Cakes & Bellwethers (#138)

When I started working as an assistant for the Empress of International Film and Television Sales, it was a temp job, to make ends meet while I tried to make it as a screenwriter. But the Empress was soon addicted to my organizational skills. I was soon addicted to my paycheck and health insurance.

I worked long hours. In at 7-8 AM to deal with Europe, out at 7-8 PM after dealing with Asia. Right before film markets, the hours were even longer. At film markets and festivals, you were on duty 24-7. There were perks, though. Tables at the best restaurants had to be booked months in advance, with a deposit. If my boss got invited elsewhere, guess who got the pre-paid table? Me, and three friends. Sometimes it was me and some random people I’d literally just met.

Pity us. Sometimes we had to eat and drink at least $200 to make sure the company got its money’s worth. I’m not a drinker, but I may have had more than one dessert more than once. Especially if there was cake.

When half the company got laid off, so did my boss and me. I was shocked. I shouldn’t have been. I’d just gotten a promotion out of assistant-land, but the company had produced box office flops for over a year. I’d been too focused on filing systems to see the big picture. Or, you know, all twenty terrible big pictures. I’d worked 60-80 hour weeks, and I had the same severance package as the filing clerk I’d hired two months before the layoffs.

It took me two months to get another job offer, and it was an assistant position. Again. But it paid, and I needed to eat. So I went to work for Boss B, a legendary old Hollywood warhorse. And when I mean old, I mean OLD. The man still dictated his correspondence.

This time, I paid more attention to the Big Picture. All of our big pictures. Which were seriously big. Blockbusters, even. Meanwhile, I networked and hustled. I covered scripts, screened a lot of indie films, and harassed the company until they gave me business cards to leave at screenings.

Sometimes, my analysis of a project’s weakness impressed a producer or director enough that they’d actually call me, thank me for my insight, and chat me up. I’d pitch my award-winning script(s), they’d ask me to send it over, and I’d never hear from them again. Unless they had a project perfect for my company, of course.

Ah, Hollywood.

The year Andy and I got married, the old warhorse got put out to pasture. Nicely, of course. There was the traditional cake and good-bye party for Boss B. It seemed crazy that a super successful production company was downsizing, but it happens all the time. Thanks to some slick Hollywood magic, production companies are the last to see their films’ revenue. It’s not really magic, though, or even special effects. Hollywood accounting is all about a big studio/ distributor loaning a production company money to make a film, then charging the production company interest (and NOT cheap interest), plus a distribution fee, etc. It takes forever for a profit to show on the books. (This is why foreign investors and selling foreign rights early are so important — less money borrowed from a studio that takes its share off the top.) Every so often, a writer sues a studio because the writer can’t believe a movie that made $$$$$$$$$$$ hasn’t paid him his contractually obligated $. The studio invariably pays the writer $$ in hush money and hires them on another project. The Hollywood Reporter writes up a big, Lawsuit Dropped, We’re All Friends Again story and the financial game remains intact.

Even though my original boss was gone, I thought I was safe for a while. I’d already been nominally reporting to Australian Boss Woman. She told me I’d have my job covering scripts and indies, while handling a few international accounts.

Two weeks later, I received notice that I would soon be unemployed.

Australian Boss Woman was livid. “Those fuckwads! I know what I promised you, Autumn, and I’ll deny I ever said this, but you do whatever you have to do!”

When a coworker in Contracts heard the news, he blurted out, “You should sue!” Then he slapped a hand over his mouth and mumbled, “I never said that.”

Suing is tricky. You might win, you might lose, you might lose your money to a lawyer, you might never work again. But the severance package I’d been offered was pitiful. My wedding was more expensive than anticipated. And my Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister was a practicing employment attorney. I called her.

She said, “Hmmm, there’s a verbal contract, but the best angle is probably the amount of unpaid overtime. How many hours a week were you working?”

“When I started? In at 7 AM, out at 8 PM. For the first year, for sure, plus weekends at film festivals, phone calls at night, weekends, etc. I’m not working so many hours at the office now, but I take scripts home and go to film screenings.”

“You’re fucking kidding me. On your salary? After that last [REDACTED] movie, they should be able to afford a hundred HR Departments!”

“We have an HR…person.”

“Well, your person is an idiot and your company is toast. Here’s the letter you’re going to write…”

SUMMARY OF MY LETTER:

You guys owe me a shit-ton of money in unpaid overtime. Here’s the amount. Thanks, and have a great weekend.

