Five “Reel” Tips: How to Turn a Film Internship into a Career

Being a freelance filmmaker is not easy.  You enter hoping to become a famous director, but more “realistically,” a cinematographer.  Okay, we know this doesn’t happen overnight.  A dream job like this can seem daunting and one in a million chance, but there are ways to make the film industry feel structured like other careers.  For most people, unless you already know someone, in order to get into the film industry you have to start at the bottom.  You can work on low-budget gigs in a key position, but it usually means being a production assistant or intern.  These jobs will help you get to know people in the business.  You can learn from them and they can refer you to other jobs if they like you and your work.  We’ll start simple and then more specific, here are 5 tips to start:

1. Customize Your Application
The same rules for applying to any job in any field apply here.  When sending in your résumé with a cover letter, try to customize it to the specific position.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but let me elaborate.  If the internship is working in the production office you’ll be with the production office coordinator, making phone calls, organizing, going on runs, and doing paper work similar to an office job.  On the other hand, if you’re applying for a more technical internship like “grip” and “electric,” which works under the cinematographer with expensive, heavy equipment in the fast-paced environment called “set,” those are two very different skills.  The more experience you have related to the job, via quantity or quality, the more credible you seem.

2. Choose an Internship That Helps You
It’s easy to go for an internship where you’ve got a connection, but make sure its something that you are actually interested in.  This may sound obvious, but I know so many people that just took the first internship they could get and called it a day.  For example, if you intern at a post house when you’re uninterested in editing, it will only get you school credit, networks with professional editors, and a larger understanding of what it means to work at a post-house.  The best you can hope for is a post-grad job.  But for someone who doesn’t like editing, it is a detour to your destination.  That time spent could be used to learn more about the department you’re truly interested in.  So the question is: If you don’t already have a connection at an internship, how will you get one?  Easy.

3.  Use
This is a great resource.  There are tons of internships posted on this site.   You can also apply for  paid and unpaid production assistant gigs which can be similar to internships, without the school credit.  With you can get a free membership, have up to three résumés saved, and also promote yourself.

In addition to Mandy, I have also gotten jobs from Craigslist too.  Those can be surprising.  I’ve gotten extremely unprofessional gigs from there and ones with notable actors as well.

4. Choose a Department
There are multiple departments on a film shoot, such as office, camera, grip, electric, art, prop, AD, sound, hair, make up, etc.  If you know which department you aspire to work in, it can often give you a leg up when you start to work in film full-time.  When I proclaim my specific interests, I become known as “an art person,” “a writer,” “an editor,” etc. making it easier for referrals.  Because I work in the “art department,” when my friends are asked to recommend someone for art, they’re more likely to call me before another friend who is indifferent.  Why give that person the job, when they could give it to someone who has more passion and, better yet, more experience in that department?  This gets me more jobs in art, rather than just the AD department as a general PA, making me one step closer to where I want to be.

If you don’t know what department you’d like to specialize in, I would suggest being a set intern, acting similar to a production assistant.  You will grasp a more versatile view on what each position in each department does.

Committing to a certain department has its down side too.  If you decide years later you want to change departments it will almost be like starting from scratch.  Well, almost.

Take this time interning to learn where you want to go and how to get there.  Understand the line of command, so eventually, you can start applying for jobs one step ahead of your previous ones.  This does not move linearly though.  I have been a production designer on a low budget and then a Prop PA on a much higher budget film after.  It depends on the quality of the project, which includes budget, professionalism, and the film’s potential.

5. Don’t Forget, You’re Also Here to Network.
There are two reasons you do an internship.  The first one is obvious: to learn and gain experience and put it on your résumé.  The second is networking.  If you finish another unpaid job without interacting with coworkers, you’ve practically wasted your time.  When you’re given limited responsibilities, your talents and potentially irreplaceable contributions can go unnoticed.  It can be discouraging and lead to square one of unemployment when the job is wrapped.  You can set yourself apart with your personality and new found relationships.  Whenever I recommend someone, even if I’ve met them through work, I say, “I have a friend who is available.”  Film is all about networking.  More people in the film industry get their jobs by referral rather than sending a résumé.  Here’s why:  Working on film sets for 12+ hours a day, 5 days a week with technical or social conflicts on set and being stuck with the same people…  The heads of departments would rather hire someone dependable, who has potential, and is fun and easy to work with making their jobs more enjoyable.  (See: Why You Should Think of Networking as Making Friends.)

If you’re a little shy and or nervous, an easy way to network is simply by asking questions and asking for advice.  This blog post started as an email.  An aspiring filmmaker, Kraig Adams, was looking for advice on obtaining film internships, so he contacted NY Creative interns and Emily Miethner referred  him to me.  After checking out his website and his fantastic work, with a kick of insomnia, I wrote an enormous email which included, but were not limited to, these five tips.  When you ask someone for advice and they find you genuine, with potential, and likeable, in an industry full of self-acclaimed experts, they’re bound to open their mouths.  Just like I’ve done.

What do you think?  What more advice can you give to newcomers in the film industry?

For more blatant advice on becoming a professional filmmaker, keep an eye out for my upcoming eBook, What Your Film Professors Never Clarified: Getting Started in the Film Industry.
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About the Author

Audrey Zao, born and raised in Massachusetts, graduated Hofstra University for Film Studies and Production and Creative Writing. She now resides in New York City as a freelance filmmaker and writer. View her website:

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