The 4 Steps to Turn an Internship into a Paying Job (no, it’s not about attitude)

career, internships
intern storm troopers

Last week I mentioned that “blindly paying your dues” is the wrong approach to internships. I’ll go over why that is here:

You’ve fine-tuned your resume and honed your cover letter. You’re blasting out to every posting on EntertainmentCareers and the UTA Job list. But after you land your first internship, are you making the most of it?

This isn’t a post filled with 100 tactics to land your first internship, or 50 places to find your first job in Hollywood. I’m not going to remind you “it’s all about attitude.” It’s not. There’s more to it than attitude — there’s a strategy to getting the most out of the free work you’re doing.

After reading this post, you’ll understand the 4 strategies that you can use to:

  1. Add immense value to a company with free work
  2. Leverage the work into new connections and (paying) opportunities

Here are the 4 strategies that make the cream of interns (that’s you) rise to the top:

  1. Recognize the required tangible skills
  2. Develop those tangible skills
  3. Develop an understanding of the landscape
  4. Leverage your free work into referrals

Recognizing Tangible Skills

The problem with advice like “have the right attitude” is it’s intangible. Thus, it’s difficult to measure. You don’t know if you’re getting better, and there’s no quantifiable way to develop a better attitude.

Yes, you have to have a “go anywhere, get anything” attitude. You must be driven to get all the little details right. But those are prerequisites. Beyond that, what’s important is identifying the skills needed to advance one or two steps forward.

The number of steps is important. Only one or two, from your current role, because:

  1. That’s where the skill sets most applicable to your current level live
  2. You want to be a benefit to people around you, not a threat

If you’ve just PA’ed on your third indie feature, then study the Production Coordinator or a Grip. Don’t invest your workday studying the decisions and actions of the Director. If you work in management and want to be a screenwriter, study the baby writers who are getting staffed on their first shows — what skills separated them from the other thousand applicants vying for that position? These lessons will be more applicable to your situation than imitating Aaron Sorkin- or Genji Kohen-dialogue.

When you look to advance one or two steps, the people ahead of you will try and help you. They’re trying to move up as well, and eventually, they’ll need to find their own replacement. Make the search an easy one by being the natural choice.

Tangible skills vary depending on your role. If you intern at a:

Production Company / Management Company:

  • Read scripts and manuscripts quickly, write notes quickly
  • Have calm, succinct phone decorum
  • Access to a network of people for information and materials

Of the above, which skills can you most easily develop on your own? The first and the second. The last is a skill you can start, but will get exponentially easier when you’re an assistant.

Casting Office:

  • Navigate Breakdown Services quickly and easily
  • Understand the ins and outs of Ecocast
  • Write breakdowns
  • Recognize faces and names
  • Read well with actors

There’s a world of a difference between a good casting assistant and a good casting director. A casting director recognizes talent and the intangible qualities that make someone right or wrong for a role. A casting assistant’s skill set is hinged on handling the details so the casting director can focus on his job.

Set PA:

  • Learn the equipment
  • Study the best boys, the key grips, and (to a lesser extent) the line producer

For example, the ability to recognize the best light for a shot isn’t required to advance to the next level. If you’re asked to “punch it up,” though, you better be able to deliver.

Develop the Tangible Skills

Once you’ve identified the important tangible skills, you have to develop those skills on your own time.

If you’re trying to get onto a agency / management desk:

  • Read scripts on your own. 75 percent of the work is coverage, so make your coverage sparkle. Read professional script coverages and breakdown their breakdown. What makes that coverage professional level?
  • When I arrived in Los Angeles, I was a good writer but screenwriting was a new medium.  So I read two scripts a day. This gave me an intuitive understanding of format and structure — though not a formal understanding, this came later. Then a friend and I started analyzing scripts aloud — we’d pick one script a week and break it down together, for practice. Then I read screenwriting books. Then professional notes and coverage. Then back to analyzing scripts on my own. What got me noticed in the first week of my internship was my coverage.
  • Once I got on a desk, I cut back on developing this skill. Yes, my analytical ability waned, but I proved I could do it. The ability to breakdown a script is assumed, which isn’t the case when you first start.
  • Now I focus my energy on reaching the next level — in my mind, this is the ability to interpret and comment on Literary Agreements. To develop this skill, I’m following the same steps as above: I read two contracts a day, then I analyze them with an assistant aloud… etc.

