Sunday, October 2, 2011

Justice for Interns

As students who are studying media, we’ve all heard that famous line when that defines and explains how Hollywood and the entertainment industry work – “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

We all receive the same advice over and over again from professors, colleagues, supervisors and people from the industry itself (I know I have!), including the following reality of the way it all works:

1. In Hollywood, you start at the bottom and work your way up. This is applicable to any particular of pre-production, production, or post-production aspect that you’d like to be a part of.
2. Your degree (or lack thereof) means nothing if you’ve got the talent.
3. Network, network, network! – because it’s all about who you know.
4. Intern as much as possible so that you can meet people, and gain experience to know what it is that you like and more importantly - what you don’t like.

The list continues on and on, but I’d like to elaborate on the last item on the list: internships. Internships are one of the best ways for students to step foot into the world of Hollywood. Through internships we get to witness firsthand the inner workings of a company—what they do, how they do it and if you’re lucky enough, you get to assist in that process firsthand. Internships provide students with a (sometimes) overwhelming dose of the world they’d like to one day be a part of.

Unfortunately, not all internships are great.

That’s something I had to learn the hard way after having a wonderful experience at E! Entertainment via NBCUniversal and an incredibly awful experience at a small production company owned by an A-List star that I will refrain from naming. Of course, anyone who has been an intern before knows that for every time you get to do something cool like sit in on a casting session or a pitch, you have to do a dozen mundane tasks such as grabbing coffee and lunch, or cleaning up the kitchen. It is a reality of the industry, one that has been acknowledged, accepted and ignored for a long time—until now.

Two unpaid interns who worked on the set of the movie “Black Swan” are suing the production company—Fox Searchlight for having been taken advantage of. The two interns, Eric Glatt and Alex Footman are asking for pay as well as an injunction on the company to make sure that future interns are treated properly. Although this may not be the first lawsuit interns have filed-it certainly is one that is getting highly publicized.

After discussing the lawsuit with several friends—all of whom also had internships in Los Angeles and beyond at companies such as Paramount, NBCUniversal, Warner Music Group and even the FBI (yes, really—the FBI!) we came to the conclusion that even though the two interns are putting their future careers in the industry at stake, it is something that will hopefully better internships in the future.

Here’s the deal: unpaid internships are supposed to be educational and have to meet the very specific requirements of the law. I’ve heard many friends, and even people who have had especially crappy internships criticize Eric Glatt and Alex Footman for being “babies” and claim that they should just “suck it up.”

My question is: why should they have to?

I’d like to remind each and every single reader out there than when you have an unpaid internship—one that is legally handled through your academic institution, you are paying your tuition money to work a certain amount of hours, depending on how many credits you are paying for. Here at Ithaca College, the current cost for a single credit is $1,175. For all of you going to L.A. in the future, you will be required to have a 6-credit internship. That means that you will be paying $7,050 for whatever internship you manage to get. For those of you who are lucky, that will mean reading scripts and writing coverage, attending shoots, sitting in on casting sessions, editing footage and meeting celebrities.

But sadly, for many of you that will not be the case. You will be stuck grabbing lunch orders, fetching coffee, taking out trash and counting down the hours until you get to leave your crummy dimly lit cubicle and exit the premises.

Both experiences cost the same amount of money—but which one is actually worth it?

We have to remember that these two guys—Eric and Alex are doing what many of us don’t have the courage or means to do, which is stand up for themselves and their peers and demand better internship standards. Although there is no way to tell how the lawsuit is going to end up, we can assume that companies that have internship programs are double-checking to make sure that their interns are benefitting from their time there. Perhaps there will finally be justice for interns.

Only time will tell.

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