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S&A 2013 Highlights: The Death Of The Internship

Features
by Darryl Wharton-Rigby
January 10, 2014 10:49 AM
26 Comments
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Editor's note: As 2014 begins, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published in 2013. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts, they will probably be new items. Here's the 20th of many. Happy New Year to you all! 

Last month a New York judge ruled against Fox Searchlight in a lawsuit brought against them by two interns who had worked on the feature film, “Black Swan.”  The judge in the case ruled that the interns were entitled to compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York labor law.  

For the record, I call this ruling – for lack of a better word – bullshit. This ruling is wrong on so many levels and will have a ripple effect not just through the entertainment industry but also on business as a whole. If this ruling is upheld after appeal, there will be adverse effects for all students trying to get a foot in the door, and the death of the internship as we know it…

… especially for African-American, Latino, and other minority groups.

The lawsuit in question states that the two students deserved to be compensated for their internship because the nature of work they did was the work of others who would be employed by the production, which they described as “ took lunch orders, answered phones, arranged other employees’ travel plans, tracked purchase orders, took out the trash and assembled office furniture.” 

They complained that they received no real benefit from their internship experience and should have been paid like regular employees.  

But I say … they were there to learn the ropes and earn school credit.  What else did they expect they would be doing?  Making deals?  Giving their opinion on the script? Negotiating Natalie Portman’s contract?  

I recently heard an interview with Eric Glatt on the radio program "The Business."  Mr. Glatt, who is now studying for a law degree, talks about how he was an older intern with nothing to lose by filing this lawsuit.  He calls these internships “wage theft.”  The thing he fails to realize is that his lawsuit is going to cause thousands of students to miss out on opportunities.  Instead of hiring people as he predicts, production companies are simply going to let internships go away. No producer wants to add another line item to the budget unnecessarily, nor court the chance of a possible lawsuit. 

Studios and producers are not going to go out of their way to bring in new blood, especially if they have to pay for it.

As a graduate student at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, I completed an internship at age 41 for Eleven Arts, a Japanese distribution and production company. 

While there, I answered phones, took out trash, watched films and gave feedback, assisted with translations, wrote press releases, booked airline tickets, posted fliers for upcoming films, and even delivered film prints to theatres.  I received course credit, which was all documented with my school’s internship office.  So after being on the writing staff of a major network television show (one of the most highly-acclaimed shows ever) AND making my own feature film, I still took an internship to earn my MFA. I came to the table with almost two decades of experience and I had no expectation of compensation.  I learned a lot, put a lot into it, and developed new skills in the process.  For me, it was a positive experience.

Internships for decades have been a rite of passage for many in the entertainment industry looking for an opportunity to learn about the business firsthand. I agree with the statement on the Chapman University website (my graduate school) that reads: “an internship can increase your understanding of a chosen field, enhance your academic experience, expand your network and provide you with a new perspective beyond the classroom.”   

There is a six-factor test by The Labor Department to determine whether an internship should be unpaid - employers are supposed to make sure that an internship is similar to what is given in an educational environment, be for the benefit of the intern, not displace regular employees, do work that is not of immediate advantage to the employer, not give any expectation of job, nor any understanding of entitlement to wages.  

This would be all well and good in an ideal world, but the reality is, if you are interning on a film production you are fortunate to be there, period.  They don’t need you as an extra body observing the inner working of the production.  They need folks who are going to get into the trenches and get their hands dirty otherwise you are wasting space.  So if asked to take a lunch order, take out trash, or even take a purchase order, do the job and make yourself indispensable. Prima donnas need not apply, young padawan.

At first blush, it seems as though the ruling in the Fox Searchlight case may have now opened the floodgates – just recently a group of interns with "Saturday Night Live," "Charlie Rose," Hearst Magazines, and MSNBC have all filed suits or class actions against those various entities.  If these rulings are upheld, many more companies will stop their internship programs and simply no longer participate, and more and more students seeking an opportunity to break in will no longer be afforded a shot.  

I shudder to think how this will impact government internships or the Congressional Page Program - more closed doors, especially for minority students who do not have access or contacts. 

As a friend and recent film school graduate, Gregory Goyins, said succinctly, “What they've done is shut one of the last remaining doorways that levels that playing field for everyone – by demanding to be paid in exchange for a body of unqualified work, they have destroyed a time-honored tradition, a rite of passage in our industry.“

As a college professor at Morgan State University, I wrote a few letters of recommendation for students seeking internships. They were pursuing an opportunity to learn more about their chosen crafts. It is often said students of color usually have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to break into non-traditional professions. Many of these students are not afraid to put in the work and look forward to internships as a pathway towards experience. If this ruling is upheld, I don’t know how many students will follow this and other career paths if they know breaking in just got that much harder - or damn near impossible.


