The undue burden of unpaid internships

The entertainment industry has yet another issue to discuss: unpaid internships.

(Arielle Rizal / Daily Trojan)

If you’re working in entertainment, or studying to work in entertainment, you’re probably all too familiar with the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild strikes that have been going on for the past few months. These issues with pay are serious and need to be combatted, but one less discussed aspect to pay inequity in Hollywood is the unpaid internships students must complete just to get a foot in the door.

These unpaid internships disadvantage non-white and  students of lower socioeconomic status even further, and capitalize on the hard work of students, justifying the trade-off as a “priceless experience.”

Although the United States Department of Labor has criteria for determining if unpaid internships comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act — a law that is meant to protect workers against unfair pay policies — many for-profit companies are able to circumvent this by having students receive school credit instead of payment for their jobs. This allows them to benefit from the work of students without having to compensate them monetarily. 

While unpaid internships constitute 43% of all internships at for-profit companies, in the entertainment industry, these types of unpaid internships are even more common. The sector with the highest rate is the arts, with a staggering 85% of internships being unpaid.

What’s more, unpaid internships experienced an exponential rise in recent years, and they don’t show any sign of slowing down.

With experience being a gatekeeper to jobs, especially in entertainment, many students know that to find work after graduation, they will need to do an internship during their time at USC. And with unpaid jobs much more available than paid ones in entertainment, and experience frequently being a prerequisite to the jobs that are paid, it’s likely that students will have to work at least one if they want to succeed.

With a tuition of more than $60,000, USC is already a school that proves incredibly hard, if not impossible, to afford if you aren’t the child of a wealthy producer or businessperson. For students who want to also do an internship, the legal requirement to take unpaid internships for course credit often costs them an additional $1,000 to $5,000 each.

This fee means that students are paying to do an internship, particularly if the internship is over the summer, when students have the most free time and tuition scholarships may not apply. For those who need to generate income to afford their education, working an internship that doesn’t pay is often impossible. 

The European Youth Forum released a 2023 study that found that even subsisting on a “ramen noodles budget,” consisting of “the monthly living costs of a young person consisting only of the bare minimum” students working unpaid internships would need an additional $1,130 per month just to survive. When you consider that Los Angeles is the fourth-most expensive city in the world, this cost is exacerbated even further. 

The School of Cinematic Arts has an ongoing document of internship opportunities for students which is updated frequently, and many of those listed are unpaid and explain that school credit is required to apply.

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, SCA wrote that there are various other professional development opportunities for students “such as working on faculty projects and research labs, Trojan Vision, shadowing, freelancing, and gigging,” as well as “student led projects.” 

While many of these are great opportunities for professional development, they won’t provide students with the same network of industry connections or experience with studio work that an internship does. 

As the entertainment industry begins to fight back against the unfair fiscal mentality of its top execs, it’s time to do the same for the most vulnerable members of the community. As a school that promises a network and support structure that will help students find a job after graduation, USC and SCA should be a part of this change. 

Although this is hardly a problem for SCA alone, as one of the premiere film schools in the country, it is in a position to make a difference. Currently, SCA’s Office of Industry Relations “encourages and advocates for companies to pay interns,” but offering more scholarships or stipends for students to pursue these unpaid internships would be a tangible step toward achieving this. If we want to truly deny our reputation as the University of Spoiled Children, we need to work toward a system that will give everyone a chance to succeed — not just our wealthiest members. 

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