Two Black Swan Interns Sue Studio, Misunderstand Concept of “Intern”

Senior Editor
09.30.11 16 Comments

You’d think being an intern on Black Swan would be an incredible experience, like getting to judge a pussy-eating contest, but more artsy. …Huh. That sounded much less coarse in my head. Anyway, sadly, according a lawsuit filed by two former interns in a federal court in Manhattan Wednesday, it sounds more like a terrifying brush with living hell, where the damned perform sisyphean tasks like “making coffee” and “taking lunch orders,” while the demons dance around, watching Two and Half Men reruns.

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.

Whoa, being rich and well connected helps you land better jobs? Someone call the Duh police.

One plaintiff, Alex Footman, a 2009 Wesleyan graduate who majored in film studies, said he had worked as a production intern on “Black Swan” in New York from October 2009 to February 2010.
He said his responsibilities included preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.
“The only thing I learned on this internship was to be more picky in choosing employment opportunities,” Mr. Footman, 24, said in an interview.

“‘Black Swan’ had more than $300 million in revenues. If they paid us, it wouldn’t make a big difference to them, but it would make a huge difference to us.”
Fox Searchlight acted illegally, the lawsuit asserts, because the company did not meet the federal labor department’s criteria for unpaid internships. Those criteria require that the position benefit the intern, that the intern not displace regular employees, that the training received be similar to what would be given in an educational institution and that the employer derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities.
The other named plaintiff, Eric Glatt, 42, who has an M.B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, was an accounting intern for “Black Swan.” He prepared documents for purchase orders and petty cash, traveled to the set to obtain signatures on documents and created spreadsheets to track missing information in employee personnel file.
Mr. Glatt, who had been working at A.I.G. training new employees, said he took the position because he wanted to move into the film industry.
“When I started looking for opportunities in the industry, I saw that most people accept an ugly trade-off,” he said. “If you want to get your foot in the door on a studio picture, you have to suck it up and do an unpaid internship.”

They’ve got a point in that the film industry, like most other industries, have long been using unpaid interns to do the work of paid employees, and just because it’s standard practice doesn’t necessarily make it right. That said, it’s a film set. What did you think you were going to be doing? Taking light meter readings off Mila Kunis’ pubic mound? You learned what most people who work on film sets actually do, and surprise, it sucks. There’s a lot less discussion of Godard and a lot more carrying sandbags around so the lights don’t fall on people. I’ve worked on those sets. There are at least 10 people for every two actual jobs, and everyone else just makes up stuff to do so it looks like they’re working. One of my jobs on an informercial set was to stand near the grip truck so no one would steal anything, because they didn’t want to waste valuable time locking and unlocking it. I was a human truck lock. For three 12-hour days. Let’s revisit the money quote:

“The only thing I learned on this internship was to be more picky in choosing employment opportunities,” Mr. Footman, 24, said in an interview. [NYTimes]

And that, my friend, is the most important lesson of all.

[that banner picture came from this post, in case you forgot]

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