Skip to main content

You don't have to be an unpaid intern

By Alex Footman, Special to CNN
June 18, 2013 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Unpaid internships in film and publishing may have once been educational, Alex Footman says, but they often aren't anymore.
Unpaid internships in film and publishing may have once been educational, Alex Footman says, but they often aren't anymore.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Footman says he and old co-worker sued a studio over experience as unpaid interns
  • Footman: Employers who violate labor laws profit unfairly from getting free labor
  • He says contrary to what many say, unpaid internships are not a fact of life to get used to
  • Footman: It is vital to know your rights and to speak out when they are stepped on

Editor's note: Alex Footman lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he makes documentaries about topics such as women's rights and the Afghan soccer league. His directorial debut, "Weep Like the Waterwheel," premiered at film festivals in 2011. He was a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

(CNN) -- In the fall of 2011, I was living at home in a suburb of Washington, freelancing as a grip on local productions ranging from news to corporate videos. It had been two years since I began a six-month internship in the Midtown Manhattan production office of "Black Swan," the only feature film I have worked on to date, when I received a call from my old co-worker Eric Glatt.

At first, I was surprised to hear from him. We had hit it off as fellow interns from the start. We went to the same university and shared a common interest in documentary film. But I left New York in 2010 and hadn't had much contact with Eric since.

When he brought up "Black Swan," my surprise turned to disbelief. He said he thought we had grounds to file a lawsuit against the movie studio Fox Searchlight based on our experiences as interns.

Eric was serious. He had researched the issue, found a law firm and was looking for other interns to join him as co-plaintiffs.

Alex Footman
Alex Footman

The basis for the lawsuit was that the studio had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act's six-point guidelines for internships by using us to do the work of paid employees, failing to provide a structured learning element to the internship and basically profiting from free labor. Internships are actually meant to provide benefit to the intern and no benefit to the employer, and indeed, even hinder the employer if it benefits the training of the intern.

After our conversation, I looked up the Department of Labor's guidelines for internships and saw for myself how clearly the law favored us. By the end of the day, I decided to join Eric as a co-plaintiff.

The decision came easy. That no other interns had filed a similar lawsuit before did not discourage us. But if it hadn't been for Eric, I might never have taken any actions myself.

If there is one thing I have learned from my experiences dealing with Fox Searchlight, it is that you cannot take for granted that your employer has your best interests at heart, and it is vital to know your rights and to speak out when they are stepped on.

We tried to get other interns to join us in the lawsuit, but we were on our own. Were they concerned that doing so would be career suicide in the film industry? Did they disagree and see themselves as beneficiaries of their experiences? Or did they think it was just a waste of time? To this day, I don't have an answer since our fellow interns haven't talked to us about it. I would be curious to hear their thoughts though.

After we filed the lawsuit, I was caught off guard by all the hate mail and angry comments. I did not expect the case to stir up such strong emotions, but it obviously touched a nerve. We were mocked by the public and the media alike.

There was a wide range of negative responses. The silly: "They should be happy they got to work with stars like Natalie Portman" -- as though we shared a dressing room and took notes on acting while on the job. The vindictive: "I hope these guys never find work in this industry again."

But what frustrated me the most was that the criticism all boiled down to one point: Unpaid internships are a fact of life that we should never question.

But we proved the critics wrong. A District Court in the Southern District of New York ruled that Eric and I were indeed employees misclassified as interns. Part of our suit was also certified as a class action, acknowledging that this has affected a great number of people and hopefully sending a warning to employers who are in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Unpaid internship in industries such as film and publishing may once have been truly educational experiences, but it has become obvious to me through conversations with others who have done internships -- and there are many of us -- that it is by and large no longer true.

I believe that there are meaningful and beneficial internships out there. We never argued against their existence -- a point that every detractor seems to miss. The court ruling is a message to employers either to provide a proper unpaid internship within the guidelines or, if they are unable or unwilling to do so, to hire employees to carry out the work they need done.

Today, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Herat, Afghanistan, after a 10-day shoot for a documentary about Afghanistan's soccer champions, Toofan Harirod FC. Since my internship with "Black Swan," I've worked for outstanding filmmakers who have taught and encouraged me on the job. They believe in developing the next generation of storytellers while compensating us for our time and work. Without them, I would never have made it this far as a filmmaker.

Since the first wave of negative feedback in 2011, the positive coverage and comments on our side have far outnumbered the detractors. Whether that will amount to sweeping changes in the industries is in the hands of the employers and in agencies responsible for enforcing labor law.

Eric and I have shown that unpaid interns can stand up for themselves. Now we want to see more laws to protect those who work for free. Better yet, we want to see more self-regulation from employers so that the burden of enforcement won't have to weigh down on the people with the least bargaining power.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Footman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT