"Industry Spotlight" is our newsletter series where we interview professionals from across the entertainment industry about their current jobs and career trajectories. Our hope is that you will learn more about the positions you're already interested in, discover new roles you may not have considered, and utilize the wisdom of those who've paved the way before you to forge your own path for success.
This month, we sat down with Amy Thurlow, who has worked as a writers' assistant and script coordinator on SLEEPY HOLLOW (Fox), KRYPTON (Syfy), AMERICANAH (HBO Max), and is currently working on TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORY (CW).
HOLLYWOOD RESUMES: Tell us about the role of a writers' assistant.
AMY: A writers’ assistant is responsible for taking notes while the writers break story, and then organizing the notes, so everyone knows what the room discussed that day. They create a record of the work that’s being done and track what ideas the writers "land" on and help create a blueprint of what the room discussed for the writers to reference as they go to script.
When I’m a writers’ assistant, my day-to-day is nonstop note taking and keeping up with the story breaking conversation. The writers’ assistant job is an art form, because you have to really understand story to keep up and make sense of everything when you organize the notes. You also have to pay attention 100% of the time, which seems easy, but oftentimes the writers themselves aren’t this focused. At the end of the day, I organize the notes and send them out to the writers.
HR: Tell us about the role of a script coordinator.
AMY: The script coordinator is the keeper of the script. They make sure that everything is proofed and formatted correctly for production and that it gets to the right people at the right time. They keep track of all the files for the show and versions of the scripts and are a walking reference guide for the show.
As a script coordinator, every day is a little different, depending on the show’s needs. If I get a script, I’m uber focused on proofing/formatting and generally making sure everything makes sense for several hours, then I’m asking clarifying questions to the showrunner to ensure that we’re on the same page, and eventually distributing the script to the departments that need it. Script coordinating is a hard job to describe, because there are so many layers in between each step. For example, you might need to alert a department head of script changes or flag overall mythology inconsistencies. It really changes from show to show. Script coordinators are also responsible for important WGA paperwork and sometimes even writer contracts.
HR: What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
AMY: A good attitude. No one wants to be around someone who thinks they’re better than getting coffee. Everyone has to start somewhere and chip in. TV writing is a lot of teamwork. It’s about supporting the process no matter what level you’re at.
HR: What do you like most about your job?
AMY: I love TV writing, and I love being around the process. Whether I’m in the room while we’re breaking story, or I’m prepping a draft, I love seeing what decisions are being made about story. If you live and breathe story and character and love being part of a creative team, you don’t mind the other parts of the job that are less fun.
HR: If you don't like _______________, you won't like my job.
AMY: Being flexible! Assistants and script coordinators need to be flexible. You might have to take your laptop with you to the movies or a friend’s birthday. Things are constantly changing, so you need to be able to roll with the punches.
HR: What's something you do in your job that an outsider wouldn't expect (and maybe you didn't before you took the job)?
AMY: How much goes into to TV writing. I don’t think I ever realized the extent to which stories are discussed before I saw it in action.
HR: What's the key to finding time to write when you're working as support staff in a room?
AMY: This is a huge challenge, since shows are so engrossing. I struggle with time management, and a thing that’s really helped me is scheduling everything, including my writing sessions. Recently, I joined an online productivity program called CaveDay that really helps me unplug and focus.
HR: How did you get your current job?
AMY: I got the job on CW's TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORY through a mentor and friend I worked with on KRYPTON.
HR: What was your first job in Hollywood?
AMY: I worked at a 2D to 3D conversion company as a Stereoscopic PA/Coordinator for two years while I was trying to get hired in TV.
HR: What's a mistake you made early on in your career?
AMY: When I was a writers’ PA, there were writers that wanted to help me, but I had just started writing TV. I was really nervous about sending them my pilot, so instead I wasted a bunch of time paying for evaluations to tell me if I was ready. But writing is subjective, and they didn’t really give me an answer. Most show relationships fade after the show ends. I wish I’d trusted myself and my work more.
