In the Fight to Diversify Hollywood, We Need to Stop Ignoring Assistants
The entertainment industry thrives on unpaid and underpaid workers using the law of supply and demand to justify unfair compensation.
By Adriana Gomez-Weston
David Rensin’s “The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up” is considered the Bible of entry-level Hollywood, its message is peddled as the gospel for anyone who wants to break into the industry. Its core philosophy is that “everyone has to start somewhere.” The book romanticizes the “American Dream,” and weaves together plenty of rags to riches tales from many of today’s power players. For generations, Hollywood mailrooms have paved the way for agents, producers, managers, and even media titans. “The Mailroom” wants readers to believe that anyone can rise from the bottom. In some cases, this is true.
However, page nine of Rensin’s book exposes a more brutal truth about who is allowed to succeed thanks to a statement from director Larry Auerbach: “They’ll kick me in the ass for saying this, but the truth is that the reason a college degree became important was not to have to accept every minority applicant.”
In the quest to diversify the entertainment industry, entry-level workers are often overlooked by the trades and public figures. Hollywood’s entry-level workers of today are supposedly the leaders of tomorrow. Without assistants and interns in all sectors, the industry would collapse. We could safely assume that people aren’t vocal about entry-level jobs and the realities of exploitation because Hollywood runs on underpaid labor and Hollywood executives stand to benefit the most from this system.
Auerbach’s statement is only one small indication of the many hurdles that underrepresented individuals face while “cutting their teeth” in Hollywood. In “The Mailroom”, there are inspiring stories, but its message is counteracted by instances of discrimination of all types, especially racism and sexism.
In entertainment, like many other creative industries, there is a huge emphasis on “paying your dues,” but paying dues doesn’t look the same for everyone. Anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy in a classist and capitalist society, but it’s a lot easier to pay your dues if someone else already paid the invoice. It’s also hard to overcome generations of systematic discrimination of marginalized people. Everyone preaches The Bootstrap Gospel, but it’s not as accessible as industry leaders want us to believe.
The entertainment industry thrives on unpaid and underpaid workers using the law of supply and demand to justify unfair compensation. “There’s always someone else willing to do it, so why pay more?”
Like many other American cities, the cost of living in Los Angeles is ever-higher, but wages have stagnated. While the median cost for a two-bedroom apartment is $1750, many assistant jobs only pay minimum wage. On job boards such as Entertainment Careers, it’s not uncommon to see listings that offer as low as $12 an hour. According to Any Possibility, agency assistants earned as low as $11.25/hour, and set PAs could earn $140 for a 12 hour day (in 2015-2016), and receptionists usually earn minimum wage. That’s only a sampling of the assistant landscape.
To add insult to injury, most entry-level positions require previous industry experience. How do you gain experience? The acceptable way is through internships which are often unpaid and inaccessible to anyone who cannot afford to work for free in places like LA.
With low pay and incredibly long hours, companies ensure that their workforce is largely wealthy and white. In entertainment job listings common buzzwords are “self-starter,” “hungry,” “ambitious” and “thicked-skinned.” Unfortunately, many candidates who embody these ideals fail to move forward due to lack of resources and connections. Once a haven for working-class hustlers, Hollywood is now a playground for children of privilege looking to “try their hand” at the business. Underrepresented individuals often have to go through grueling processes to prove themselves worthy of employment, yet someone with the right connections can slide their resume across the right desk and be given a chance.
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It’s not a matter of not wanting to succeed badly enough, it’s a matter of being shut out from opportunities. In an industry that revolves around storytelling, diversity of thought and experience is necessary for survival.
At the most desirable institutions, referrals are the best way to get your foot in the door. However, referrals are often more of a hindrance as they keep workplaces homogeneous. In primarily white workspaces it’s a sign that the employees don’t often associate with diverse individuals.
For industry leaders and companies that claim to care about diversity and inclusion it’s important to note that those who come from privileged backgrounds:
- Can afford to take on unpaid/low-paying work to build their resume
- Have the connections to get their foot in the door at desirable companies, which leads to more impressive experience
- Have a higher sense of confidence due to less obstacles obstructing their goals, and a financial cushion to support those goals
Perception is important when it comes to hiring. Without inclusion in hiring as well, worthy candidates get overlooked.
In the era of private equity firms and packaging, it’s despicable that many institutions fail to pay a living wage. While top executives and investors enjoyed record profits, entry-level wages stagnated. Every other company has Wall Street ambitions, yet most provide pay on par with baristas and fast food workers.
While a slew of studies have provided sobering statistics on the industry’s lack of diversity, the entry-level is largely untouched. However, it’s evident where we stand. Every time USC Annenberg and UCLA College of Social Sciences release their Hollywood diversity studies, the data looks homogenous. Whenever the trades announce their Assistants to Watch, Young Hollywood, or Under 30 lists, it’s a hard indication of who is able to move upward.
When inclusion at the assistant level isn’t a priority, the industry becomes infested with people who don’t care about art or the people who make it. When inclusion isn’t a priority, the industry becomes polluted with mediocrity. When inclusion isn’t a priority, important stories are left untold, and that’s the saddest fact of all.
Adriana is a writer and marketing coordinator based in Southern California. She also works in the underground film festival space, and works to uplift women in the arts. You can find her talking about entertainment, feminism, and more on Twitter @cinemasoloist.
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