I spent two semesters interning at a prestigious New York film company. On my first day, I was informed that part of my routine would involve managing the building’s four coffee machines. I was ordered to maintain a constant vigil over the coffeepots, refilling them whenever they ran low. For my efforts, I received $10 a day as a stipend. The financial realities of my station required I live at home with my parents in New Jersey and commute twice a week to the internship. Each train ticket to Manhattan cost me $18 round-trip.
In essence, I was paying $16 a week for the privilege of making coffee.
Internships are a fact of life for college students in every field, but they’re a different sort of beast in the entertainment industry. Competition is so fierce that aspiring filmmakers will work for free to get a foothold. Contrary to the insistence of some of my superiors, learning the finer points of coffee brewing did not teach me how to be a better filmmaker. But anytime I felt the urge to complain, I glanced at the stacks of résumés piled around the office and realized that there were legions of would-be baristas just itching to take my place. In this industry, if you aren’t willing to debase yourself for free, you’re in trouble, because someone else will.
Film industry interns, like indentured servants, are contracted to work without pay for a period of time—generally, a semester—in exchange for an apprenticeship in the field. Most corporations require that their interns earn college credit as a handy way to prove the merit of their students’ unpaid employment. But you have to pay for those credits, upwards of $1,000 per point at many private universities.
In essence, you will pay $3,000 for the privilege of making coffee. And it only gets worse, especially if you work, as I did, for a powerful studio headed by an egomaniac who demands you spend more time attending to her personal life than writing script coverage. As the pro bono valet to a producer who would not make eye contact with me, and who routinely demanded I pour her soda into a mug so that she needn’t sip it from the can, I spent a day contacting every Burberry in the tristate area, inquiring about the availability of a specific jacket that her daughter wanted for her birthday. A particularly rewarding assignment found me walking 25 blocks in the bitter cold to messenger a package of knishes to Lizzie Grubman’s family on the eve of her release from prison. Delivering baked goods to ex- cons was the last straw.
Unfortunately, my luck was equally bad at smaller companies. Interning at a tiny production house, I spent an entire week ineptly assembling a large tape cabinet. When the finished product was not up to my bosses’ standards, I was scolded for my lack of carpentry skills. Well-intentioned but poor, they routinely employed me instead of a courier service to transport tapes, printers, and, on one occasion, an oversize lamp. On the last day of my tenure, they bought me a cake as a sign of their appreciation. I appreciated the gesture until I realized they paid more for the cake than for a day of my custodial services.
Though it pays to define the parameters of an internship during the interview process, some people will still try to take advantage of you. A bad internship is a slippery slope of degradation and exploitation. One particularly noxious employer hired me to edit video packages for an awards banquet. They politely asked if I would help out around the office when there was no editing work available, and I agreed. When I quit several months later, I hadn’t edited a single piece of film, but I had spent an afternoon visiting every Vitamin Shoppe in midtown on a futile quest for a discontinued flavor of PowerBar.
Good internships do exist: You wouldn’t be reading this essay if I didn’t have one at The Village Voice, and an internship at IFC eventually helped me become the on-air host of the station’s news segments. But there’s no reason to remain someone’s flunky in- definitely, and it’s crucial to know when to cut your losses. Pay particular attention to job openings: If a low-level position becomes available and your boss doesn’t even invite you to interview for the job, no amount of skillful coffee making will turn your internship into a well-salaried position. At that point, you might as well go work at Starbucks, where at least you’ll be paid to make coffee—and earn health benefits, too.