Internships are great–but who can afford to take one?

Never work for free.”

This is (maybe) decent advice, which, in my own personal experience, has been most proffered by writers. Particularly successful writers. Writers who can demand not just a living wage for their work, but an enviable one. But most writers–or other creatives–looking to break into Hollywood are typically not in the position to demand any sort of monetary reward, decent or otherwise. (Unless you rent out your own sound equipment + time. Those guys are the unsung geniuses of Hollywood.)

Every year, a new crop of largely untested, unproven talent moves to Los Angeles with the hopes of making an impact on the industry. And every year, many–if not most–of them, hop from one lowly or unpaid gig from the other, telling themselves that what they’re getting in experience or exposure or connections more than makes up for their mounting credit card debt or unpaid student loans. It’s an incredibly burdensome gamble–one with merits, to be sure–made by those least in a position to do so. So why do they make it in the first place?

Hope. Dreams. Desire. For source material for a future tell-all ebook…. But also…

Because the establishment (which, for the purposes of this post includes agency mailroom workers and studio execs) tells them that this is how things work, and if you’re not willing to take that risk, there are 100 other people waiting to take your job–and they have the support of big media, too.

This is by no means a new attitude. Hollywood, like Washington, D.C., has run for years on the free labor of 20-something help. But the help is starting to fight back.

It’s an interesting tug-of-war, and some execs, frightened by recent lawsuits, have already started to adjust internship policies. I recently learned that the studio I once interned for (as part of a paid program) no longer admits people into their program unless they’re receiving college credit or have received funding from a sponsoring source. While I could still intern there, others that I met through the program–among which I count some good friends–would not. They’d be iced out. I, for one, never would have accepted my internship had I not been paid. I simply could not afford to turn down other work, in order to do script coverage and research for free. Regardless of the fact that it was for a great, successful studio.

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Plus, there are always opportunities to get an education in this town, and more and more, that means creating your own content and being your own boss. So I have to wonder how many other people, when faced with the choice to take a gamble on an unpaid position, ultimately miss out on what is still considered a great way to get your foot in the door.

So how do we change a clearly broken system?

Groups like Taliesin Nexus who sponsor internships, are, in my opinion, doing God’s work. They’re providing a third way that doesn’t trap people into making a professional Sophie’s Choice: my dreams, or my groceries? If you’re an executive in any sort of position to partner with programs that sponsor creatives, I urge you to consider the benefits of partnering with up and coming talent. After all, you get what you pay for.

Crystal Hubbard

Crystal Hubbard is a freelance writer / producer, and a Smash Cut Culture contributor. She was a finalist for the New York Television Festival Fox Comedy script contest in 2011 and 2013, and is a Taliesin Nexus and Nexpressions alum. In 2012, she interned at Disruption Entertainment, and is a current Fellow with the Moving Picture Institute. She occasionally tweets (but mostly lurks) @cnhubbard, and sometimes uses Instagram @bare_cupboard.

  • Andrew Leigh

    Another unintended (or not?) consequence of reliance on unpaid interns is that it privileges interns who come from wealthy families. You’ll find a lot of interns come from the very families who work in high places in the industry. They realize the vital importance of interning and are willing (and able) to support their kids while they “pay their dues” (with mommy or daddy’s money). This gives them an advantage over kids without the same financial support, who may have to work a second job to pay their rent and other living costs, and thus have less time and energy left over for impressing whomever they’re working for.

    I’m by no means a class warrior, but I think there’s value in bringing fresh blood (and minds) to the entertainment industry from outside the cultural elite, which is one reason why Taliesin Nexus provides internship grants.