For those hoping to make it in the industry, the past year has been particularly brutal and recovery feels slow to come.
Diana Romero had reached what she thought was a pivotal moment in her entertainment career in the early months of 2020. Romero, who started in physical production but pivoted to screenwriting a few years ago after she lost her mobility due to an illness in 2018, had written a vigilante-style pilot that caught the attention of producer Gary Lucchesi (Underworld, Million Dollar Baby) in the summer of 2019. He offered to help her with the project. But when the pandemic prompted California’s stay-at-home order March 19, Lucchesi advised Romero to halt efforts because of the subject matter and state of the marketplace. “It was heartbreaking,” she says.
While the pandemic overturned the lives of workers industrywide, those just beginning to establish their careers in an industry that is notoriously difficult to break into were disproportionately impacted. The production shutdowns in L.A. and New York eradicated on-set gigs that PAs and extras rely upon, while furloughs and layoffs at agencies decimated entry-level office jobs.
By the end of April 2020, notes Brad Hall, president of EntertainmentCareers.Net, “we lost probably 90 percent of the jobs on the site in the span of 60 days” — and the job market hasn’t opened up significantly since. While Hall says that as of February “we are back to the exact same job flow we had one year prior,” other job sites that provided data for this piece noted their job listings were still down from normal levels in early 2021 and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show job openings in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector remained below early 2020 levels in January, the last month where data was available. California’s entertainment and digital media sector shed an estimated 128,100 jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, according to a study by Otis College of Art and Design in February. The 2021 #PayUpHollywood survey of support staffers found that 34 percent of respondents were furloughed or laid off during COVID-19.
Like it did with everyone in the industry, the spring of 2020 imploded many emerging workers’ carefully laid plans, but it also forced them to come to terms with their particular susceptibility. After watching other rep companies shed support staff, Jazmine Hill found herself being laid off as an assistant/coordinator at a comedy-focused management company. Thomas Jankowski, a production accounting clerk on an Amazon show, was left in limbo after the show abruptly shut down; the show returned, but his job was cut.
The shutdown of Quibi left about 250 employees without a job starting in late October, a group including Hans Lee, a former assistant. Since the company closed, he has continued to build out a Quibi-era side project — a weekly newsletter whose subscribers include former colleagues — which has become a calling card during his search for a full-time job.
With many early-career industry workers relying on multiple impacted industries, the pain was amplified. Actor Justin Baker, who has had small roles on B Positive and About a Boy, had just moved back to L.A. from Atlanta when acting opportunities ground to a halt, as did side gigs as a photographer and waiter.
Even as several entertainment sectors begin to perk up one year later — applications for film permits in L.A. picked up by 43 percent in February compared with January — recovery still hasn’t trickled down for these workers. More than ever, job opportunities are hinging on personal relationships, some say. Rebecca Vinacour, who had just finished a temp position at a cable network when the job market shriveled, has found that recent hiring has not been through wider channels like job boards but rather even more reliant on connections. Sources in physical production says those hiring are looking to people with whom they have worked due to health and safety concerns.
As a result, some disrupted young talent is moving out of costly entertainment hubs: Nearly 20 percent of #PayUpHollywood survey respondents, who are all support staff, reported that they left L.A. or moved back in with family or friends due to lost income. “I would love a more solid career reason to move back to L.A., as opposed to just going back to bounce from gig to gig,” says Kat Hazelton, a film festival employee who moonlights as a production assistant and extra, who returned to her parents’ home in Washington state.
Christopher D. Bloodworth, national director of the Career Center at The Actors Fund, which saw more early-career and below-the-line participation in its programs than usual in 2020, says he is observing those who once relied on side hustles in retail, hospitality and restaurants beginning to “think about career choices that are more dependable” or a return to school. One Gersh assistant who was laid off says, “I’ve had to consider, ‘What else am I going to do if this goes on?’ “
Some who remain unemployed worry that gaps on their résumés will start to raise eyebrows. Hill, who has been seeking to move into development, says that early in the pandemic, empathetic industry employees responded with greater frequency to cold emails: “There was a barrier that opened up,” she says. But she wonders how long she can keep asking for job search favors, “because people don’t play like that.”
As established talent returns to work, many in the emerging class worry they will be forgotten, a casualty of the industry’s short-term memory and show-must-go-on mentality.
Yet some say the COVID era has reaffirmed their commitment to making it. “In some ways, it strengthened me as a person. I’m more resilient,” says Jankowski, who picked up gigs doing uniquely pandemic-era work, including tech support for online screenings and as a production assistant charged with driving and sanitizing equipment; he also recently landed a full-time role as an agency assistant. And while her pilot may be on ice, Romero has recently written for a web series and is looking to be staffed on a show: “This pandemic did actually show me that this is exactly where I want to be.”
This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.