Four years ago, Kris Mangaccat was a Lyft driver relying on his girlfriend and friends for financial help while he worked to advance in the entertainment industry. Today he’s shooting music videos for hip-hop mogul DJ Khaled, pop singer Normani and other big names.
Mangaccat’s climb involved accepting mostly unpaid positions to gain experience and contacts. “It’s how the industry works. It’s not about what you know, but who you know,” said Mangaccat, who still takes on some free jobs to expand his connections.
The who-you-know mentality is a familiar one to college students seeking entertainment careers in Los Angeles, where monthly rent averages $2,252 and a large number of entry-level film internships are unpaid.
Some, however, have found an unexpected benefit of the pandemic: virtual internships.
Shouryaman Saha, a junior at Stanford University double majoring in Computer Science and Film and Media Studies, interned with six different L.A.-based production companies since last June — all while living rent-free with his family in McKinney, Texas.
Prior to the pandemic, he had one film internship under his belt, with a San Francisco nonprofit that organizes screenings and media education programs. Though he wasn’t being paid by SFFilm, Saha was expected to commute from Palo Alto on a regular basis, causing him to dip into on-campus job earnings and ultimately lose money.
“The pandemic has been horrible for everybody, and it’s been horrible for me too, but it’s been amazing professionally,” Saha said. “I think the reason why people are so willing to take unpaid internships, including myself, is because there’s so many applicants. And the only way to be seen is if you have an inordinate amount of experience compared to the rest of the applicant pool.”
Every time he logged on to entertainmentcareers.net, a popular site for finding jobs and internships, Saha was shocked to see only unpaid opportunities. “And even after I had done three unpaid things, I still was getting zero response,” he said. ”That’s ridiculous.”
Saha has just wrapped up his development internship at Warner Brothers, where he gained experience vetting scripts, and he has an internship lined up at Amazon Studios for the summer. Both are paid positions. “I’m always conflicted about unpaid internships because, theoretically, I’m heavily against them,” he said. “But … if it were not for those internships, I would not be where I am.”
Recruiters are also noticing a positive effect of the pandemic. The applicant pools have become more diverse, at least temporarily.
Niti Shah, the director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ internship enhancement program, called Academy Gold Rising, saw the highest number of applications from international students and those from states other than California. She attributes this to students not having to worry about L.A.’s cost of living or the expense of long-distance travel.
Stanford graduate and filmmaker Tayo Amos, who works as an assistant at The Black List, an online platform that freelance screenwriters use to market their work, pointed out that many in-person internships center around tasks such as stocking the fridge, grabbing managers their coffees, and getting people’s mail. However, virtual interns can’t be relegated to those daily tasks.
“You can actually use that time to read more scripts, work on other projects, and contribute in more meaningful ways,” Amos said.
These improvements come at a time when Hollywood faces criticism for its lack of representation in front of and behind the camera. But now that COVID-19 restrictions are starting to be lifted, a big question on executives’ and interns’ minds is what changes will last.
Shah noted that even when internships are paid, the cost of living in Los Angeles alone can turn people away. “We see, year after year, students who finally get these opportunities and they’re so excited. Then, they realize what the cost is to live in L.A. while they’re interning,” she said. “Sometimes, even though it’s a paid internship, it’s still not enough to make ends meet. They literally have to say no and watch their dreams die.”
Some established creatives aren’t waiting for the industry to change. They are finding opportunities to transform it themselves.
Charles Gray took film classes at the Arts Institute of California-Orange County in hopes of having more access to jobs than non-film school graduates. But his mentors at school warned him that openings in the industry were few and far between.
Over time, he found that connections and luck were the main reasons for his advancement. Gray got involved in video production after a friend called him about a job opening up at the small company he now works for, Character Media (formerly known as Kore Asian Media).
Character Media seeks to highlight Asian American accomplishments in entertainment. Gray said the company’s leaders are committed to paying one or two interns a small monthly stipend because it makes them feel like stakeholders and increases their engagement.
“If you’re going to do three months here, I’d love to max out your experience and get you inspired to stay in this industry and not be discouraged,” Gray said.
Meanwhile, AJ Calomay, a Filipino freelance editor who has been in entertainment for over 20 years, started a production company, Xylophone Films, aimed at providing filmmakers of color a way to easily gain experience and network without having to go through an extensive application process. Calomay also created a Facebook group specifically for aspiring and established Filipino editors to connect.
“I want to do my little part to put our stories forward — ‘our stories’ meaning us FIlipinos, Asian Americans, people of color, and other underrepresented members,” Calomay said.
He brings his daughter to film sets when possible, imagining what the industry will look like by the time she grows up: “I want to tell her, ‘See this set right here? This is special. Enjoy this, but this should become normal for you. You should see mostly Filipinos and people of color behind the scenes and in front of the camera, making things happen.’”