Why The BLACK SWAN Intern Lawsuit is a Win-Win for Hollywood and Students

Internships have become ubiquitous across industries now, but have always been a staple in Hollywood. The studios have interns do everything from grab coffee, move props, drive paperwork across town, sit in on meetings, roll calls, and anything in between. It can be a worthwhile experience or it can be a complete waste of time. The recent Black Swan lawsuit found the court ruling in favor of interns Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, which could lead to a tidal wave of change in the industry as we know it.

Judge William H. Pauley III found that they were doing tasks too similar to what a paid employee would be doing and it didn’t fall under the Department of Labor’s definition of an internship. A DOL-approved internship functions more like vocational training that slave labor. Interns should be learning on the job, but not performing duties that are actually productive for the company’s bottom line or finished product. This applies to unpaid internships and even offering college credit does not negate any of these standards.

So what does this mean for the film industry as we know it? The lower echelons of grunt work runs off the free work of college students and the recently graduated. Should this lawsuit set a precedent for the film industry, that means big change is coming.

That’s what Glatt thinks will happen and I am prone to agree with what he had to say:

“I’m absolutely thrilled. I hope that this sends a very loud and clear message to employers and to students doing these internships, and to the colleges that are cooperating in creating this large pool of free labor — for most for-profit employers, this is illegal. It shouldn’t be up to the least powerful person in the arrangement to have to bring a lawsuit to stop this.”

Why Hollywood Wins

Hollywood films will face more regulated internships and labor scrutiny, which some could see as a pretty big negative. It could raise the cost of production and slow down hiring since everyone will have to be a real employee instead of just plucking a chump off a college campus. However, after a brief period of upheaval, I do think it will be beneficial in the long run.

It’s common knowledge that rich, old white men have long dominated Hollywood’s positions of power.It’s largely because of the unpaid internship and “who you know” mentality that has kept it this way. Without means to help students who can’t afford to work for free, the system will continue as it is and weed out prospective low-income and minority workers who have the passion but not the means to work for free. I’ve seen internships that ask for 40+ hours a week with no pay, but you get perks like free lunch, access to exclusive meetings with “top talent” and a letter of recommendation. Students who are paying their way through school themselves cannot allocate those hours, plus keep up with their course work, and land a job that actually pays their bills. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

Because of this systemic bias against students who struggle, Hollywood has remained largely the same demographic since the 1980s despite the tidal wave of change we’ve seen since then. The most recent data shows that only 9% of all 2010-2011 pilots had minority writers and 24% had women writers. 

The lawsuit will force studios to re-evaluate their hiring practices and entry-level positions. Menial tasks previously handled by the privileged few will be replaced by young employees from all walks of life. This influx of new blood could filter in new perspectives and ideas into the industry. We have a major problem of female representation in blockbusters and the common agreed upon cure is to have more women behind the camera as well. The same goes for other minorities and low income stories.

Why Students Win

This is more obvious a win for students and low income workers interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. Now they’ll be able to pursue their dreams while making a livable wage. As an alumni of USC, I know my fair share of internship horror stories and have even lived my own.

I interned with a production company and basically worked as a receptionist for the summer. This “internship” had me rolling calls, reading terrible scripts that were never going to be made in to movies, and all the while working at a local Blockbuster to pay for the gas to get from the San Fernando Valley to Marina Del Rey and the $2000 college credit to work for free. It was costing me more to work an internship than if I just worked retail during the summer months. And while I got a line on my resume, I didn’t get much else out of this internship.

That’s not to say all internships are bad and should be abolished. In fact, the summer after that I worked a fantastic internship with WB in a paid internship program specifically looking for students with a different perspective – low-income and/or minorities who could provide a fresh perspective for the industry. What seperates this from the other one is that I was paid $10/hour, didn’t have to pay for college credit, and actually felt like I was learning the skills of the trade. This is how internships should be. They should be beneficial for the students without exploiting them, something many internship programs haven’t been able to or willing to implement.

This lawsuit will force the industry to look at their internship programs and either scrap them for entry-level positions or re-focus them so that when a student pays for college credit, they’re actually learning at the position. They’ll be able to start at the bottom and work their way up, as one should according to the American Dream, but not have to starve and live out of a car while on that bottom wrung.

After a brief period of upheaval, I truly believe that the entertainment industry will be better off without the reliance on the internship program as we know it today. It will allow a more diverse student body/entry-level worker to infiltrate the field and eventually work their way up the ranks to create new, dynamic content instead of the recycled and tired landscape we’re experiencing now.

Do you think the internship lawsuit will have a positive or negative effect on the industry? Sound off in the comments!

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The Author

Kristal Bailey

Kristal Bailey

With a soft spot for movies that fall into the “So Bad They’re Good” category, Kristal Bailey regularly watches B-movies, 80s comedies, and sci-fi from the 50s and 60s. She also refuses to grow up if that means she has to hide her love for Disney and Pixar films.

In her free time, she enjoys reading graphic novels or books that are soon to be turned into movies, watching hours and hours of television, and spending way too much time on Twitter.