Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Guest Editorial: Have internships in Hollywood simply become unpaid jobs?

When a TV network reruns a show, they call it an "encore performance." What they should call it is, "Damn! This re-airing of is Losing it with Jillian an excellent way to drive up our margins. We don't have to pay to produce another show, we get decent ratings and advertisers will still pay a whole pile to sponsor this show" show. When I rerun a posting, I call it "I didn't have the time or interest to do today's episode." At least I'm honest.
The following originally aired May 6, 2010.
And now a guest editorial from one of my readers. [Note: I haven't verified anything stated below, but it all sounds pretty reasonable]...

I and other film creatives my age -- recent college grads hoping to find work -- have noticed a growing trend of replacing paid employment opportunities with internships to such a degree that the entry-level job has been virtually eradicated.

This applies even to those with degrees from major schools; one glance at the private USC Cinema job board shows one (usually independent) paid opportunity for every 10 internships. I honestly I feel that the next generation of California filmmakers is being irreparably damaged by this trend; since few are being hired and moving up the chain, the producers, directors, crew members and execs who currently helm the industry may not have anyone to take their places when they retire or move up themselves.

This is just one of the myriad problems caused by unpaid internships. Another huge issue is that only very well-off or financially supported individuals can afford to work many months at a job for no pay, dramatically slanting the playing field against minorities and many women. And while, once upon a time, internships at least held the promise of mentorship, today there's little or -- more typically -- no training to be found.

It seems that the point of internships today is solely to replace paid employees in order to cut costs. Yet, legally, work performed by an intern must be of no direct financial benefit to the company. Interns are not supposed to be doing for free the tasks normally performed by a paid employee.  And while photocopying and providing coverage certainly bend that rule, supposedly reputable companies are breaking that rule more and more egregiously, as no one seems to challenge "internship" listings such as this one from the LA Kings (from Craigslist):

The Los Angeles Kings are seeking an energetic individual who would like to gain experience in a fast-paced production environment. We are currently in need of an intern to assist in video production and post-production at our offices in El Segundo. Candidates should be interested in the creative process specific to sports production. Interns will have the opportunity to experience all facets of development and production and work closely with the current team in place. This is a great opportunity to get into the industry with a great organization while enhancing your production skills!

Do not respond to this ad unless you completely understand the role and compensation. If you have read through the entire ad, please put the word "Kopitar" in the subject line of your email. Also, please briefly explain your hockey knowledge.

Essential Duties:

Include observing and participating in all aspects of video production.
  • Assisting producer with archiving and logging footage.
  • Assisting producer with shooting interviews, b-roll.
  • Assistance with clip reels, DVD duplication, editing, etc.
Minimum Requirements:
  • Candidate must be currently enrolled at an accredited college or university pursuing a degree in production/broadcasting. Must receive college credit for internship
  • Candidate must have knowledge of Outlook and Microsoft Word.
  • Ability to multi-task and work in a fast paced environment.
  • Candidates must possess excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Candidates must possess excellent organizational skills.
  • Ability to work 20 hours a week
  • Experience using Final Cut Pro
  • Understanding of audio and video equipment
  • Basic hockey knowledge

There is no "training opportunity" to be found anywhere in this listing or the many listings like this. In fact, rather than offer skills to be learned, these "internships" require their trainees to already have professional training in order to perform their duties. Why is this allowed to continue unchecked?

For almost every unpaid "internship" out there, there's a hard-working employee not contributing to local and federal taxes, medicare or Social Security. There's an employee not covered by sexual harassment protection or protection from discrimination or receiving health care. There's an employee, potentially on unemployment, who will eventually have to move out of state in order to pay bills and put food on the table.

To put the icing on the cake, most companies in town refuse to hire anyone with only internship experience in that rare case when a job is even offered. I have a friend with great work ethic who's held a half-dozen internships -- reading scripts, covering novels, writing thousands of words for Avatar's viral advertising campaign, you name it -- only to be told that he doesn't have the "experience" to do his own job for a pay check.

The economics of Hollywood are screwy right now, but taking advantage of the lowest of the low won't fix it.  And if you pay us, we can afford to see your movies and no longer bootleg versions from BitTorrent.  Everybody wins.

Got something you want to say about the state of Hollywood?  Send it to tempx@tempdiaries.com.


Angie said...

