When I was a child, I had a lot of hopes for what the adult world might offer me when I was older. I also had a few bare minimum assumptions that I thought I could reasonably expect, at the very least. Like my hopes and bare minimum assumptions for most areas of life, I got these from television, and like most millennials, this way of relating to the world led me to a vision of my future that turned out to be wildly unrealistic. However, just because something is unrealistic, doesn’t mean it should be unrealistic.
Growing up, my mom showed my sister and me The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a sitcom about a hip, career-focused single lady living in the big city of Minneapolis and making her way as a producer at a news station. In many ways, Mary embodied my assumptions about what adulthood was like. She had a big, spacious apartment with one of those 1970s sunken living rooms. She was best friends with her neighbor across the hall, Rhoda, who was a primordial version of Kramer on Seinfeld. Mary worked in media with a promising future, and she had a quality of life many millennials don’t even dream of today. She never seemed to be worried about rent, and her problems at work amounted to a news anchor’s bumbling shenanigans holding up the day’s broadcast, or the new receptionist being a “hugger.”
My mom also showed my sister and me Seinfeld, a show about four neurotic, affluent friends living in New York. Jerry is a standup comedian who somehow manages to live alone in Manhattan on that livelihood. Like, I know Jerry Seinfeld is a popular comedian, but this was before Bee Movie even came out! Classic films aside, though, the characters in Seinfeld were the ‘90s counterparts to Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards, and they had the kind of lives that proved it. Their problems were so insignificant that the show was advertised as a show “about nothing!” The plotlines in Seinfeld involve the characters finding where they parked in a mall, and coping with coworkers who say “ah” after every sip of a beverage. [In Seinfeld, and on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, working in the entertainment world, and adult life in general, seem quite different than my own experience in the real world.]
Over the years, the young me dreaming about what I wanted to do when I grew up turned into the me writing this; unfortunately, I do not look in the mirror every morning and see Mary Tyler Moore. My problems as a freelance writer include lining up enough work in a given month to make rent, making sure I don’t line up too much and end up running myself ragged, and paying almost 20% of my income in tax (this is a true fact about freelancers, my dudes). To be honest though, compared to most of my generation I am a Mary Tyler Moore. I get to live a relatively stable existence in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn, with a bagel place that serves tofu cream cheese right by me and enough money in my bank account to patronize said bagel place on a semi-regular basis. [A Seinfeld episode about me might involve awkwardness when my debit card gets declined and I have to move funds around on my phone at the front of the line, or having to ask someone I worked with for the fifth time to process my invoice so I can get paid. Cue Seinfeld bass line.]
Seinfeld was directly followed by Friends, which was then succeeded/ pastiched by How I Met Your Mother. Skipping over Friends, the character arcs on How I Met Your Mother offer a weird window into the American dream in the 21st century. One could say that HIMYIM is in many ways about how people start their careers with big, idealistic dreams, then end up settling down and giving up those ideals for a bigger salary that will get the kids through college. Marshall starts out wanting to be an environmental lawyer but ends up having to work at Goliath National Bank to support himself and Lily, while Ted realizes that he’s not going to create his big masterpiece building and contents himself with regular architecture projects. They all went to college, dreamed big, and then settled down to a normal, middle-class New Yorker lifestyle.
The plot trajectory of HIMYIM seems kind of bleak, since the show makes it seem so sad that the characters are all choosing money and security over big ideas and youthful whimsy. But you see, many millennials would kill to sell out like that! Our generation doesn’t even get to sell out—selling out is another one of our unrealistic dreams! For me to sell out, I would have to be offered a job from one of the big media companies that have literally never replied to a job application I’ve sent them. I think I’m going to be sticking to my unrealistic dreams for a while yet—they have about the same chance of happening to me as the typical American dream.
The fact is, most of us millennials are never going to be the neurotic douchebags hanging out at the same studio-set diner/ bar/ coffee shop every day, because going out that often isn’t economically feasible for us. Do you really know a group of friends that literally goes out to lunch at the same diner every day, like on Seinfeld? And circling back to Seinfeld, it seems like sex offenders are being held accountable a lot more often in Hollywood today (Google Jerry Seinfeld for more info). It seems like most of the white men who for some reason everyone loves are getting “cancelled” these days, like sex offenders are events that everyone is going to by default until we all get together and say loud enough that we’re not free that night. But don’t you have a creeping sense that despite this movement there are a lot of predators still slipping through the cracks, happily exploiting those less powerful than themselves? Yeah, me too.
For one thing, some of the people who have been accused haven’t actually lost much credibility. Ryan Seacrest got through his #MeToo moment unscathed, and R. Kelly exploited young girls for decades before seeing even a minimum of consequences. Louis C.K. is already trying to make a comeback, and men like Aziz Ansari probably aren’t far behind. Maybe Kevin Spacey is gone for good, but we can never know for sure. And aside from those men, there’s also, you know, every sex offender in Hollywood who isn’t an A-list celebrity, the men whose crimes wouldn’t make the news. I mean, did anyone really think that every single victim in a 286 billion dollar industry had come forward?