Darryl Wharton-Rigby is an advisor, screenwriter, playwright, director, and professor. He taught at Morgan State University and has written for NBC, BET, and MTV. He wrote and directed the award-winning feature film "Detention". With more than 20 years in film, television, and theatre he embodies a wealth of knowledge in story development, pre-production, production, and post-production. He is working on two books, “Suspicious,” an anthology of stories about racial profiling and “The Lazy Filmmakers Guide: Creating Cinematic Capital,” which discusses independent filmmaking strategies with personal anecdotes. He currently lives in Japan and now working on a documentary, Don Doko Don: The Yamakiya Taiko Club Story, about a group of young drummers displaced due to high levels of radiation in their community from the failed nuclear plant. You can follow him on Twitter @whartonrigby.

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26 Comments

  • NotSureHowIFeelAboutThis | January 22, 2014 12:39 PMReply

    I don't think unpaid internships are a big deal, I've had several before being hired by one of the places I interned at, and I always learned something. However, if I'm 41 and still doing unpaid work, I will consider that a failure at life. It would be the equivalent of still living with my parents.

  • Rae Varner | January 10, 2014 10:48 PMReply

    How is taking lunch orders, "learning the ropes?"

  • QuestionsBeforeActions | January 10, 2014 11:32 AMReply

    Yes, this will cause a problem for those wishing to gain experience and build their resumes.

    But please understand that today, the majority of internships are used to benefit the company and exploit the intern under the guise of "industry experience." Often, these unpaid internships brag about connections and possible opportunities for applicants, only to leave them with nothing at the end. This would be fine, if it wasn't so common these days to see hard-working students with 7 or 8 internships on their resume, but no job or compensation to speak of. Yes, they chose to do these internships knowing the job economy, but they chose them as an investment in their career. These investments are drying up, and companies, even the smaller ones who can't afford to pay, need to take more responsibility and thought when using free labor, or it is SLAVERY.

  • JL | January 10, 2014 10:59 AMReply

    I agree - the author of this post is a complete tool with no clue how exploitive the business has become.

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • Miguel | July 29, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    Hi Darryl... for some reason your comment box won't post my response. So here is my response on our Movienomics.com blog. Thanks for opening this dialogue.

    http://movienomics.com/cost-of-hollywood-internships/

  • AK47 | July 15, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    The author of this article is an older person completing internships after already having years of actual paid experience and career success. Therefore, the author hasn't a clue as to how difficult it is for young people to get by in this new economy. For those of us in creative fields, it is more difficult than ever to even qualify as middle class. Author, you have what we need in order to survive, so we take experience wherever we can get it. But we also have something your lot desperately wants. Always two there are - a master and an apprentice. Tsk tsk, old padawan, for you have completely missed the point. Without the skill of today's youth to adapt quickly to ever-changing technology, a pattern we grew up with, our elders are at a loss. So, some of them exploit the 20 and even 30-somethings and call it a "rite of passage" - a passé statement at best and willful greed at worst. I have completed several internships, and none of them simply required me to take out the trash. All of them were multi-faceted and my assignments were matched to my skill. None of them paid well, but none of them were unpaid. Take heed, old padawan. Always in motion is the future, and we are your future.

  • Amy Thurlow | July 11, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    Except that internships don't level the playing field. Part of the problem is that real, paying jobs are being replaced by internships. Being a PA used to be an entry level job, now it takes years of experience and building connections to be able to get the coffee for someone. There are companies that have hoards of interns and no assistants. So, if you want to 'get your foot in the door', mommy and daddy or your credit card has to finance your unpaid work. Instead of leveling the playing field this creates a class bias where if you don't have the cash to be able to support being an unpaid intern, you can't make it in the industry.

    Just because you had one good experience, doesn't mean that your experience reflects the industry as a whole.

  • Troy | July 10, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    Did you creatives know that major college football consistently reviews better ratings and larger viewing audiences on Saturday afternoon than all most all prime time television. If college athletes were to receive proper credits for appearing in 10 live national broadcasts they would warrant executive like pay. However older people somehow believe their unvalauable formative years means that young people nowadays who generate wealth for establish power systems only akin to slave labor and sweat shops, that getting an education is better than being solvent. Your gonna die in debt so everybody after you should too. White kids suing greedy people means that black kids won't get to learn hard lesson. Here is a hard lesson Cam Newton generated more money for the state of Alabama than all the actors and films made there ever in one football season.

