Young workers at Disney, Netflix, and other Hollywood companies say they are getting screwed

  • The traditional pathways for career progression in Hollywood are broken, young professionals say.
  • The promise of becoming a junior creative executive after a few years as an assistant seems to have vanished.
  • Assistants at Hollywood companies and an analyst pointed to cost cuts and other industry disruptions.

A few years ago, an assistant to a high-powered media executive at an entertainment conglomerate decided it was time to quit, tired of stagnant wages and a career that felt paralyzed.

Trying to keep a Hollywood career was “not something that was feasible for me to continue,” this person told Insider. “I had to make that decision for myself at the time to go ahead and just say goodbye.”

After a few years and various jobs, this person has found their way back to the industry as an assistant at Netflix. But little has changed, they say, citing the same forces — stagnant wages, roadblocks in moving up the chain of command, and difficulty finding work — that continue to stymie Hollywood’s early-career aspirants. Other events, most recently the writers’ and actors’ strikes, may have fanned the flames of the situation, but it appears to have been simmering for some time.

The experience of the Netflix employee is not unique. Insider spoke with eight current and former Hollywood assistants, as well as a former creative executive at a midsize film studio. They all agreed that assistant-level workers in creative fields — those who perform tasks like rolling calls and managing the schedules of studio heads, producers, and other bigwigs in exchange for the promise of one day rising through the ranks — are facing more barriers to advancement than ever before.

Many hopefuls are unable to find work in an industry plagued by headcount reductions and budget cuts. Some employees reported that their bosses avoided discussions about promotions or raises, or made it clear that upward mobility was not an option.

The outcomes have dampened the ambitions of young Hollywood. “About 80% of the people that I started off in entertainment with about five years ago are no longer in the business,” said the employee at Netflix.

An assistant in a business role at Paramount Global added that career challenges are also impeding other life goals. “I have friends that are all buying homes and having children in other parts of the country,” this individual was quoted as saying. “Yet I can’t even consider those things because of my career.”

Insider spoke with executives from companies ranging from Netflix and Disney to Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount, as well as two major Hollywood talent agencies. Because they were not authorized to discuss company matters, all of these young professionals in their twenties or thirties insisted on anonymity.

According to media industry experts, the challenges confronting these workers are a result of broader industry pressures that have only increased in recent years. According to David Heger, a senior equity analyst covering communications and technology at Edward Jones, the push by streaming companies to reduce content costs, combined with increased pressures tied to the new contract won by the Writers Guild of America that ended its recent strike, could intensify the austerity atmosphere inside many Hollywood companies.

“It’s kind of a warning of, ‘Prepare for more potential cutbacks in terms of spending on new content,’ or being much more thoughtful about what new shows and programming are picked up by the different media companies,” he said. The brief, heady era of indiscriminate spending on content is over, he added, and the implications for assistants and others at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder don’t look promising.

‘We’re all looking forward to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.’

In addition to macroeconomic factors, some employees who spoke with Insider reported a significant decrease in the amount of time their bosses have to provide mentorship after wide cuts were implemented this year across Hollywood studios, networks, and streaming services.

This adds to a cultural shift brought on by the pandemic, which affected the perception of the assistant job, according to the former film studio executive, after work-from-home habits upended creative executives’ long-standing reliance on assistants to conduct daily business rites.

“During COVID, something broke in the system, and people started calling each other directly as opposed to using their assistant, which started to cut out part of the assistant role,” this individual went on to explain. “In addition, because it is an apprenticeship business, it did not allow assistants access to those conversations, which is an important part of the training process.” You learn by listening to all of your boss’s phone calls, reading everything they read, conversing with them, and picking up from what they do.”

“A lot of that was lost,” the former executive continued, adding that the change could significantly lengthen the timeline for assistants to advance, which was previously five to seven years: “They’re going to have to work twice as hard, which is truly awful.”

At Disney, where CEO Bob Iger has been on a mission to cut $5.5 billion in costs and 7,000 jobs, one assistant recalled hiring managers warning her during the interview process several years ago that career advancement was unlikely. “I was told before I got the job,” the individual said. “‘Hey, just to let you know, there’s really no room for mobility here.'” And that, according to the assistant, could mean staying at that rank for a few more years.

