Weekend Reading: The Internship Debate

A recent ruling has dealt what most consider a death knell to the idea of film internships. I have to admit that I am torn by this decision. On one hand I totally agree that work should be paid for and should be paid in accordance with the various Federal and State labor laws. I am the first one, politically, to rail against unfair labor practices by huge corporations who routinely skirt the law or look for ways to save money on the backs of people desperate to earn a decent living.

On the other hand is my own story. My career began as a result of an internship – not even my internship, but my wife’s. Fresh from film school she worked on a super low budget independent movie as an intern – being reimbursed her subway fare each day (that was $10 per week at the time). I was working in accounting earning my CPA and would hang around the production office after my day’s work. The first thing I learned is that the average CPA, depending on the time of year, works far fewer hours than the average production worker. I didn’t let that stop me because I was passionate about learning more.

I wound up volunteering to do the movie’s accounting work for free on weekends and evenings – what a professional might call “pro bono.” But my experience was not just a one-sided giving away of my services for a good cause. I can’t overstate how much we both learned – my wife working in the office and I working at home keeping a set of books – during this six week period. Coming from a working class Bronx neighborhood with absolutely no connection to the film world we soaked up enormous amounts of information and the two producers and the director were extremely generous in sharing their knowledge.

The movie ended but that’s not where the story ends. My wife and I were aspiring filmmakers: she a writer-director and I a writer-producer. The filmmaking team  we worked for was also a couple – he the writer- director along with she his producer.  When the movie wrapped we sheepishly asked the producer if she would read our screenplay and she did. So did her partner. Together they spent hours giving us excellent notes and ideas, teaching us really about filmmaking. We learned more from those conversations than we ever learned in school (to paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen lyric from “No Surrender”). The pair ultimately became critical to our getting that first movie made and their counsel over the years has been invaluable. That one little six week unpaid internship, doing a job that could have been filled by a paid worker, changed our lives.

Since then, as I became a producer in my own right, I’ve always engaged unpaid interns. The best of them became paid workers on my shows and were recommended for other jobs. Many of them have had successful careers as a result. That’s not true of every single intern, of course. Some didn’t have the right skill set or mind set for the industry. Others, who decided that the freelance lifestyle and long hours were not for them, left the business or took corporate jobs.

My evidence for the quality of internship programs is purely anecdotal. I have no statistical proof, only my own recollections. I do wish there was a way to make such programs successful. Perhaps there should be a time frame for each intern during which they would work for free; maybe a 30 or 60 day probationary period. At the end of that time the intern or the employer could opt out of the relationship with no further consequence. To continue working together, the employer would have to offer a paid position to the intern. That would allow the intern to get a sense of the job and the environment and provide the employer with a sense of the intern’s suitability for paid work.

I also think there should be some sort of education involved, something that the employer would do that was uniquely designed for the benefit of the intern. This presents a problem because filmmakers are not necessarily educators and they are under a great deal of pressure to make their films so time is precious. This would have to be viewed by the filmmaker as both a cost of gaining interns and as a way to ‘give back’ to the industry.

Perhaps there should also be a re-branding of this type of program. Instead of the negative connotations of “internship” maybe we should view this as an “Apprenticeship”. If done correctly, that’s exactly what this relationship can become. I am rooting for it to continue and to flourish.

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