There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

A while back, news came out that Fox Searchlight was being sued by two former interns who had worked on the film Black Swan, claiming they should've been paid for work they did on set. On June 11th, the judge ruled in their favor. Fox Searchlight is appealing the decision, but still, this is big news. Pro Publica has a write up here. In order to qualify as unpaid, interns aren't supposed to displace paid employees, their experience must be primarily educational, and the company can't derive any immediate advantage from their work, among other things. Very few actually meet these requirements.[ref] I should state that I've completed several internships myself, and found them to be largely positive experiences. I'm not singling anyone out here. [/ref]

The entertainment industry has been using interns for decades, but they've become a larger part of the economy, especially since the Recession, as employers are reluctant to hire new workers or invest in potential ones. Interns become free labor for simple tasks. Unpaid labor is especially appealing to filmmakers because so much of our work is speculative- a movie has to be finished before any money is made back.

Unpaid internships are in dicey territory, legally and ethically. Internships aren’t auditions for regular jobs- they rarely if ever, turn into a paid position.[ref] Even if it did, why does it take an entire college semester to determine if someone is worth being paid?[/ref] They exacerbate an already unequal relationship between business and labor. Consider a college student whose only class is their internship: They are literally paying for the privilege of working for free.[ref]Is that not demented?[/ref] Unpaid interns also have to be people who can afford not to be paid for several months. This would be less of a problem if all interns were paid something, even minimum wage.[ref]Which is not enough to live on, but that's another issue.[/ref]

Most defenses of these internships that I've seen run something along the lines of, "They made a choice to work for free," or "That's just how it is. You've got to pay your dues." Consider me unconvinced. An unpaid internship is not a choice when it's a degree requirement or increasingly seen as a necessary step to start a career. And just because it's been done for decades doesn't make it right.

"But paying interns would be too expensive."[ref]Businesses paying their interns would also help stimulate the economy, helping to bring unemployment down and increasing returns in the long run. [/ref] I admit, requiring interns to be paid might make some companies decide not to hire any. But if you're giving an established movie star several million dollars, why not take a tiny percentage and use it for the interns?[ref] I've worked for free on film projects, and will probably ask others to work for free on my own in the future. But there's a difference between me asking for volunteers and Fox Searchlight. The studio has resources I don't. [/ref] "It's just not in my business's interest!" Neither was taking children out of coal mines, or forcing companies to abide by safety regulations. Still the right thing to do.

In this letter to The New York Times, casting director Ilene Starger complains of interns who consider certain tasks menial, even when they're vital to running her business. Even Ms. Starger has to take out the trash sometimes. My point isn't that this work is beneath anyone, but that it is work. People deserve to be paid for work they perform. And if Ms. Starger takes out the trash, she'll be paid for her time, but her intern wouldn't be.

The educational value of an unpaid internship is not worth more than $7.25 an hour. I agree that there is something to be learned doing unglamorous but necessary tasks like sorting the mail, it's just not the sort of industry-specific information I expect from an internship.

And I think Ms. Starger would agree with me that there are no small parts, only small actors. A camera might come in several parts: the lens, the body, the battery, the recording medium. If any of those parts fails, the whole thing won't work. If the lowly production assistant doesn't get back with a new pack of AA's for the Tascam, your whole shoot could grind to a halt.

If interns are learning about these boring but important jobs by performing them, we should demonstrate their importance by compensating their time and labor. The company that hired them is obviously gaining an "immediate advantage." The interns should as well.