But for many, even getting a foot in the door appears to be impossible. According to data from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and career-services consultancy, the entertainment industry has shed more than 17,000 jobs this year.

Meanwhile, a review of major studio and streamer job portals reveals how few assistant roles were available in the media industry as of early October. Netflix’s website only has one open assistant position — one in a non-creative vertical. There appear to be no open executive assistant jobs in entertainment at Paramount, which cut 25% of its staff from its US cable networks earlier this year.

Warner Bros. Discovery has several openings for EA roles supporting theatrical development and production teams, marketing, and publicity, as well as a coordinator position focusing on scripted and unscripted programming, a step up from the assistant level.

(These companies’ spokespeople either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.)

According to a current WBD assistant, the company has generally refrained from filling vacated positions following a wave of layoffs this summer, and new hires have been scarce. “Our budgets are tighter than they were pre-COVID and tighter than they were pre-merger,” the assistant added, referring to WarnerMedia and Discovery’s merger last year. This person, who works three days a week in the office, stated that direct exposure to managers has decreased, often to the detriment of assistants.

“We’re all waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel,” this person said, adding that some of their more senior colleagues were experiencing “frustration” and “don’t have the time to wait for things to correct or right themselves.”

They’ve started looking for work in other industries.

Disappointment and despondency among junior ranks

The Hollywood Assistant, a newsletter focused on young people pursuing careers in the entertainment industry, recently published the results of a survey demonstrating the impact of these setbacks on junior employees.

“Every single respondent described feeling hopeless and/or frightened for the future of the entertainment industry and their place in it,” wrote Natalie Lifson, the newsletter’s editorial team member who administered the survey. The majority of the 35 respondents expressed concern about being laid off, having their hours reduced, or being unable to find work. “Many cited depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues as a result of the state of the industry,” Lifson, a talent agency agent trainee, added.

One respondent said they felt “lost” and “spat back out” of an industry they’d worked so hard to break into in a series of anonymous quotes gathered from survey participants.

“I’m entry level and can barely survive given what assistants are paid,” he added. “I’m one flat tire away from having to accept the fact that I’m in debt.” It doesn’t feel like I’m wanted here as someone with no family in the industry.”

“Any forward momentum appears to have completely stopped,” a separate source added.

The remarks come as the cost of living in major cities such as Los Angeles and New York, which are key hubs for the entertainment industry, has risen due to inflation.

While it’s difficult to track what assistants earn, a 2021 survey conducted by the organization #PayUpHollywood discovered that more than 90% of assistants reported earning less than $50,000 per year, with more than half earning less than $30,000. Some job boards at leading streamers and studios list higher salary ranges for assistant roles, but many of those roles require candidates to have several years of previous executive experience.

“Before, people would job-hop a lot, but now, with a tight labor market, it’s very difficult,” the Paramount assistant explained. “Although economically it can be very challenging, you have to tough it out and apply as much as you can while you have your current job.”

The former studio creative executive stated that they frequently advise junior colleagues to consider leaving their company in order to advance, but that this path could be risky because hiring in the industry is so tight. In the meantime, this person reported seeing some assistants volunteer as coordinators or junior creative executives, attempting to read scripts and interact more directly with creative tasks.

However, their efforts are frequently not compensated or even officially recognized with a title change. “Entertainment, in a lot of ways, is contracting right now,” the Netflix assistant explained. “With that comes competition.” It’s almost as if an executive would mentor someone who would be their competitor.

According to the Disney assistant, a sense of “doom and gloom” has spread throughout the industry’s junior ranks. The staffer mentioned a secretive Discord group for early-career workers in the entertainment industry, where they vent about the challenges of moving up and their growing disillusionment in a digital enclave away from the gaze of their bosses.

“It’s hard to see any hope,” said the Disney insider. “There’s a sense of a dead end and no sense of being able to climb anywhere from here.” So, at the very least, I don’t see a way out.”

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