Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Regarding this whole "interns sue Fox Searchlight" situation

Have you heard about this whole "interns sue Fox Searchlight" situation? It's a really interesting story.

The basics are that two men - one Alex Footman (a 2009 Weslyan Grad who interned as a production PA) and one Eric Glatt (a 42-year-old with an MBA who interned in the film's accounting department) - are now suing Fox Searchlight with hopes of securing a class action law suit for their violation of labor laws with the use of unpaid workers on the film BLACK SWAN.

From The New York Times article on this whole ordeal: "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."

And to quote the law suit itself: “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.”

Interesting, right? And what's more interesting is that there's apparently been a backlash from college students and current interns who are frustrated that someone is raising this whole issue so publicly. Their opinion: leave it alone or we're all going to suffer because companies will stop offering internships, and then we'll never get our feet in the Hollywood door.

I listened to a radio interview with Eric Glatt (one of the plaintiffs) this morning on my drive to work. He made his case in three key points:
  • It is technically against the labor laws of the state of California to offer an unpaid internship that does not meet the standards outlined in the specific laws governing that kind of work relationship. I will admit that I did not know that and do not know those laws now, but here is a link where you and I can learn more.
  • Films, production companies and other Hollywood entities (and for that matter many industry outside LaLa Land) will not stop offering internships if they have to pay interns. As Glatt said in his interview, "they need someone to do the work." His point is that these interns are performing tasks that are critical to the final product of the given production or company. Their positions cannot be eliminated; they are literally making it possible for - in this case - the film to be completed, therefore they are directly contributing to the 300 million dollar profit made by BLACK SWAN. Given this struggling economy and the current unemployment rates, Glatt said, that is criminal.
  • Unpaid internships - specifically those in the entertainment industry - block hundreds of thousands of people young and old from access to the industry because they cannot afford to work for free. This point hits home for me because I was in that exact situation after graduating from college. I had student loan debt, I had zero dollars in my bank account, and I didn't have the luxury of living off my parents' dime. I had a strong desire to work in many areas of the media and entertainment world, but I simply could not afford to work for free. And so I took a job that did pay me and worked my way into this world through different channels. It took me a much, much longer time than it does many college grads who are supported by their parents until they land a paying job. So in Glatt's opinion, if more companies offered paid internships a more diverse group of people would have a chance to work in this industry.
So what do you think?

Should interns suck it up and do the free work because everyone has to pay their dues? Should labor laws be more specific about what counts as intern work and what doesn't? And will this make entry-level Hollywood jobs fewer and further between as studios and production companies cheap out on workers? This specific law suit is seeking class-action status for what the plaintiffs claim are over 100 unpaid interns on various Fox Searchlight productions. Would Fox really turn those 100 free workers into paid jobs or will they just make 50 people (or less...) do 100% of the work? And if so will it become even harder than it is now to get your foot in the TV and film industry door?


  1. Personally, I think unpaid internships are invaluable as much for the intern as for the company regardless of what actual work the intern is required to do. As anyone who has ever hired an assistant straight out of college or grad school or a different industry knows - they're NEVER ready. Even students who have studied film or producing don't understand the basic day to day ways in with the industry works, whether its the names of important people, the pace of a shoot, etc. If people new to the industry started an entry level job here, they'd most likely be fired and fired early. The system of unpaid internships is in place as much to benefit those that aren't ready for those first jobs, to train them - maybe they're not learning by doing but they should be learning by watching. I think if we got rid of unpaid internships the barrier to entry would eventually get even higher - it gives those who haven't had a job here yet a chance to get in, to learn, and to take the time they need so that when they get their first paid job here, they can do it well. Plus, internships are readily available to students IN school - get your experience then, while you have loans or parents to support you - so you can get that paid job and be ready for it once you graduate. If you're late to the game - figure out a way to make it work as so many have before you.

  2. I predict they'll lose this case. Even doing menial work still introduces you to how the business operates and how movies are really made. You see from the inside some of the nuts and bolts of the business, even it's just answering phones or fetching coffee.

    Plus it's a stepping stone, much like the cliched "mailroom job." Half the reason for being an intern is to get a foot in the door and either eventually be hired for a real gig, or else at least get a recommendation.

    These guys are naive. They probably thought being an intern meant the director was going to turn to them and say, "Hey, would one of you guys like to direct this next shot? What better way for you guys to learn than by doing?"

  3. @Anonymous and @RiffDog - totally agree w/ you that internships are an invaluable part of the pre-career experience, but what changes if the interns get paid minimum wage for the work they're doing? Is there something about NOT getting paid that makes the experience more valuable?

  4. As an undergrad working full-time to pay for rent, food, dog, insurance, and all the other responsibilities that many of my fellow students do not yet have to pay for by themselves, I find the pressure to take unpaid internships totally unfair and exploitative. I am struggling to keep a healthy balance of work, school, maintaining my health (eating well and exercise), maintaining some semblance of a social life and sleep. Where does an unpaid internship fit into all this? With a paid internship I could feasibly reduce my hours at my regular job...

    Here's another good article on the subject: http://www.alternet.org/news/152653/how_unpaid_internships_perpetuate_rampant_inequality_in_the_us/?page=entire

  5. They will most likely lose this case. I interned out in LA in the entertainment industry while still in college. I actually got hands-on experience in the industry besides doing the regular coffee and lunch fetching. However, there were only a few people that I went to college with that actually got jobs through these internships. When I graduated (May 2010) there were very few entry-level job openings in the entertainment/communications industry and I was even considering unpaid internships just get going in some direction. Many companies turned me down because I wasn't in college or because it was a "temporary" position aka. they didn't want to feel guilty about not having a job for me after I completed my internship "time."

    I think that the internships that I did complete in college were very valuable to showing how the industry worked but interns shouldn't just be a endless rotating cycle of "temporary assistants." Companies should hire interns as an investment to eventually hire them.