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On the Merits of Internships

Last week, EMJ asked, regarding the Black Swan intern lawsuit:

Unpaid internships are part of “the game”, but 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.

I’ll start out by saying that the definition of an internship is kind of ridiculous. “No work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company.”

Really? Life works on incentives. Nobody does anything for free. If the company truly does not benefit from having an intern, they wouldn’t have interns. These kids have to do something to justify hanging around a film production all day.

There is a fine line between an internship and exploitation. The big difference, for me, is if the intern is doing so much work that the company doesn’t have to hire another production assistant (or even higher up crew positions). Craig’s List, Mandy.com, and even the UTA Joblist are littered with “internships” that are really PA jobs, or even grips, electrics, boom operators, and more.

But the Black Swan guys didn’t do any of that. Their “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.”

First of all, if you feel the need to separate “making coffee” into two separate tasks, you’re obviously not doing much with your time. To suggest they were being exploited is at best naive, if not completely disingenuous.

I’ve known plenty of interns who come in, make coffee, and then sit at the computer and check Facebook all day. I’m quite certain that’s what these guys did, and I have no sympathy for them.

But as for the unpaid PA positions out there, you’re never going to end that through law suits. There’s too many shady production companies out there, and if you sue one, six others will be formed to start exploiting tomorrow. Fox Searchlight is really the least of your worries.

The only way to combat that kind of abuse is to not take those jobs. Unfortunately, there’s always someone who will.

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4 Responses

  1. Hey there K.F.

    Yes, day rates rather than hourly are the standard pay for a PA, and $100 is pretty much average unless you’re the Key PA.

    It may seem counter-intuitive, but I tend to find the day pay is a better deal because it’s a full 8 hour guarantee. So, when I get called in on second unit and we pull a 4 hour day, I’m still getting paid the same.

  2. Hey TAPA,

    In my experience, even paid PA positions can be sketchy sometimes. I’ve worked a couple shows where the PAs get paid a flat day rate, no matter how many hours we work. Are these jobs I should not be taking? I am completely fine paying my dues, and the people who are hiring me tell me that $100/day is decent for a PA (I’m in a Tier III state), but at the end of the day (after wrap) it doesn’t sit right in my stomach. There’s always the concern that I won’t be called back if I make trouble, but at what point does standing up for myself take precedence?

  3. Without debating the right or wrong of internships (I was both one and have supervised interns) lawsuits will absolutely have an impact on this area of employment if they take off.

    There are a TON of underemployed lawyers in CA, and employment law in CA has historically been a goldmine. Secondly, a number of for-profit companies don’t even come close to the definition of an internship. The complete regs are on the DOL website.

    If this lawsuit succeeds be prepared for a flood of lawsuits on this issue as the back pay amounts are likely very substantial.

    What’s interesting to me is that I see far more bogus lawsuits around employment issues, this internship issues looks relatively clear cut in the interns favor on the legal side regardless of what people think the rules should be.

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