Two men who worked on the hit movie “Black Swan” have mounted an unusual challenge to the film industry’s widely accepted practice of unpaid internships by filing a lawsuit on Wednesday asserting that the production company had violated minimum wage and overtime laws by hiring dozens of such interns.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, claims that Fox Searchlight Pictures, the producer of “Black Swan,” had the interns do menial work that should have been done by paid employees and did not provide them with the type of educational experience that labor rules require in order to exempt employers from paying interns.
“Fox Searchlight’s unpaid interns are a crucial labor force on its productions, functioning as production assistants and bookkeepers and performing secretarial and janitorial work,” the lawsuit says. “In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees.” Workplace experts say the number of unpaid internships has grown in recent years, in the movie business and many other industries. Some young people complain that these internships give an unfair edge to the affluent and well connected.
Many Hollywood types instantly criticized plaintiffs Alex Footman and Eric Glatt for complaining about having to fetch Natalie Portman's coffee. The general attitude among execs and assistants is: we had to be interns once, too. Suck it up.
However, as I blogged about in April of last year, an internship must be "similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational institution" and "for the benefit of the trainee" to be legal, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Another stipulation that likely makes many Hollywood internships illegal: "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded." While Footman and Glatt may be seen as having poor attitudes or questionable work ethics, they may also have the law on their side.