Internships: A Cautionary Tale

If you are in film school, it’s likely you will make it to LA as part of an internship program. If used properly, this can be a great opportunity to transition to Los Angeles and maybe even emerge on the other side with an entry-level position. Once a more observational entry into the inner workings of the city, in recent years the film industry has called upon its interns to perform more duties than ever, even some formerly reserved for entry-level employees. In this way some internships can be exploitative, as seen in the recent class actionlawsuit against Fox. You will have many choices and it is imperative that you make the right one. I for one passed up an internship at Fox, which in my opinion would have been the better choice. They surely ask a lot of their interns, but make up for it with real industry experience, which is something most colleges never provide outside of the internship setting. Weighing all these options can be daunting for anyone soon to be jettisoned into a shrinking film industry. Here are some things to consider.

My first internship was at a failing music video company. They had a big name and had worked with some huge talents. It wasn’t until I began that I realized the company was fizzling out. MTV had shifted almost completely toward reality programming. The on demand nature of the internet had made satellite music channels irrelevant. The value of the format had evaporated. The world of high budget music videos I grew up with was over. Days at this office usually involved other interns, and I flipping a coin to see who would have the thankless task of delivering DVD’s to directors houses all over town. In fact, the majority of my experience there was as a courier. The company was constantly trying to gain the favor of overpaid music video directors and would send gift bags, which I would deliver. I once had to drive an hour in each direction to deliver a pair of socks. I had to act fast. My directing brain had made this company seem attractive, but I knew I needed to be screenwriting-adjacent to become a writer.

Seizing an opportunity, while breaking my internship contract, I began pulling double duty. I was interning “off the books” at a sister company with one of the film industry’s biggest producers at the helm. Not only was I not getting paid, I was paying to park and not being reimbursed, so essentially I was paying to work. I didn’t care at first. I was reading scripts. I was doing coverage for a top producer. I was rolling calls from the A list. I was sitting in on script meetings and giving my opinions. This would surely be my way in, right? But what I was to learn in that office should be a primer for all incoming interns.

Feel the room. When I first interviewed in this place, you could feel the stress in the office. I attributed it to my own nerves. Trust your gut. This office turned out to be a hot bed of stress. When our producer was in the office, which was rarely, all the key players were amicable because every one of them had a script they were pushing onto the producer trying to pry their way into this business with a crowbar. When he was out of the office, it was a war zone. On my first day a shouting match started by the receptionist led to the lead PA walking off the job. The producer’s schedule and high demands made for an impossible task list divided up by an understaffed company. I was so eager to get my hands on some scripts that I overlooked the reason they would foster an illegal internship – they were desperate.

Don’t push your agenda. We all have scripts. We all want to get them in the right hands. This is the most frustrating part of being a writer and an intern. You feel so close to the action, but it isn’t appropriate for you to pitch your ideas unsolicited. You need to be patient and trust yourself to know when the time is right to ask higher-ups to read your work. There was a junior executive who was very nice to interns despite being generally stressed by her workload. She was one of the few who would take the time to explain things to you instead of being generally annoyed by your lack of experience. One day I was on my lunch break in the kitchen and she saw me toiling in Final Draft. She asked what I was working on. I gave her my best brief pitch of the story, and she said to send it to her. I went home and pulled an all-nighter to get the script in the best shape possible. I sent it to her, and she read it, giving me feedback. In retrospect, that script was garbage. Bless that woman for not lighting it on fire, but the lesson is patience and timing.

Conversely, at the big producer’s office, everybody had a script they were pushing. Most of the employees had their eye on becoming a producer; the writer and the script were just their way in. In a script meeting one of the less tactful junior executives brought up her project at the wrong time. We were going down a list of scripts and our producer was deciding which were worth exploring. The list represented possibly the next two years of work to be done in the office. The woman piped up and said, “What about – “ He quickly shot her down. “I’m not interested in that anymore.” Just like that her project was dead. The fact that he had even considered it was a miracle, but in her mind the mansion was paid for. She was on her way. She burst into tears, which she quickly recoiled under his gaze and we moved on. He had made it a point to strike it down harshly, I think to make a point to the others. What I took away from it was that producers of that caliber are overloaded with choices to make. Do not put them into a situation where saying no will make you one less thing they have to deal with. Wait for an opportunity to make it easy for them to say yes.

Look for upward mobility. My last bit of advice on internships is to ask about opportunities that may have been granted to prior interns before you commit to months of free labor. If they have trouble even coming up with interesting things you might be doing, run. You should see at least one example of a former intern who was hired on as evidence that your free labor is going somewhere. If interns have been promoted, it tells you a few very important things. The internship was not so horrible they couldn’t stick around, the company looks for talent from within, which means the ladder extends further upward, and if you work hard and fit in with their company, you have a chance of being hired. At the big producer’s office, there was only one person who had been there for more than a few months, and he was a truly miserable individual. The turnover in all other positions was extreme. Days after that receptionist caused the lead PA to quit, she was replaced. This is not where you want to be. Internships are not always the time of your life, but you should feel like you are part of a well-oiled machine and that you are being compensated for your time with experience and a generally positive work environment.

In the end, trust your gut (it’s the smartest part of your body), and… good luck.