Why Are Women in Skilled Hollywood Jobs Making $16 an Hour?

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Script and production coordinators, usually women, earn below the living wage in Los Angeles, says IATSE Local 871

Hollywood sign IATSE

If Hollywood is serious about diversity and equity, Marisa Shipley says the industry needs to get serious about how it pays the women that rank among the industry’s lowest-earning workers on film and TV sets.

Shipley is an art department coordinator (ADC) who has worked for 18 years on TV shows like ABC’s “Roseanne,” and serves as the vice president of IATSE Local 871, which represents ADCs along with art production coordinators, writers assistants and script coordinators. These positions, while not as high-profile as department heads or writers rooms, are key positions in productions and can help find the next generation of screenwriters and production designers. They are also positions predominantly held by women.

Shipley says that a study commissioned in 2018 by IATSE 871 called “Reel Equity” shows that workers in these positions are paid on average about $16-17 per hour — below the living wage rate in Los Angeles — even with years of experience. It’s also a hard reality that Shipley herself has dealt with despite many years of experience in the business.

Marisa Shipley IALivingWage
IATSE 871 Vice President Marisa Shipley at the 2020 Women’s March. Shipley, like many art department coordinators, has worked for years in the industry yet makes only $17/hour with a grueling production schedule (Courtesy of Marisa Shipley

“In the entertainment business, we jump from project to project, and we’re supposed to have downtime to take care of family and recover mentally and physically after weeks of workdays that are 12 hours or more,” Shipley said. “But that downtime is taken away when you get paid so little. I’ve personally jumped directly from one job to the next constantly, and it’s an unsustainable pace, but it is the only way for me to pay rent with this hourly wage.”

And if there’s any time for a change, it’s now. IATSE is in the midst of talks on a new basic agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood’s studios, as the existing contract is set to expire at the end of July. Talks were scheduled to resume on July 6, but were postponed as the AMPTP is currently in talks with all the major Hollywood guilds about potential changes to the industry’s COVID-19 safety protocols.

Because of the ongoing nature of the talks, IATSE and the AMPTP declined to comment for this story. But Local 871 is using the talks to raise awareness of the pay disparity issue its members face through the #IALivingWage social media campaign. What started as a single day of hashtag boosting has now grown into a weeks-long series of personal stories on social media that has engaged members of various IATSE locals, as well as members of the Writers Guild.

Historically, script coordinators and art & production coordinators were among the first roles open to women on movie sets aside from on-camera actresses, with IATSE 871 being founded in 1958 to represent script clerks — or as they were once known in a male-controlled industry, “script girls.” But today, the positions represented by 871 have grown well beyond being just assistants for directors and writers and have become key to ensuring that the transition from pre-production to shooting happens smoothly.

“Script coordinators need to make sure that there are no errors in the script or in communication about scene details to the production team,” writer and IATSE member Amy Thurlow said. “If a scene, for example, is shot in the day but the script says the scene is supposed to be shot at night or there was an error in the script about the time of day, then the production has to do reshoots that cost thousands.”

Despite that vital work, the minimum hourly rate for script coordinators under the current basic agreement between IATSE and the studios is $17.64, compared to the $90/hour rate negotiated by the Writers Guild of America for staff writers. Similarly, art department coordinators have hourly minimums of $16.82, 62% less than the $44.25 minimum for an assistant art director.

A 2018 study commissioned by IATSE 871 showed that average pay for its members is vastly lower than those of their guild counterparts

“This is a fight we have been waging since 2000 and which really escalated five years ago when writer assistants joined our local,” IATSE 871 business representative Patric Abaravich said. “It’s a growing pay inequity that has to be addressed now. How can you expect to get the knowledge and professionalism that 871 members provide this industry and continuously underpay them? How can you pay them less than half of what an entry-level grip is paid?”

That term, “entry-level,” is also one that 871 members are trying to combat. Abaravich says that there is a false assumption that writer assistants and ADCs are entry-level jobs. To combat this and other misconceptions, as well as raise awareness of the low wages that so many in the industry face, IATSE members have started a social media campaign called #IALivingWage, inviting members to step forward with their personal stories of how they’ve had to struggle to make ends meet despite building years — sometimes over a decade — of experience in their position and never seeing upward mobility in their careers.

As part of that campaign, Thurlow, Shipley and other 871 members are pointing out that providing financial security for these coordinators and assistants is key to building a pipeline for the next generation of women and people of color that become writers and department heads. By raising wages, studios would make it easier for people from poorer backgrounds — often POCs — to get a foothold in the industry and work their way up the ladder.

“This is the ‘equity’ part of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Thurlow said. “Even being able to have a credit card to live off of is a privilege within our line of work. You shouldn’t need to have a well-off family as a safety net to be able to take the risks needed to build a career in this industry, and by not doing so, Hollywood is shutting out people from less-privileged backgrounds.”

“Even with the struggles I deal with, I know that as a white woman with generational family wealth, I have the privilege to speak out about this issue and in doing so potentially risk future employment,” Shipley added. “Any diversity proposal that isn’t addressing this wage gap isn’t serious about systemic change.”

There are hopes within 871 that their concerns about living wages will be addressed, especially now that they have state law at their back. The California Pay Act, which went into effect in 2017, requires that men and women be paid equally for “substantially similar work.” Shipley says that this language closes loopholes that have allowed pay disparity to persist.

“A legal argument regularly used is that ‘equal pay’ means ‘the same job in the same place,’” she said. “But with this law, APCs and script coordinators have a right to the same pay as second assistant directors because both jobs involve dealing with the logistical details of a production.”

Thanks to the #IALivingWage campaign, the needs of coordinators have reached the ears of some WGA members who are pushing showrunners to ensure that script coordinators and writing assistants get pay raises befitting their workload. But 871 knows that widespread change won’t happen unless substantial minimum increases are guaranteed in the AMPTP contract. Fortunately, they have the entire guild on their side.

“I have been involved in IATSE for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen this level of guild-wide organizing behind a single issue,” Abaravich said. “We have received so much support from members of other locals who want this change. I think what we have been through with the pandemic in this past year has really led the workforce to examine the value of their work and if they are really getting paid the wages they deserve.”


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