Hollywood showrunners assist the assistants amid coronavirus pandemic

March 31, 2020, 8:00 PM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

Even in the best of times, underpaid show-business assistants put in 12-hour workdays organizing their bosses’ schedules, fetching lunch, getting yelled at, picking up dry cleaning, walking dogs, coordinating scripts, taking notes, and handling myriad details that might distract talent agents, producers, executives, and television writers from the task at hand.

Support staffers, such as personal assistants, production assistants, script supervisors, or mail-room “floaters,” put up with long days and low pay because, as veteran screenwriter John August explains, “These jobs have classically been the first rung in the ladder to climb your way up the hierarchy of Hollywood.”

But Los Angeles had become radically more expensive in recent years and upward mobility more sluggish. And then, the pandemic hit. Like millions of other Americans, support staffers suddenly had no jobs, no income, and no safety net. #PayUpHollywood cofounder Liz Alper, who worked as an assistant for seven years before joining NBC series Chicago Fire as a story editor, decided to take action.

“I’d been hearing on Twitter from a lot of assistants who were laid off and hurting because the people in charge of the companies and studios weren’t coming forward to take care of support staff,” Alper tells Fortune. “I sent a text to my #PayUpHollywood cofounders, Deirdre [Mangan] and Jamarah [Hayner], saying, ‘I wish I could start a GoFundMe to get these people some money, but I have no idea what that would entail.’ Five minutes later, I texted them again, and I was like, ‘Oh fuck it, I’m doing it.’”

A still from “Living in Oblivion,” a 1995 parody of life on an independent film set.
Sony Pictures/Courtesy of Everett Collection

Alper on March 13 set up the Hollywood Support Staff COVID-19 Relief Fund, which organizers say has raised more than $500,000 in donations. Last week, Alper started sending $600 and $1,050 checks to out-of-work Los Angeles–based assistants. Alper credits much of the fund’s rapid growth to first responders August and Emmy-winning Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, hosts of the Scriptnotes podcast, which aired some support staff grievances last fall. Each donated $25,000 in matching funds. August, who started out reading scripts at $55 a pop before writing four Tim Burton movies and last year’s Disney hit Aladdin, noted the urgency of the situation.

“We’d been talking last fall about how to effect lasting change for Hollywood assistants. But when COVID-19 happened, we went from addressing a systemic problem to dealing with this very immediate crisis,” he says. “What could we do this week to help people who live paycheck to paycheck? When Liz reached out, we came up with the idea of matching the first $50,000 that came in, so that checks could go out ASAP.”

August and Mazin also enlisted help from their formidable network of colleagues. “Craig and I emailed our friends, guests who’d been on our show, as well as folks we just knew from working around town,” August says. “We asked them to contribute, or even better, match us on the $25,000 level. Very quickly, a bunch of those people stepped in to help.”

“Those people” included television writer-producers Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Greg Berlanti (Riverdale), Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), Damon Lindelof (Lost), and David Benioff (Game of Thrones), who each donated $25,000, as did showrunner teams Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld). American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy stunned Alper with a $50,000 donation.

Alper recalls, “My jaw just dropped when Ryan emailed me saying he wanted to lessen the burden that all these support staff people are facing.”

Hollywood executives are routinely portrayed as the low-empathy alpha personality types personified by screaming agent Ari Gold from HBO’s 2004–11 Entourage series. But the plight of assistants clearly struck a chord with TV bosses. August explains, “Many of the people who are now running this town started out as assistants, and they understand that these people are crucial to the functioning of our industry. They get things handled. So it’s not like assistants and executives come from two entirely different worlds.”

From left: Rex Lee as Lloyd Lee, the assistant to Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold, who exemplified the low-empathy Hollywood type, on HBO’s “Entourage.”
HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

Assistants of course have plenty of company among Hollywood’s rank and file. Sucker punched in the wake of a boom year in which Netflix, Apple, and Amazon helped inject $67 billion worth of employment dollars into Los Angeles’ creative community (according to an Otis College 2020 Report on the Creative Economy), workers now largely depend on unemployment payments and savings to make ends meet. Additionally, SAG-AFTRA established the COVID-19 Relief Fund to help some of its 160,000 members. And Directors Guild of America on Thursday secured two weeks’ pay from studios for below-the-line artisans affected by production shutdowns.

But very few support staffers belong to a union, which makes Alper’s COVID-19 initiative all the more critical to assistants like Jerrica Long. She’s expecting $600 from the fund this week.

“It’s impossible to build a savings account off of what we’re paid,” says Long, who’s worked as an assistant at DreamWorks and five TV sitcoms since moving to L.A. in 2014. “You’re constantly worried because most of us are just one emergency away from, I hate to say it, being homeless or losing your living situation.”

Freshly unemployed after finishing a season on the CBS series Carol’s Second Act, Long, an aspiring comedy creator, lives in North Hollywood with two roommates. She drives a 2013 Mazda that broke down in November and cost $2,300 to repair. Long can already picture where most of her check will be going. “I’ll be able to pay the last part of my rent for the next couple of months,” she says. “Also, I have a lot of friends who are only eating, like, once a day right now because they haven’t been approved yet for unemployment. I’ll be able to get them some groceries.”

If and when show business as usual resumes, Long figures she’ll get back in the support staff game and hope for the best. She says, “When you work as an assistant, you’re basically getting paid nothing just so you can be in L.A. and fight for a dream.”

Correction, April 2, 2020: An earlier version of this story said Long moved to L.A. in 2011 and that her car repair cost $600. This story has been updated to show that she moved in 2014 and that the repair actually cost $2,300.

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