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.