Earlier this week, a Federal judge ruled that the use of unpaid interns on the production of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan was illegal, and that the two former interns that filed the complaint were entitled to a class action trial against 20th Century Fox, which produced the movie.
The ruling, two years in the making, sent shockwaves around Hollywood, which has long offered young, aspiring filmmakers glimpses of show business in return for free labor. It is a business that emphasizes dues paying and ladder-climbing in order to maintain its rigid power structure. Labor advocates and commentators in the media celebrated the ruling as a strike for worker rights, but some in Hollywood are defending the practice.
“I’ve been at it for a long time and I’ve always had interns to work for free, and I worked for free,” Lee Daniels, the director of Precious and the upcoming drama The Butler, told BuzzFeed on Wednesday. “But I do feel that if you have a good boss and your boss makes sure that you have lunch and that intern is there and here or she is paying for your work and if you’re learning something at the places, it’s invaluable. And I think that as you grow, either your boss is a pig or he or she knows instinctively when the time is to shoot you a couple dollars.”
Daniels was at an event honoring the Ghetto Film School, an organization that seeks to educate aspiring teenage filmmakers at its South Bronx facility and through programs throughout the country. He said that he has gone on to hire many of his former interns, including several he met through the Ghetto Film School.
“They started running errands and getting coffee and reading scripts and then really involved with production, PA work and advising me,” Daniels said.
In his decision, Judge William Pauley wrote that the interns “worked as paid employees worked,” which provided “an immediate advantage to their employer and performed low-level tasks not requiring specialized training.”
He continued, ruling that “The benefits they may have received — such as the knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs — are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer.”
Dana Brunetti, the producing partner of Kevin Spacey who has helped shepherd House of Cards, wrote on Twitter that their company, Trigger Street Productions, shut down its internship program in response to the ruling.
There are up to one million unpaid internships per year in the United States, many of which require the employee to receive college credit, which results in them paying their university for the right to work for free. At colleges in the Los Angeles area, there are special programs that set students up with Hollywood internships, providing free work to producers and an easy source of income for schools, which get paid for credits without having to employ teachers.
The number of unpaid internships spiked in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, where free labor was often used to replace staff members and freelance employees. But their days could be numbered: Six additional lawsuits — in fashion, sports, TV and modeling — were filed following the Black Swan case.