I think we found the plotline for “Horrible Bosses 2!” The New York Times reports that two former interns have filed a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight, claiming that their “employment” on the production of “Black Swan” constituted a violation of minimum wage and overtime laws. One plaintiff, Alex Footman, states his responsibilities “included preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.”
Yep, sounds like an internship all right.
The whole thing boils down to whether or not not paying someone to make your coffee constitutes breaking the law. As it turns out, there are federal rules about unpaid internships. The Times lists the criteria, which demand that:
“…the position benefit the intern, that the intern not displace regular employees, that the training received be similar to what would be given in an educational institution and that the employer derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities.”
If the plaintiffs can prove that their “Black Swan” internships broke those rules, they’ve got a case. I’m not a legal expert, but I’m not sure they do. I am something of an expert on internships, though, since I had plenty of them in my day. If Mr. Footman’s internship is illegal, then so are the vast majority of internships in the film business. Making coffee, ordering lunch, taking out the garbage, making deliveries, that’s what film internships are. In most cases, they’re degrading, boring, and soul-crushing (to read more about my own internship experiences, check out this piece I wrote a few years ago for The Village Voice.)
My advice to any current or future interns out there is two-fold: don’t stick around if you feel like you’re wasting your time, and don’t do something for free that other people around you are getting paid to do. For example, at one internship I had, I worked my butt off, and got lots of compliments and appreciation, but when a low-level paid position opened up at the company — a position that I had performed when the guy leaving the job was sick — I wasn’t even invited to apply. That’s when I knew it was time to leave. At another internship, I was invited to write script coverage, which are brief summaries and reviews of scripts that allow development executives to decide whether or not they want to hire screenwriters without actually reading their work. Again, I worked hard at it and was praised for my work. But then I noticed they were having me write coverage regularly without paying me the $50 a pop they gave their “professional” coverage writers. Not long after that, I pulled the ripcord.
Good internships do exist. I got my foot in the door at IFC through an internship, and even before I was getting paid to write for IFC.com — which didn’t take long — I was copy editing, pitching articles, and sitting in on editorial meetings. I never once made coffee and I never once fetched someone’s lunch. For every valuable internship, though, there’s five more looking to take advantage of the fact that so many people want to get a job in the movie industry that they’ll do anything to to make it a reality. Just remember: in the real world, garbage men are paid extra to clean up the trash, because it’s a crummy job no one wants to do.