  • Terri | July 9, 2013 8:06 PMReply

    This from the Atlantic June 19 "The common defense of the unpaid internship is that, even if the role doesn't exactly pay, it will pay off eventually in the form of a job. Turns out, the data suggests that defense is wrong, at least when it comes to college students.

    For three years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has asked graduating seniors if they've received a job offer and if they've ever had either a paid or unpaid internship. And for three years, it's reached the same conclusion: Unpaid internships don't seem to give college kids much of a leg up when it comes time to look for employment.

    This year, NACE queried more than 9,200 seniors from February through the end of April. They found that 63.1 percent of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer. But only 37 percent of former unpaid interns could say the same -- a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned."

  • NO BRAINER | July 9, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    I agree. The ruling is horrible. Another hit for the movie industry.

  • Rik | July 9, 2013 5:19 PMReply

    I'm glad you're glad they won their lawsuit. umm, how is that going to lead to interns getting more REAL exposure to actual filmmaking? In an industry which routinely employs MBAs (with the skill and ability to Actually contribute something to a company) as Mailroome employees? Will an intern's worth magically be recognized now that some litigious ex-intern won a suit? I guess this should be expected: we're in the age of Hyper-Capitalism, when everyone wants to just get paid. I just can't see how this will lead to more opportunity, or payment, for film-industry interns.

  • Donella | July 9, 2013 8:10 PM

    Speaking of hyper-capitalism, it seems as though the employers make money for themselves by exploiting free labor. Unless the employer is also putting in time, energy, and work for free? Yes, everyone wants to get paid, so everyone can pay rent, utilities, tuition, books, groceries, and transportation.

  • BluTopaz | July 9, 2013 7:24 PM

    "we're in the age of Hyper-Capitalism, when everyone wants to just get paid."

    Somebody is not reading. If you are content doing coffee runs and clerical work for several years with no chance to enhance your skill set, and no professional work to show in a demo reel or resume, more power to you.

  • BluTopaz | July 9, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    I totally agree with Jubilance, Mimi and Bryant. My unpaid internships have run the gamut from being asked to edit a piece (which was great), to having to clean a studio and other assorted menial stuff. Sure the theory is that you will "learn the ropes", which is hard to do when impromptu production and editing meetings are held while you are shlepping hard drives/equipment/etc. around the city because your bosses are too cheap to pay a courier. No one expects to be shot calling as an intern, but when you compare how this level of employment fares so much better in other industries it highlights what this serfdom is really about: kissing above the line ass with no pay, and no chance of having substantial material to put on a resume/demo reel. A hiring manager for a paying job wants to see your skills as a professional, and many of these internships are not providing that experience; PLUS you're not getting paid.

    Many larger companies now are requiring interns to be enrolled in school full time so they can obtain credits as compensation. So for an internship with Time Warner for ex:, you have to have a full school work load AND be able to work for free 3-4 days per week. It's a messed up system, and I'm glad these guys won their lawsuit.

  • Jubilance | July 9, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    As a college student in engineering, I completed 3 internships, all paid and paid well. I truly don't understand the concept of unpaid internships, and I would never have done one. I would never encourage my child to do one. I get that's the way that some industries work, but it seems to me to be a way to string students/recent grads along and get them to do menial tasks for free. So many recent grads have spoken of completing unpaid internships and still failing to get their foot in the door in the industry or companyIn each of my internships, I made meaningful contributions to the company, and 1 summer I did work which led to a patent for the company. Its possible to give students meaningful assignments so that they gain skills while also giving them some type of compensation.

  • Mimi | July 9, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    I agree with Bryant. I am familar with a number of internship programs (in government and education). Generally speaking, more financially secure students (most often white and upper middle class) were taking advantage of the unpaid internship programs, while the students of color often were often taking more advantage of paid programs. Internship programs should benefit students, they should not just be free labor for companies. The work that the students do should really be focused on helping the students gain exposure to an industry. Often, students have to pay for those credits that they get for their internship. I know that I would not want to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to learn how to take out trash. I doubt internship programs will end due to this ruling. Its really just a case of making sure that interns are involved in meaningful work.

  • Bryant | July 9, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    Hmph. What's interesting is that he argues this is the death of opportunities for minority students to entertainment industry. But the flip side of the coin is that it's internships that can keep lower class minority students OUT of the entertainment industry as well. People who can't afford to work for free have a harder time getting internships, because they need to income to make it by.

    The problem is...complicated all around.

  • Donella | July 9, 2013 8:15 PM

    There's definitely a class and privilege issue related to unpaid internships (and volunteerism) deliberately or ignorantly left out of this article. Those with alternative sources of income--rich parents, rich spouse, inherited property can afford to give away time and energy to an unpaid internship. Those without alternative sources of income must use their time to earn money to live on.

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