As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!
I’m a recent college graduate, and I want to be a comedy writer. I’ve read all of your columns on how to work my way up the ladder, and I’m willing to do it all. But … how do I start? Not, like, what are the steps, but how much do assistants make? And how do they pay for things? I don’t want to sound like “woe is me,” but I don’t have any financial support from my parents, am $90,000 in student debt, no car, and no credit to lease a car. I’m smart, hardworking, and good with people, so I know I can figure out how to get a job out there, but how am I supposed to job search in a place like L.A. or New York with no money for a large safety deposit or transportation? What’s the bare minimum I should expect to make to cover my expenses? How did you do it? How do people get a foot in the door when no one is helping? — Jaida, Baton Rouge
Where do I even begin? I wish we could make exactly $120,000 fall out of the sky, pay off your debt, and buy you a Civic and a financial cushion for your job search. As we all have been reminded over and over again, where and to whom you are born determine so many of the opportunities available to you in this country, and we work in an industry where people beat their chests about “Diversity!” without stopping to understand how to enact systemic change. Inclusion in entertainment, to me, isn’t about throwing a bunch of cash at the same five writers, actors, and directors from marginalized groups, setting a roundtable, and then slapping it on the cover of your glossy trade publication. It’s about giving chances to non-famous people from those marginalized groups, and recruiting creators, execs, reps, and producers from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s not just about the melanin. These are steps that, to me, would make for more interesting content.
First, how did I do it? Well, I moved out here with a grand total of $400, a car, and a job in the mailroom at UTA. But I didn’t exactly mean to work in entertainment. I didn’t even own a TV until I got married. I moved to L.A. because my dream was to move to New York and work in publishing, but I couldn’t afford it. I had $120,000 in law-school loans, and the math would never have worked on rent and entry-level media salaries with my $1,000 per month loan repayment. My friend Sarah was moving to L.A., which was cheaper at the time, and I was up for a change from freezing Michigan. My rent was $400 a month, sharing a one-bedroom. I took home $1,800 a month, mice ate my sad groceries, I had no friends, and even if I made friends, I didn’t have enough money to leave the house. Plus, my car got totaled on the 101, and I was depressed. It was awful.
I definitely think first jobs should put people through their paces so they can learn how to work and be, but I don’t think it should be a pit of severe depression for anyone. You don’t need me to tell you how to budget, or not go to brunch, or try to suck all the joy out of your life so you can try to keep up with a system that works more smoothly for people with a financial cushion. I think it is the responsibility of everyone in the industry who doesn’t have to worry about their grocery bills to pave the way for people who, right now, do.
I can give you some tips: For housing, you can sublet off Craigslist, or if that sounds scary, ask around to join the ILWA Facebook group, or many others dedicated to the cause. If you know anyone at all in L.A., no matter how little, tell them that you’re looking for a room before you move. Everyone is sympathetic to the stress of a housing search and will keep an eye out. Our system is nowhere near as good or comprehensive as New York’s, but it helps to choose a neighborhood that is connected to public transportation — not all of them in L.A. are.
Don’t be scared of taking a part-time assistant job when you really want a full-time one. Ask for a good hourly rate, make yourself useful, and I guarantee you’ll be full time before long. (I’m not sure why everyone goes through the charade of pretending they only need a little help; everyone I know is overwhelmed.) Other hourly ideas are catering, tutoring, temping, dog/cat/house-sitting, TaskRabbit, and babysitting (check out Bambino, UrbanSitter, helpr, and Care.com). And if you fear no one will take you seriously as a writer if you’re babysitting their children, most people I know (at least most people with no financial help) started out with non-writery jobs. Bills must be paid!
Get in there, and then share your script when it’s time. Write freelance, if you can, for online publications — keep that muscle primed, develop your voice, and be able to point to a body of written work that people have actually read. Meet as many other assistants as you can, because that’s how you’ll hear about jobs. Learn to cook, if you can’t already. That way you can invite your new friends over for potluck dinners, which are much cheaper than bars, not to mention more sophisticated. If you’re going to entertain on a larger, more populist scale, an extremely cheap place to buy a keg is the Ralphs near the USC campus, but hold onto that tap, or you’ll pay double. Now I’m just reminiscing.
A car can be rented through Fair.com or a comparable program until you build your credit enough to get a lease, and once that credit isn’t awful, find a lease broker. They can get you good deals with low monthly payments, know about specials, and are paid by the dealership, not you. As for that credit, I repaired my nonexistent credit with a repair service that had me walk into my bank and ask for a secured credit card with a $300 limit. I bought gum on it for like a year and paid off the amount in full, and then eventually I was able to lease a car again. But also, L.A. was cheaper then! New York was cheaper then! It’s all insane now!
I did a little research among the assistants I know in Los Angeles — all smart, frugal women — and their monthly expenses (rent, food, insurance, loans, etc.) ranged from $1,500 to $3,600. In 2016, the “Awesome Assistants” Facebook group (RIP) did a great broad-strokes survey that breaks down income and expenses, and you’ll notice a significant portion of respondents have financial help or no debt. The numbers are also echoed on the website Any Possibilities, in their 2016 post “Entry-Level Hollywood Assistant Salaries.” There were other links sent to me in crowdsourced, confidential grids that I haven’t shared here because it seems like a violation of trust. I’m hearing that employers are using the data to offer the low end, which doesn’t help entry-level jobseekers. You can find them if you ask around. But in sum, after poring over the spreadsheets, the sad answer is that most people make minimum wage, and, ideally, overtime. That’s … not enough. And it’s certainly no way to diversify Hollywood, because the only people who can live on that are the people who have other ways to supplement income until they get promoted. The system is deeply flawed.
So here’s what we need to work toward, and I promise to do my part by sharing this with the kind of people who routinely hire assistants and ask me for assistant recommendations: Employers need to pay assistants a living wage. In L.A. at least, that seems to be $20-25 per hour if part time, and $45,000-$50,000 per year, if full. But on top of that salary, we need to provide health care from day one, or at least reimburse premiums for health care. In addition, we need to tack on the costs of a car, or stipend for a car, because only rich kids move out here with cars! We can’t only hire rich kids! This is so basic I want to scream. And don’t get me started on unpaid internships, which should be criminal. What I’m saying is, if you have an abundance of work and need to hire an assistant so that you can be paid ten times their basic budgetary needs, $20 per hour is a bargain!
Now, these are your standard entry-level piecemeal, word-of-mouth assistant jobs, which is generally the track for a lot of aspiring writers who move out here. Agency and studio assistants, while miserable, tend to have more stable access to a salary and health care. But feedback from set assistant and writer’s assistant jobs is worrying me. I’ve heard insane stories about people conflating jobs to get around pay rates, of people’s guild memberships (and access to health care) being delayed because of creative accounting and underreporting of hours. There are a host of other terrible studio actions I’ll have to discuss with reporters and employment lawyers before I can figure out what can be done about them. Since I wrote the first draft of this column, even, writer Liz Alper launched the #PayUpHollywood conversation on Twitter, and the Scriptnotes podcast released an episode addressing assistant inequities, so clearly I’m not the only one who thinks it’s time for active change. Hopefully shedding a light on these systemic problems is the first step of many.
That said, I can tell you’re going to be okay. I wish I could make it easier, but maybe we can just shame people into looking beyond the usual suspects and coughing up some more cash for smart, young, hardworking people without a safety net. Break a leg, and please send updates!
A special thanks to the special women who helped me compile info and tips, read through, and assured me I’m not hopelessly out of touch (so take it up with them if you disagree): Samantha Wilson, Malin von Euler-Hogan, Carolyn Lipka, and Andrea Tyler.