Two former interns who put in work on Black Swan are suing Fox Searchlight Pictures for unfairly using unpaid internships as labour during the film’s production. The lawsuit states:
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. In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees.
In US employment law, internships have to meet certain educational standards in order to qualify as non-compensated employment. Alex Footman, a production intern, maintains that during his time at the studio, like every bad parody of an internship you’ve ever seen on a sub-par sitcom, he was mainly making coffee, serving coffee and lunch, and taking out the trash. Yes, apparently big-studio film production is actually as close to Tropic Thunder as we suspected, maybe with a little Devil Wears Prada thrown in there, depending on the director.
Fox Searchlight’s response thus far has been kind of unsatisfying:
We just learned of this litigation and have not had a chance to review it so we cannot make any comment at this time.
Have to say though, the problem with film, hell, the problem with most creative fields, is that a) paid work depends heavily on who you know, b) getting a paid position is so competitive that people are willing to jump through hoops just on the off-chance that an unpaid internship might lead to a vital connection and c) film is one of those dream jobs where you’ll always find people willing to do anything to get a bit of an edge, even if that means roughing it for a few years. Someone’s always going to be undercutting the lowest common denominator in an attempt to get on board, which can make industry-wide change difficult. After all, studios like profits, especially big profits, and like any business they’ll go for whatever cost-cutting measures are available. It’s going to take one big change of heart (kind of like how the UK fashion industry is banning models under 16) to get things going in a different direction.
However, it looks like the two beleaguered interns aren’t deterred. Footman said:
I hope this case will hold the industry to a higher standard and will get rid of this practice. I also hope it will educate other people in my position about what the law states about internships.
He and the other plaintiff may not have a future in the tiny, incestuous film production industry, but it’ll be interesting to see if bringing some attention to the problem makes a few changes in the long run.
Do you think film studios are making enough profit to stop using unpaid labour? Or are unpaid internships just a traditional rite of passage for entering creative fields? And what do you think this is going to mean for film industry production standards? Share your thoughts here.
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