Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Oh, Those Pesky Interns...

This may be old news by now (hey, I've been busy) but I stumbled upon this article the other day and it piqued my interest.

Basically, two "unpaid interns" who worked on the movie Black Swan are suing Fox Searchlight for unfair labor practices. From the article:
“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.” 
Some of the tasks the interns were asked to do included making coffee and ordering lunch.

I gotta admit, I'm kinda torn on this one.

On the one hand, I'm all for getting paid for your work. Obviously.

But on the other hand, I kind of get the feeling that these guys don't really get how things work and/or are throwing a hissy fit because the experience wasn't what they were expecting. I mean, it's an unpaid internship. You're supposed to get college credit. If they didn't, then that's a different conversation.

It's also an internship. A position that's widely understood in this industry as being below P.A. level, which is (no offense) pretty low to begin with. So these guys should've expected to run the occasional errand, make coffee or pick up lunch. And in exchange for such "grunt work," they get to work on a major motion picture. They get to put "Fox Searchlight" on their resume. They get to brag to their family and friends that they "worked" with Natalie Portman. And even more importantly, they see how the business works firsthand (because let's face it, film school does a poor job of this) and get the opportunity to meet new people who might further their careers.

Sure, I guess if they're doing work, the company could afford to pay them minimum wage. But you know what? If the company was putting them on payroll, they might as well just hire another P.A. The way I see it, interns are the ones who come in without any experience at all. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who has an issue with being paid the same as the guy with less experience.

Also from the article:
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.
Given those guidelines and the description of the tasks the interns were asked to do (basically, P.A. work), then yeah, I'd say they have the makings of a lawsuit there. But at the same time, I'm confused by the guidelines themselves. What's the point of having an intern if the company doesn't benefit from it? If I was an employer, I'd see no advantage of having a snot nosed kid hang around me all day, asking me questions and trying to learn "the biz" if he didn't at least bring me a cup of coffee now and then.

When I was in college, you bet your ass I had unpaid internships. And yeah, I answered phones, made coffee runs, took lunch orders and filed a bunch of stuff. Does this mean I was taken advantage of? Yeah. Was I aware of it at the time? Yeah. Did I complain? No. Because I like to think I was taking advantage of the situation as much as it was taking advantage of me. I learned everything I could at my internships. I asked questions (at appropriate times, of course). I made great contacts (not every one was able to get me anywhere, but it was still a start. There are some that I still keep in touch with). I even gained a few office supplies.

I guess another thing that rubs me the wrong way about this whole thing is what one of the plaintiffs say:
“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.” 
First off, if you're starting out in the film business, there's no such thing as being "picky in choosing employment opportunities." Hollywood has a loooooooooooooong line of people outside her door, just waiting for a chance to stick their foot in. If you really wanted to work in this business, you take any and every opportunity you can get if you're just starting out. Save the being picky part for when you have more than one internship under your belt.

And secondly, "Nobody knows anything." The fact that the movie made that much money is moot. If you're on a production, there's no telling if the movie's going to be the next big thing or the next big flop. So it's kind of tacky in my opinion to say, "Well, they ended up making a lot of money, so now I'm saying they should've paid me." Unless, of course, they signed up for back end points, which again, is an entirely different conversation.

But I do agree that if Fox Searchlight had given them something, it would've made a difference. In this business, a little respect goes a long way.

Like I said, I'm kinda torn on this one.


Nathan said...

The whole "internship" thing has bothered me for years. On the one hand, it's been ages since I worked anywhere that would take on interns unless they were getting college credit for it, so there's always been a "benefit" to the intern (in addition to actually getting some low-level experience). On the other hand, if you read the Labor Dept.s regulations on internships, you'll find that it makes no sense at all. The intern's work can't provide the employer any immediate benefit? WTF?

I can't think of a single thing you could have the kid do if you're living by that rule. And honestly, no matter what you have them do, they're taking work from potential P.A.'s.

That being said, I've never heard of an Accounting Intern.

Michael Taylor said...

I too have long been puzzled by the notion of internships -- and those rules make no sense at all.

From my perspective, these "Black Swan" interns display an astonishing degree of obliviousness to the realities of the Industry, and seem possessed by a monumental and entirely unearned sense of entitlement.

This reminds me of the assistant who got a job in the writer's room of "Friends," then quit in a huff and sued the show when it turned out the writers -- male and female -- made lots of crude sexual comments and jokes during the process of crafting the scripts. Given the nature of the communal creative process -- and that the show was a comedy about young people and sexuality -- what did she expect?

Not only will this lawsuit blunt the film industry career prospects of those Black Swan interns, it will likely sour the executives and production staff involved on using interns in the future -- which means other young people will be denied a chance to get an up-close look at the film biz.

Ours is a give-and-take world, kids -- and you don't get to take until you give.

So many people unclear on the concept...

A.J. said...

Nathan - I agree. If the company can't even get a cup of coffee out of it, then why even bother with having an intern? And even more baffling than the "no immediate benefit" part is the "training received be similar to what would be given in an educational institution" part. If you want something similar to school, then just take another class. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Assign you homework?

Michael - I think you hit it on the head. While I'm not exactly for unpaid labor, getting the short end of the stick sometimes is very much a part of life, and definitely part of this industry. It sounds like these kids (the "Friends" writer's assistant included) got a harsh dose of reality and didn't like what they saw.

JD said...

What exactly does making coffee or running errands, prepare you for? The production didn't have to hire (and pay) a PA, but couldn't pay these guys minimum wage. Not everybody that "interns" is in school and can receive college credit for time worked.

A.J. said...

JD - Making coffee and running errands doesn't really prepare you for anything but making coffee and running errands. But in my opinion, making coffee and running errands is an okay trade for getting the opportunity to get your foot in the door.

If you can't get school credit for an internship, you can't figure out a way to work for "free," or you can't get hired as a P.A. because you have no prior experience, well, I guess that's just the way the cookie crumbles.

As I said before, I'm not for or against the lawsuit. I'm just stating my (probably confusing) opinion on it.

Nick said...

I don't understand what's so hard to understand here. Regardless of what you think an internship is, there is a law on the books that describes exactly what it is. If a business operates outside of that law, it faces liability.

It doesn't matter what everybody else is doing. It doesn't matter how many people are waiting in line outside for the job. It doesn't matter how low the budget is, or anything else.

Now, if you are business owner and would like to be able to not pay your employees, you can petition congress to have the law changed. You can work with your attorney to find a loophole. But until that happens you have to follow the law, or expose yourself to liability.

Those are the facts.

Now, in my opinion, I find this idea that wanting to be paid for work constitutes an unwarranted sense of entitlement very disturbing.

And as far as the studio execs not using interns after this incident, they will have to have somebody do the work, because eventually the people doing it now will either quit, die or retire. If no new people are hired, the industry will collapse. But then again, maybe if it can't afford to pay its employees, a collapse and subsequent restructuring might be in order.

A.J. said...

Nick - I agree. If that's the definition of an internship, then Fox Searchlight broke the law. What I'm saying (and I think Nathan agrees) is that the definition is ludicrous. Under that definition, there's nothing an intern can do that won't put the company in jeopardy of a lawsuit.

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