When I worked in casting, I got hired back on for the next gig (which lead to a PA position, then a Production Coordinator position) for a couple specific reasons. None of which were that I had an eye for talent. What got me there were two tangible skills I developed:

  • I navigated Breakdown Services quickly and easily – something I learned by studying the application for hours the day after I learned it, which was the night before casting started.
  • I had the hardware skill set: recording video, dumping, recharging the single battery, all in time to get the tape we needed.
  • I asked my Boss what skill sets should I work on if I wanted advance (yup, if you don’t know you should just ask): learn to remember faces and names and learn to read with actors. In his opinion, those were the tangible skills required to excel at the intangible: build rapport with actors.

Understand the Landscape

Hollywood is a machine with thousands of turning cogs and whirling gizmos. It’s important to know your role, but unless you learn where you fit in the larger picture, you’ll only spin your wheels. Understanding the bigger picture requires two things, ideas I’ve borrowed from dance choreographer Twyla Tharp:

Read deep – read everything about your role:

  • Who were the major players in your role through the years?
  • How has it changed?
  • What challenges did they face 50 years ago, 25 years ago, a decade ago, last year?

Read wide – read across the spectrum of the industry:

Understanding the landscape doesn’t happen all at once. It takes years. But piece-by-piece, you align the puzzle so clarity grows each day you spend in the industry.

Leverage Contacts into Referrals

When you do free work, you’re building a relationship, a pact of sorts. You’re offering free work for:

  • The experience
  • A referral

It’s easy to understand the former.

It’s the latter most interns screw up.

If you don’t get a referral, if you don’t leverage your free work by building new relationships, you’re leaving value on the table!

I don’t mean a written referral. I used to put significant weight on the written referral, because the College Application Game brainwashed us into glorifying the Written Referral. Hollywood (and most of the real world) doesn’t play by these rules.

A nice letter printed on company letterhead looks good — but it’s not as effective as a phone call or short email saying, “Hey, you should meet this person.”

When I get a call like that, I set that meeting.
When I make calls like that, I’m trying to connect one winner to another.

I have interns do amazing free work (yes, it has to be amazing) and too often when they’re done, they crawl back into their holes, or worse, back to school, without asking, “hey, is there anyone else you think I should meet?”

Yes, you have to ask. After completing an internship, you have to tell us exactly how we can help. People who can help you are busy helping others and themselves, so you need to be precise in describing how exactly they can help you.

I think part of the problem is the mentality. Interns think, “oh, I don’t know what I want right now,” or “I’m going back to college anyway, what’s the point in meeting someone new?” Or because they think the ask is a “play-once” card, to keep in their back pocket until they really need it.

Wrong wrong wrong.

Free work isn’t a tally system. It’s not tit-for-tat. Free work is the best opportunity to build relationships, and relationships are built by helping when you can, however you can. But we want to help winners: amazing free work filters the winners from the losers.


Use these 4 strategies to do amazing free work (while you can) and build strong relationships. Create huge amounts of value, then find ways to move up or move sideways. The best interns are never interns for very long.


Photo Credit: Icedsoul Photography

2 comments… add one

  • Bruna Skrzypek

    “Yes, you have to ask. After completing an internship, you have to tell us exactly how we can help.”
    Thank you for that! It’s so simple and so true, and somehow I haven’t realized the importance of that

    • Chris Ming

      Yup, asking makes all the difference in the world!

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