Film, Hipstercrite Life, Pop Culture

Why I Don’t Think Interns Should Be Paid

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Back in June of this year, two Fox Searchlight interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, won a game-changing lawsuit against the Hollywood  studio. The interns felt that they were utilized as employees, not interns, during their time at Fox Searchlight and should have been paid for their labors. The judge agreed with Glatt and Footman. Since the verdict, a cacophony of concern in Hollywood and elsewhere has bubbled; many employers are not only nervous about hiring interns now, but some are getting rid of their internship programs altogether.

I took a big interest in this case because I had a very similar story as the plaintiffs, but with a different outcome.

I attended Ithaca College- a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York. Ithaca has a small but strong film school and a well-established LA program that brings students to Hollywood each semester. I was accepted into the LA program in my junior year and in January of 2004, me and my father drove my white Ford Taurus out West.

Like many LA programs, my school offered the students a catalog of mostly unpaid internships to choose from. My first unpaid internship I found via the catalog; two days a week I worked at Akiva Goldman’s company (writer of A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code and I, Robot). The internship was basic: I ran errands, picked up lunch, cataloged scripts and assisted the assistants. Knowing that I needed to take full advantage of my time in LA, I set out to land another internship. This time I looked outside the catalog for opportunity that really interested me.

I was and have always been a big fan of Kevin Spacey. I was intrigued with his website, Trigger Street.com (now Trigger Street Labs an off-shoot of his production company Trigger Street Productions), an online platform for filmmakers and screenwriters to get their work seen by a larger audience, often including industry folks. I found the phone number for their company and nervously inquired to see if they needed an intern. They didn’t, but with enough persistence they agreed to bring me on a couple of days a week. At Trigger Street, my internship was unpaid and I also did basic tasks like running errands and cataloging scripts.

At the end of my four months in LA, the president of Trigger Street Productions asked me if I wanted a job there. I explained to him that I didn’t have the experience needed to be an assistant, but based of my performance at my internship, he felt that I could handle the job.

I worked at Trigger Street for an additional two years. From there I moved on to work for writer/director/producer Dean Devlin (writer/producer of Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla).

If I had the stomach and the chutzpah to have stayed in Hollywood, I have no doubt that due to my initial internship at Trigger Street, I would have been on the path to an adventurous career in Hollywood (Trigger Street has since produced The Social Network, House of Cards, and the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey movie).

For me, my unpaid internships were invaluable. Many other students at Ithaca College have had similar experiences and at the time I was in school, 1 out of every 4 Ithaca college LA program students got a job in Hollywood. There are a lot of Ithaca College alumni in LA, as are alumni from other colleges who have such programs (Emerson College is a great example).

In my case, my internship was fulfilling a student credit AND it gave me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for a famous person- an opportunity I would have never received if it weren’t for the internship.

I wasn’t expecting Trigger Street to offer me a job and if I had come back home after a semester of meeting people in Hollywood and seeing how the industry works, I would have been just as happy. My two internships were experiences I would never forget.

I’ve since read several stories where the intern, forced to run errands or answer phones, has brought a lawsuit against their former internship-provider. These lawsuits are ridiculous and frivolous. If you feel that you are not learning anything at your internship or are being taking advantage of, you tell your adviser at the university or if you’re not in school, you quit. That is the beauty of being an intern. If you’re not making any money, you have nothing to lose.

It all boils down to if you feel your ROI- return on investment- is worth it. If not, then don’t do it.

As an aspiring writer, I still take unpaid work if I feel that the ROI is worth it. I’m not an idiot, so I pick work where I know that good karma will most likely pay off in the future- and it does. And if it doesn’t? I wasted a few hours of my life. Big deal. I’ve talked to several writers who refuse to do unpaid work from day one. I commend them for that and I wish I had the same ideology, but I don’t. In an ideal world, we would all be paid for our work and we’d be paid well for it. But in this world, there is the poor and the rich and the disappearing class in between. If the opportunity presents itself to me that is a.) an experience I’ll never forget and b.) has excellent ROI- then I will take it.

