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The Black Swan Interns

Last week, the New York Times reported:

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.

A friend of mine shot me an email, asking, “How does the Anonymous PA feel about this?”

Where to begin!? This case touches on a number of issues that I’ve written about.

  1. Alex Footman, the co-plaintiff in the case, was a recent grad when he took the “Black Swan” gig.
  2. Eric Glatt, the other co-plaintiff, was a forty-two-year old MBA when he took the job. It sounds like the Accounting Department took a shot on a forty-two-year-old, and how does he repay them? With a lawsuit.
  3. The unpaid Hollywood internship is nothing new. I’m sure Douglas Fairbanks had unpaid interns on his movies.
  4. If they had played their cards right, they should’ve been able to parlay their unpaid internships into paid jobs. The fact that they didn’t leads me to one of two conclusions… a) They were bad at their jobs or b) They were assholes.

Considering that these two showclowns were resourceful enough to find a lawyer and file a lawsuit, I’ve got to think that they’re smart and somewhat capable. So I think they were probably difficult to work with and self-righteous – horrible traits in a PA.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending the studios here. Unpaid internships are exploitative, sure, but if these guys wanted to work some place where their rights are respected and they’re paid fairly for their work, they should’ve run for Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Candyland.

To all aspiring PAs out there, I’m not sure how much longer unpaid internships will be around, so consider yourself lucky (I suppose). But today’s battle over unpaid internships will be some other battle tomorrow. The moral of the story, if I could impart one, is that you’ve got to play by the same rules that everybody else did if you want to win the game.

Natalie vs. Natalie
"I just want to be perfect."
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18 Responses

  1. Having worked as an intern/PA in the TV industry for the past few years, I often wholeheartedly agree with the things written on this site. But I really have to take issue with the comment that

    “If they had played their cards right, they should’ve been able to parlay their unpaid internships into paid jobs. The fact that they didn’t leads me to one of two conclusions… a) They were bad at their jobs or b) They were assholes.”

    Anonymous, you know as well as I do that a lot of jobs just are not there, even for nice people who are great at what they do. I’ve worked a number of internships and jobs where I’ve kept my head down, gone about my work, and had writers and producers tell me (yes, seemingly genuinely) how great and invaluable I was, only to be let go at the end of the season.

      1. In a perfect world, ~necessary~ intren expenses would be covered by tuition costs or government overall. I’m sure some would take advantage of this in the wrong fashion so I’d vote for some form of receipt submission to prove you’re actually paying $__ for the certain expenses if they question you.I was lucky enough to gain an intrenship in my home area so I could remain living at home but still work in an industry I enjoyed. I did miss gaining a paycheck though.

  2. Hi all,

    I came across this thread after seeing a link to my site. Thanks for reading my blog. I thought I should mention that there is a union that coordinators can join: http://www.ialocal871.org/

    If you read my blog I was a former IA member with The Animation Guild. I think the most important feature to the union is it’s health insurance. It can cover you and your family in between gigs. I was able to get almost 18 months of free insurance after I left a union gig. It’s really good.

    Soldier On.

    1. I like the idea of internships duirng the course year. In my PR class we had a mandatory internship from March-April, which is still a normal study period. This allowed people who were on OSAP and private loans (the students who normally couldn’t afford an unpaid internship) to have the opportunity to take an internship.Due to their public and private funds, they had the means to go to Toronto, Ottawa etc. and get the experience/connections from an internship.Otherwise, yes unpaid internships are a barrier to people who have the skills and want to move up in income or their careers. Unfortunately, I think some private industries prefer to have this barrier in place.Troy Stewart (@troyvstew)

  3. Yes, Bob, unpaid work does hurt everybody. But on a big budget movie or series, these positions are frequently given only to be nice. They are paying PAs, they don’t need anymore PAs, but if somebody wants to come and learn they can come on as an intern. It’s not like Black Swan took someone and made them 1st AC or function as a Production Coordinator. They took some people who had no experience and gave them an opportunity to meet some people and get some knowledge.

    For that reason, I believe that these two guys are on the boo-hoo end of the spectrum, while what you’re describing DOES happen. This is why there are unions, who for example have put pressure on productions not to hire Camera PAs as they are taking jobs from Digital Utility people. PAs don’t have a union, so they don’t get that kind of pull…

    1. No kidding soteimmes I feel like interns work harder during placements than they ever do in class settings!It’s nice that there’s a way around the internships for those who really have no way of affording it but a shame that financial constraints would force people to pass up such valuable experience. I teach at a local college and while it wasn’t a planned vocation, my first time was definitely baptism by fire. Having that kind of opportunity to learn, try things out and safely make mistakes would be a blessing!

  4. Daniel,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Short, but sweet. These guys are kind of idiots and they will probably make some money off this, but definitely not enough to hold them out the rest of their life because, like Daniel mentions, these two guys won’t be getting a job in the industry anytime soon. So, in regards to you, yes two less idiots to compete with

  5. Just reread my post and I feel it may have come off a bit harsh. I just wanted to clarify that I don’t mean to insult any of the frequenters of this blog, and if you feel that way then I apologize.

