Paid in Peanuts: Unpaid Internships in the Film Industry Trenches

As I was looking up trivia on IMdB the other day (as I am wont to do) I stumbled upon an article about a pair of formerly-unpaid-interns who were suing the production company of "Black Swan" for minimum wage. ( I should preface my comments by saying that whenever I read "Black Swan" and "lawsuit" in the same headline I usually gulp down an Oscar sized grain of salt because, lets face it, if "Black Swan" hadn't made it to the Academy Awards no one would care about any of this.

After reading the article the only thought that came to my mind was "wow, they're really not planning to work long in this business, are they?" And after reading through some of the comments that followed the article it became pretty clear that I wasn't alone in this assessment. There were two schools of thought: the first school of thought supported the idea that unpaid interns are just part of the business and really, what did they expect? The second school of thought supported the idea that Hollywood was an open vortex to the underworld and everyone in it was pretty crummy for trying to make a go of it at all and more power to those brave souls for trying to stick it to their evil overlords.

I might be a little bit biased with my assessment.

Really, though, as a filmmaker myself I can't help but think that I wouldn't want to work with those guys. This issue feels like a personal thing to me. "Black Swan" was an excellent film, but it was not a big budget film: in fact the budget was so small that hard decisions had to be made: decisions on the order of do-we-have-medical-assistance-on-set-or-do-we-have-a-star-trailer. (Look it up in the trivia, it's a real thing). Now that's a budget I can understand: the kind of budget where really most people are being paid in peanut butter and goodwill. That's the kind of budget that I'm probably going to be working with for a long time. And frankly, if I happen to make a film that does so well that it wins me an Academy Award nomination and makes box-office revenue in the hundred-millions then I don't want some snotty malcontent suing me.

Dissenters will argue that the film industry should treat all workers fairly- at least to minimum wage, and if it can't do that then there is something wrong with the system. They are right, of course, work shouldn't go uncompensated, but filmmaking is the wild west. Filmmaking is the ultimate kind of democratic meritocracy; you have to have something good to offer to the business and you have to campaign to get people's support or you just won't make it. That's the whole point of the Hollywood dream: to risk everything and become a wild success. No one goes into film because it's a steady job with good benefits.

But I digress. My point is that everyone starts out by getting to know people. If you're very lucky you get to know people because your parents know them, but the rest of us get to know them by working for free for a few years. I got paid peanuts for my first job on a film. Literally, I took home a bag of peanuts leftover from the props department when it was all said and done. I wasn't even an intern: interns get academic credit. I was an unpaid production assistant. They didn't pay me to work 16 hour days, five days a week for two months. They didn't pay me to shovel manure. They didn't pay me to drive a thousand miles to get to the production site and they didn't pay me to drive all over the state running production related errands but I did it. All of it. And it was worth it.

So in the end, is a lawsuit worth it? When you're looking for your next job, what are you going to put on your resume? "I got paid minimum wage!" or "I worked on "Black Swan""?

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