This article makes some seriously excellent points. As a college grad who moved here almost two years ago from out of state, I experienced everything mentioned above.

It's a sad state of affairs and as a result of the lasting effects of the writer's strike and the current economic situation, it looks like a cycle that won't be coming to a close any time soon.

Anonymous said...

this is happening in other fields in other parts of the country also. minimum wage interns (full-time, no benefits) doing the work of salaried employees (who have been let go). it's a short sighted way of doing business just for some quick savings. an entire base of knowledge is eliminated.

Anonymous said...

This is awful. I don't think there's anything wrong with an internship expecting knowledge of some skills, but they should be basic, like Word/Office, maybe PhotoShop if it's graphic design. I've read enough descriptions of internships to know what they look like, and this isn't it. This looks like an entry-level job. I've also thought the industry was impossible had never had any interest in being a part of it. Best of luck to those trying to make a go of it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...

Ya great article my fellow SCA grad. I also got F'd by someone who paid below wage for work because people like us are so desperate.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that interns are most definitely being taken advantage of from the get-go and believing that it is just how things are. How many production companies actually pay readers any more for coverage? I am an intern right now, working at three very different places. One is a production company that often works us 10-11 days, and assigns us coverage to do within 24 hours. In addition to this, they send us on runs, to take the place of hiring a messenger service, even though it is a violation of so many of their insurance agreements. At my other internship, a management company, the interns work reception, which is very educational because you learn where everyone in L.A. works. However, we also work as the assistants to the managers who do not have their own, adding to the resentment we have toward the assistants who are being paid. The only way this is going stop is if interns demand for things to be different, but since so many of the interns can afford to work upwards of a year and a half with no pay, I don't think there is going to be a unified front anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I do feel there is a pro and con to this though. Although we are having a harder time getting jobs, once we do we are in, and it'll be hard for them to replace us. Although it is sad that they can do this, but this situation comes from having way too many people wanting to be in this business and the business model simply cant support everyone.

The whole business is shrinking and this is just another filtering system that eliminates supply to their work force demand. You will have to be amazing to get to the next level.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what is going on! Jobs disguised as "Unpaid Internships".
My favorite is some of the production assistant jobs where they require you to have 3-5 years of PA experience. Great, now what?!

Anonymous said...

This is something which will require federal government regs to change. Contacting the Department of Labor might be a good idea. This is unfair all around...except for the producers. People should at least get the minimum wage unless the intern is still in school and getting college credit for their internship.

Anonymous said...

I understand where people are coming from and this is clearly a practice that should be reigned in, but at least in the example given above, the person is expected to be a student receiving credit for the internship. Not to say that that makes it legal under the unpaid internship definition (which there was a great article about in the NY Times recently), but I think some people are being too critical of the system. Many young people with paying jobs in the industry worked unpaid internships before them and in many cases had an outside the industry job as well to help pay the bills. I'm not saying this is ideal, but I think the reality is that it is part of the Darwinism of Hollywood. There are people who are willing to put up with extremely challenging conditions to pursue their dream, and there are people who are not.

I also don't follow the logic that if it's hard to find an industry job someone will have to leave the state to find employment. They may have to work outside of the industry for a bit or get another job while they look for industry employment, but there's no reason anyone would have to move elsewhere. I agree that companies cutting back is part of the problem, but it is only a part of it. The reality is that it is an incredibly competitive business that often requires sacrifice to get your foot in the door. Often times even once your foot is in the door it still requires sacrifice since many assistant jobs pay wages that are barely livable, but again that is just a reality of the system.

Anonymous said...

The only thing that would change this is one class action lawsuit brought on behalf of interns at the major studios. . . That's how the regulations related to temps changed

Devon Ellington said...

It's the same type of attitude that bugged the hell out of me when I was one of the team renegotiating my union's Broadway contract -- the producers acted like it was privilege to work in the industry, and that WE should pay THEM, practically in order to be a part of it. The completely ignored that without the specific skills that the various departments bring to a production, there IS no production, and therefore nothing to produce and nothing to sell.

Anonymous said...