If we start making internships paid, they will be just like jobs. If they’re just like jobs, then it will be just as difficult to secure one. Internships give opportunities to people who don’t deserve them- yet.

 

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25 Comments

  • Reply Jenz September 24, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I completely agree that the way to complain is to the university that’s giving the credits.

    Internships have always been prone to abuse by employers, and the depressed economy only made that worse. I have encouraged students to complain when they were clearly being used as free labor. The intern must be getting something out of it, too, some kind of experience or training. They aren’t supposed to be there for the sole benefit of the employer.

    I don’t want to see the intern system die, but I’m auto-suspicious of internships after seeing how they generally work. Your experience is unfortunately exceptional rather than typical.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Jenz, with your valid argument, then it’s probably a good thing that the interns won. It will make businesses more aware of how they treat their employees.

  • Reply Diana September 24, 2013 at 10:34 am

    I also interned at a film company during hs. Greenestreet Films in NYC. We didn’t get paid but they did buy us lunch 3x a week. I agree that internships are learning experiences and shouldn’t be paid like a real job. But transportation stipends and lunch is the least a company can do for their free labor interns.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      Diana, yes and yes. When I was interning, I believe they let me use the company card to reimburse gas.

  • Reply Jesse September 24, 2013 at 10:34 am

    If you need to pay rent, food, loans, gas, etc, how do you work an unpaid job? When I graduated with an MPH I saw all of the wealthy students get internships with the CDC, WHO and other major organizations, but that is not an option for people who must pay their debts and whose parents or other relatives do not help them financially. Internships (in general) give an unfair advantage to the wealthy…as if they needed one more.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      Jesse, is MPH = Masters in Public Health? I’m not sure how it works in that industry. All I know is that I came from a single-parent household that qualified for food stamps. I could afford my internship b/c it was while I was in college and college was paid for by grants and loans that I’m still paying off. I will assume that industries like medicine or law, your argument is very valid.

  • Reply Tish Haridass September 24, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I agree with you for the most part, my only problem with unpaid internships is that it completely rules out the possibility of a person who can’t afford to spend 6 months unpaid getting one.

    (Foof, long sentence!) It probably is quite different in the US, but down here in SA, it’s near impossible to be unpaid for so long and not die. Unless your parents are willing to back you up, it just isn’t feasible. I’ve turned down 3 different internships this year alone because the costs were too high. I have journalism degree and a certain magazine offered me a 6 month editorial internship. They made it clear that I would definitely be producing content for the mag and that I would have to use my own car for interviews/stories, but it was all unpaid? Who can afford that? It broke my heart to say no but that’s just the way it was.

    So maybe internships should include some kind of basic stipend?

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm

      Tish, I agree, but it sounds like these internships were out of the scope of college? I was able to do my internships during school because I received grants and loans (I came from a low-income household). Internships outside of college would prove difficult unless you could subsidize it with something else. If a company knows you’re not a student and expects you to work full-time for free, then they’re a terrible, terrible business.
      I know that several US internships do have stipends. I’m sorry you couldn’t take your internships!

  • Reply Scott Osborn September 24, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Been a very long time since I’ve heard mention of the Trigger Street project – Ever catch this mockumentary?

    http://vimeo.com/65860819

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      I have not! I will have to check it out! 🙂

  • Reply Dan September 24, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Kevin Spacey/Trigger Labs recognizing your potential early on must have been super validating. I understand your points and agree that internships give young adults opportunities to demonstrate their worth. Despite this, some employers will take their interns for granted and dangle the carrot.

    Perhaps internships could be barred from running on indefinitely. The intern and the company could agree on a window of time where the intern will be groomed/screened for a vacancy, either to be offered it in the end, or not.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      Dan, thank you! I was quite the excited 20 year-old when they offered me the job. That is a good idea about grooming/screening for vacancy. I’m sure a lot of interns go in hoping that the internship will turn into a job. If the intern knew up front what the deal is, then they can take it or leave it. I think some companies already do that (or at least be honest up front).

