Creating an internship for a small-budget documentary
January 11, 2011 5:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm making a documentary in 40 cities in 10 months. We're travelling a lot, and need certain jobs done in many disciplines while we're away, which will be a large drag on our time. We would like to employ someone to help, but have no funds, other than to offer a slice of the end profits should the project become successful. So, an internship? A volunteer? How can I create one that's useful to the intern?

We're first-time filmmakers with few credentials. I should probably stress that from the beginning...

I think the job description will be something like a project manager and/or assistant director. We'd need someone back at home (wherever, really) that could help us with the following while we travel:

Logging all the footage we take (we'll send it home from each country)
Contacting people we are going to meet in each city via phone/email ahead of time.
Getting in touch with celebrities with similar interests, and people in the industry who would be good to interview.
Fundraising and PR.
Contacting newspapers and universities in the locations we're going to visit.
Facebook/Twitter updates.
Location scouting and research — historical research, places of interest, people of interest, local laws.
Dealing with any issues that come up.
Anything else they want to do.

As of now, we don't have any money to give them. We're putting a lot of personal dough into making this project work. Should it be successful, I would be more than happy to give a minimum amount or a percentage of the profits to the intern.

Also, I would like to make this internship as rewarding as possible. I know I can work this out with them, but how do I make sure I'm giving them the best experience possible? And legitimate — we're not an official business, just a few new film makers looking to make a documentary. The best part of the job is that our mission is massive in scope, and will probably be very interesting and varied.

To get a better idea of what we're doing, this is the website. However, in short, we're filming street performers in 40 cities to make a book and documentary.
posted by omnigut to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I hate to say it, but this is exactly the kind of film project that I warn my screenwriting students to avoid. This is your personal project. Of course you're going to put your personal money into it. You're looking for someone with no personal tie to your pet project to work full time, and very hard, for nothing.

Yes, for nothing.

Because very few documentaries make any money, whatsoever. As you might have noticed, there's not a huge market for them. Unless you have a great talent agent, with great production connections, your only real chance of showing this is film festivals. Which you'll pay to enter; they don't pay you to show.

IF you get lucky, you might win at some festivals. If you get real lucky, you might show at an Academy Award-qualifying festival. If all the stars and gods align, you MIGHT get optioned to run on a cable channel. If all the stars, gods, and universal sparks align, you might get nominated for an Oscar, and then picked up by Netflix and other rental companies.

You're looking for someone to do a 100k+/year a job for free. There's nothing rewarding in offering somebody the chance to work like a dog for nothing. I would suggest working out how to do this position yourself, or get an arts grant or loan so you can pay someone to do it properly.
posted by headspace at 6:02 AM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry to be the first to tell you, but this really doesn't sound like an internship. It sounds like a job. There are minimum wage laws, and regulators are getting increasingly worried about for-profit outfits exploiting workers desperately in need of experience by using unpaid interns to do real work. The fact that you "aren't an official business" doesn't matter. If you're hoping to make any money at this, i.e. if it's anything other than a hobby, you're a business.

If this is a hobby, than look for other people who might want to help you with your hobby. But most people don't take on massive film projects like this one as hobbies unless they're independently wealthy.

It sounds like you're looking for some combination of secretary, scout, entertainment lawyer, press agent, and talent agent. All of those are things you pay people for, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because they're hard, and the kind of person who would be willing to work for free isn't the kind of person that's even going to be able to get in touch with celebrities or research local legal compliance issues.

It sounds to me like what you need is an investor more than anything else, i.e. you're finding out that this project of yours is more expensive than you thought. I think the way forward here is not to find out how you can get someone to do a lot of work for free, but to figure out how to find an investor or sponsor. Try Kickstarter.
posted by valkyryn at 6:03 AM on January 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

You're looking for a producer. Good ones don't work on spec. Especially against the promise of the (vanishingly small) chance of a first-time filmmaker's project turning a profit. What you're describing deserves a production credit, and is not an "intern"-level appointment.