While those who have been victimized by the people closest to the top are certainly in need of help just as much as anyone else, it is important to note that the average worker who has been assaulted, in film or any other industry, would not be able to take their story to a national newspaper. They wouldn’t get interviews on all the most popular news shows, social media hashtags wouldn’t spring up in support of their bravery, and their boss would not be dropped by the company they work for in response to public outcry. These victims get the same things most victims get when they come forward with their stories, which is very little or nothing at all.
Even if all sexual abuse was eradicated from Hollywood, that would not make the film industry into an abuse-free utopia. After all, we millennials who wanted to be like Mary Tyler Moore and Elaine from Seinfeld might have more recourse about inappropriate behavior at our offices these days, but we’re still falling short of those unrealistic expectations from our childhoods. Hollywood might want to tell us “we’ve come a long way, baby,” but it seems like if they’re still calling us “baby,” something is still wrong.
Exploitation comes in many forms, and one of the most widespread and least talked-about in the film industry is economic exploitation. (Maybe people think we get paid in factory-surplus Oscar statuettes or something?) Even the workers themselves tend not to speak up about low wages—partially because some are rich enough they don’t have to care, and partially because most are too poor to take that risk. Let’s look at the numbers:
Statista.com lists the average wage for a worker in film as $33 an hour. That looks pretty good! However!! This is an average, and averages have one major flaw as a statistical tool—if there are too many outliers in a data set, the average of that set will be skewed. So if many people in an industry don’t get paid a fair wage, but the top earners of that industry are George Clooney at 239 million dollars a year, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at 124 million a year, and Robert Downey Jr. at 81 million a year, then the “average” of all the salaries of that industry might make working conditions seem much better than they really are.
Let’s look at some more specific data. According to Glassdoor, the average wage for a production assistant is $41,000 a year. I make $35k or so, and to me that’s a comfortable(ish) existence. Again, this is an average—but that’s not even the most statistically murky factor here! Another complicating factor is that most production assistants are not salaried–no one cuts them regular checks that add up to $41,000. Most of these people have to constantly hustle for freelance gigs; only the production assistants in the most prestigious jobs at the biggest studios would have a salary rather than an hourly wage. This would mean that a measurement of salaried production assistants is probably sampling the highest paid people already, inflating income numbers once again.
To wit: salary.com lists the median hourly wage for a Production Assistant at $15 an hour, which comes out to around $30,000 assuming a 40 hour work week. Since most PAs work very long hours, they often work more than 40 hours a week, but since they work sporadically, they might not be working every week. PA’ing is often physically punishing, at the very least due to the hours, which are 12 hour days at a minimum. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to consider $30,000 to be a good approximation of what a PA makes per year–if they’re among the already-lucky few who can get enough work to support themselves on PA gigs alone. Since PAs usually have to live in the most expensive cities in order to be closer to their work, that means that $30,000 is probably stretched very thin, especially since as freelancers they don’t get benefits. It should also be noted once more that freelancers pay almost 20% of their income in tax—if you don’t believe me, believe my W-2.
All of the above makes things seem pretty grim for people trying to make it in the middling rungs of the film industry. I say middling rungs because, after all, if you’re getting paid at all in film you’re already at least marginally successful. Unpaid interns don’t even get a PA’s $30,000 a year—not from their employers, anyway. Film is actually such a competitive field that you don’t even need to be interning to be pressured to work without pay! There are plenty of Facebook groups for people in film to find crew; if you’re a member of a group like this, you’ll know there are typically more unpaid opportunities on those groups than paid ones. One has to admit that while our favorite sitcom characters tend to spend little to no time working, they still got to have the bare minimum expectation of getting paid.
The problem of how to break into an industry without even being paid for their first job never seemed to come up for Marshall, or even for Robin, who is in TV news, for god’s sake! Here a more recent show, HBO’s Girls, actually shows itself to be more savvy than most about the millennial condition. While none of us wanted to grow up to be Lena Dunham, we can probably identify more with Dunham’s character asking her internship to pay her and getting fired than with the How I Met Your Mother characters landing all the jobs they want with relative ease. They don’t seem to have a problem with pay at all, actually—even Lily, who is working as a teacher!
You might be thinking: hang on a sec, the film industry has some of the strongest unions in the country! People in film must have a better standard of living than you’re suggesting! Well, for the few people who can join them, film industry unions are great–but the freelancers and interns I just mentioned have no unions at all. Also no health insurance.