    I do, however, feel that this is a part of an incredibly important issue for us and for our industry. Nothing is constant or guaranteed here; we need to be able to work together to fight for every bit of ground that we have. Otherwise, we’ve got nothing but a collective race to the bottom.

  6. Sorry, but I have to call BS on this one.

    Unpaid internships where the intern isn’t getting genuinely getting compensated in terms of an education and where the production company can clearly foot what would amount to a ::miserly:: bill, hurt everyone.

    Everyone. Least of all the complaining student/recent grad.

    I interned at a reality company that had probably 90% of it’s transcription being done by interns. Not that transcribing is fun, but you know what? Those are paying entry level jobs for people like you (reader) that will never exist because of how prevalent and accepted unpaid labor is through the code ‘internship’. People working for free drags the labor market down for everyone, most of all for the people near the bottom (PA’s). I mean, why pay you a 100 bucks a day when they can find someone jumping to do it for free? By supporting this nonsense you are only screwing yourself.

    (and guess what the flip side of this is; if they win and these big companies are forced to stop using interns for things they should be hiring paid people for, the labor market for YOU just got a little bit wider and friendlier. Cause that’s more (paid) work at the bottom to go around to all of us.)

    That said, I’ve had some pretty cool unpaid internships where I learned a ton, met cool people and overall took a lot home with me from the experience (often working on productions that honestly could not afford to hire extra people), so I’m not knocking the concept as a whole, we just need to be able to spot and call BS when we see it; which from my vantage point seems to be exactly what the black swan people are doing. Power to them.

    PS: Enough of this ‘pay your dues ‘ crap. Everybody pays their dues, no need to hear it from you. Show some solidarity with your fellow cinema toiler. Get some intelligence and a little bit of foresight. Cause if you want to make this whole film thing a day job, then you have a responsibility make it a safe, workable place with real livable jobs and wages for everyone. Otherwise, this is just so much screwing around till you find a ‘real’ job.

    Also, read this guy’s blog, it’s pretty good; http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/about/

  7. People here in Atlanta work for free all the time, it’s the only way the independent film community thrives and it helps to develop connections in the industry. However, I understand if you’re working on a big-budget movie getting frustrated with the lack of pay.

    You knew the rules when you signed up for it. Nobody told you that you would get payed, if you don’t like it don’t take the job. I bet you got fed three meals a day, possibly some mileage or something. The film industry is rough on newcomers, you don’t like it find another career.

  8. It gives me some relief that there are at least 2 people who have less of a shot of getting a job in this town than me.

  9. What is incredible is there haven’t been more cases like this before. Some things the production companies get away with freely (UI dumping etc). Regardless of whether it should or shouldn’t be allowed, the unpaid internship is currently not allowed in most cases under law. Def going to be a case, if not this one, the next.

    1. You’ve covered the topic very well (and obcjltiveey, which isn’t always easy to do.) I’m also torn, but I do believe interns should be compensated for travel, at the very least. Also, just like we have a minimum wage, we should have a maximum internship duration.’ Unpaid internships shouldn’t exceed 8 weeks. After that, the internship should switch to a junior-level employment position. – @bar2cci

  10. I’m all for paying your dues and earning your next job in the industry, but from a purely legal standpoint, these guys may have a case. According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, in order to be legal an internship must have “similar training which would be given in an educational environment.” It also states that internships are also only legal “If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded.”

    Also, although I think this film was shot in New York, in California unpaid internships are only legal if they are being exchanged for college credit.

    Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve worked long hours at unpaid internships and definitely think these guys are being whiny little jackholes. We all pay our dues, and feel that the next guys should, too. But I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong in their intention, and I’m all for shedding a light on the fact that the system in place in the entertainment industry often breaks the law. Studios and production companies hire unpaid interns to do the work that paid PAs should do – work that directly benefits their company and would require a paid employee in any other industry (i.e. secretarial, janitorial work). Unpaid interns are supposed to be hired in a purely educational, training capacity. And they aren’t.

    I don’t think these guys are trying to get around the rules – they’re trying to point out that the rules suck. And they’re not wrong. I would never have the guts to do that – mostly because I want to keep on working.

  11. I had a discussion about this with an old film school classmate, where she defended the plaintiffs. Her claim is that although the system currently exists, they are within their right to try to change it for the better. Without knowing the two guys, it’s difficult to tell if they’re genuine with their displeasure, or were just badly surprised that they had to pay their dues that way.

    My question to TAPA then becomes, just because unpaid internships are part of “the game”, does that justify the way they exploit those trying to get into the industry?

    Let’s not forget all of the other hiring practices that were once considered fair game in the business world, that no longer are.

  12. I couldn’t agree more. Regardless of the fairness of unpaid internships (a practice that I don’t think anybody trying to get their foot in the door loves), these two took unpaid internships and then sued because they had to (gasp!) work for free.

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