In any other industry but entertainment the oxymoron of working for free would be a violation of the labor laws, but here…well, here it is just what you often have to do to pay your dues. And if you think you're too good for such a thing, there is a line around the corner of kids just as intelligent and overqualified and eager to break into the business who would be more than willing to sell their souls, let alone get some producer his or her coffee!
In college, especially in the majors that have to do with the media or the entertainment industry, the most important thing you will inevitably learn is how you have to start from the bottom once you get out anyway (unless you have a family member in the business, but really, that's another rant altogether). From the first day you walk in the doors, you have to think outside the box, outside the walls of the university, and begin trying to gain employment at real companies in the real world. Except no one tells you that while you’re sitting in the lecture hall; you’re supposed to figure that one out on your own. Hopefully I just saved you a few mistakes, and perhaps a couple of thousands of dollars, by spelling it out for you here and now. You’re welcome.
Interning, for me, was the savior throughout years of stuffy professors in huge theaters preaching their opinions on filmmaking to the masses. Instead of building my own theories solely on what these professors had to say-- professors, I might add, who for the most part wrote books on the subject of film and television theory but didn't necessarily work on any themselves-- I seeded my own with the words of those I considered much wiser: those who were out there on set everyday creating something. Interning became the thing I looked forward to in between classes—the thing to do on my days off and eventually the thing that would replace my classes when I decided I just didn’t want to sit there anymore-- that would keep me busy and active and feeling like a productive member of society.
The summer after freshmen year I blindly sent my resume to just about every production company and studio I found listed in the Ross Report. It wasn’t like the “good ole days of Hollywood,” though, when a kid from a small town could drive out to L.A. with a couple hundred dollars in his or her pocket, a pair of sturdy boots, and a copy of Variety or the Hollywood Reporter and cold call for jobs. Whether I was the only one still attempting to get a job that old-fashioned way or not, I don't know, but regardless, it didn't work; I didn’t hear back from any of them. Instead dozens of gigs probably went to the son or daughter or cousin or godchild of someone important who just needed something to keep them busy and out of trouble during the summer.
Instead, I kept myself busy by working at my campus television station, earning seven dollars an hour degaussing tapes and cataloging old clips from our nightly programs. I kept my spirits up by telling myself that summers were basically dead for television, which was actually still pretty true back then.
Just before the fall semester was set to begin, though, I heard back from Fox KTTV in West Los Angeles. The human resources lady had kept my resume for the past few months, filing it away in a drawer hopefully marked “potential,” like I had assumed was never possible. By this point, I had pretty much been convinced every copy of my resume that I had painstakingly stuffed into hand-addressed envelopes had been tossed through the shredder mere days after being postmarked. That was probably my first mistake, anyway, though: no one who matters in this town opens envelopes that are unprofessional enough to have chicken-scratches across the front! Image is everything, and without a good first impression, you’ll never get a second shot.
At KTTV I met with HR and the Executive in Charge of Production, whose desk faced a wall of about a dozen television monitors, and who was effectively getting paid to watch that wall of a dozen television monitors. That was it. I was home. From the moment I stepped into his doorway, I was practically salivating with the thought of “I want to go to there."
I got the gig and started immediately with the fall semester. My boss at Good Day LA was the director of the morning news and the national talk show (which sadly got cancelled a few years later). I sat at her desk in the early hours of five and six a.m., helping with the rundowns. Okay, “helping” might be an overstatement: I mostly shadowed, pointing out typos or offering commentary on the various stories as she built them from a template each morning. Sometimes I migrated over to the audio booths to help pick music for bumps or lay down new tracks. Most of the time, though, I eavesdropped on the writers and producers as they determined what stories needed to be trimmed or cut altogether in order to make room for the latest Britney saga or American Idol satellite interview. It was those moments, when I felt like a fly on the wall, that I learned the most-- about the way entertainment news "really" worked and about what I really wanted to do within the field. And it was then that I also began to yearn for more: more responsibility, more of a title, more influence, and of course more (or at least some) money! I felt I had as much invested as anyone else at the show, if not more, because I was a fan first, and as a fan, I always wanted to see it come out on top, and I was eager to dive right in and help drive its success.
Months after my internship with Good Day LA ended, I was still watching the show from home, and I sneezed. All of a sudden on-air, Dorothy Lucey called out: “Bless you; that was a very loud and commanding sneeze.” I froze in place, holding my bowl of Cocoa Pebble still so the milk wouldn't slosh out over the sides. Rationally, it was clear that someone in the newsroom must have sneezed when I did, but it was eerie nonetheless. I still felt connected to that place. Good Day LA was not only my first real stepping stone in the industry, but it also became my favorite internship after quite a few more during my college tenure were said and done-- mainly because I got exactly what I asked for out of it.
Of course there are some drawbacks to interning, too. You are not a full member of the staff because technically the company does not employ you. Therefore, there are certain tasks you just can’t undertake, and certain benefits-- healthcare, vision, dental, overtime pay, meal penalties-- that do not apply to you...though no one stops you from stuffing the snacks from Craft Services in your bag to take home. Just make sure you’re on a show with great snacks, and you can “make your money back” in free food.
Sometimes you are also reduced to the boring stuff no one else wants to do: filing, making calls, faxing. But keep in mind the bigger picture: you’re working for a real company that is active in the industry (whatever industry it is that you want to be apart of) and maybe even getting your name in the credits. You are working among people who, if you do a good job and they like you, may eagerly promote you or at least refer you to someone who can get you your next big break. It is invaluable to have a major company like KTTV on your resume, even if you already have your local college public access station on there, because believe me, no one has ever heard of TV8!