Much has been made in recent weeks in the New York Times over the exploitation of intern labor, which is certainly a problem in the entertainment industry. Since I started out as an intern and have since been witness to really valuable internships and really crappy ones, I figured I'd write something up to let you know what's worth the effort and what's a waste of your time. Some internships are invaluable, some are at best three to five months of your life you'll never get back and, at worst, experiences that turn you off a career path that might have actually been a good fit.
First thing about industry internships: It's a bonus if you can go to college in a place like L.A. or New York City. Personally, it was one of the major considerations I took into account in choosing between two schools, USC over Northwestern. Since my family wasn't coastal, I knew that getting a foothold in Los Angeles while I was in school and had food and rent covered would be a huge advantage. It wasn't the only consideration in choosing a college, but it was a major part of the decision. Many internships require you get course credit, for their own insurance purposes, so locating yourself in a major media hub while in school is a plus.
There are plenty of you that don't have that option, so you either have to find your way out here with the cash to live for a few months while you intern or spend a year or more after you graduate working a menial job while you spend a couple days a week interning. I won't lie, that's a hard way to go. I've seen people run out of savings or burn out on a crap job while trying to transition from internship to a paying industry gig, which can sometimes take one to two years; yes, the market is really that tight around here.
You can see how the whole internship requirement favors the kids whose parents can put them into a L.A.-based college or float them a couple years after school. Hence, why you see a real lack of class diversity in the business, but that's another post for another day.
Back to the main point -- what kinds of places should you intern? My number one piece of advice would be to intern for an established production company, agency, television show, film, or studio. This is a town that's both big into branding and name-dropping. Within the first five minutes of any interview I ever had, the person looked at my resume and we'd be talking about the people we knew in common. And it's understandable. The people who will be hiring you are busy and by knowing some of the same people, it's like being vouched for. "Oh, you worked for so-and-so? And they liked you? That must mean you're good people." It's not the mafia, but it's close. Sure, you may want to work at a buddy's start-up or on a small, indie film and if you can do both, that's awesome. But if you want to eventually get work, for money, get some familiar names on that resume.
Make sure you're going to come out of the internship with something to show. If you're interning at a production company, make sure they're going to teach you how to write script coverage and you'll be coming out with some good samples. If you intern at a post-house, make sure they'll let you play with the Avid, maybe let you work on a reel. If you intern on a show, will you get to help put together a call sheet? Make sure to ask this in the interview. Yes, internships will consist of fetching lunch orders, answering phones and making copies, but a good internship will come with perks that you need to advance your career. Be wary of internships that just promise "contacts." Those may or may not pay off and can often be acquired easier at a bar in West Hollywood. What you really want is some sample of work done on the job to show your next potential employer. That is the fair exchange for working for free.
What are some other red flags? The biggest one is if it looks like you're the only "help" in the office. If there are no paid assistants or P.A.'s with the company or show, often times the employer is skirting the labor laws and either can't afford, or is too cheap, to pay someone to do the office work. It's not always a bad situation, but most times it's not an internship that's worth your time.
Also, try to read the person that's managing the internship. Sometimes this is human resources; sometimes this is an assistant or production coordinator. If they come across upbeat and willing to answer your questions, it's a good indication that they'll have something to teach you and be willing to answer all the dumb questions you'll inevitably ask. If you wind up with a dour, bitter supervisor who sticks you with menial tasks and forgets you for most of the day, again, it's probably not going to be worth your time.
Keep in mind that internships are probably the easiest thing to land in the industry. We all love someone who will work for free. Transitioning to that first paying gig is a whole other discussion. But if you do your homework, a worthwhile internship is a great education in the business that no college can or will provide. The way the business actually works surprises just about everyone. Regardless of where you got your education or how awesome you think you are, an industry internship is a reality check that makes me more likely to hire you for money. It's going to ease that steep learning curve and keep you from sliding right back down.