Photo: Alex Footman
When Alex Footman graduated from Wesleyan University in 2009 with a degree in film studies, he saw taking a 6-month unpaid internship on the New York production of the film “Black Swan” as a way to get his foot in the door and learn firsthand about film productions. Instead, like many many interns before him, he served as an errand runner, making coffee and picking up lunch for staffers.
Footman is now one of two former unpaid interns suing the film’s producer Fox Searchlight Pictures alleging that the company broke the law.
Federal labour law says that unpaid internships are only legal when they serve as an educational training program and the company receives no financial benefit. Footman’s suit alleges that Fox Searchlight broke the law by having unpaid interns conduct menial work that replaces the duties of entry-level hires.
Fox Searchlight has responded, claiming that Darren Aronofsky’s production company should be held liable, not Fox Searchlight which only distributed the film.
We spoke with Footman, who is now a freelance documentary filmmaker based in Washington D.C.,to learn more about his experience as an unpaid intern and why he decided to go to court.
On why he decided to sue
“It’s a terrible practice, and its actually empowering that there is any kind of recourse because I felt so soured by the whole experience. I felt used up by Fox Searchlight and it really gave me a pretty negative attitude toward the entire film industry. So I’m really glad that there is an opportunity to make this complaint public and hopefully change the practice and change people’s perceptions of these internships.”
On why he accepted an unpaid internship in the first place
“It seemed liked the perfect next rung on the ladder. I’d studied film in college, and I wanted to work somewhere in the film industry. I didn’t know enough as a college student to know exactly what kind of job I’d be looking at… The head of my film dept. was always stressing that we had to pay our dues and respect film industry professionals. I had a notion that I would be tested emotionally and that I wouldn’t be financially rewarded. It was kind of like the initiation rite for joining an elite circle.”
On what it was like
“We were never given any formal introductions. We were just thrown in there and given tasks as they come up. But I stuck with it for six months. I could have walked away and quit whenever I wanted to. But quitting would have been a dead-end. There were a lot of pressures on me to stay.”
On how he afforded living in New York City for six months without pay
“I was lucky that my family helped me pay rent and groceries and everything. I had a part-time job while I was working on the internship and that helped. But most of the costs were covered by my family.”
On the end of the internship
“I wish I could say they said thank you. It was really abrupt and there was absolutely no process or whatever. We had our last day of work and after that we were invited to the wrap party which was out at a club in the Meatpacking District in New York and that was it. I tried contacting everyone who I’d thought would know me or recognise my name, everyone I’d spoken with on the production. Not a single person spoke to me afterwards. Yes, it’s unfortunate that none of those individuals helped me out. But it’s not each persons responsibility. It was just so in keeping with the way the whole thing was run.”
His reaction to the recent lawsuit filed by a former unpaid intern against the Hearst Corporation
“I am very happy to see other interns taking action. Because I know that there is a fear among interns and former interns of being blacklisted in your industry for suing your employer.”
On what he hopes to get out of the suit
“If this policy changes and there are less unpaid internships or paid internships that would open up these industries to a whole bunch of people who cant afford an unpaid internship. We’re not the lady from McDonald’s who spilled coffee on her lap. We’re suing for back wages. It’s pretty nominal. It’s really about having them admit that they were wrong.”
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