Two interns for the Oscar-winning film Black Swan are suing Fox Searchlight, the studio that produced the movie. According to the suit, the studio “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.” The laws governing unpaid workers indicate that such interns are supposed to be learning something if they are unpaid, but these laws are often blatantly disregarded by companies who use unpaid interns to do anything from cleaning to admin work. In this lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that they did tasks like fetch coffee and clean offices, which can hardly be classified as hands-on film business training. Though the then-interns, Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, were not paid for their work, they allege that they and dozens of other unpaid interns contributed work that helped make the film a success. They are asking for some of the $300 million gross that Black Swan made around the world.
But do they have a case? In the New York Times‘ report about the lawsuit, they note that “movie companies have defended using unpaid interns, saying the internships are educational, highly coveted and an important way for young people to break into the industry. Lawyers for numerous companies say the Labor Department’s criteria are obsolete, adding that department officials rarely enforce the rules against unpaid internships.” Here’s one reason why those laws probably go un-enforced: if every unpaid intern in America was owed a salary, many companies would be bankrupted. Many industries, particularly creative ones like film where the number of available workers outnumbers the amount of available paying jobs, rely heavily on unpaid interns to fill in the gaps. It isn’t necessarily fair, but as long as there are people willing to work for free in exchange for the cachet of the entertainment industry or the access to celebrities, it will probably always happen. Take the case of Glatt – he is 42 years old and had worked as an accountant at IMG before deciding he wanted to switch industries. Because of the difficulty moving into the entertainment field, he accepted an unpaid internship in the accounting department at Black Swan. Unlike Footman, who was a college student when the film was made, Glatt doesn’t fit the stereotypical notion of an unpaid intern. Is the economy really so bad that a man with a well-paid, steady job would be willing to work for free in order to change career paths? Or was the lure of the entertainment industry so overwhelming that a man would be willing to give up his years of hard work and experience in order to transition into it?
Glatt’s story is an important component of this case. When the average person thinks of an intern, they envision a young person – perhaps still a student – who does grunt work in exchange for college credit and/or contacts in a particular industry. But the reality is that many interns and otherwise unpaid employees are people like Glatt who find themselves stuck in an unfulfilling career and willing to take a big risk – even if it means a cut in pay and status – in order to try out another profession. Though it seems absurd for a 20-something to complain about making coffee and doing admin work, it becomes more and more unsettling when a highly skilled worker is asked to do the same. Glatt’s presence in this lawsuit could turn the case from being merely “entitled intern whines about not getting what he wants” to a serious debate about the ethics of employing unpaid workers. It’s a discussion that sorely needs to be held, and this case might be a harbinger of further suits to come.