How best to make it as rewarding as possible? Literally "reward" them. With money. You claim poverty and say you have no funds to compensate him or her, but I look on your website and you're traveling to 40 world cities on every inhabited continent on the globe?! Something's not adding up.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 6:05 AM on January 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Look at the list of duties/responsibilities you are asking someone to do for nothing, not even a credit, with the stipulation that after you have traveled around the world, IF you somehow turn a profit, you would be happy to pay them a minimum amount.

Are you looking for an intern, or a Mom?

It sounds like a cool project, but you should start over from scratch on the production end. Find an arts grant for funding, maybe there is a film student who could use this experience as a school project so it would be mutually beneficial.

I really don't think you are going to find anyone with professional experience in those areas who would be open to working on those terms.
posted by timsteil at 6:23 AM on January 11, 2011

As everyone has said, you're not looking for an intern, you're looking for a producer. This is a large job that someone should be paid to do.
posted by SNWidget at 6:24 AM on January 11, 2011

You don't need one intern. You need twelve interns. Four interns at a time, with two responsibilities each, rotated every three months, for college credit. Otherwise you'll attract bad candidates and also break the law. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to remotely manage twelve interns.
posted by acidic at 6:29 AM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't exploit interns. Everyone seems to have it in mind that interns are free labor for whatever project they need completed. That is absolutely not the case, and it's highly possible that, were you to hire an intern, you would be breaking the law.

Honestly, I'm a little offended by your question. I'm sure you mean well, but this is just not what interns are for.

Your film project may be cool, but there is a 95% chance no matter what you do, it won't be "useful for the intern." Talented film students aren't going to do this for free when, if they want to work for free, they would aim instead for large production companies.

So get a grant and pay your "intern," find a friend who has nothing to do and have them do it on a volunteer basis, or do it yourself. Interns aren't cattle.
posted by good day merlock at 6:58 AM on January 11, 2011

Response by poster: Haha - okay, okay, I'm looking for a mum. :)

Still, I seriously thought that with the number of indie documentaries that are made, this kind of thing might happen regularly—that there may even be an industry standard for it. I'm definitely not interested in exploiting people, and have done enough unpaid, boring and benefit-less work in my life to not wish it on anyone else.

Here are a couple of responses:

1) I inherited a small windfall, which I'm going to completely blow on this project, plus have to borrow more to pay for it. That's why I don't have extra cash for another member of staff. I've already got two friends working on this for free.

2) This is going to make me sound completely hypocritical, but in general I think internships aren't just immoral from a slave-labour standpoint, but that they also inhibit poor people from getting good jobs (people who can't afford to work for free, and therefore miss out on experience). I've been trying to write a last sentence to this paragraph for a while, but I guess this sums things up: I'm a douche.

Thanks for the help everyone. This idea has been comprehensively struck from my mind!

posted by omnigut at 7:25 AM on January 11, 2011

The way an indie doc would do it would be to partner with a producer before the shooting trip. Arranging the interviews and research would largely be done (by you and the producer) beforehand. You would log the footage yourself when you returned. Kickstarter might get you more funds if you had a trailer of your project to show how awesome it is. With your pre-production research, you could maybe find a local intern in each city to help you with local issues, Twitter updates, etc.
posted by xo at 7:51 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

No snideness in this response, I promise. Direct, but not snide. I can see where you're coming from, and I think I can see (what I believe to be) the disconnect. All of this offered because I would've liked the advice, in your shoes, and because I'd like to see you make your film.

You inherited amount "X", and borrowed amount "Y" and combined them for Total Production Budget "Z". That's not just a name. That's the total budget you have to effect and complete ALL ASPECTS of your film's production.

