Screenwriting : Unpaid Interns and Screenwriters' Fates by Ginger Marin

Ginger Marin

Unpaid Interns and Screenwriters' Fates

The Los Angeles Times today ran an article called "ShowBiz Interns in Legal Spotlight - UNPAID interns are suing companies quoting the Fair Labor Standards Act. In any case, within the article, I found this : "A posting for an unpaid internship with "Rush Hour" filmmaker Brett Ratner's RatPac Entertainment said duties would include "Xeroxing, running errands, research, filing and sorting, dubbing tapes, temping on assistants' desks, answering phones, reading scripts and writing coverage (summaries of scripts)." A similar posting at Green Hat Films, the production banner of "The Hangover" filmmaker Todd Phillips, described duties including "reading scripts, writing coverage, answering phones and other office tasks." http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-fi-ct-hollywood-... Highlighted within the article was a box titled "The Intern Life" that included the following assignments: making coffee, cleaning the office kitchen, taking lunch orders and picking up take-out, assembling office furniture, booking flights and limos for actors. One has to wonder when on earth they even get the time to read scripts and write coverage! Some of us probably suspected that people with NO experience whatsoever (and certainly less experience than most of us here) where deciding our fates but here it is in black and white. And we're not supposed to have an attitude about that? Who's ready to shout: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Lawsuit challenges a Hollywood pillar: Unpaid internships
Lawsuit challenges a Hollywood pillar: Unpaid internships
Melvin Mar's entrée to Hollywood was far from glamorous. As an unpaid intern for "Platoon" producer Arnold Kopelson, Mar was responsible for fetching his boss' lunch of matzo ball soup every day. Mar…
Simon © Simon

Unpaid Intern LOL! Like Slavery with no food or board. Along with using your own resources (Car, insurance, clothing, etc) I would rather fail on my own job then get coffee for a cheap clown. After all, how is running a copier going to further your knowledge of making a movie? If you 'Brown nose' the right person you might get to bend over for a little more use? What... so you have the right to say you got sandwiches for Robert Downey? Intern HA HA! I guess if you want to learn how to be used. Join the Military at least you get food and board and a discount on college and help financing a home.

Ginger Marin

Simon, you missed the point of my post. It's not about worrying about interns. It's about concern for us screenwriters who think that our scripts are actually being judged by knowledgeable professionals when they're not.

Robert Sprawls

Ginger, I understand your point, but I also look at that and think, how are they learning the film business when doing menial tasks that don't involve film making whatsoever. I always assumed as an intern, you're being mentored. Instead, it looks like they're using it as legalized slave labor. However, to your point, I've read that even interns might be able to get you in the door if they impress upon their boss how well the script came across to them.

Ginger Marin

Robert, of course that concern is implicit in the LA Times article, but I posted it in the Screenwriting lounge to draw screenwriters' attention to who is reading their scripts.

Simon © Simon

Ahh got it Ginger. The GateKeeper mentality of let an under qualified person do quality control. Due to someone being to busy to do their job. OR worse yet could you condense the script into a Tweet. However I want to be enthralled from it as well....

James David Sullivan

This doesn't surprise me at all. I see ads frequently for readers. $10-$20 per script is common. But the intern route is even more clever. "Why buy the cow...." That's why if you choose the contest route, you have to choose your contests wisely.

CJ Walley

This is indeed bad. But we have to wind back, look at the bigger picture and consider why companies feel they need to leverage interns so much. It could be short term greed at the expense of long term quality, it could be the on going transformation to a more corporate Hollywood or it could be the sign of an imploding industry. Either way it may be foolish as these companies don't owe it to screenwriters to get high quality coverage, they owe it to themselves to get high quality coverage.

James David Sullivan

@CJ - let me post a theory about where Hollywood is going. First, look where the computer hardware industry went. In the 60s, it was mainframes. In the 70s, it was minicomputers. In the 80s and beyond, it has been microcomputers - and the speed and power has doubled every 18 months (Moore's law). Now look at the parallel: First, there were the giant studio systems. That gave way to the mid-sized producers. Now the micro-producers are on the way up, and the others are on the way out. Look at all the Hollywood blockbusters that failed last year. Your term "imploding" is spot on, in my opinion.

