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The Cost of Hollywood Internships


So I recently came across a blog post from Darryl Wharton Rigby, a fellow Chapman University Dodge College of Film & Media Arts alumnus that moved me to write a response.  His blog is entitled “The Death of the Internship” and basically talks about how emerging filmmakers need to suck it up and do work for free as a “rite of passage” to make something of themselves in Hollywood.

Yet, this rite of passage is such a huge controversy currently because of the harsh economic climate that affects young filmmakers trying to get their start in the biz.  No matter what side of the fence you’re on with the internship debate, young filmmakers battle with the cost of Hollywood internships while trying to step through an invisible door towards a career.  Instead some are stepping into a classist culture that doesn’t reward talent nor hard work, but rather exploits it at the ultimate cost for any business or industry’s potentially most valuable assets – its people.

Here’s my response to his blog which you can find here.

Dear Darryl:

First and foremost, thank you for offering this opportunity to generate a dialogue on this subject.  You’re an inspiration for those who now come after you and, yes, I am currently in the MFA program at Dodge College of Film & Media Arts in the Producing program.  While I agree that internships are indeed an important part of the industry and the system – a “rite of passage” as you stated, I respectfully disagree with respect to that this system isn’t being abused by some.

In this economy, there are some serious considerations when even considering a job, raising a family, or even pursuing an MFA at a great film school like ours.  As a member of the Latino community myself, it hasn’t been easy even to get to this point in my career or even consider film school from the onset.  It has been a combination of my resilient passion and determination to do what I love. Now, I don’t come from an entitled family nor do I have “Daddy’s” connections to get me in the door as some would have and arguably use to their advantage without the disciplines of life experience.  After all, nepotism is something that exists, especially in our industry.  Everything I have built up – my connections, my knowledge, and experience and philosophy for producing is generated from my previous life experience.

Before coming to Chapman University, I was delivering newspapers everyday from midnight until dawn alongside my pregnant wife.  It built my character, my discipline, and it was a job – even though many might dismiss it as beneath them.  During the day, I was steadily working to bring my ideas and passions to fruition so that others with my passion for cinema could have a way to at least expose their films and stories.  I built a door: this idea eventually turned into what is now the Greenville International Film Festival, an annual festival that has attracted filmmakers from over 40+ countries worldwide, including filmmakers from Iran to Australia and from all continents.

After careful consideration I decided to take the opportunity I had worked so hard to get after many rejections from other film schools – USC Peter Stark Producing Program, UCLA, FSU, to name a few.  Chapman took me in. I approached my entry into entertainment with humility and pride for my school as a loyal panther.  Yet, this move – coast to coast – didn’t come without realities – raising a teenage son, providing for my wife and now a beautiful baby girl –  needless to say, I’m not the traditional film school student (at least that’s what the administration, colleagues at Chapman and several in the biz remind me).

Now, while there are thousands out there pursuing similar goals and aren’t necessarily in my position – 28 year old Latino producer with a family pursuing a foot in the door in the entertainment industry – I, like them, know that internships are an opportunity to build those connections and show ’em what you got. I get that. And boy, have I applied…

Before even starting my film school career I had an internship ready at a film distributor.  Even then, I wasn’t even called an intern but a “marketing specialist” – sounds fancy, it isn’t.  I was put in charge of coordinating film screenings for an upcoming feature film due to my skills quickly, yet this wasn’t something I hadn’t done before (i.e. the film festival where I programmed and coordinated over 100+ films).  It wasn’t new experience and yet I was humble and took the job hoping that my efforts would be at least appreciated.  Naive but hopeful… that’s the dream.

Resume

The job (because internships are jobs) was paid to the tune of $100/month, which economically speaking means about 2 days at the office after the cost of gas is factored in – and as you and I know even actors under the SAG Student Film Agreement are budgeted for $100/day of work on top of fuel costs.  My $100 was all-inclusive:  my ability, my experience, gas, so on and so forth.

