Is Your Internship Exploitative Or Not?

Recently I have been trying to make a career change within the entertainment industry. I came up in production, worked in festivals and even associate produced a short web series with a proper budget and distribution deal. However, my passion has always been on the development side of the industry; writing, providing coverage, assisting with research and feedback on submitted materials. In order to get work in this field, I needed to add some experience on this side of the business to my resume. So at 27, I found myself looking for an internship for a couple days a week to add to my resume before relocating to LA in January (the mecca of development work, and the industry in general).

What I found was that per usual, despite many lawsuits and moral debates about paying interns, most positions were still unpaid or for a small stipend. This post is not a debate about paid or unpaid internships. My first few gigs in production were also unpaid, and this industry is not going to change from that model as most people paid their dues by not being paid anything. Is that wrong? Sure, but it’s not the hill you want to die on if you plan on making a lasting career in this business.

This post is about the substance of internships, and whether you are being exploited or actually gaining something from your experience. A lot of postings are deliberately vague. In other instances, you are promised several possibilities that don’t actually exist. More often than not, you will feel unsure as to whether or not you’re even being exploited — that you’re just a typical intern doing typical intern duties. I want to make a few distinctions about all of these things in order to help people avoid exploitative situations. While it goes without saying that not all internships are created equal, this point is often overlooked in assessing the quality of individual programs.

So here’s a breakdown of how to assess whether or not your internship or the internship you are considering is exploitative or a benefit to you both.

1. What Do You Want To Do?

This isn’t always clear to the prospective intern. However it is essential to know going into an internship because it helps you to focus on the things that you want to learn and improve upon.

For me,  I want to get more coverage samples and have more opportunity to work in a production company or management company that deals with submitted materials. Perhaps for you, it could be editing, casting, set production or even legal work.

If you know what you want going in, then you know whether or not the internship you are in will give you this experience or merely promise it to you without ever planning to deliver.

Many internship programs are unstructured, they don’t have a specific set-up. They exist to offload work onto unpaid kids looking to get a start, and so they are unstructured because they function on an as-needed basis.

While this alone isn’t necessarily exploitative, it is if it is the sort of work given without any chance to allow the intern to explore their strengths or interests. Everyone has to do grunt work to start, to gain trust and prove work ethic. The question any intern must ask themselves is whether this company specifically will allow for the opportunity to focus on what they want to gain experience in.

2. What Does The Company Want To Do?

Once you ask yourself what it is you want to do, then comes researching the sorts of companies that do what you want to do.

Many companies that offer unstructured internships don’t have a focus. They may have a variety of free-floating needs that may not correspond to what it is that you want to do. The way they get you to sign up for this kind of grunt work is by promising you that you will do the sort of work you want, but by doing all the grunt work first… only you wind up doing only grunt work because the work you want to do isn’t possible with them.

Where this becomes exploitative is when there isn’t really a chance to focus on the work promised to you. This is where understanding their needs becomes very important, because they will definitely try and promise you the sky without being able to deliver. If your needs are different, chances are you’re just being used for free labor to do all the tasks that paid employees don’t care to perform — that’s not a benefit to you, and that’s not a proper learning experience that you will professionally grow from. It must be a give and take process.

For example, if you find yourself in a company that is doing mostly commercial work, but they say they’re interested in expanding into Film/TV properties, this is usually a good sign of an exploitative situation, a red flag — not always, but often. These companies may even have experience doing creative projects in the past. However, it is up to you to determine whether their current slate and projects will provide you with the kind of work you want to do.

For instance, if a company has no upcoming projects, and seems to be focusing on commercial work, chances are if you’re interested in development you’re not going to see any chances to review submitted material like screenplays. Alternately, if everything they have going is in post-production, then chances are you’re not going to see set-work if that is what you wanted. Vice-versa, if everything is in production, chances are you may not get a chance to hone your editing skills. It behooves you to know whether your needs are being met by theirs. Otherwise you’re just being used.

3. Talk To Other Interns And Observe Their Progress

In my own situation, I wound up talking to another intern to realize the situation I was in was exploitative. In fact she realized the same thing and quit the same week as me.