With no judgment, and with only a desire to help reframe this: It seems to me that you were imagining "amount Z" to be (in a nutshell) your travel and equipment budget. Travel and equipment is a subset of your production budget. Ideally a pretty small subset. Even with a bare-bones, bootstrappy, DIY production ethos that I admire and personally try to evince, it's imprudent to ignore these other costs of production.

tl;dr: Your production budget absolutely must factor in the cost of securing, and compensating, someone to fill this role you are desperately in need of. Unless there's something unseen that I'm not privy to, this means: A.) borrowing more, or B.) austerity measures -- most likely slashing your travel budget (abridging your travels, and/or shortening your itinerary). You have underestimated the cost of your production.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:14 AM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

(...and it looks like St. Louis isn't on your itinerary [and, truthfully, has no busking culture that's ever shown up on my radar]; but if that changes: I've got an air-mattress and a place for you to crash for a couple of days if you wanted to film here.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:33 AM on January 11, 2011

Logging all the footage we take (we'll send it home from each country)
Contacting people we are going to meet in each city via phone/email ahead of time.
Getting in touch with celebrities with similar interests, and people in the industry who would be good to interview.
Fundraising and PR.
Contacting newspapers and universities in the locations we're going to visit.
Facebook/Twitter updates.
Location scouting and research — historical research, places of interest, people of interest, local laws.
Dealing with any issues that come up.
Anything else they want to do.

These are all widely divergent tasks which don't align with any particular position on a professional film. Which is going to make it really difficult to do the correct thing in your situation, which would be to hire someone on spec who wants to gain a certain kind of experience or move up into a certain position, on the agreement that you'll be feeding them and putting them up on the road (and that it would be an exciting adventure and an important addition to their resume).

What you need to do if you have any hope of convincing someone to do this for free is to separate out the tasks to create an actual film industry job. A lot of the things on your list are production tasks (the fundraising/PR stuff, pursuing connections with interview subjects) - those things could be grouped together with the duties of an APOC (or even a production coordinator, if you're really on a skeleton crew). Location scouting is a job in and of itself. I find it really hard to believe that your location manager can't do that*. Research is also usually a stand-alone job in and of itself - on a narrative film that would generally come under the writers and tends to be grouped with other writing support tasks (or perhaps another department if the research needs to be mostly about costumes, or period weapons, or landscaping, or something). It's also something you could reasonably ask your script supervisor for help with, if it's going to be happening during pre-production and not as you shoot.

So something that would be appropriate would be that, if you don't already have an APOC, location manager, script coordinator, or script supervisor, hire someone to do that job. Some people might be willing to work for free if there are substantial perks involved (free travel would be a pretty damn good perk for some people, myself included). However, if they'll be providing equipment (a car is a good example, in the case of a location manager), you need to compensate them in some way.

But, no, you can't just hire an "intern" and throw all the boring crap on them. That isn't done, and you're not going to find anyone with real ability who is going to be willing to take that on.

*One thing that is really important to understand about the film industry is that it's really frowned upon to take a bunch of unrelated shitwork and just throw it on some poorly paid or unpaid worker. On a low budget film with a very small crew, the department heads are responsible for the shitwork in their department that would otherwise go to a compensated staff member with traditional job duties. I've art directed films with a two-person art department - guess who got to dress the sets, shop for the props, and load and unload the van? Right, that was me.
posted by Sara C. at 10:19 AM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

By the way, if you did separate this out into realistic jobs, and if you were paying for travel and related expenses, and there was a legit credit involved (and probably if your doc had any hope of going to legit festivals and being seen by anyone other than your mom), I wouldn't mind coming on board in a production capacity or as a researcher/scripty. Just sayin'. I'm based in New York and you're welcome to MeMail me.

But only if it meant I got to travel with the crew, all over the world, for free.
posted by Sara C. at 10:31 AM on January 11, 2011

Response by poster: jjjjjjjijjjjjjj, thanks for teaching me tl;dr: it will come in useful.

Horribly enough, we haven't put aside any money for post-production, and are trying to spend as little as we can on pre-production. The way I see it, we're first time film makers looking to do something great. We've got enough money to get three of us (two cameras and an audio) around the world, taking footage. We can't really wait longer because if this is a massive fail, we need to get on with our lives.

However. If we come back with amazing footage, we'll have both a good idea and good footage, and will have met lots of people, networked a bunch, gained hits for the site, got a lot of good experience, and will be an easier thing for a producer to invest in.

