Released in 2010 to widespread critical acclaim, Black Swan is a psychological thriller that follows ballerinas Nina and Lily as they compete—in increasingly fierce and surreal ways—for a lead part in a production of Swan Lake. The film has received numerous awards and has gone on to gross over $300 million worldwide.
Yet, behind the scenes and on the set of Fox Searchlight Pictures, another surreal scene was taking place. According to a lawsuit recently filed by Eric Glatt and Alex Footman, two former interns at Fox Searchlight, about a hundred people were hired for the production, "functioning as production assistants and bookkeepers and performing secretarial and janitorial work," using their own laptops and cellphones for the production, and sometimes working more than 40 hours a week, or 10 hours a day. And they did all of this for free, as part of an unpaid internship.
Alex Footman was hired as a production intern for Black Swan from October 2009 to February 2010. But when he arrived on set, he found his responsibilities consisted largely of preparing and fetching coffee and taking and delivering lunch orders for the production staff, cleaning the office, and taking out the trash.
While unpaid internships are legally required to provide interns with valuable training and experience in their chosel field, many employers use their internship programs as a source of free labor. Because many interns are concerned about future employment prospects in an increasingly precarious economy, and because internship positions are opaque to labor regulation and workers' rights advocates, abuses often go unreported. And the number of unpaid internships only continues to grow.
"With this lawsuit," Footman says, "I hope that we can help interns and former interns throughout the entertainment industry who should have been paid wages under the law."
Instead of competing against, say, a fellow ballerina, mental illness, and violent hallucinations, like Natalie Portman's character in the film, Black Swan employees were pitted against each other by the production company to see who would do the most work for the least pay. Glatt says, "the practice of hiring unpaid interns generates downward pressure on the wages of all freelancers, who effectively have to compete with free entry-level labor when looking for work and negotiating their rates. It also excludes people who ... cannot afford to work for no pay."
The legal firm that is representing Glatt and Footman hopes to have the lawsuit certified as a class action for all unpaid interns who worked for Fox Searchlight since September 28, 2005 to recover unpaid wages and other damages.
When trying to understand the internship phenomenon and its abuses, attorneys turned to Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Perlin says,
"In recent years, the use of unpaid interns by private firms has gotten out of control. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the film and entertainment business, where unpaid interns, receiving little training but doing tons of work, are everywhere. This complaint represents an important step towards righting a major wrong, reminding the millions who intern each year that their hard work deserves a fair wage."