As alluded to in the previous example, many companies (especially ones with unstructured programs) will try and promise you things they cannot deliver. They will find out what you’re interested in professionally and tell you that you will get those opportunities if you work hard and prove yourself capable of being given those tasks.

In my case they told me I would be given the opportunity to provide screenplay coverage and be part of development meetings. About three weeks into my program I realized that they didn’t have such meetings because all of their priority projects are commercials and are currently in Post on deadlines. Additionally, the remaining projects are documentaries currently being submitted and pitched to festivals. Instead of doing grunt work AND coverage, I wound up just doing all of the overflow work like editing, logging, footage research and audio selects. While I am not adverse to doing all of that, I also want to be given more opportunity after I have proved I am hard working and a fast learner.

In the case of the other girl I spoke to, she was promised set work. An aspiring director they told her she would work on set and gain experience in camera since she wanted to apply to the DGA training program. None of their projects will be filming during the duration of the Fall Internship. So they basically dangled a carrot in front of her too. When I told her about what they told me, we quickly realized we were being sold a pipe dream.

Also keep in mind what other interns are doing, specifically ones who have been working at the company for a longer duration. Presumably if they have also been promised the kind of work that they wanted to do after proving themselves with grunt work, they would be doing more. In my case, the intern who had been there for two months was doing the same redundant grunt work tasks that me and the other girl there for only two weeks were doing. This young man was a hard worker, also interested in development. Presumably he would be doing some screenplay coverage at this point. Clearly since no coverage opportunities exist, he was still stuck doing the work that clients need from the company, except that company reaps the full reward because they’re not even paying you for that work. It’s of ZERO benefit to the interns. This a golden example of exploitation, plain and simple and it is VERY common.

4. What Makes a Good Internship Program?

Now that I’ve gone over what makes an exploitative program, I wanted to conclude by highlighting the kind of internship that is not exploitative. Again, this is true of both paid and unpaid internships.

A good program will do what they promise; they will actually be up front with you about the kind of opportunities you will get and tell you specifically about what they need. The less vague a company is, the more honesty you can expect. If you know what their exact needs are, you can assess whether your interests and skills are a benefit to them and as to whether or not you will learn from them. A program that exists to want to help you while also getting work done themselves will want to know whether an intern is a good fit. Because they are specific about their needs they will also have an idea of structure and what an intern will specifically be doing.

I believe in being up front. The more you know about someone or something, the more you can do your research. While you won’t escape grunt work with any internship, a good internship will allow an intern that has proved him or herself the ability to take initiative and make a real impact. A good company wants to benefit from their intern as much as they want to see the intern benefit themselves.

An internship is ultimately a networking opportunity as well. There has to be respect there and a mutual understanding of goals and needs. An exploitative company isn’t worth the reference because they’ve just used you, and you likely won’t have gained anything from the experience to add to your resume anyways. A good internship program is happy to offer advice to interns and where possible hire from the pool of interns. These companies promote from within, or at the very least step up to be a mentor or guidance program.  The relationship should be symbiotic, the good programs are.


I hope that this post has been helpful. Sometimes we are quick to accept whatever opportunity we are given in the entertainment industry. The business is competitive, and it is always nice to feel wanted. Unfortunately, like any career, some things aren’t worth your time and aren’t worth adding to a resume.

Much like an actor considering roles, you as an intern or entry-level employee need to be thinking about how the position will allow you to take the next step. Positions should only be accepted with the understanding that it is of mutual benefit. You wouldn’t just star in any old film as an actor, because your brand matters. So too does your brand as a worker behind the scenes. What goes on your resume and what experience you gain is of vital importance as to whether or not you will move up or merely move laterally in your career. If you want to move up, then taking an exploitative position is not a good move. Learn to stick up for yourself and to identify exploitative situations. People will always try and take advantage of you in this business as in life. Learn to know your worth, what you want and be diplomatic but decisive and negotiate hard for yourself.  You do that, and you’ll be just fine.


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