  • Reply Laura September 24, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Hmm…not sure I agree.

    Interships certainly open doors & provide invaluable work experience that may help you secure paid work in your field in the future – but thats precisely the problem – it means that only the people who can afford to work for free are getting the necessary experience.

    When I was at Uni there were people who took on unpaid summer internships etc that no doubt set them in good stead upon graduation – but while they were working at their unpaid internship (and probably being subsidised by the parents for an income) – I and many others like me didnt have time to work for free cause we were working at our actual jobs in bars or retail etc etc to keep ourselves going.

    As someones already said, its probably different in the US but here in the UK thats the reality – internships are for those who can afford to work for free, and they ultimately give those already privileged enough to do so work experience not open to those to cant.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      Laura, that is very interesting. I’m wondering if it is different in the US vs. elsewhere. I was able to do the internship b/c I received grants and loans (that I’m paying off) for school. If I wasn’t in school, an unpaid internship would be very difficult. How does that work in the UK?

      • Reply Laura September 25, 2013 at 4:19 am

        Well, I think the main difference probably is that I can’t remember there ever being any internships available that I could get any course credit for (at least not on my Art History course where it would have been very beneficial – but I can’t speak for across the board) – so really it was about finding time to take on an internship in between classes, studying and working at my part-time (at a record store which I loved by the way, so I can’t really complain too much) – but in that sense, it just wouldn’t have been possible.

        We do get student loans (and here in Scotland in particular we have a really amazing situation where our tutition is covered for a first degree) but most people would really have to work to subsidise the loans to get by.

        Something I have noticed though, is that most internships I’ve seen advertised that I would have been interested in seem to be full-time positions during term time – so probably aimed at graduates who definitely can’t afford to take on unpaid work with all their student loans to pay off.

        One thing I would say though is that I dont think the internship culture is as much of a big thing here as it is in the US (outside of London anyway) so if you are lucky enough to have the funds & the time to do done – you’re probably already leaps & bounds ahead of most of your peers when it comes to competing for actual jobs (other UK people feel free to correct me if I’m wrong though).

      • Reply Laura September 25, 2013 at 4:20 am

        Well, I think the main difference probably is that I can’t remember there ever being any internships available that I could get any course credit for (at least not on my Art History course where it would have been very beneficial – but I can’t speak for across the board) – so really it was about finding time to take on an internship in between classes, studying and working at my part-time job (at a record store which I loved by the way, so I can’t really complain too much) – but in that sense, it just wouldn’t have been possible.

        We do get student loans (and here in Scotland in particular we have a really amazing situation where our tutition is covered for a first degree) but most people would really have to work to subsidise the loans to get by.

        Something I have noticed though, is that most internships I’ve seen advertised that I would have been interested in seem to be full-time positions during term time – so probably aimed at graduates who definitely can’t afford to take on unpaid work with all their student loans to pay off.

        One thing I would say though is that I dont think the internship culture is as much of a big thing here as it is in the US (outside of London anyway) so if you are lucky enough to have the funds & the time to do done – you’re probably already leaps & bounds ahead of most of your peers when it comes to competing for actual jobs (other UK people feel free to correct me if I’m wrong though).

  • Reply Allison September 24, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    My issue isn’t really about unpaid internships as school credits (my programs didn’t have this, and it sucked) – BUT I do take issue with unpaid internships replacing entry level positions. There are no entry level positions anymore – just unpaid internships. So basically companies can save buckets of money just by changing the job title.

    I did an unpaid internship for 2 months after I graduated in 2007. I worked at a coffee shop part time. They hired me, then shortly after laid me off.

    I still work at a coffee shop and was told in order to get back into my field (publshing) I’d need to go back to school and INTERN again. At age 29 I’m not really willing to work for free again. So that is why I’m kind anti-internship. Call me stubborn, but it’s just how I feel. Internships are great for the young – not so great when you’re trying to reboot your career.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Allison, excellent point (you’re the first to bring it up). You are very right.