SUMMARY OF THEIR RESPONSE:

You are an exempt employee. You are entitled to nothing. Have a nice Thanksgiving.

MY NEXT LETTER:

You must have missed the HR seminar defining an Exempt Employee as 1) A supervisor of other employees, 2) Part of company management 3) One exercising independent judgment on matters of significance. Pretty sure taking dictation, rolling calls, and making lunch reservations won’t count, no matter how good you are at Hollywood spin. So, money, please, and Merry Christmas.

THEM:

We don’t believe you REALLY worked all those hours. We’ll give you a little more money, though, just to shut you up. Happy New Year.

ME:

Your offer is pathetic. Here’s a bunch more legalese to prove that I’ve consulted a lawyer and I know you’re bluffing. Can you tell this lawyer is dying to take you to court and make you open your books? That’d be really fun, wouldn’t it? And remember those keycards that we have that record all our entrances and exits from the office and the parking garage? It would be fun to look at all those records FOR ALL YOUR NON-EXEMPT EMPLOYEES, oh, yes, I bet the Department of Labor would like to see those.

You will give me ALL the money. Enjoy Sundance.

THEM:

We find your accusations to be without merit.

We’re giving you all the money.

P.S. But you’re not getting a farewell cake, and you can forget ever collecting the hundreds of dollars we pledged for your Multiple Sclerosis Charity Walk. Not because we can’t afford it – remember, our monthly expense accounts for just lunches equals your annual salary – but because we’re fucking petty.

**********

I’m not gonna lie. The fact that they withheld my cake hurt. (You can see here how much I love cake.) Also, the farewell cake was a tradition. Dispensing with it made my last days at the office very awkward. People kept stopping by my desk, asking when I was leaving and hinting that I should request a gluten-free cake. (Don’t worry, fellow cake-fans, those gluten-free suckers are a travesty and I would NEVER have bowed to peer pressure.)

Once I informed them that management had decreed “NO CAKE FOR YOU!” my co-workers’ faces went from shock to worry. I could see the same thought flit across multiple faces: if management is skimping on cake, our company’s financial situation must be worse than I thought…

They scurried away to update their CVs.

In the end, I said my good-byes and left quietly.

Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister called as I drove home: “Did you get your check?”

I said, “I did. It cleared.”

“Yay!!”

“Yeah.”

“There should be cheering. Why are you not cheering?”

“Well, it was kind of ugly. They didn’t do the usual farewell party, right? And there was no cake for me.”

“Do you want the money, or do you want a cake?”

“I want the money.”

She said, “All right, then,” and hung up.

That night, Andy and I went out to dinner to celebrate my victory. Or my unemployment. Or my freedom. Or whatever you want to call it.

I ordered a whole cake.

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

37 thoughts on “Cakes & Bellwethers (#138)”

  1. Wow!! Powerful!! See…. you could have bought all the cake you wanted, with the settlement you so richly deserved!! Well done!

    1. The entertainment industry counts on an inexhaustible pool of young, hungry assistants who want to make it. As such, they would rather make nice than make waves. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t work overtime. I don’t know anyone who gets paid for it, either.

      It’s an HR nightmare. 🙂

      1. At some point there will be a big expose and a mega lawsuit. Back in the day young hungry assistants never filed sexual harassment complaints against their touchy bosses for the same reason.

        1. I hope so. But sexual harassment is probably less likely to be reported in the entertainment industry than anywhere else. And we have the worst stories, what with casting couches. 🙁

  2. Wow, good job! Companies surely can be a pain when it comes to paying up after letting people go. I am just happy that in Germany are so strict laws that it would be suicidal for a company to do some shifty stuff. (got all my money after quitting plus 6 weeks worth of holiday payment + 13th and 14th month payment (only was there for five months till I got ill… 😀 😀 😀 ))

    1. The next guy who almost hired me was German. And I interviewed his previous assistant, and what discovered that he would NEVER call her after hours or on weekends. Probably his strict German code. 🙂

  3. I used to be in HR too. And let me tell you, your sister was super duper smart to pursue the exempt status angle. Because half the people in HR don’t even understand how to classify someone. Exempt status and independent contractor status, two areas that are always ripe for lawsuits. I am so glad you got your money!!

    1. Yeah, none of the companies I worked for had any concept of actual HR laws. It’s bizarre. You’d think you’d want to educate yourself. And it’s not like it’s hard to look up the laws these days.

      Good heavens. The similarities between you and Kate are getting EERIE.

