Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, and Greg Berlanti are among the Hollywood heavyweights who have donated major sums to a relief fund for the assistants and support staff who are out of jobs and out of paychecks in the wake of the industry’s coronavirus shutdown.
As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly $500,000 had been raised for the Relief Fund for Hollywood Support Staff.
Hollywood, like many industries across the country, has come to a complete standstill, with television and film productions shutting down, releases and festivals canceled or postponed, and production and development on future projects in limbo.
Tinseltown is now a ghost town, something that is more than a metaphor: thousands of workers who rely on the constant churn of series and film production for income—everyone from production assistants to camera operators to caterers and drivers—are suddenly unemployed.
Hardest hit are the industry’s below-the-line employees and support staff, who already are among lowest-paid workers. Many are freelancers who don’t receive health care or paid sick leave. They are typically hourly workers, unlike stars and producers who tend to be salaried, meaning they are essentially gig workers now stranded without gigs. As the fund’s GoFundMe page says, “This is a massive loss of revenue for those who already weren’t making a living wage.”
In order to assist at least a subset of workers facing financial crisis, an Emmys red carpet’s worth of Hollywood producers from shows like Watchmen, Game of Thrones, and Westworld have rallied and donated money to bolster L.A.-based support staff most devastated by COVID-19 shutdowns.
The Relief Fund for Hollywood Support Staff has been one of the most successful fundraisers thus far by an industry attempting to provide financial assistance to their own, with a total of nearly $500,000 raised to help assistants, production assistants, coordinators, readers and other support staff that have either been laid off or seen their hours cut in recent weeks.
The fundraiser was organized by Liz Alper, a writer and producer (Chicago Fire, The Rookie) who last year co-founded the #PayUpHollywood movement to spotlight how grossly little assistants and support staff make, how prevalent workplace abuse and labor law violations are, and how antiquated and harmful the “paying your dues” concept is. She launched an anonymous survey on pay, working conditions and cost of living.
“What we found is that 64.2 percent of assistants reported taking home $50,000 or less annually (the average L.A. apartment rents for $30,204 a year),” she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter last year. “Studios dole out that much on a single FYC screening. Netflix was happy to spend nearly $60 million on an Oscar campaign for Roma, but 67.6 percent of assistants have had to get a second job so they could afford to work their entertainment job.”
When the production shutdowns first started, Alper and her #PayUpHollywood co-founders Deirdre Mangan and Jamarah Hayner texted each other stories they had heard about assistants, researchers, writers, readers, mailroom employees, and support staff across the industry who were being called into offices and let go.
“They are the ones who quite often do the most backbreaking work that’s required, and they’re the ones who are often screwed out of wages from the get-go,” Alper says. “They’re already living hand to mouth, and they can’t afford sudden unemployment like this. So not only for them to be furloughed, but to realize that there are no jobs to be had right now, because everything’s shutting down. The service industry is shutting down. The side hustles are shutting down. There is no work to be had. It’s leaving people in a very scary situation.”
The fund responds to applicants based on the order and urgency of application. Those who qualify will receive a one-time payment of either $450 or $900, depending on if they also have qualified for unemployment benefits.
Within three days, the fundraiser surpassed its $100,000 goal, which was planned to provide assistance to around 220 workers at most. As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly $500,000 had been raised, meaning far more workers than originally planned will receive assistance.
A large part of that is thanks to the matching contributions of some of the industry’s most prolific showrunners and creators.
Shonda Rhimes (Shondaland), Greg Berlanti (Riverdale), Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), Damon Lindelof (Watchmen), Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld), Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and David Benioff (Game of Thrones) all pledged $25,000 matching donations in 24-hour donation drives meant to drive up the tally. John August and Craig Mazin (Scriptnotes podcast) were the first to organize such a drive, pledging $50,000 in a matching donation on Tuesday.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Murphy pledged $50,000 as an outright donation.
Over 800 people have donated to the fund thus far. If you scroll through the list of top donors, you’ll notice some bold-faced names who contributed between $1,000 and $10,000, the amount contributed by Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse’s Phil Lord.
Other major showrunners and producers whose names pop up: Michael Schur (The Good Place), Marti Noxon (UnREAL), Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Mike Royce (One Day at a Time), Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (Little America), Peter Nowalk (How to Get Away With Murder), Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), Tim Federle (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series), Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey), and Liz Hannah (The Post).
Alper says that the surplus won’t just allow them to assist more people, but could also increase the amount they’re able to provide. (She refrains from revealing specifics, as the numbers are still being calculated after the pleasant surprise of the fundraiser so drastically exceeding its goal.) “You want to help as many people as you can, but you also want to make sure that the amounts that you’re giving out are going to be helpful,” she says. “So this allows us to maybe give a little more and even give a little more to more people.”
She’s also been touched by the care people who qualify for the assistance have taken in determining whether or not to apply. She’s spoken to several people who have said they are out of a job and need the money, but have been concerned about applying because they may not be as financially desperate as others and didn’t want to take funds from them.
“A lot of them are reaching out saying, ‘I really need this money, but I’m not destitute. I’m not about to be thrown out of my house. And I am worried, if I apply, I am going to be taking that money from other people,’” Alper says. “I think, seeing that this fundraiser has been so successful is encouraging to them and it lets them know, like, please, these funds are for you.”
While it’s been encouraging beyond what she ever imagined to see so many major Hollywood players step up and donate, it’s important to Alper to stress that it shouldn’t be up to the generosity of these people to rescue these workers. A tenet of the fund’s mission is to call on studios and production companies to keep its writers and assistants, if not working, at least paid during shutdowns.
“I have a lot of emotion surrounding this because I believe in it so fully,” she says.
There are so many people, in her industry and everywhere, who don’t have GoFundMe fundraisers to turn to, especially ones that have been this successful. Plus, this fund is only available to support staff based in Los Angeles. There are support staffers in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and all across the country who have been affected by these shutdowns.
“That’s why we need the studios to step up and take care of their employees, because it’s their work that is making these companies and studios millions, if not billions in profits every year,” Alper says. “To turn their proverbial backs on these employees now when their need is greatest is not OK. We know how expensive it would be to keep everyone solvent until this crisis is over. At the same time, it’s something that needs to be done. We really urge the studios and the companies who’ve laid off their employees to step up and support any way that they can.”