James David Sullivan

@CJ, There is no doubt that corporate America has its greedy little claws on Hollywood. Look at all the product placements and promotions with fast-food chains, toy manufacturers, etc. Out of the ashes will rise a phoenix.

CJ Walley

I've read and watched a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that Hollywood might be failing. In my opinion the problem is the massive change in consumer media consumption, the industry's skewed wealth distribution and imbalanced worker supply over demand. What we are potentially seeing is a shadowing of the music and newspaper industry ten years ago. Where there's an industry oversupply there's always been abuse of interns regardless of economic growth. However what we might be seeing is the likes of RatPac Entertainment and Green Hat Films getting squeezed to the point they feel they have to shave ongoing costs such as experienced readers. I know that sounds insane in a world of three day wrap up parties and eight figure salaries, but most businesses know they have to maintain a perception of success while still reeling in their overheads.

James David Sullivan

There were excesses in the days of Marie A. in France, too. And we all know how that ended.

JC Young

There are couple of ways to look at this. Internships have morphed almost into indentured servitude for some likely due to the fact that so many want to get into the business that they will do whatever it takes for an opportunity. This means that competition for such access will promote an environment where interns are willing to do more and more tasks beyond normal expectations because someone else could easily replace them. This in itself is part of the gatekeeper mindset to weed people out. But, there is something to be said for paying your dues in many businesses. Whether that means working for little or nothing while learning a trade or having to take on menial tasks to prove your dedication. Many trades have such ongoing traditions. For someone wanting to learn a trade like electrician or carpenter it may mean having to carry all the equipment or clean up, etc. Look at the hazing pro athletes deal with as rookies. They are pranked, singled out, and given menial things to do even though they earned a place on a team. I'm not saying I support this mentality, at least when it comes to interns being tasked beyond their job descriptions, especially for long hours with practically no pay. But, so many are willing to do more and take less to prove their dedication, it may not be something that can simply be stopped. Lastly, if internships became paid gigs, likely they would be replaced with skilled office staffers not wannabe filmmakers. So, another way into the system could end up closed. The idea that the put upon intern may now have been given gatekeeper status while tragic seems almost ironic to me, though. We know it wasn't an intern who okayed the scripts for The Lone Ranger or John Carter, but are less tentpole fare scripts being lost because of them? It's a legit question.

JC Young

The concept of paying proverbial dues spans across many lines. I wasn't necessarily choosing one line of thought over another though. I was simply noting that you could look at internships as more than learning experiences or something for the resume. In defense of interns reading for producers/studios etc. They may not have a film education or writing experience of their own. But, they do know what that producer or studio is looking for. A script getting stamped 'Consider' isn't necessarily about the best writing or even the best idea unfortunately.

Gia Catherine Motti

Paying dues shouldn't mean always being unpaid. How does one do an unpaid internship and still make rent? Do they think we live on nothing? The mandate that it should not displace regular employees and that it benefit the interns, not the employers, seems grounds enough to say that internships should be paid. Fetching coffee is what the clerk or secretary does, reading/editing scripts, editing film, etc. that's what the intern should be doing.

JC Young

Again, I'm not promoting this concept. Plenty of interns in TV for instance aren't paid. After graduating, about the only gigs I could find in radio or TV were no pay or minimum wage internships.

T J Brearton

I may as well have. My first PA job in NYC paid me $30 a day, and I followed it up with work on a couple of indies in LA that offered just slightly more. But I wouldn't change the experiences for the world.

James David Sullivan

@Dan - Readers for productions companies have their jobs on the line with every "consider" or "recommend" they give to their bosses. With a contest, they have to award somebody something! So when the dust settles, the ones that rise above the others, get the placements and awards. But a lot of the competitions have very bad readers, so you have to be very careful. If you have enough placements or a top award in one or more contests, it's going to be a lot easier to either bypass a reader or make the reader feel safe in giving you a "consider" or a "recommend". However, most production companies don't want to see your script at first. You have to persuade them to request your script by sending them a well-written query letter or pitching them (oral or written). That's where you can use contest success to get a read. Also, there are several well-respected coverage companies out there. Get a "recommend" from one of them, and you are in the door to most producers. And if you do get a read request, your script had been shine like a diamond. That first 10 pages better be dynamite; some of them will make a decision on the first 1 to 3 pages.

