Q: Paying your dues, i.e. Working for free (Copy/Meal/Credit if you’re lucky) is a well established part of getting into the film industry. I’m curious about your thoughts on that practice, specifically in regards to the recent class action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight by Alex Footman and Eric Glatt for their unpaid internships on the film, Black Swan. Do you believe everyone has to “make their bones” and work for free? Do people who are paid work better than those who are there for the experience only? Do Footman and Glatt have any ground to stand on?
Mike J. – Lincoln, NE
Wow, we are getting good questions lately. I love it! I love this one in particular because it allows me to warn people ahead of time that when you come to LA (even if you’ve been here before and come back) you are going to have to work for free for a while in order to establish yourself. It’s just a fact of this business.
This business is so intense with the 12+ hour work days, working in close proximity, and the large amounts of money spent in such a short burst of time (even if it seems small on paper, it’s still a large amount of blood, sweat and tears). It makes this business different from a typical company. Because it is so intense, you don’t have the luxury of hiring someone and trying them out only to let them go if it doesn’t work out. Sure, the interning thing is about paying your dues, but it’s really more about filmmakers being able to vet people before getting caught up in a lot of paperwork. There are a lot of people in this business and yet it is a really small community. It’s important to look at it this way, if you were a producer crewing up a project, would you choose to hire and pay for someone that you just met with a bunch of projects on their resume that you don’t know from Adam? Or, would you choose to hire someone who is new, but has worked for you in the past, shown up, been enthusiastic while doing his/her job and is trust worthy and reliable? I’m going to say that you will choose the latter. Since there are so many variables when making a film, you want to be strategic about choosing the most responsible production crew to position yourself for the best possible film shoot. So, expect to work for free and frankly work just as hard if not harder when you’re working for free because your reputation will proceed itself and you will get paid jobs faster than those who are not willing to work for free.
Now on to this lawsuit, to which I say, are you kidding me? This lawsuit makes me so angry. The plaintiffs in this case have done themselves (and other potential interns) such a disservice by being greedy and taking NO responsibility for their own choices. Now, I don’t know all the details of the lawsuit so if they had it in their contracts that they would get paid if the movie sold, that’s another story. BUT, if it is a straight up internship then they need to take responsibility for the fact that they said YES and CHOSE to do the internship for FREE. Just because the movie did well doesn’t mean that should change. Besides that, how many people starting out in this business would have died to have a film like BLACK SWAN on their resume? I know I would have. They were a part of a film that people actually know the name of. They could have taken personal responsibility for the fact that they agreed to be non-paid interns on this film and parlayed that into paid work. Instead they are wasting everyone’s time by suing AND making producers nervous about bringing on interns in the future.
To sum it up, you should expect to work for free (think of it as free film school) and do it happily. It will NOT be forever so know when you are at the point of taking the next step to saying no to unpaid work. Learn to network with those you are working with so that you will get brought on to future project. And, most importantly, take responsibility for your choices. If you don’t want to work for free on a particular project, say no. Don’t say yes and then sue them later. That’s just irresponsible.