Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why Hollywood Interns are Indispensable

To Anyone Who Has Ever Doubted the Industry’s Need for Interns ~

While my normal daily musings are on baked goods and local events, I would like to take pause in order to address John August’s claim that "All the interns in Los Angeles could get Raptured tomorrow and the town would function just fine.”  I very much realize that this has little to do with the context of his post on the absurdity of Justin Samuels and his utterly ridiculous lawsuit, but he threw down the gauntlet via twitter & for the sake of the masses of interns, assistants, PA’s and various other Hollywood underlings, I feel that I must respond.  This town would not function just fine.  It would completely fall apart.

Words To Work By Poster Project @ Creative Review
Mr. August correctly (for the most part) states that, “A much more fundamental part of the film and television workplace is the front line of PAs and assistants who toil long hours for a wage that, while meager, is livable.”  That front line of workers could not exist and function in a substantial way without the aid and support of the Hollywood Intern.  They are the glue that holds everything together.   

First off, there have been numerous cases and articles stating the obvious, that businesses heavily rely on a young and eager staff of free labor to keep their bottom lines at bay.  While there is a general sense of deep coffers when it comes to the industry, excess spending by studio executives, actors, directors and producers living luxurious lives, in reality most companies barely budget a meager salary for their underpaid and overworked assistants.  Add to that a seemingly insurmountable list of daily tasks, and companies’ unwillingness to hire more employees; we are left in a place where interns are an absolute necessity.

Then there is the fact that Hollywood has created a hiring structure that has made it nearly impossible for someone to “break-in” to the business without a steady list of internships on their resume, supporting claims that he/she is indeed serious and dedicated to the job & lifestyle required in the first few years.  It is also a necessary tool that many employers are able to use to evaluate the capabilities of their future hires.  Without interns & internship programs, the filters that exist to weed out the inept would be null, and the added expenses to companies for hiring, training, and consequently firing assistants who couldn’t cut it in these jobs would probably result in an even smaller paycheck for the assistant pool. 

But, back to the subject at hand, the main & most important reason I believe that we wouldn’t survive such a Rapture, is this; interns are the fuel that keeps assistants functional.  If they disappeared tomorrow, riots would break out, people would quit their jobs or suffer mental breakdowns and the generally smooth operation of the daily grind of Hollywood would go into chaos.  From running errands, to answering phones, reading scripts, writing coverage, and basically aiding assistants in every aspect of life, interns fill an incalculable gap which allows assistants to work the way they do.  They also provide the crucial lynchpin of knowing that while you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, there is still someone underneath you, someone who makes working in sometimes unbearable situations, tolerable enough to continue.

It sounds sad but true; having an intern gives an assistant a feeling of power, of mentorship and a sense of validity.  It’s both a rite of passage and a necessity to the sanity and mental welfare for those people who do indeed keep Hollywood afloat.  Our interns sift through the daily piles of mostly terrible scripts littering our desks, they run and grab the much needed Venti drips that keep us functional through 80 hour work weeks, they answer our phones when we run to the restroom (due to aforementioned Venti drips) lest we miss a call from Tom or Rupert, and that they can still look at us with a hopeful and excited gleam in their eye.  They are truly what keep this house of cards from tumbling down. 

Nicole Iizuka

an additional aside...
To anyone who claims the inequity of a system that seemingly favors elitism, welcome to the real world.  Making movies, like any other form of art, is a business that by and large requires huge amounts of self sacrifice, an ability to subsist on next to nothing wages and the knowledge that at the end of the day, you just might not make it.  To be someone who pursues this path, you either have to realistically have both a chair to sit on and a cushion to fall back on while you’re bringing in less than minimum wage, or a debt wish, banking your entire future on a one in a million chance.  Constantly arguing the unjust system of internships is at the end of the day pointless. We live in a capitalistic society where the golden rule applies… he who has the gold. 

**Update as of Thursday July 14th @ 4:30pm**

Mr. August has indeed responded, you can read it here:

The reader response has been overwhelming & I'm loving the comments!

Here’s the thing I'd concede to Mr. August. Yes, at the end of the day, if there weren’t any interns Hollywood would adapt. They would have to adapt because they had no choice. The same would go if assistants, managers, agents, development executives etc were also included in that Rapture. When you boil down filmmaking, all we really need are writers, actors, directors and cameras. (plus the people who operate all of those things.)

But, that was not the original statement. Let's look at tomorrow. If tomorrow, all the interns just disappeared, with no warning aside from the mild “pop” I imagine we’d hear from them being sucked into the heavens, there would be chaos. (Ok ok, not chaos, but a definite breakdown of the system.) The town wouldn’t function just fine, unless your definition of “fine” is assistants working 120+ hour workweeks to cope with the extra burden for the months it would take the bureaucracy to re-appropriate money to hire more “freelancers” and assistants.