Then, if the planets align in our favour, we go onto round two; more money; more people; and all the destinations we failed to hit the first time. Come home to big applause, world peace and a giant hug from Mum.


Sara C., thanks for teaching me "APOC". After googling it, I hope I'm right in thinking that you're not talking about an Anarchist Person of Color...

I would love to take you around the world with my crew for free. All you have to do is give us a donation large enough :)

Unfortunately, here's how the team breaks down: there are three of us working four jobs (five, depending on how you view freelancing) at the moment. We're also planning this trip, building the website, organising a fundraiser, and so on.

Here's just ONE issue: we've got to get enough research done for 40 cities, including a couch to crash on, performers to meet and film, guides to help us translate, and locals that would be good to interview. If one in every ten people we contact is reliable (ha!) that's thousands of people we need to reach out to.

If this was being properly staffed, there would be at least three people doing just the networking. While trying to go to sleep at night, the biggest question on my mind is whether I'm doing the best with what I have, or just setting us up to fail.

I think it's the former, but have no idea. I'm already taking more of a risk than everyone tells me I should be taking, so I don't want to borrow more money. That's why I put this question here.


Maybe there's space here for a question... Advice? :)
posted by omnigut at 5:51 PM on January 11, 2011

Yeah, sorry, you are not going to get someone to do all this (your list encompasses three or four full-time jobs that usually pay enough to support a family on) and make them pay for the privilege. That's really asking too much.

In light of your original question, as I said, you might luck out by finding a world traveling wannabe producer (someone like me) and making it worth their while to participate. Or you might just have to do the crapwork yourself. You're not going to get a paying intern. There is no such thing as that. There's really no way to have your cake and eat it too - either you do the shitwork that comes with the job description, or you at least make it worth someone else's while.

You also keep using the passive voice ("if this was being properly staffed") as if you're not the person driving the bus here. Which does not bode well. At all. For any aspect of the production. YOU ARE THE ONE NOT PROPERLY STAFFING YOUR PRODUCTION.
posted by Sara C. at 6:07 PM on January 11, 2011

Why don't you hire local shooters in each city to shoot the local talent? This much travel seems a waste of time and money to me. Or you could advertise via CL etc for video of local buskers and then you could choose the ones you want to follow, interview etc. I know I've seen both BBC and Antenne 1 docs on this subject.
You can have your transcripts done via internet, same with logging. Sounds like a great trip more than an actual film that's about something ( I'm not trying to be harsh, but I've got a long career indocs, and see several 100 proposals a year. A film is more than a collection of great footage, edited together.) Rather than shotgun your way through 40 cities, you might think about the stories you're telling. Why can't you do the research first before you start flying?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:57 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sara, thanks for the advice. I guess what I was trying to convey is that regardless of who is doing what work, we are running out of time. We have not been delegating work based on its glamour—only who has time to do what. The same thing would be true for anyone else working on the project. What I can't afford is to spend another £10,000 on taking someone around the world with us. Not unless we get a grant.

Ideefixe, you're onto something. We've been looking into getting local film students to come and shoot with us, or to make their own footage. I've been talking to a few companies to see if they want to sponsor an award for the best short film about a street performer, which can then be voted for on our site.

And we've done a huge amount of research since April. It's just 40 cities worth of research, and I'm the only one working full time on the project.
posted by omnigut at 2:51 AM on January 12, 2011

We have not been delegating work based on its glamour—only who has time to do what. The same thing would be true for anyone else working on the project. What I can't afford is to spend another £10,000 on taking someone around the world with us. Not unless we get a grant.

So then you are going to have to log the footage and update the Facebook page yourself.
posted by Sara C. at 10:42 AM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: Yup, I was talking about sharing that responsibility. Don't get me wrong Sara, I do appreciate the advice, and you have convinced me not to go about getting an intern, as we don't have the work or the structure that would give them a good reward for their efforts. I just don't want to be seen as wanting to give the grunt work to someone else; I'm talking about sharing responsibility for all this stuff.

Thanks again!
posted by omnigut at 2:16 AM on January 17, 2011

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