Paying for Experience: The Reality of Unpaid Hollywood Internships

By Anonymous

I have had the “privilege” of working several unpaid “prestigious” internships in Hollywood. By privilege I mean I was able to work for a number of production companies and talent agencies for free due to my full academic scholarship and my parents support . Unpaid “for credit” internships are a trap in The Industry, a loophole too devious and convenient to close. With the exception of the most competitive and impossible internships to get at major studios and companies like Disney, Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers, CAA, UTA, and the like, virtually all accessible internships in LA are fully unpaid.

Here’s how the loophole works. Let’s say a mid-tier multi-million making (yes multimillion) production company asks you to come in for an interview. They tell you that unfortunately, for you not them, “this is a ‘for credit’ internship” and you will not be compensated financially for your 10-40 hours of work a week. Thanks to the The Fair Labor Standards Act, companies can pay you in college credits instead of actual money.

What this actually means for college interns is that the lucky intern must pay college tuition for an extra class, in order to work for free.

At a private university like USC for example this means unpaid interns must pay their alma mater between $1,000 and $5,000 to work for these companies for free. Classmates at my university used to lower these costs by registering their internship credit class at a community college for a couple hundred dollars instead. Or they simply lie and tell the company they registered for the credit when they actually could not afford to.

Your “for credit” internship will likely not compensate for your gas, travel costs, or meals. If you’re lucky, the company may generously offer you a stack of quarters to pay for your daily street parking. If you’re unlucky and work in an area with heavy parking enforcement you may even lose a couple hundred dollars in parking tickets, which the internship will not compensate you for, when you forget to refill your meter or move your car every 2-4 hours.

There’s an unfortunate culture in The Industry that recent graduates, interns, or anyone entering the industry needs to “do their time” working for free or even allowing more cut throat companies like CAA to “break them in” with cruelty.

At, 19 I spent my first summer interning part-time for three separate production companies, two of which belonged to Oscar-nominated producers. I used my scholarship to cover the $3,000 tuition costs of the single college credit I received for working three highly demanding unpaid jobs. That summer, I also nannied on my days off to pay off the three parking tickets I would receive while working in Beverly Hills while my parents supported my basic living expenses.

I assumed that three unpaid internships would count as “doing my time” and fantasized about a future minimum wage position but by the next summer, I found myself begging for scraps once again. Every internship offered the same “college credit” and quarters for street parking.

I accepted an internship position at one of the most sought-after independent talent management companies in Beverly Hills. This time I didn’t bother to pay my university for the credit I needed to legally work for free and no one at the company bothered to check if I was earning it. They were happy to let me volunteer for their bougie company, no questions asked. Most of my classmates do the same, either forgoing the opportunity to intern in our industry to work minimum wage jobs in food services or retail (because they can’t afford to pay extra university tuition just to work for free) or they lie to their employers about working for credit.

Finally during a job interview for another “for credit” internship, my interviewee literally asked me, “how does that work  for you anyway?” I couldn’t censor myself and replied, “Well, I would have to pay my university a couple thousand dollars in tuition in order to ‘legally’ work for you for free.” The response was a mixed look of dumbfoundedness and guilt, followed by a weak offer of “free parking!” Or “priceless experience!” Or my personal favorite, an occasional free lunch from an executive assistant feeling guilty. Most of my fellow unpaid interns save money by eating as many daily meals as possible out of the company kitchen’s stock of free coffee, tea, and snacks.

Although I am now working at my first paid internship, I’ve found myself impulsively hoarding snacks at my desk despite my new paychecks and employee amenities.

The only peers I know who have managed to score a paid internship (usually minimum wage) accessed the job through some kind of connection or nepotism. After three years of applying for the same paid jobs over and over only to be rejected and lose money for the privilege of working for free, I broke down and begged a cousin in The Industry to help me find a paid internship. She connected me to an internship at a company that pays me an unheard of $12 an hour for a maximum of 20 hours a week. I make no mistake in recognizing how fortunate and rare it is to have gotten this job as most of my friends continue to work “for credit.” For a long time, I assumed this to be a problem that affected all interns of all fields, but recently I learned that film interns are just special!

When one of my friends scored a position as an intern at HBO in New York for the summer and she and I gleefully rejoiced over our $12 an hour offers together. Her boyfriend got an internship in New York for the summer as well, working as an IT Intern for a major newspaper. I asked her how they planned to afford the rent in NYC together and she replied that his internship covered their housing.

Shocked by this news, I asked how much he would earn this summer as an IT intern. She replied that his company pays him $30 an hour in addition to their housing. This only further enraged me over the amount of unpaid labor I have done as an intern. I may not be a computer science major, a future doctor, or lawyer, but the seemingly trivial tasks I do as an intern have value. If they didn’t, Hollywood wouldn’t be trying so hard to continue getting our unique opinions, perspective, and creativity for free so they can spend the excess on yet another nespresso machine.

California recently passed a law raising the minimum wage from $10.50 to a “livable” $15 an hour by 2020, a huge step for the wildly underpaid workers in Los Angeles. But before we celebrate this landmark change, we must recognize that fem filmmakers need to eat too. I can only hope my future internships understand that before employing a loophole they barely seem to comprehend themselves.

 

header: photo by Mike Kononov on Unsplash