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Internships Put Film-School Skills to the Test

Entertainment Education: Out of the classroom, on the set

Scoring a summer internship assisting the snake wrangler on the New Orleans set of Fox’s “The Maze Runner” might not be how U. of North Carolina-Wilmington student Jimmie Bullis dreamed of breaking into the biz, but the gig marks an increasingly rare shot in an industry suddenly jittery about internships.

Not only is Bullis earning college credit, but he’s also getting paid, which is uncommon in the world of entertainment internships — or was, until the June 11 federal court ruling that decided Fox Searchlight violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying two “Black Swan” interns.

As a rule, “The big movies don’t want interns,” says Terry Linehan, internship director for UNC-Wilmington’s film studies department. Apart from the touchy compensation issue, “I think it’s partly that they just want experienced people because so much is at stake,” he says.

In recent years, production internships have been just as tough to land for students in film programs operating in the heart of the biz, such as UCLA and USC, as they are for out-of-staters.

Insurance liability can be one concern.There’s also the fact that unions dictate who can handle which roles on-set, and eager-to-impress interns can easily overstep. “Depending on the project, there can be guild issues,” says Bill McDonald, chair of UCLA’s school of film, television and digital media. “But we still pursue them and we still have success. In 2012, we had 10 graduate internships on Django ‘Unchained,’ ” working in areas ranging from costumes to stunt coordination.

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UCLA also calls on alumni, such as director Catherine Hardwicke, who used a cinematography grad student last year on her film Plush. Interns typically have better luck working office-based jobs in such areas as script development, editing and other aspects of post-production.

Though Linehan helped past students land internships on Dawson’s Creek and “One Tree Hill,” such recent Wilmington-shot series as NBC’s “Revolution,” CBS’ “Under the Dome” and HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” have declined to hire interns.

Interns from Atlanta Metropolitan and Atlanta Technical Colleges employed by EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta — which has hosted three seasons of USA Network’s “Necessary Roughness” and major features such as “Flight” — aren’t attached to a particular show, but they do manage to get production experience.

“We know when a show comes in what departments need some help,” says Kris Bagwell, exec VP of the facility. “It’s a fantastic opportunity. They get a chance to work with a lot of the department heads.”

While studio gigs sound glamorous, the reality is big productions don’t necessarily provide interns with the best learning experience.

“Larger studio films tend to have a lot of paid production assistants, and the interns are usually one notch below them,” says Stephen Tropiano, director of the L.A. internship program for New York’s Ithaca College. “But if you work on a smaller independent movie, they’re usually in need of help, so a lot of the students are working in the camera department, as grips or assistants to producers.”

Connections are almost as important as the craft. At USC, professor Bonnie Chi has her students do a role-playing exercise to sharpen their networking skills.
“Even if you find the work you’re doing (in an internship) is not for you, you still get a network base from it,” Chi says.

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