Black Swan and the Ugly Ducklings

The film industry would be the first to call itself exclusive and cliquish. Yet many of the most talented and educated young people in this country are willing to fetch a half-caf no-foam latte (piping hot!) or pick up dry cleaning (the Rodarte dress, NOW!) in the hopes of getting a foot in the Hollywood door. Internships, mailroom jobs, or low level personal assistant-type work is where most insiders will tell you, you have to start. Michael Ovitz and David Geffen famously started their careers in the William Morris mailroom. The glory days of from-the-mailroom-to-the-boardroom may or may not be bygone, but for two interns, enough is enough. Two unpaid interns on the set of Black Swan filed a lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court this month, claiming that Fox Searchlight made them do menial tasks with no benefit to them. The interns are now demanding the unpaid wages, overtime pay, and damages for the labor violations.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently revised the Fair Labor standards for internships and now requires employers to either provide college credit with educational value or hire the intern as an employee with minimum wage and overtime pay. Even President Obama has weighed in on the internship and entry-level hiring crisis. The Black Swan lawsuit claims that Fox Searchlight neither paid wages nor provided educational value to the interns. The two former interns, seeking class action status as representatives of over one hundred Fox Searchlight interns, assert that Fox was able to keep their production costs at just $13 million with the use of unpaid interns. Alex Footman, a 2009 Wesleyan graduate and plaintiff in the suit, told the New York Times, “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.”

Some onlookers note that the plaintiffs have effectively “blacklisted” themselves from future Hollywood employment. This may or may not be true, because popular opinion seems to have shifted during this recession. According to many commenters on the Deadline Hollywood industry blog, the use of unpaid interns on the Black Swan set was deplorable because of unemployment rates. Perhaps the roles of unpaid interns could have been filled by individuals who were unemployed and in desperate need of that income. According to the labor department’s requirements, internships must be for the benefit of the intern and must not displace regular workers. Both “benefit” to the intern and “displacement” of full time staff are rather hard to define in the world of filmmaking.

Fox Searchlight maintains that the interns worked for Black Swan’s director Darren Aronofsky, not the studio. Either way, studios, producers, and directors large and small could not really function without troops of interns. Film studios like Fox, Disney, and Sony all have intern programs with clear educational value, but the “education” at a small private production company may not be quite the same. The benefits of the unpaid internship can be huge—real-word experience, networking, resume building, and rubbing elbows with who-I-want-to-be-someday. But sometimes the benefits can be very small. If the plaintiffs in the Black Swan suit succeed, what then?

How will movie companies change their behaviors toward unpaid interns, if at all? Are film crews today actually going to hire and pay the otherwise unemployed young people who would have been interns? Or are they going to make internships more “educational” as a result of the new legislation? Will companies hire fewer interns, and therefore put fewer young people with Hollywood dreams on the path to full employment? Will they stop asking their interns for half-caf no-foam lattes? (Probably not.) And in the context of low budget, arthouse movies like Black Swan, is the internship legislation just one more hurdle to getting original, experimental film into theatres? (Probably.) Especially in this recession, many interns would be quick to shine Natalie Portman’s ballet slippers for free one day, if it means a chance at producing movies… someday.


  1. This is one of those grey line issues that will be difficult to enforce. The problem is twofold: not only is it hard to define what legitimately useful/educational work is (as arguably it all contributes to some legitimate end, especially in the movie context where actors/actresses need to be coddled to ensure their performance), but it’s also hard to define what “unfair” is when many people would kill for the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of a movie shoot. Perhaps worse yet, this is all complicated by the rising number of unemployed and underemployed youth entering into higher education, resulting in a “buyer’s market” in internships that gives companies virtually unilateral control over the internships they provide. The way I see it, this is way too nebulous to pin down and fix.

    Realistically, I doubt legislation like this will fix much. In this crappy economy, businesses have the power to set the terms of jobs and internships — and naturally, they’re going to do it in any way they please, toeing the line of the law. The way to fix this sort of problem is to fix the economy and equalize power between job-seekers and job-providers.

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