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The Editor's Blog

Contemplations and digressions from Filmmaker's Editor-in-Chief by Scott Macaulay

Is Creative Work Only for the Privileged?

in Filmmaking
on Oct 2, 2012

J. Maureen Henderson at Forbes asks a question for these times: “Are Creative Careers Now Exclusively Reserved for the Privileged?” She primarily refers to writing and publishing jobs, but her question applies to the film world too.

Henderson’s piece quotes from another by writer Alexandra Kimball, who writes at Hazlitt about breaking into publishing… when you can’t afford to be an intern. From Kimball:

To be a writer in this market requires not only money, but a concept of “work” that is most easily gained from privilege. It requires a sense of entitlement, the ability to network and self-promote without seeing yourself as an arrogant, schmoozing blowhard. And it requires you to think of working for free—at an internship, say, or on one of those gratis assignments that seem to be everywhere now—as an opportunity rather than an insult or a scam.

This is no longer an industry that rewards working-class values, in other words, and I underestimated how hard it would be to shuck them. It still seems strange to me that people work, unpaid, without a guaranteed job at the end. And I haven’t reconciled myself with the central irony here: that journalism, ostensibly a populist endeavour, is becoming a rarefied practice best suited, both financially and psychologically, to the well-off.

Henderson follows up with this:

Careers in creative fields are made (or not) in large part on internships and the connections established during them. If you aren’t financially able to shoulder the cost of working for free, you face a greater struggle when it comes to breaking into journalism, fashion and the publishing or music industries among others. And privilege runs downhill, because it’s often your educational background that opens the door to landing those coveted entry-level unpaid gigs. A 2006 study from Britain found that 54% cent of that country’s top national newspaper editors, columnists, broadcast editors and news anchors were private school graduates, despite the fact that private schools educate only 7% of the total British population.

Elsewhere in Henderson’s piece she cites an editor who told her that she could always tell which interns of hers juggled night jobs to pay the bills based on their work performance. I winced at that line, remembering a production fellowship I had early in my career that was, essentially, an internship. I read scripts for a studio at night and was also juggling post-production on the first film I produced, for which I, like everyone involved, had deferred my fee. I remember feeling a tinge of guilt as I’d leave the production office around 7:00 each night to go home and do script coverage, and I learned later that these relatively early departures were held against me.

The difference today? It’s probably harder to get the kind of related work — like script reading — that is a natural fit with unpaid work like film interning. Otherwise, the reliance of independent film on free labor has only increased. I think internships are great learning experiences — and the issue of getting the most out of your internship is a whole separate article. But as these blog posts demonstrate, there is a cost to our field in terms of the people and talent excluded.

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