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In February, Anna Fujii found herself in an enviable position for a college sophomore in search of a summer internship. The USC cinema & media studies major and advertising minor had completed two interviews — one with a broadcast network and the other with an unscripted cable channel — while other companies were getting in touch to request their own. By early March, however, her prospects for the summer took a turn: The two companies she had interviewed with notified her they had canceled their internship programs due to the COVID-19 crisis. Other companies that had previously reached out also notified her of their programs’ cancellations.
Over a month later, Fujii is still looking for an internship and holding out hope for two companies that have offered her interviews. If she doesn’t secure one of these increasingly rare remote, paid internships — she doesn’t want to pay for a college semester to get college credit for an unpaid opportunity — “I would probably just do something in the food industry like I did in high school,” she says.
Fujii, like many college students and recent graduates aspiring to enter the film, TV and media business in the next few years, is currently contending with a sudden shortfall of opportunities in the already cutthroat entertainment internship market. The Hollywood Reporter has reviewed documents noting the cancellation or pausing of at least some internships at Disney Internships & Programs; Discovery, Inc.; Amazon Studios; Skydance Media; VICE; Participant Media; Fox Searchlight, NBCUniversal and Endeavor’s Impact Fellowship. As for opportunities that remain, Hulu, NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures, Rooster Teeth and Facebook Watch are still doing some form of internship or externship this summer.
Overall, according to the job site Glassdoor, one in two internship openings closed between March 9 and April 13, with internship hiring in media and publishing falling 62 percent month over month. LinkedIn has seen a 60 percent drop in internship listings since March 1, with the entertainment sector’s hiring rate dropping 17.8 percent around the same period. In mid-April, internship openings were down about 44 percent from their normal levels at that time of year at Media Match, a subscription-based film, TV, music and gaming networking platform, according to business development associate Anna Vincent. At College Recruiter, a job site dedicated to students and recent graduates, internship listings haven’t significantly dipped but, says president and founder Steven Rothberg, “We’re seeing a substantial change in whether employers are moving ahead with those internships or whether they are going to adapt them in some way.”
Industry observers who have tracked internships for years say there’s no precedent in recent history that matches this summer’s dearth of opportunities. Even during the Great Recession and its aftermath, “the labor market was difficult and it was definitely much more difficult to find an internship, but at least if you found one, you could go to work. … [Applicants] don’t have those options this summer,” Rothberg says. Given how essential internship experience has become for entry-level employees in entertainment and U.S. jobs at large, he adds, “There’s a whole class year, primarily juniors, who are really devastated by this.”
Lindsey Byster’s dream has long been to work at Disney Animation, in production or even in the theatrical marketing department. The USC cinema & media studies and journalism double major came one step closer to that goal when she landed an interview with the prestigious division of the Disney empire for a 2020 summer internship; however, like so many others, that role was canceled before the conversation was even scheduled. Byster is a junior, “and that’s normally a time when everybody wants to get their best internship and figure out what they want to do post-grad,” she says. Now quarantining in the Chicago suburbs with her family, she’s tentatively planning on returning to L.A. for the summer to live in an apartment she’s still renting, hoping some internships she’s applied to will pan out — especially one of the few paid roles. “I’ve noticed mostly that the opportunities online for remote internships are part-time and unpaid,” she says.
While some major entertainment companies have decided to cancel all of their internships full-stop, several smaller companies and independent producers are developing virtual versions of their usual summer programs, says NYU Tisch director of career development Lily Hung. Companies she’s also noticed continuing to welcome interns? “The ones that are what we call ‘office-y,'” she says, “usually internships where they have their interns read scripts, do coverage and odd research.” (Except for in theater, where even administrative positions have disappeared: “All the theater internships across the board we’ve seen have been canceled,” she says.) Media Match’s Vincent adds that companies, especially those in postproduction, are opening up previously location-specific work to all regions amid COVID-19: “Almost every job we’re posting now is a remote job or [for] an individual, like a drone operator,” she says.
USC associate director of internship and experiential education Lauren Opgenorth says several entertainment companies she’s spoken with, meanwhile, are still figuring out what to do for the summer. “It’s a little bit of a wait and see,” she says. In the meantime, the school’s career center is pointing some companies to others that have transitioned to remote internships. The hope is that indecisive companies will “have that [virtual internships] be an open discussion rather than just severing those ties,” she says.
