to the start of the ladder because of the structures that we have here.”
When Mr. August worked as an assistant in the 1990s, he said, his bed was a mattress on the floor and his pay was about $500 a week before taxes, more than twice the minimum wage at the time.
“My salary was enough that I could afford a one-bedroom in West Hollywood, which would be extravagant now,” he said in an interview.
Since 2000, the median rent in Los Angeles County has gone up more than 40 percent, according to data from the Census Bureau, and a number of assistants said their weekly pay had not budged from what Mr. August made more than 20 years ago — about $500 after taxes.
In September, Mr. August and Mr. Mazin, the showrunner of HBO’s “Chernobyl,” asked their podcast listeners to tell them about open secrets in Hollywood. An email from Kelley Mathys, a 30-year-old assistant, piqued their interest: “I think there will be a big ‘come to Jesus’ moment in the next few years about how low assistant pay is.” She added that her first job, in 2011, had paid $375 a week, which amounted to $19,500 a year.
Mr. August and Mr. Mazin asked to hear more, a request that drew more than 100 emails from assistants describing low pay, long hours and bullying bosses.
In an interview, Ms. Mathys said she did not buy the argument that Hollywood’s difficult work conditions were necessary for toughening young people who wanted to make it.
“We’re not Navy SEALs,” she said. “This is not life and death. So to suggest that there has to be this mental fortitude in order to work in development, I don’t understand that.”
Low pay is another issue for the assistants, along with a lack of job security. Olga Lexell, 27, said she had made the minimum wage, plus overtime, as a writers’ production assistant on a TV show in 2016. The job came with a guarantee of 60 hours a week, which worked out to about $700 before taxes.
When the studio cut her hours the next season, Ms. Lexell and a colleague approached a showrunner for a raise. But like many of the more than 30 assistants interviewed for this article, Ms. Lexell said workers in her position had little or no leverage to negotiate.
The showrunner said, “You guys are lucky to have these jobs,” Ms. Lexell remembered. “I can find people to do it for free.”
During the weeks when the show was not in production, Ms. Lexell said, she resorted to filing for unemployment.
Other assistants working in television said it was common practice for them to file for unemployment when shows went dark. They added that some showrunners asked the staff writers to kick in for the assistants before the holiday season.
“That’s definitely the writers subsidizing the studios,” said Matt McRee, 39, who has worked as an assistant on several television shows.
Many assistants said they were discouraged from filing for overtime.
“I’ve worked jobs where they filled out your timecard and brought it to you,” Mr. McRee said. “If you do complain, they just won’t hire you again.”
Because assistants work irregular hours, it’s hard to supplement their income with a second job, they said.
“I couldn’t even get a bartending job, because it’s not even like I get off work every day at 7,” said Noah Silverman, 27, an assistant at a film and television production company.
Low wages mean that Hollywood’s entry-level workers are likely to be those who have outside financial support, the assistants said. The result is that — in an industry that likes to be seen as championing diversity and other progressive causes — the people who get a foot in the door tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. The #PayUpHollywood survey found that the great majority of those who relied on outside financial assistance identified themselves as white.
The lack of diversity has put assistants of color in difficult positions. Jerrica Long remembered being one of two black women who worked as floaters — filling in for assistants on different agents’ desks — at Creative Artists Agency’s New York office. She said she had quit after overhearing an offensive conversation among some white assistants in 2014.
“They were talking about how if slavery existed today, they would own them,” Ms. Long said. “That was the day that I turned in my notice.”
C.A.A. said in a statement that it found the overheard comment to be “abhorrent and entirely counter to our values.” The company added, “There is no record during that time, nor in Ms. Long’s exit interview, of the alleged incident.”
Ms. Long, 28, is now working as a showrunner’s assistant and living in North Hollywood.
One of the attractions of the job is being privy to much of what’s happening behind the scenes. But being close to the action also shows the assistants that the private behavior of the industry’s typically liberal power players is at odds with their public pronouncements.
“You’ll see a big A-list person or a high-powered studio or network person give a speech on the red carpet or the Golden Globes,” Mr. Silverman said. “But some of these people treat their assistants horribly.”
Health care coverage is another concern. Andi Royer, a 32-year-old assistant with Type 1 diabetes, said she was not offered health care as part of the benefits package that went with her job on “Bluff City Law,” a new hourlong drama produced by Universal Television, an arm of NBCUniversal.
She said she had accepted the job, a 60-hour-a-week position that paid $14.25 per hour, on the assumption that it would come with benefits similar to what she had received when she was a postproduction assistant on a Warner Bros. show. She also assumed that federal law required Universal to offer health coverage within her first 90 days of employment.
According to Ms. Royer, the human resources department told her that Universal did not offer health coverage on shows that were in their first seasons, and that employees had to work for the company for one year to become eligible.
Ms. Royer said she had contacted various Universal administrators and executives, to no avail. Without insurance, she said, her medications would cost $1,200 a month. Eventually, she gave up, and her husband added her to his employer’s plan, which she said cost hundreds of dollars more a month than her Warner Bros. coverage.
“If I wasn’t married to him, I wouldn’t be able to live here and have a job out here,” she said.
In a statement, Universal said it was compliant with the law because it considered all employees on its first-season shows to be temporary, “regardless of the exact number of months worked.” The company also pointed to a law that allows it to exclude up to 5 percent of its work force from health coverage.
The efforts of the new generation of assistants have led to tangible improvements. The Hollywood talent agency Verve announced last month that it would raise the pay of mailroom employees and assistants by 25 to 40 percent starting Jan. 1.
“#PayUpHollywood certainly made us aware that here are issues within the community and potentially within our own walls,” Bill Weinstein, a founding partner at the agency, said.
ICM announced last month that its assistants would receive an additional month of salary on top of their bonus pay.
About the agent who was said to have thrown a package at his assistant’s head, ICM said in a statement, “We do not condone this kind of behavior and are committed to a safe, professional and supportive work environment.”
Ben Casselman contributed reporting.