I’m sorry Mr. August that the interns you’ve worked with are ones who you didn’t feel you could trust with more substantial tasks, but for me (and already expressed by many of the other readers who’ve commented) the interns I’ve dealt with, are ones I’ve given substantial and material tasks on a day to day basis. Tasks that are in fact necessary, ones that yes I could accomplish if I needed to by sacrificing sleep, but things that are valuable to both myself and the companies I’ve worked for. I’ve even been in situations where, without an intern to run much needed errands, I couldn’t have done my job. And furthermore, it’s great that you’ve only dealt with bosses who’d be perfectly OK with phone calls rolling to voicemail, but I’ve been on the flipside. You can’t argue with the irrational, but I’m pretty sure they would not be “fine” with that situation. (But that’s a much smaller point, and a much bigger argument for people who need to learn how to cope with the word “no”)

So yes, the possible future of the town in months, maybe years, once Hollywood has had time to figure out how to deal with not having a free staff at their disposal is one in which it could return to a sort of normalcy and continue to function as it did before. Tomorrow, not so much.

With all that said. Yes. I am an awesome baker & Mr. August, if you'd like a box of cupcakes, I can have my intern drive it over. :-)


  1. I look forward to the cupcakes that you will make and optimistically hope that they are somehow representative of all the interns you currently have.

    right now, I just see you writing their names on cupcakes with frosting, but I am not against that.

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  2. The interns I’ve dealt with, are ones I’ve given substantial and material tasks on a day to day basis. Tasks that are in fact necessary, ones that yes I could accomplish if I needed to by sacrificing sleep, but things that are valuable to both myself and the companies I’ve worked for."

    I know it's easy to say that internships are akin to slave-labor, but that's what you just described. In California, and intern isn't allowed, by law, to do anything additive to the work place, because then you should be paying them a salary. Technically, they're supposed to be doing things that shadow the work you're already doing.

    I know that it's nice to have an intern get you a coffee, or do some of your work, but in the end: relying on someone else to do all that stuff makes you more likely to be the kind of executive/filmmaker/ whatever that needs to be babied and taken care of by assistants in the future, and that just isn't cool.

  3. I think that interns should be paid a salary, and I've tried at every turn to help them get paid for the work they do... With that in mind, I do acknowledge that there are several instances in which interns are asked to go above and beyond their standard duties, and perform tasks that yes I agree they should be paid for, but in every instance of having an intern, I've wanted to help prepare them as much as possible for a career in this industry.

    I served as an internship coordinator & hired based on the potential I saw in my future interns, so I fully used them as extensions of our creative department so they'd get a much more well rounded education while at our company. And considering 3 of our interns actually got jobs with us once they'd finished their internships, it's probably a good thing we gave them those sort of tasks to prove themselves to our bosses.

    It's a crazy cycle, but these are necessary steps, I believe, in our current environment for interns to have the ability to prove their worth to executives who do in fact have the power to help them get jobs once they've graduated college. That's how I got my first job. Plus, I never wanted to be "that assistant" who only gave their interns terrible scripts and idiot proof assignments that never helped them grow.

  4. "To anyone who claims the inequity of a system that seemingly favors elitism, welcome to the real world. Making movies, like any other form of art, is a business that by and large requires huge amounts of self sacrifice, an ability to subsist on next to nothing wages and the knowledge that at the end of the day, you just might not make it. "

    You really don't need an internship to break in. All you need is a wealthy parent in the industry and you're all set.

  5. @Justin

    Here's the thing. You can be disgusted by nepotism, you can argue against it, but at the end of the day, those kids are still going to get jobs, and they're still going to live off of their parent's coat-tails. It's not going to change.

    So we can sit back, complain, and let the huge chip on our shoulder get in the way of getting ahead, or we can man up, acknowledge that there will always be favoritism in pretty much every industry, and vow to not be one of those people once we've made it to the top.

    And no, clearly not everyone is exposed to meeting the "right" people growing up to help place them in high profile jobs, that's why internships are so important for interns sakes, so they can make those connections on their own through networking and gain respect for getting there by themselves.

  6. I'm a late arrival to the party, mostly because the assistant at my internship casually mentioned this exchange to me (and the other gaggle of interns) because we were talking about Dark Shadows or something.

    The point is! Thanks for sticking up for us, and thanks for sticking to your guns and generating a thoughtful, adult conversation about a sticky, kind of controversial issue (and thanks to Mr. August for being graceful as well). I love working under assistants like you (and the guy I work under now), because you make me feel like I'm a necessary part of the daily grind, not simply a set of legs that can walk to and from Starbucks in 2 minutes flat (5 if their new Clover machine is moving slowly).

    Thanks :)


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