Simply put, I wasn’t getting coffee, I wasn’t making copies. I was doing real entertainment industry work analyzing Box Office Reports, making calls to international licensors, directors, and even making the branded look of the film we were working on across all platforms (i.e. the poster, twitter, Facebook, pinterest, sponsors etc).  I wasn’t going in expecting to negotiate Natalie Portman’s contract.  I even produced their new company’s logo for a trailer to bring it life and to our current age so that it could be more streamlined…. And I did it for practically unpaid amounts.  Now, the reason I stuck with it was because I strongly believe you finish what you begin.  Yet, it’s this sentiment that is quickly exploited by countless of companies out there that seemingly prey on talented artists and filmmakers.

I managed to continue this job while doing my MFA Producing tasks, classes and trying to take care of a family. Why? I was promised those connections (even meetings with Sony Pictures, Dreamworks, & Fox  and even a premiere event, all that never happened).  The office was nothing but a pool of marketing specialists – ie interns, ranging from no experience at all to some experience and the few with respectable experience.

After  persevering with it for a year (not 4 months, like most other internships), I decided to move on as my experience was not taking me to the next level – that is to say, I didn’t expect a job but even these opportunities you speak of weren’t coming into play – no connections, not even with those listed as official employees.  The office was nothing but interns.  There was no door.

In this harsh economy, in this industry, there is simply no way to survive and maintain without some form of pay that is reasonable for the REAL work that is done by interns.  Yes, interns are people too.  And just because it’s another expense for whatever production company, distributor, agency etc. doesn’t mean that these positions should be dismissed entirely or eradicated.  After all, that’s why the unions like the Teamsters don’t let me hire a non-union driver on a professional set – something that realistically mostly everyone knows how to do.  There’s a sense of protecting even the most normal and sometimes boring tasks.

But whether a driver or an intern, we’re dealing with people’s lives… and some take advantage.  Now, I understand that my circumstance may not be the case for everyone out there and there are indeed some great companies that I’m still hoping will give me a chance, some that I hope to intern for in the future as I build my career even further.

The reality is, that the economics still need to justify fair work for a fair wage.  It seems as though interns are expected to set up a lemonade stand to survive rather than companies really viewing interns as assets for growing their business.  This form of indifference is poor business management. For there to be a foot in the door, there needs to be a door – there is no rite of passage without a path.

“INTERNS ARE PEOPLE TOO.”

Now, I have had the distinct pleasure of knowing director Gregory Goyins having spent one year with him at Chapman University and I respect his creative vision and he is truly a remarkable director with a bright future ahead with a fantastic sense of storytelling; yet, I found myself disagreeing with his statement as you noted because “unqualified work” just doesn’t make sense.  All pieces of work are qualified to some degree – whether on a set or office and necessary to operate and manage that environment, whatever it may be.  And if you put in the work you should be able to at least cover yourself at the minimum, financially.  This feels quite dismissive from my perspective.

The guise of the word internship shouldn’t diminish one’s potential to aspire a feasible reality in the entertainment industry, nor should it be exploited unethically for profit.  Eventually, filmmakers will want a stability to have a family, relationship, so on and so forth, but this doesn’t happen if what your most valuable asset as a potential employee, which is your talent, is served on a buffet that costs nothing to the employer.  As an entrepreneur, people are your most valuable asset no matter what industry the business is in and deserve at least to be respected and treated fair.

To this effect, recently, I was shooting a film where our bathroom broke on set.  A Production Assistant who was there working solely for the experience (while his gas costs were covered in their entirety) asked me as the film’s producer whether he should clean it up.  I responded by telling him to step aside as I got down on my knees with a towel in one hand, a wrench in the other, and began to clean up the mess.  He asked me why I didn’t have him do this instead? I responded, “I can’t ask you to do something that I haven’t done myself.”  Case and point, this example led to building a framework of respect on our set, because at the end of the day, just as Chapman University Dodge College of Film & Media Arts have stated, filmmaking is a team effort – no matter where you are on the totem pole: producer, director, writer, production assistant or intern.

I believe there is way to establish an internship that serves as a win-win for both the employer and the employee, and it begins at the bottom ranks with some understanding that times aren’t like they used to be and that internships, though perceived as menial can bring life into some of the best companies out there and to the entertainment industry – even if it is another line item.

Miguel Berg is a co-founder and writer for Movienomics.com.  You can follow him on twitter: @miguelberg