Right now, there are a slew of interns suing their former workplaces for pay as reported by The Wrap here. I don't know their specific circumstances so I can't comment on whether it is right or wrong for them to be suing. I'll let the courts decide that. But I will say that internships started my career in film and I'm very grateful for them.
When I decided to dip my toe into the world of filmmaking, I had no idea how to really get a strong look behind the film industry's mysterious curtain. Sure, I could have tried to find a paid gig. But, I knew that the industry was incredibly competitive - I needed a step up over other candidates. I had no experience at all - who would hire me? I wanted a fast entry into the world of film. I didn't want to wait around for the elusive paid gig.
And since I wasn't sure if film would be right for me, I didn't want a full time job yet either. Also, I wasn't sure what area of film I wanted to work in. So really, an internship was the best solution for me as I wanted the flexibilities it would afford me - flexible hours and the freedom to watch others working so I could decide if I wanted to do what they do full time.
I loved both of my internships. I worked on a feature-film production in the production office and in post production on two different films. Yes, I worked my ass off and I got people's lunches and I did real work that mattered. And I was so happy for it.
I wanted to be relevant and matter to the productions I worked on. I take pride in my work and look at every experience (paid, free, deferred) as an opportunity to grow. I absolutely believe that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. Sure, I would loved to have been paid for the work I did as an intern, but I was gaining in many other ways that to this day have provided me with so much more "payment" than my work would have even been worth in salary.
I met people in my internships who to this day, hire me, refer jobs to me, offer advice and a shoulder to lean on.
In both internships, I was gaining from the experience of working with seasoned veterans. I was meeting people who would go on to introduce me to my first paid gigs in the industry. I was given the opportunity to pick the brains of established film veterans and get a sense of what I wanted to do in film. This kind of brain picking is expected from interns and I was given access to learn - I believe even more so than if I were being paid.
Working for free also allows you to build your network. Your network will be your number one resource for future jobs. I can honestly say that most of the jobs I have gained in my life have been through referrals from those with whom I worked in the past.
Without internships, I guarantee that it would be much harder to gain entry into the film industry. People like me, who weren't in school and couldn't intern for school credit, would likely be locked out of any great internships - as many already are. As it is, the studios typically only allow students who get class credit to intern.
To this day, I still work free and deferred if it's a project or for a person I believe in. And I know that work will have its "pay day," in some form or another. I look at internships as no different than going to school - and with an internship, you aren't paying for the experience like you are paying a school to teach you. It's also no different than building your portfolio in order to find paid jobs doing what you love. And building a portfolio is hard work!
My point is that internships do have value, above and beyond the salary. I hope we don't lose sight of that. My career is proof positive of it. I know I would not be the film producer I am today without them.
Here are some tips from HelloGiggles (Web site cofounded by Zooey Deschanel) for How to Be the Perfect Intern. And honestly, these lessons are true for all the work you do - paid or not.