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The Truth About Unpaid Internships

At the end of my college career, I took on my third and last internship. It was a loosely structured gig for a local alternative magazine that included such tasks as shooting video at events, interviewing attendees, editing highlights videos, and driving a rainbow colored jeep through a minefield of drunk people in a park downtown. 

The position was unpaid like all my other internships, and the technicolored vehicle was actually not the worst part of the deal.

When I was accepted as an intern, I was told that I wouldn't have regular hours to come into the office. Instead, I'd pick a local event or two each week, show up with a camera, edit a quick piece within the week, and post it to the magazine's website with a brief write-up of the event. I'd work with a producer on staff to make sure my pieces were up to par with their standards, and I'd have an "awesome" time getting into whatever events interested me the most for free. 

Surprisingly enough, it was my third internship where I realized I hadn't asked enough questions upfront.

After a month at this gig, a few things became clear. The "producer" I was working with wasn't really interacting with me other than to say "good" when I'd send a piece to him. It didn't matter if it was good, or even watchable. Showing up alone at crowded bars and outdoor festivals with my own camera and editing on my own system (for free) wasn't as great as it sounded. There was also an aspect of the internship that was downplayed to me when I was hired: being the face and presence of the magazine while covering the event. This meant setting up a tent, handing out random free advertising stuff to the crowd, and generally acting like a booth babe while also trying to be credible enough to conduct an interview.

I started to think that this was quite a strange internship situation I found myself in when I was driving the jeep through the minefield of overheated drunk people during Indy's Wine Fest. I wasn't on a rampage, we were always supposed to park the jeep next to our tent. This time the tent happened to be surrounded by hundreds of winos laying in tall grass on a humid June afternoon.

That's when I asked a question every intern should ask themselves: is this wasting my time?

Last week, a judge ruled that 20th Century FOX should have paid a couple of interns on Black Swan because they were essentially acting as employees. Their internship wasn't structured as an educational experience, and the company was getting benefits from them without offering anything in return. As a result, internships have been a hot topic this week, at least on my social media. Some people think this sets a precedent to eliminate unpaid internships from the entertainment industry. I don't think that's possible or likely, but then again, what do I know about law and junk.

All I know is what I've experienced, and I've been on both sides of it. I had two internships that I felt were mutually beneficial. Then I had a third where I was pushing unchecked content onto the web as quickly as possible as to maintain a (well known) magazine's web presence. 

The beneficial ones -- one at a production house, the other at a museum -- had me doing silly tasks occasionally, of course. I'd fetch lunch and answer phones, or scour the Internet for mundane information. I had to deal with being treated like an intern, if you know what I mean. But respectfully so. And I'd also sit in front of an Avid, get feedback from experienced producers, and get hands on with equipment my school didn't offer to me. The companies were always aware that I was unpaid, and they always made an attempt to check in with me to assure I felt the arrangement was mutual. Except for the magazine, anyway.

The truth about internships is that they do really suck. I spent between 10 and 20 hours a week working unpaid at these three organizations while also working nearly full time and going to school full time. As a result, I felt that none of these things ever really had my full attention. That's true for a lot of people, and it's become a fact of getting into the industry. A lot of people can't find the time to pursue an internship because of financial reasons. If I had chosen to go to a much better school that was further away, I couldn't have afforded the time off from a job to work for free in the city an hour away. No freakin' way. And if you can't make internships and finances work, your chances in the industry diminish greatly. It sucks that a doorway into the industry is dependent on your ability to pay for it because a large group of (probably talented) people are instantly eliminated.

Maybe what sucks the most is the attitude surrounding internships by people who are now successful. "If you want it, you'll make it work." The competition for a job where you'll work your ass off for no money becomes fierce because you have to want it more than anyone else, and they want it more than you. What, you don't want to live in a cardboard box and eat out of dented cans? Well screw you, you're not worth of this industry.
There's also the matter of giving a company 10-20 (or more) hours of your TIME for FREE for MONTHS. It seems insane to think about how much time you have to give to a company just to prove you're dedicated and trustworthy. Not just once, but multiple times.

Yet for a completely inexperienced editor or videographer, I'm not sure how else this could work. You volunteer your time, they understand that you are not yet entry-level, and everybody wins. 

But only if the feeling is mutual. And often it is not.

After a quick calculation, I figured out that I worked about 550 hours for companies for free during college. A lot of people work more. And a lot of people working more aren't asking if they're getting anything out of the internship because they're just grateful for the opportunity to be in the building or put that company on their resume. They wouldn't quit an internship even if they never learned a single useful thing because they're taught that quitting is a terrible, unforgivable act that leaves you on the industry blacklist in an instant. I saw it happen to friends who were stuck in iffy places. My SCHOOL even told these people, after being presented with the facts, that they shouldn't quit under any circumstances. 

Just like a regular paid job, there are some internships you can and SHOULD walk away from. If a company isn't treating its interns well, it probably doesn't have much weight in the industry anyway. 

Ask a lot of questions and set your expectations. Don't like what you hear? Leave.

I had two good experiences where I was asked what I wanted out of the internship. I had one bad experience where I was essentially used as an unpaid freelancer using her own equipment to produce content for search optimization. Guess which one was shortest.

It's a necessary evil, and legislation probably isn't going to leave you with any new regulations. As an intern, you're almost certainly on your own and you have to stick up for yourself. It's intimidating to be at your first (or second, or third) internship, the lowest person on the ladder. But once you start giving your time away for free with no reciprocity, you're only screwing yourself and all those who come after you. You aren't being paid. That doesn't mean you can't have demands. In fact, your needs should become even more important. Driving a clown car that looks like someone threw up a bunch of gummi bears? Probably not relevant to your career, but you can make that call for yourself.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jul 1, 2013 at 7:07:56 pmComments (2) internships, video production

Focusing on post-production, from editing and motion graphics to personal experiences and the psychology of being an editor.


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