  • Reply Libby September 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    It’s unfair if the intership is also asking for the inter to work a certain amount of hours and days per week. I think then whatever company is having one come on as a intern should be flexiable with that intern`s schedule.

    I have to agree with Laura. Everyone’s safetly net is different. While you might have had loans and grants that cover you–it could be different for others.

    I also have to agree with Jesse on that it “gives an unfair advantage to the wealthy”…Hollywoood is full of wealthy kids–getting access to some really great resouces. They don’t have to be just kids to stars.

    BUT I also totally agree with you on having to take on some unpaid work. It’s all about networking.

  • Reply Ashton September 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I worked an unpaid internship my junior year of college at a small magazine that was part of an advertising agency and event-planning company. I did tasks for all three. Unfortunately, I had to complain to my advisor about the woman who ran the event-planning company. At a time when gas was $4 a gallon and I was driving an hour to get to the internship which lasted all day and didn’t allow for side job, she was having me drive my own car on multiple errands a day with no gas allowance. Luckily, my advisor was able to handle the situation diplomatically and the rest of the internship passed pleasantly.

  • Reply EZE September 24, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    I agree with Allison, the problem is companies now use internships to get something for nothing and replace entry level positions. It’s one thing if you are at least getting college credit, but the majority of internships are at places that are for profit.
    This has allowed the rich get richer and the poor to get poorer. Why pay for benefits or even a near decent wage for work you can get done for free by a new person every 6 months or year?
    The rise of the internship is part of the reason this generation has had so much problem establishing careers, because in a lot of ways it has helped devalue work. We’ve been saying we want opportunity, we’ll do it for free. We want to network, we want to work…well what happens when we need to live? Companies can find someone else just as hungry. And that’s the problem, someone else will do it, so now you’re stuck there left with a different kind of hunger and often working harder than some paid employees because you have to prove yourself to get one of the few entry level things out there.
    I see your argument that it will make interning harder, but realistically it already IS hard to get a good internship let alone one that compensates you rightfully for your time.
    If you’re gonna be someone’s bitch, or do parts of jobs they don’t have time for I don’t see why you can’t get compensated monetarily.
    The idea of unpaid internships at a profit institution used to be illegal and now it is par for the course, it’s a dangerous precedent that gets reinforced all of the time. Ideally a company should be finding ways to take care of people who have indeed taken their time and efforts toiling for free, but many companies really don’t do that.
    So I can never in good conscience say interns shouldn’t be paid. It’s an attitude that keeps my peers and younger people down.