I've been working as a FULL TIME intern for almost a year now. 5 months at a big agency and going on 5 months now at a major network. I've done the work of an assistant ( 50+ hours a week, rolled calls, scheduled meetings, done coverage, organized contracts, dailies, and cuts, been yelled at for the office being too cold then too hot and even because Ke$ha is 23 (really), etc.) and I can't even get an interview at some places outside of the two companies I've worked at because it says 'intern' on my resume. To top it off...I now have a Masters degree that comes with ample nightmares about Sallie Mae.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree with this entire article. It's different if it's for school credit, but most of the time it's not. Then they want you to work a "minimum" of 20 hours? Really? So I'm going to spend at least 3 days a week in your office and NOT somewhere I'm getting paid, even if it's a pittance? If I'm going to work for you for free, I'm going to come in one or two days a week. You can train other people to do the same and it will work just fine.

I like the fact that some internships actually DO let you "work" - I remember reading a book at one during college because it was so boring, but today's "internships" are going too far and getting slave labor.

The worst part of these, though, is the way the company treats you once you've accepted the "internship" because you're still considered bottom of the barrel for agreeing to toil for free. I "worked" for a really cool agent who knew the situation and agreed it sucked, so he let me sit in on client meetings and even participate in order for me to actually learn the inner workings of the office. His partner literally came in on one of these, though, and demanded that I run across the street to get him McDonalds. I politely looked up and said, "I'm sorry, I'm in a meeting" He was furious! So was I, though!

The only thing we CAN do as INTERNS is keep our dignity intact and not do things that are below us. And I'm sorry (NOT!) but I will not - in addition to all of the duties you're getting very competently handled by me for free - get your dry cleaning, your fast food, or wash your f'ing car.

Femme Fatale et Noire said...

Ha Ha! So true, and yet so sad. Across the board, more and more companies are cutting costs by trying to get free labor out of people who are desparate to work. Whatever happened to securing the future of your company by investing in the best and brightest? And the double-edge sword is that many in that ruling generation do not want to invest in the newer generation because they believe this generation doesn't want to start at the bottom. That can't be further from the truth. But employee loyalty and respect is a two-way street. Give a little, get a little.

Femme Fatale et Noire said...

Oh! I almost forgot!!!! FIGHT ON!

Julie said...

Those sorts of "internships" are actually illegal - recent articles in both the NYT and Fox News Online went through the specifics. Basically, companies MUST pay workers at least minimum wage when work is performed that the company benefits from - period.

Any "intern" who feels they are really performing a job that is useful to the company is entitled to sue for damages. The easy way to do this is to simply report the company to the state Department of Labor, and let them do all the work. In fact, you can even report companies using bad "internships" even if you only work at the company, and are not the intern yourself.



If more people reported these companies, this practice would stop. If no one stands up, the abuse continues.

I am Spartacus! ;)

Anonymous said...

I did many unpaid internships during college and they worked me like a dog, but, I was fortunate to have one internship (a major casting director) who let me claim that I was a casting assistant instead of an intern, which helped me a bit. I agree with all of this, I see internships everyday that should really be paying jobs. But, now I'm unemployed again, six months out of college, and I can't even get a PAID internship, because it seems all paid internships are only offered to college students. Now how is that fair? You can't even receive college credit if you get yourself a paid internship in college. It seems like you just can't win either way.

Anonymous said...

I know that this whole entertainment world is skewed in ways that no one else who's in it can even imagine. As interns, we work very hard, we work harder than people that are paid employees and we are expendable. I interned for 2 years in college and when I graduated... NOTHING. I had interviews at major talent agencies/management companies and with all my internship experience... still NOTHING. The bottom line here is that, working a background job in the entertainment industry is just as hard/competitive as someone who wants to be an actor/director/model etc. It's the people who bust their balls and keep trying that get ahead... I spent an entire 6-7 months doing temp jobs @ every single place that I could, and honestly it's worked in my favor on my resume because if you sit around and wait for your meal ticket to come... you'll be waiting around for a while... keep trucking.. .and keep trying... it will come in due time... if you want it badly enough it will happen

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's very bias toward people of means who can work for free, but it peeved me a little that this person said that mostly effected minorities and women. Perhaps minorities, but why would women be poorer than men? It's not that important, it just struck me as odd. I'm a quite-poor female and I was able to do an internship while working a job the other days of the week. Of course, I would not have been able to if I couldn't live at home in OC. I've definately felt the bias, but not because I'm a girl.

I don't really see what we can do to change this problem. If we refuse to take the un-jobs, someone else will. If we complain or tattle, we'll never get hired. Why don't we start an intern's union????

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