By Sandra Kobrin
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Low-paid assistants and support personnel--mostly female--are left out of news about the writers' strike in Hollywood. Without strike funds or residuals to fall back on, Sandra Kobrin says, these workers are hit the hardest. But no one seems to care.
LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--She made her walk of shame through the Writers Guild of America's picket lines for three days.
An aspiring writer, she is paid $33,000 a year as an assistant on the Warner Bros. Studios lot hoping one day she can join the guild. Her boss, a member of the union who went on strike last Monday, had asked her to continue working to maintain their office.
While siding with the writers and their grievances, the 29-year-old was relieved that her boss wanted her to stay on the job. With student loans not to mention rent hanging over her head, she desperately needs the money to pay a credit card debt that paid for her modest wedding.
But late last week, to punish the striking writers, the studio suspended her boss's six-figure "development deal."
No development deal, no job.
She and 20 other assistants--15 of them female--were let go that day.
I know this young woman personally, but have agreed not to use her real name because she worried she would be blackballed from ever getting a studio job.
But her fears are really unnecessary. The media is virtually ignoring such women, fixing itself instead on the Hollywood high-rollers and their fight for future billions.
Thousands of other women whose names you will never know--meagerly paid assistants, secretaries, crew members and others working to support the big Hollywood players--are the first wave of collateral damage in the Writers Guild of America strike that began Nov. 5 against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
While the numbers of people recently fired is hard to ascertain, the strike has left these women--along with male colleagues who also remain obscure--out of work, out of health insurance and out of luck.
There are more firings coming.
"I agree with the writers but we're the ones getting screwed first," my young friend told me. "We live paycheck-to-paycheck and it's assistants like me who are getting squeezed and are going to have to move back home or take in roommates. I'm lucky I don't have kids. It's hard enough to break into this industry as a woman, even at the assistant level, and when you lose your job, you're really stuck."
I also support the writers. The studio system has been carefully crafted over the years to undervalue writers at every turn.
Jack Warner, a founding tycoon of Warner Brothers, notoriously called his writing staff "schmucks with Underwoods"--a reference to the model of typewriter favored by writers--and to this day they are treated with the same respect.
Unlike playwrights, they do not own their scripts and have been robbed on revenue deals on items such as DVDs. A $19 DVD pays $9 to the studio; four cents to the writer.
The strike, which is the first in 20 years, is largely fueled by writers' demands for a greater share of revenues from the Internet. It is expected to be a major distribution channel for most entertainment. Presently if one watches TV or films online, the writers get nothing.
And while some union members are highly paid scribes with annual income in the six and seven figures, it's safe to say most are not so richly rewarded.
"The average guild salary is a middle-class $62,000 and over 48 percent of the guild is often out of work," Writers Guild spokesperson Gregg Mitchell told me.
So yes, writers have been Hollywood's whipping boys.
But the problems of these boys--and for the most part they are males, with women representing only 28 percent of paid writers in television and just 19 percent in film--pale in comparison to the legions of mostly female "bit players:" those non-writing, non-acting staffs who are the backbone of the industry.
Many of the 12,000 members of the guild still collect checks while wielding a picket sign.
But the pink-collar crowd lacks the solidarity of a union or a $12 million strike fund, as members of the Writers Guild have. Support workers are not collecting residuals, those nice income streams that jet a little money into a writer's wallet every time a show using an old script gets re-aired.
Support personnel by contrast have nowhere to seek employment in a town where, the Los Angeles Times reports, even the coffee houses that cater to scribes are facing closures if the strike continues.
The strike fallout continues to trickle down.
"We're aware this is happening but our goal was not to strike in the first place but to get a fair deal," the guild's Mitchell told me Friday. "It's important to make sacrifices because the deal we negotiate now impacts the future of writers and artists."
Meanwhile, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, an even wealthier group, deserves the real shaming. They are the ones doing the firing.
Notice the cold efficiency in a recent "pink slip" memo (how well that classically feminine color fits this situation) to staffers from a Fox executive.
"The production you are working on may come to completion, or because your particular skills may no longer be needed, you may not be picked up for another week or day (whichever is applicable) under your deal memo (if applicable). Therefore your work on the production may come to an end. Although we are not required by law to provide this notice, we wanted to give you as much notice as possible so that you can make appropriate arrangements."
Broadcasting and Cable magazine's Web site, a division of Reed Elsevier, New York, which reports on the television industry, reports that NBC told non-writing staffers at "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" (Leno refuses to cross the picket line) and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" they would be laid off at the end of this week.
At least one notable entertainment industry veteran, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, gets it. "The studio executives are not going to suffer, the union leaders are not going to suffer, the writers that are striking, they are not going to suffer," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference early last week. "Those are all people that have money."
But so far, all the governor has given non-writing staffers is lip service.
A group of assistants, secretaries and support personnel are sending e-mails industry wide in an attempt to create a list of people whose "jobs, rent, student loans, lives, have been destroyed."
They plan on sending the list to both parties to get them negotiating again.
Here's hoping that someone in this industry will read their pleas and act as if they care.
Meanwhile, going forward, I hope this group of workers starts thinking about forming or joining a union.
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles-based journalist who specializes in criminal justice and women's issues.
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