How Hollywood Internships are About to Change

By  · Published on June 13th, 2013

The unpaid internship is a well-established and pretty messed-up tradition in Hollywood. It’s also a crapshoot. What might look on paper like an opportunity to work under experienced professionals and hone your skills may turn out to be a summer of coffee runs and making close friends with copy machines. Exactly what constitutes an internship – and what justifies an unpaid internship – was the subject of a recent lawsuit between Fox Searchlight and two unpaid interns (Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman) who worked on the set of Darren Aronofsky’s critical and commercial darling Black Swan.

As reported in The New York Times, the interns won in a ruling that has important implications for the future of unpaid Hollywood internships.

Representatives for the interns argued that they essentially acted as unpaid labor, the bulk of their work consisting of menial errands typically covered by paid employees. As reported by business journalist Steven Greenhouse, “Like their counterparts in other industries, the interns took lunch orders, answered phones, arranged other employees’ travel plans, tracked purchase orders, took out the trash and assembled office furniture.” Representatives of 20th Century Fox argued that these are tasks regularly expected of interns industry-wide (which seems to be precisely the problem), and that many of the studio’s interns receive course credit as compensation. But Manhattan Federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III saw that there wasn’t enough of a valuable distinction between the required duties of, and work opportunities afforded to, regular employees and unpaid interns to justify not compensating the interns. Here’s the money quote from Greenhouse:

“Instead, the judge forcefully called for following criteria that the Department of Labor has laid out for unpaid internships. Those rules say unpaid internships should not be to the immediate advantage of the employer, the work must be similar to vocational training given in an educational environment, the experience must be for the benefit of the intern and the intern’s work must not displace that of regular employees.

Some employers have asserted that they have free rein not to pay interns as long as the interns are receiving college credit. But Judge Pauley said receiving academic credit was of little importance in determining whether interns should be paid.”

The “academic credit” argument also doesn’t consider the fact that students must pay for academic credit hours, and many scholarships don’t cover summer credits – the time of year that so many undergradute and graduate students work at internships. Thus, through compensation via academic credit, many interns ultimately have to pay up to thousands of dollars to work for free.

Essentially, what this ruling accomplishes is ensuring that studios and production companies don’t use a false promise of work experience and possible future employment to justify go-nowhere, exploitative, uncompensated labor. It’s also a necessary reminder about what an “internship” is for an industry in which unpaid internships are the norm. This is not to say that interns should never be expected to do coffee runs and write travel schedules, of course, but the ruling makes certain that the notion of an “internship” remains within the strict parameters of an apprentice-like opportunity geared towards professional experience. Sure, an internship is not a guarantee of future employment, but it’s quite difficult to network in even the most basic of ways (let alone learn about the production process) when one is relegated to a copy room for the majority of the work day.

As someone who has worked a fair share of unpaid film industry internships (from big studios to small production companies – the latter, in my experience, entailed both the sketchiest and the most worthwhile opportunities), this is undeniably good news.

Studios like Fox can easily create the illusion that an internship allows you to work in Hollywood’s epicenter, complete with a cavalcade of famous faces or industry hotshots that may walk down the hall at any moment. This ruling should give vulnerable interns at least some comfort in knowing that the work they’ll be practicing in some way resembles the promise of actual experience – or if it doesn’t, they have leverage through the court ruling to seek compensation.

According to the report, this case coincides with several other lawsuits brought about by interns in other corners of the media industry. The Charlie Rose Show, for instance, is giving back wages to 189 former unpaid interns. Certainly, these decisions will lead to fewer internships in the entertainment industry, but at least the ones that do exist will more closely resemble what an internship should be. And studios and production companies are hopefully realizing that, yes, even those college students they hire have labor rights.