Thursday, September 29, 2011

Do the BLACK SWAN interns have a case?

The New York Times reports:
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.

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Sara C. said...

I feel a little conflicted about this. (Warning: novel ahead!)

On the one hand, I think it's a little more complex than "I was an intern once, too, so deal with it!" I'm a production secretary. Supervising interns is part of my job. Obviously there are bad bosses out there, but it's not all making coffee and taking out the trash. We really do teach people skills you just can't get any other way. (Do not ask me my opinion of entry level PA's, especially "must hires", who have ZERO entertainment industry skills.)

I also make it a point to throw "fun" projects their way (well, as fun as it gets in the production office), send them to set to observe, bring them over to relevant departments and introduce them to people who can help their careers, let them take a photo with the lead actor, etc.

And I remember when I was a PA having to do the real grunt work so that the intern could go to set, do a research project (which I would have to re-do after we sent them home for the night), or leave early to go have a life.

So... yeah. Interning is certainly educational, is NOT AT ALL the same thing as being a paid employee, and in my opinion is a necessary step for people who want to work in film or TV.

But I think it sucks that a lot of people/shows/companies/whatever think they can bring in an intern to do tasks that really do require a paid employee (often tasks that are even above the entry-level paygrade). I think there are a lot of terrible internships out there that don't offer anything of value to the prospective interns. I also worry about the race and class implications of having entire fields which are open only to people who can afford to work for free for some unspecified/indefinite period of time.

Dan Williams said...

It's a really tricky area and the situation may vary from office to office, so maybe ninety percent of interns are quite happy and feel lucky--it may only be ten percent or less who have misgivings.

But in all cases, I strongly feel that each person should be responsible for GETTING THEIR OWN COFFEE! It is demeaning to have to fetch somebody's coffee, and only a person who is paid to do it should HAVE to do it.

But interning, I believe, is a terrific way to learn, to see how things work, to ask questions, to grow into an industry. I would hate to see a few bad sponsers take advantage of it and give it a bad name when it's a good thing.

The Jnow said...

Yes, we've all been there, and for those of us who've been there, they should "suck it up."

That said, according to labor practices, especially in the State of California, the practice, no matter how much "well we all had to do it when we were first breaking in" rhetoric, is still... ILLEGAL.

This will probably be a groundbreaking case, in that it will alter labor practices in the film industry, IF the plaintiffs aren't settled out of court first.

I think what I feel is most annoying is that the film industry uses a fear tactic of, "well, you could sue, but then you'll never work in this town again" mentality, which is pathologically wrong. And it really is a system that needs to be fixed.

My brother got an internship out of college in the construction industry. He was paid $22 an hour! He was trained, and set up on a bath to be a successful construction manager (which is what his degree is in). It's amazing how that good will actually motivated him to keep up the hard work.

Even though most intern work in Hollywood is relatively easy on the labor front, complaining about fetching coffee is really a FIRST WORLD PROBLEM.

It's definitely a Catch 22 thing. That's for sure, and I still don't know what i think about it. Just my initial thoughts.

Dan Williams said...

I agree with Jnow that the "coffee issue" is a Catch-22.

If you fetch it for somebody, it is demeaning and they won't treat you with respect. If you don't, you might lose your internship. So do you "suck it up" and just get it, and suffer the disrepect so that you'll progress in other ways in the industry?

All I can conclude is that NOBODY likes having to get somebody else's coffee. So I would cheer anybody on who stands up and introduces the coffee-maker to whomever. But it's a judgment call. It depends, I guess, on the persons involved.

But I would like the public debate about "fetching coffee" to conclude that it should never be required of interns. They are there to learn the business not to cater to the egos involved, in my opinion.

Amanda said...

A lot of people are focusing on the indignity of fetching coffee...but the real issue is the legality of fetching coffee without getting paid.

On paper, it seems obvious that an internship that only involves fetching coffee does not legally qualify as an internship. Shouldn't these companies just hire assistants? If people are getting paid, it's a different story. Your job is to get coffee, or do various other menial tasks. Too bad. The end. But should these companies get free assistants?

In practice, things gets more complicated, especially since this business so competitive. Two people can stand up and refuse to fetch coffee for free - but they could easily be replaced by more willing interns...and people want so badly to work in Hollywood that they will do anything to be noticed, and to avoid being branded as "difficult."

I think there are also some grey areas. If you're fetching coffee 4 days a week but learning valuable knowledge 1 day a week, is the internship legal? Also, is simply being on the set of a film - even if no one is really explaining anything to you - educational?

Like many people, I did internships without really thinking about their legality - I simply accepted internships as a necessary step on my career path. I'll be interested to see if the courts will attempt to change that way of thinking.

Katie said...

The issue at hand is that the entertainment industry is incredibly competitive, and there are just too many people that are *willing* to intern for free. And the fact is that getting people's coffee and printing scripts, while yes it's grunt work, it also means that interns have very little responsibility. The benefit of internships is the idea that you get a front seat to see what really goes on in the job you (think) you want, before being promoted to the coveted jobs in the industry where you're held accountable for everything. You also make contacts in the industry, which is half of this business - knowing people. I did have two internships that were unpaid, and while it sucked at the time, I am definitely thankful for the contacts I made and the things I learned in the workplace.

That being said, I wish I had been paid at the time - it would have made my life a lot easier. I also see where everyone's coming from with the idea that this keeps the lower class from being able to work in the business and it promotes nepotism. My issue is with people that feel entitled when there are so many others that are hard-working and willing to do anything to make it in the industry. Regarding the coffee issue, I still fetch coffee for my boss, and I've been working in TV for over 5 years now. It's kind of the nature of the business.

amy quick parrish said...
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Dan Williams said...

I agree with you, Amanda, that the courts will decide what responsibilities an intern is legally to do and what is out-of-bounds, and it is going to be interesting.

Way back, exec's had secretaries who did whatever they were told. When computers arrived along with spreadsheets and work processing, the social attitudes changed. It became: "Do you own work."

I would love to see social attitudes advance to the point where it is automatic for persons to get their own coffee. But I guess we are not quite there yet. So if it isn't a big deal, I guess it is okay to get the coffee.

Give Me Some Skins said...
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Give Me Some Skins said...

This is great. Now there will NEVER be interns on movies. These people ruined it. If you are lucky enough to get an internship on a Major Motion Picture, you should be glad to get coffee. I started as an intern of a film. All I did was make coffee and file. Then guess what happened? They gave me MORE THINGS TO DO.. Then they taught me things, etc, etc. This is the way the world works. On a film, getting coffee and taking lunch orders are VERY IMPORTANT JOBS. People who are in the industry for YEARS do these tasks. Paid people do these all the time. So guess what, IT'S WHAT YOU'D BE DOING IF YOU WERE PAID, YOU IDIOTS. If you can't do that right (yes, it's a skill, taking a lunch order, double checking the order BEFORE you leave the restaurant, etc) then you are not detailed orientated enough to do OTHER tasks. Maybe, just maybe, if they decided to do the job that was handed to them, then maybe, just maybe, someone might have taught them else. What a lot of people FAIL to understand is a lot of filmmaking is boring. Hurry up and wait. Fortunately, for them, they found that out right away.

Biostudent said...

Good for them. Interns are supposed to provide free or chap labor in exchange for relevant work experience. Fetching coffee is not relevant work experience. The fact that it has been going on for years doesn't mean it's ethical or legal. If employers want people to do grunt work, they should pay them for it.