Unpaid interns take Hollywood to court

It’s not quite “Revenge of the Nerds,” but it still might make a good movie: “Attack of the Unpaid Interns.”

Former interns for the 2010 movie “Black Swan” have brought a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures and units of Fox Entertainment Group. They are demanding back pay, damages and a court order prohibiting the studio from using unpaid interns. A win for the plaintiffs could bring down the long-standing and widespread movie industry practice of exploiting lowly assistants who, for the sake of experience and job contacts, are willing to work for free.

Eric Glatt is a lead plaintiff in the suit. As a Sunday L.A. Times story reported, Glatt traded a $95,000-a-year insurance company desk job for an internship with “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky in which he ran errands to procure scented candles, a hypoallergenic pillow and the perfect tea for the director. Apparently, diligent performance of these menial tasks did not open up doors in Hollywood for Glatt.

The lawsuit turns on a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act that stipulates unpaid internships must be of more benefit to the intern than to the employer. That is an interesting point of contention. It is true that many successful players in the film industry got their start as unpaid minions -- buttressing the studio’s insistence that the internships do pay off down the line. But it is also true that much of the work the interns perform -- filling gas tanks, fetching lunch, manning copying machines -- has mostly to do with serving the whims of the boss.

Back in the mid-1970s, when I was in college, I had two newspaper internships. My duties were directly related to journalism. The newspapers benefited because they got my work product, raw as it may have been, but I benefited even more. For one of the internships, I received academic credit. Both were key experiences that led to my first job and all that has happened since. 

For both internships, I got paid -- not a great amount, but enough to keep me afloat financially and make me feel like I was worth something. 

These days, that is far less common. As students have gotten more desperate in their search for jobs, employers have gotten cheaper. Hollywood studios and production companies are hardly alone in this. Annually, about half a million interns work without pay, allowing American businesses to save hundreds of millions of dollars, according to one researcher. Even if this works out well for some of the interns, it still is a raw deal and would seem to favor young people from affluent families who can afford to work without compensation. 

Several big studios, including Sony, Disney, Paramount and Warner Brothers, do pay their interns. It seems ridiculous and miserly for any business not to do the same. Given the gobs of money spent on making movies, it is unlikely production will be brought to a halt if the kid delivering the coffee and answering the phones gets a tiny cut of the deal.

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