The waiting game can be extremely frustrating for applicants. Current students note that several businesses they’ve applied to or interviewed with haven’t notified applicants or the public about the status of their summer internships over the past few weeks, leaving individuals to determine for themselves whether an opportunity is still available, a casualty of COVID or as yet undetermined. “A lot of places I’ve applied to haven’t told us that they’ve even canceled them,” USC sophomore Maia Mizrahi says. Byster concurs: “Some places I’ve heard through the grapevine have canceled their programs, yet they interviewed me and didn’t feel the need to let me know.” Internship roles that are now canceled still remain posted on some job and networking sites, a problem that is so pervasive that job site WayUp created a fact-checked page of companies that are actually still hiring.
Dartmouth College student Madeline Donahue has tried to avoid “sending out applications into the abyss of huge corporations” by interviewing alumni and people she respects in the entertainment industry over the course of her senior year. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit her campus, she got the impression that several of these people — many independent filmmakers — might be hiring or would need help by the summer. “Those people now, any production they have going on has been completely wiped out or pushed back years,” she says. When asked what her summer plans are at the moment, she responds, “That’s a great question. I ask myself that every day.” (She’s also looking at grants and remote opportunities to pursue while working on projects with friends.)
Ileana Sung, another Dartmouth senior, is in the particularly difficult position of attempting to land a postgraduate role as a foreign student. “I came to the States because I really wanted to work in Hollywood and live in L.A., but because the president is talking about potentially banning all work visas, we really don’t know,” she says. “So basically nothing’s in my control.” She plans on returning home to Korea for the summer and, if her Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa is approved and she successfully lands a professional role in entertainment, travel back to the States.
When asked what advice they’re giving students going into the summer, career counselors say that, primarily, they’re telling students not to lose hope. NYU Tisch’s Hung is additionally suggesting students network virtually, conduct industry research and tackle dream projects. USC’s Opgenorth is advising students to maintain communication with any companies they’ve applied to, search for virtual opportunities and start on their own projects — “because you know once things settle down, every single employer is going to be asking, ‘What did you do during COVID-19?'” she says. At Tisch, Hung is additionally warning students against unpaid, remote internships that companies might be using as a temporary labor stopgap following budget reductions, layoffs and hiring freezes: “We are very wary of unpaid internships that are remote that seem to be replacing paid employees,” she says.
Could coronavirus ultimately change the course of upcoming and recent graduates’ careers? When asked, some students suspect their careers will be set back slightly due not only to the dearth of opportunities, but also to the U.S. economy’s plunge amid the pandemic: “I’d like to think I can still end up where I’d like to be, but some companies may not want to be taking as many employees at this time as they’re trying to rebuild,” Byster says. Most just hope that employers will be understanding and take transferable skills from other fields more seriously post-COVID. “If you’re going to cancel your internship, you can’t hold it against a junior, sophomore or senior in college for not working for this year or the next year because those opportunities aren’t available, period,” Mizrahi says.
Besides the effects on individual careers, several sources expressed concern that efforts to diversify the entertainment industry workforce could slow due to the challenges entry-level workers now face. Even students who want to intern remotely might not have reliable internet access at home or an environment that accommodates remote work, College Recruiter’s Rothberg notes. Liz Wessel, the co-founder and CEO of WayUp — whose user base is over one-third black and Hispanic and over two-thirds female — says, “Something we typically hear about when it comes to entertainment roles is that they’re either paid extremely poorly or unpaid” especially following Department of Labor rules regarding internships under the Trump administration. “This definitely makes me all the more concerned that the entertainment industry’s diversity numbers are not going to improve as a result of what’s going on with this pandemic,” she adds.
When asked what message she wanted to send to Hollywood employers right now, Dartmouth student Donahue urged leaders not to stop talking about the industry’s high barrier to entry for people of color, individuals who could not afford assistant-level salaries and others: “I just hope that when this [ends], that conversation is still happening, if not more prevalent,” she said.
Posed with the same question, other students stressed their hope that companies that can afford interns try to work with students and recent graduates in whatever capacity they can — not just because it benefits future Hollywood aspirants, but also because adding new faces and voices could work to the company’s advantage. “Especially during times like these, a fresh perspective and someone who’s new might be able to contribute something kind of different,” Sung says. “It’s worth taking the risk, and you might be surprised with what [we] have to offer.”
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