The question is, if all this is true about the film industry, why do people put up with it? Well, if you’re reading this article, you are probably putting up with it as we speak. The reason, as you can probably attest, is that you have to accept these conditions to move up in the industry. You could give up and get a job in some other field, but the people who exploit you, me, and everyone else involved with the making of films are counting on the fact that you won’t—or at least, that not enough of us will to leave them without workers. After all, even if you did leave, new people like you come into the industry every day who would gladly replace you. And it’s in that knowledge, that lack of choice, that we get a glimpse of the real problem.
Capitalism is built on the idea of a free market—we’ve all heard the term bandied about on the news. An economist would define a fully free market as a market without regulations, where everyone has “perfect knowledge” (economist-speak for “all the knowledge”), and there are no barriers to entry (anyone can start a business/ start working in the industry without having to get a license or anything like that). Theoretically, in a free market, everyone’s free choices would create the best outcome for everyone, because they would know all their options and be able to move between them easily, letting them gravitate toward the most profitable jobs/ purchases/ etc. In a job market, employers would lower wages to raise their profits, but the employees would quit when they stopped making enough money to justify their labor. That would make employers raise wages again; this push and pull would keep wages at a stable equilibrium. In theory, all this would work.
In practice, the concentration of power in the hands of employers makes this free market stuff about as realistic as The Lord of the Rings. First, there are many barriers to entry for the employer side of this equation—the biggest networks and studios own most of the venues where people invest their attention, and use their huge stores of capital to out-spend the smaller studios. This means that instead of employees being able to quit and go to another employer, they are forced to choose between an increasingly small selection of companies to work for. These companies can then collectively lower wages—since they’re all doing it at the same time, this means the workers don’t have the same option to jump ship.
Employers and employees aren’t on anything close to an even playing field like economists seem to believe. The stakes are very different for an employee (not to mention an unpaid intern) who might never work again if she speaks up, and for a boss who can just find someone else. The problem with wages mentioned above means the boss has most of the power here. She has a huge pool of employees trying to find work in the same industry, for the same low wages, so she can almost certainly find someone willing to accept not only the unfair pay and long hours, but the abusive treatment she may want to dish out as well. This is why, despite the #MeToo movement, the film workers, paid and unpaid, who have decided to sue their employers for abusive work practices have done so with the knowledge that they would never work again.
It’s great that we’re addressing one the ways our industry makes it easy for the powerful to exploit the vulnerable, but if we as a community really want to get better, we need to look deeper, into the system of power that enables every kind of abuse on every level of the corporate ladder. The concentration of capital into the hands of the wealthy is already horrifying enough without those same wealthy people owning all of the biggest media companies! If this state of affairs is still true after #MeToo, then it’s pretty clear the movement hasn’t done everything it could have. It is important to combat rape culture, but there are many other consent-related issues that make workplaces problematic.
For one thing, no one actually consents to work—we just have to because the people who own all the land and raw materials to make our food want to profit off our need to eat. This fact keeps employees getting the short end of the stick in all work situations—whether we want to work long hours or short, at the end of the day we have to pick a job of some kind, so in the end it’s just a game of musical chairs. Employers only have to go so far, because the threat of starvation and homelessness puts their employees at too much of a disadvantage for them to have decent bargaining power. Unless.
The only way for employees to get the upper hand back in this situation is to gain the same power as a class as the employers have. Unions can get together strikes that threaten employers with the loss of their entire workforce, not just one employee. That’s how the labor movement at the beginning of the 20th century won the right for children not to work twelve hour days in factories, not to mention set aside the weekend as a time when people couldn’t be made to work. Maybe this is a load of communist propaganda, but people don’t deserve to work twelve hour days without even getting healthcare for it. And maybe this is just “unrealistic” idealism, but if workers came together to demand better working conditions, they just might get them!
Another powerful option is to, as the 60s generation said, turn on, tune in, unplug. Facebook would have no power if none of us used Facebook anymore, and likewise, big media companies can’t exploit people who don’t watch their shows or seek jobs on their networks. As I argued in part one of this series on toxic dynamics in the film industry, young artists can build a stronger community, and better working conditions, by banding together and creating self-sustaining artistic spaces rather than seeking approval from corporations for their work. Instead of trying to sell your next project to a distribution company, why not look for independent and DIY spaces near you where you can get involved with other artists and opt out of the larger film industry altogether?Like I said, we millennials had visions of the future that didn’t match up with the reality we were given. That means that our hopes for adult life are, in the most technical sense of the word, unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth anything. The bitterness many millennials feel about our bleak futures comes from hurt, because we wanted a certain lifestyle—or a certain bare minimum—and didn’t get it. If we decide we don’t actually think our ideas of adult life should be unrealistic, we could make them realistic ourselves! The alternative is for life as we know it to continue, and for more and more of our bare minimum expectations to be labeled unrealistic.