  4. Hurray for Brilliant Blond Lawyer Sister … and you. Somebody has to stand up for the little guy; otherwise the powers that be walk all over us. I don’t think I would have had the patience. Plus I’m not very pugnacious. When we lived in Vanuatu, the family that lived in our house didn’t pay the rent. From our very distant location, we hired a lawyer and took them to court. We won. The money was in the safe in the court. And then it wasn’t. We paid the lawyer and gave up.

    1. Long-distance bill-collecting is really, really hard. Having a sister who is a lawyer is easy (unless you want to win an argument with her). And you have to weigh the emotional toll of the battle as well. 🙁

  5. As Nicki said, props to Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sis for helping out and saving the day. Your ex-company thought they were very good with their words and didn’t look like they were going to crack. I suppose that’s Hollywood (and corporate) for you – sweet talk and all smiles to get one through all the wrongs towards the top.

    In Australia I don’t think the workplace is that shady unless you work in a place where you get paid cash in hand. But companies here seem to not want us to work overtime. In my current job and another one, I have been warned to not work over 38 hours per week because they can’t afford to pay me overtime wages (which is almost double what I get per hour).

    No cake? At least you get to choose your cake in the end 🙂

    1. I think overtime culture differs in other workplaces and and countries. More socialist cultures tend to protect their employees more. But in the U.S. and especially in the entertainment industry, capitalism is king. And overtime only comes in after 40 hours, and it’s not more than time-and-a-half.

      Yeah, we went a little crazy on that cake. 🙂

  6. Well done!! HR is always the most hated department, at least in the companies I’ve been, haha. Is it always like that? Maybe they should change their name from Human Resources to Human Reapers or something…

    Did you eat the whole cake in one go??

      1. When I was in the Shanghai office our HR was super nice. Now I work from home and I don’t have much contact with the HR in Shenzhen, but the people in the office there hate them. I think because there are 11 people in HR and they don’t do much apart from organizing shitty activities xD

          1. HR… protecting workers? That sounds like a sci-fi movie, hahaha. Not only in China! In my previous job in Spain, HR’s main function was screwing workers and saving money for the company!

  7. Well, damn. What a mess. Glad you got justice though. Hollywood. UG. So, hey, are you still trying to make it as a screenwriter? 🙂

  8. The screenwriting travails are another post. Or, like, 5. I’m currently working on a novel or three — YA Fantasy.

    But I feel like publishing is starting to become more like Hollywood! Perish the thought!

  9. Autumn, good to hear it all turned out all right! And you still got (better!) cake in the end so it was more win than loss. Your sister is awesome too!

    I have a friend who’s just started being an assistant in Hollywood and I’ll definitely be forwarding this over!

  10. Holy shit what a bunch of assholes! (excuse my French…)

    And wow, that film industry is brutal. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t think it was THAT bad. Do you think you’ll ever go back?? (or did you go back and now you’re some famous screenwriter writing this blog incognito??). What a toxic environment.. Still, thank god for your brilliant blonde lawyer sister and her advice to you so that you could stick up for yourself and fight for your rights!!

    Bummer about the cake… cheap ass, petty bastards. I’m glad you managed to somehow find cake in the end, even if it was self-funded.

    By the way, I see this chocolate cake image frequently on your blog. Do you have a favorite kind of cake? What is it? 😉

    1. Oh, that is my cake in the picture, the one I make for Andy’s birthday every year. It takes about six hours. I’ll have to do a post on how that whole tradition evolved someday.

      As to the industry, first, there are no famous screenwriters. I doubt you can name even one! Second, yes, it’s brutal, and cutthroat, and I will have more posts on trying to survive as a screenwriter later.

      I am very lucky to have a sister who dispenses free legal advice. And one who dispenses free medical advice. They have saved me many, many times. From cat bites, litigious drivers, and evil companies. Hopefully their advice has made it to some blog readers in need, too.

  11. Now I may stay away from that HR internship I spotted in some apparently large company. And oh yes, I’m quite reluctant to having an employer, after some bad experience I had some time ago. *Shivers* Oh, yeah, that was an internship too. So, not a job-job.

    Oh and your sister makes law look cool. And yeah, it’s good to have a lawyer in your family. As long as they are willing to help you.

    1. She does make law look cool! But there are things she hates about it, too.

      Well, the good thing about being a writer is that even bad experiences are material. So maybe give that HR slot a try!

      1. Thanks for the encouragement! But I’m honestly quite scared of all that the role implies. And there were soooo many applicants for it already. >< Being an introvert/shy person really does not help.

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