T J Brearton

I'm going to play Devil's Advocate for a moment. I've worked in film festivals for 14 years, from volunteer to director of submissions to coordinator. Never once have I met someone who made it solely because of a spec they wrote, and no one I ever met started out as an intern expecting that was the ladder to success. And I've met hundreds, if not thousands, of successful writers, actors, directors, and producers. The most salient point I've found in this thread is the bit about the micro-economizing of the industry. Because who I HAVE met, are people who were in the right place at the right time when there was a sea change, and they had product at the ready. They were there first when the barrier for entry changed in some way. As much as Moore's law speeds things up as changes advance, its still the smartest thing to do to determine where and how that change is taking shape, and to get in. Not join the rank and file of interns who think they're going to be exulted and then sue when they're not. Guy quits a 95K job to be a "film editor" and thinks he's going to get there by just being an intern? Come on. Shoot a movie. Make a great product. The one thing the industry will always need is great material. And great material always finds its way.

James David Sullivan

@TJ, you would agree though that having good placements in contests, and preferably wins, builds your credibility, wouldn't you? I know having a list of contest placements makes it a lot easier to get a producer to read my scripts, provided it is in their "wheelhouse". And the major contests brag of those for whom doors have opened as a result of top placement in those contests. I would look at those internships as a way to make contacts in the industry. I personally would not be interested in one, but I can see someone being "in the right place at the right time" - and of course, having something to sell. I think it was Seth Rogen's wife who knocked on a lot of doors with her script; she finally got fed up and self-produced it. I saw the movie and liked it.

T J Brearton

@James, it certainly can't hurt to have some placements/wins. And it can be a good way to hone writing skills, (if the writer doesn't get carried away changing things over and over again based on variations in feedback, which can be a deadly spiral). However, I've known someone who won a Nicholl contest and landed an agent, then still had to go out and raise $ to produce a feature they wrote, and then never made another movie again. And a friend who worked for Joel Silver for years as a paid assistant used kickstarter to make a calling-card short, and then got a shot helming a feature. Internships should serve the intern, for sure, but I guess it comes down to defining what that service is; if it is making contacts, then it's still up to the person to use those contacts effectively, have great content, ideas, people skills, and probably a bit of luck, too. :)

James David Sullivan

I agree wholeheartedly. Blue Cat is not my favorite contest, but the winner just picked up $15,000 - that's enough for a low-budget short. And four others feature writers received $2,500; the short winner got $10 grand and three received a grand-and-a-half. In my opinion, they don't have a good record for having their winners get their specs green lit, but it's certainly a nice cap feather, and some cash to boot. The three standard rules I have run across with respect to feedback are: (1) change when you agree with the reviewer about the note improving the script; (2) change when you get the same note from several different reviewers independently; and (3) change when someone has the money or knows someone who has the money to buy your script (or option it) and you can live with the required changes. Otherwise, you get what you mentioned - a deadly spiral. "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." Even in a kick-starter campaign, some contest wins/placements can help you gain contributions. One thing that bothers me about kick-starter style fundraising: A lot of "big fish" are doing it, taking a lot of funds away from those who really need it. One well-known producer (up until 2002) decided a short while ago to raise money for a book he wrote about breaking into movie making. And you guessed it, he used a kick-starter campaign to raise $25,000 to fund the publication of his book. The head of Blue Cat ran a kick-starter campaign for a movie he was making about 2 years ago. Maybe there's a good answer to it, but if you are that well-connected in the industry, why do you need a kick-starter campaign? And kudos to those who get a movie made using kick-starter AND then turn it into a major movie career.

T J Brearton

Agreed and agreed. Such winding paths we end up on. I wrote my first spec at 19 and figured it would get made because I wrote it and it was awesome, haha. When I temped a bit later for Miramax it dawned on me that this was a business. I never found a short route to getting a movie made. I met 45 year-old, grumpy P.A.s on sets and 25 year-old producers who just seemed to magically have the keys to it all. Twenty years later I'm just beginning to make a living as a crime novelist. It's true crowd-funding seems to be co-opted by those who ought to have other avenues. But I think that comes in-hand with the democratization of filmmaking through digital technology. Over the next few years I think we'll see an even more homogenous, monolithic-studio-Hollywood alongside a continued proliferation of mid-listers. Same as it is with publishing. What do you think?

James Durward

if you don't want to do it on the advertised terms, don't do it - your choice.

James Durward

Then call him/her a volunteer

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