HR: Tell us about the #PayUpHollywood movement and why it's particularly important for people in your role.
AMY: TV is a changing landscape. It used to be you got a job as a WA or SC and you spent maybe a season or two doing it before proving you were ready to staff. The staff writer role used to be more of an apprenticeship. Now, what we’re seeing is that staffs are smaller, so staff writers are expected to operate at a much, much higher level. There are a lot more shows than ever before (which is great!), but they also have fewer episode orders. The WGA mandates freelance episodes be given out on shows with 20 episodes (or the show pays a penalty). Those freelance episodes regularly went to support staff as a way to prove their ability to write for the show and eventually get promoted to staff. They also supplemented the poor wages. Freelance assignments are still given out by generous showrunners, but there are a lot fewer of them available with shorter episode orders.
Along with fewer freelance opportunities, the vast majority of shows don’t make it more than one or two seasons. Miniseries are bigger than ever. The progression generally used to be put in 1 season as WA or SC, write a freelance in season 2 and staff in season 3. That progression has become pretty rare. So even though there are more writer jobs than ever before, the ability to move up the ranks as a WA or SC is harder, and people are stuck in support staff roles for a lot longer. It may be feasible for someone to suck it up and defer their student loans for a year or two, but the financial burden compounds when people are in these roles for 5 years or more.
Since the 2008 crisis, there’s been a steady crack down on how much these roles pay, and just as cost of living sharply increased in LA, studios were pushing to pay less and less. With COVID, they're trying to tighten their belts even more, which ultimately results in actual wage theft. Studios often try to pay these jobs as part-time roles, even though they’re full-time jobs. A show recently tried to pay their script coordinator for only 3 days per month. Aside from this being in violation of our union contract, there’s no version of that job that can be done in so few hours. Likewise, we’re seeing the cutting of overtime from a 60/hr week to a 40 or 50/hr week. But we don’t operate 9-5 -- we have to be available 24/7, so cutting the overtime means that we’re available off the clock for the show. When you work on a show, you can’t work a second job, so ultimately, only people who can afford to be paid less than base cost of living can afford to work. This is exacerbated by the fact that this is all freelance. Even on the most successful shows, there are typically 6-10 weeks of hiatus per year where you’re not paid (including the two weeks at Christmas where you don’t get paid). Other freelance positions that have comparable duties like Assistant Editors and Script Supervisors make about 3-4 times as much as we do. They’ve been unionized a lot longer, but even so, the difference is staggering.
Studios often try to act like our jobs are a luxury to the writers, but the reality is that our jobs are crucial. Why would a studio pay a room of writers upwards of $100k per episode if there’s no one taking notes on what they’re saying? My twitter thread tried to highlight how much money and responsibility rests on the script coordinator’s shoulders considering how little they make. On top of it all, the pay rate is exclusionary, and unfortunately, BIPOC are excluded at a higher rate from these jobs. The #PayUpHollywood movement is about changing representation from the ground up.
HR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
AMY: Really evaluate why you want to be in this area of the industry. At the end of the day, you have to really love it, and if you don’t, you’ll be unhappy. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that think "TV writing pays a lot and is fun/easy." It’s not really that simple. Yes, the schedule of minimums on the WGA site looks high, but it’s not like being a doctor, where you put time in at med school and then make a steady amount of money for the rest of your life. You may put in 5-10 years as an assistant, going into debt, then be staffed for only one season. The same things that make it difficult for assistants to move up in rank are also making it harder for writers to move up in rank. It’s a lot of instability to deal with even if you really love the work. I also see a lot of people who are introverts who want to be TV writers. If that’s you, then you might want to reconsider. The job is literally being in a room talking all day with people. If you’re a writer who likes to be out on script, then maybe features or novels are a better fit.
HR: Thanks, Amy!