  • Reply Christopher Shea September 25, 2013 at 11:04 am

    I think almost everyone’s missing the long-held importance of the “internship” as what it means to intern has sort of shifted in our day-to-day lexicons, mostly due to this lawsuit that Lauren brings up, but also because of the economy and much people have had to struggle since 2008. Working in a job that sees interns all the time, I am always reminded of the importance of “working for free.” Apprenticeships have been around since the beginning of time. Kepler, Newton, Edison, & most filmmakers these days have or have had apprenticeships and/or internships. I can’t overstate the importance of a young person, either enrolled in an institute of higher learning, or having just graduated, learning to work for something other than money. And maybe this is just more prevalent in filmmaking, where you do most of your learning out in the field because there’s only so much you can learn inside the classroom. Between the people you meet and the things you learn from them, the intrinsic value of these lessons only deepens your own personal value in whatever field or department you’re in on a set. And when they don’t anymore, or it’s too far and few inbetween, well then that’s a good time to stop working for free. These days, you see (and I’m seeing it a lot more lately) a lot of graduates, or kids still in school that demand to be paid, and then bitch and complain about the working conditions of independent film the whole shoot only serving to lower morale on set and defeat the whole spirit of independent filmmaking. And the sad truth is that they are usually the least experienced on set and will wind up having the worst careers because either they’ll fuck up and make a mistake OR people will just generally not want to work with them because they just didn’t “Get it” in a field where people have to earn their reputations. When I moved to NYC, I told myself that because I was entering a new market as an Assistant Director and because of that, I would do my first few jobs as 1st AD for free. Fortunately, my first job was paid – $100 a day, which is New York CIty is Nothing and I was living hand to mouth 90% of the time while I was there. BUT, then people would start hearing of my reputation and want to hire me based on the positive things they would here, while simultaneously the value of what I was learning in that market, …well, I can’t even quantify. I think a lot of people say things like “the learning experience was invaluable,” but this is really an understatement. Imagine on-the-job- training that enriches your soul and makes you a better person. Inspiration, leadership, morality, an understanding of science and art and how they swirl in and around each other in this field. I also think a lot of people who found themselves in really shitty jobs that they hate and are too afraid to leave are clutching the standard in their brain that says, “I will only work for money, not less.” “You can barely pay me now to receive all this stress, negativity and unhappiness.” So it’s interesting because you start to see one career path that deadens the soul and one that could very well lead to a 2nd Renaissance. Do I think those kids working on “Black Swan” probably got treated horribly and exploited to the point to make them have horrible feelings about their chosen job market? Absolutely, LA, the old and most of the new still works like that movie “Swimming with Sharks,” which is un official biography of Scott Rudin, who is sheer poison, but has landed himself atop the old guard of movie royalty. There are still ways to treat people that can lead to much more inspiring and beneficial encouragement, but then again, some people get treated that way and become the next Scott Rudin, and have you seen his IMDB? When it all comes down to it, money is irrelevant because unless you go to LA and try to get on the money teet there, independent film offers you no immediate opportunity to move up the ladder into a position that makes more money, so maybe people who go for that LA teet are deserving of their kind of “internship.” I had 2 internships, a full time job all while I was enrolled full time at UT. You have to hustle and not be lazy because there are certainly those kids who don’t hustle, are lazy, and demand full payment for a person in their field, and I”m sorry, but that’s not right. Not in our field. I’m Sorry Lauren, after that Black Swan thing happened, i was on the fence for a long time, but lately I’ve come around and decided just how important this dying field of apprenticeships are. It’s even romantic to a certain degree and the people who lived on this planet a long time ago, just may have been on to something that we’ve all forgot in a world/economy who’s sole purpose, every day, becomes more and more about the acquisition of wealth.

    • Reply hipstercrite September 25, 2013 at 11:14 am

      Great comment, Chris! Though I have my issues about the Fox Searchlight case, if the case will now make the bad companies/people think differently about treating interns poorly, then it’s a very good thing. P.S. After writing this article, I discovered that one of the plaintiffs, Eric Glatt, was 40 when he interned at Fox Searchlight. He also studied law. I thought that was interesting because of 1.) I figure he’s going to expect more from the internship than a 20 year-old would and 2.) He had the experience/age to stand up and say “no.”

  • Reply Interns Shouldn’t Be Paid. Here’s Why. | Thought Catalog March 17, 2014 at 9:26 am

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  • Reply Unknown Director December 12, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Many internships at various companies are a disgrace. An internship in any field must be hands-on practice. As a doctor, lawyer, construction worker, journalist, director, etc. It’s acceptable to not be paid for an internship that leads to valuable education and on-hands experience. Interns do not get coffee, lunch, pick up dry cleaning or answer phones. This is a voluntary slavery instituted by greedy people who want to use others to build themselves or their companies up at no cost, then hand you your hat, or wait until you’ve had enough and quit, then, get the next schmuck in line. An intern is a person who has promise in their field that is recognized by an established officer in that field that believes in their talent and wants to help develop that talent. I have included several interns in my work. If they’re good, they get credit and experience. If they suck, they get a “thank you”, a “try again”, and a “call me next year for another try”. If you’re an intern for any field, and you’re being made to get coffee, clean bathrooms, or anything else that has nothing to do with the field, leave… with your middle finger up. Those people are users and you’re probably squandering your valuable talent and time.

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