In the wake of dozens of film and television productions abruptly shutting down amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, several organizations and high-profile showrunners — Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, David Benioff, Julie Plec, Damon Lindelof, Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan — have come together to fund a relief effort for Hollywood’s support staffers, a low-paid group that often goes overlooked. Of the nearly dozen assistants who spoke with Variety in recent days, many expressed fear and uncertainty about their financial future.
The Hollywood Support Staff COVID-19 Relief Fund is the brainchild of PayUpHollywood, Scriptnotes and YEA!, with the support of the Junior Hollywood Radio & Television Society. The fund aims to help Los Angeles-based support staff remain financially stable during these weeks that productions have gone dark, doling out stipends in the amount of $450 or $900. The group’s goal is to raise at least $100,000, which would be able to support 111-222 support staffers to “help cover the cost of things like rent, utilities, student loans payments, etc.”
One director’s assistant, who prefers not to be named, said he plans to apply for it. He had just started working on a major studio film before production was indefinitely postponed. While he will be paid for his time spent at work, “there’s no more cash flow until the movie gets rolling again.”
“I hope anyone who has ever had an assistant or has been one in this industry gives what they can to it!” he said.
Not long after PayUpHollywood announced the relief effort, “Chernobyl” creator and pay equity advocate Craig Mazin tweeted that Berlanti, Rhimes and Benioff had pledged to match the donations up to $25,000. Separately, Plec, Lindelof, Joy and Nolan have collectively promised another $75,000 to the fund, while Mazin and Scriptnotes’ John August said they will match up to $50,000. The GoFundMe account has already raised over $101,000 as of Tuesday afternoon. According to the donors list on the GoFundMe page, other top donors include Mike Schur, Marti Noxon and Aline Brosh McKenna, who each donated $5,000.
The production assistants, writers assistants, agency assistants and script coordinators who spoke with Variety have received various levels of support over the last few days.
One support staffer, a newly graduated film student who has been working back-to-back gigs as a production assistant, says that she was supposed to start work on a season of a TV series that has now been delayed by six weeks due to the coronavirus prevention efforts. The initial calls for social distancing have since evolved into all of L.A.’s bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms shutting down, halting the city’s businesses in order to stop the further spread of the virus. While in service of the greater good, the shutdowns have taken a toll in particular on workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck.
“I have checks coming in from gigs that I did a week before everything started to get crazy, but if this lasts as long as some people are saying it’s going to become difficult to financially support myself,” the PA told Variety. “I have incredible parents that I’m extremely grateful for who have assured me that they can help out when the time comes, but I want that to be my last option.”
The relief fund follows PayUpHollywood’s effort last fall to advocate for livable wages for assistants and other support staff, a group of workers who often go overlooked amid the glitz and glam of the industry. A survey of over 1,500 assistants, released in December, found that over 64% of respondents make less than $50,000 before taxes and over two-thirds have to take on a second job to stay afloat.
“These are the people who work tirelessly year round making movies and TV shows the world loves to watch,” wrote the team behind PayUpHollywood, founded by TV writers Liz Alper and Deirdre Mangan. “Many have families or dependents. While unemployment benefits are being expedited, those benefits cap out at $450/week – not nearly enough for a single person to survive on, much less a family. It’s been incredible watching showrunners, execs and others step up and lend a helping hand to those in need; however, the number of people who need financial assistance is increasing every day.”
Some bosses have been doing what they can to bolster their staff during this time. One writers’ assistant says that her showrunner has given all support staffers projects to work on in order to ensure that they remain employed over the next few weeks.
But even those who still have their jobs are worried. Despite the mandates to engage in social distancing, one PA has been required to keep physically showing up for work, even though higher-level staffers have been allowed to work from home. Another assistant said when the show switched to a virtual writers room, the network immediately asked for proof of completed assignments from support staff before agreeing to let them virtually work from home.
“The fact that their first response was to not pay support assistants is ridiculous,” he said.
The PayUpHollywood team us now urging the studios and other entertainment industry employers to keep paying their employees while productions are on forced hiatus, noting that many staffers have been laid off or had their hours cut, and as independent contractors will not qualify for unemployment or be eligible for federal relief.
“But there is still rent to pay, medication to buy, and children or parents (or both) to care – and no income for the foreseeable future,” said the PayUpHollywood organizers.
“Unless and until Hollywood studios commit to compensating their support staff during production shut-downs, this fundraiser will provide a modest one-time stipend to as many Los Angeles-based support staffers in need as we can support.”