Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I worked unpaid on a feature film once.

It was an excellent experience and I walked away with a film credit for my trouble too. The film got a theatrical release as well, which was even more exciting.

For anyone looking to get experience working on a feature, I would recommend it.

But beware. There are predators out there.

Wolves who offer things like "exposure" and a "foot in the door", when really they are simply looking to exploit people desperate for a break in the competitive film industry.

It's dangerous mixing predators with the desperate.

I had the chance to see this predatory behaviour up close in the last week. Essential Media, a big company currently producing the feature 'Saving Mr Banks', starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, put up a notice on the Facebook page of my old film school. It read:

'We're looking for an unpaid intern to assist while our office manager takes 4 weeks of annual leave. I wondered if any of your students might be interested? 

It would be answering phones and arranging travel and couriers but it's also a foot in the door, the opportunity to see how the business works and to make some great contacts. There would also be some fun and creative jobs like designing DVD slicks and whatever skills the person has to offer. It could also lead to more interesting roles on future productions.


Associate Producer
Essential Media and Entertainment'

Now, I'll be honest I wrote a pretty scathing reply to this. Something to the effect of: 'Dear Essential Media, making your coffee and answering your phones is not an internship. Spend $300 less on coke for your Christmas party and pay these hard working students for taking on the role as your receptionist.'

That's not verbatim, but you get the idea.

Somebody administering the film school's Facebook page must have felt my reply was too scathing, however, and they removed the comment.

So I commented again.

This time it was a little more reserved.

'My original comment got deleted, so I will keep this one simple - what they are suggesting is not legal. Filling in as an employee is not an 'internship'. An internship is something specific under employment law where a person can expect to get training or experience, not just fill in as your receptionist so you can not pay a desperate film student looking for a break:'

At this point, someone responded with an 'Are you serious?'

To which I gave my final comment:

'100% serious. I have worked unpaid on a feature, but I received actual training on a feature and a feature credit out of it. That's an unpaid internship. This one is calling itself an unpaid internship, but really you are just working as a receptionist for free. I want to make sure the SFS students know the difference and don't get exploited.'

And that sums it up, really. People deserve better than to have their dreams dangled in front of them so that someone else can get slave labour.

It's just wrong.

And I am not the lone voice on this.

Right now in the USA, Fox Searchlight Pictures is facing off against a lawsuit regarding unpaid interns.

In 2009, the two interns worked on the smash hit film 'Black Swan', but claim that, instead of receiving experience in entry level film production, they were allegedly simply told to make coffee, answer phones and occasionally do some janitorial work (i.e. cleaning and taking out garbage). They are now suing Fox to argue that, for this sort of work where they were not learning anything, they should have been paid a wage instead.

The lawsuit started in October 2011. Now, just in the last few days, the suit has added more plaintiffs: a "corporate intern" at Fox and a "production intern" who worked on "(500) Days Of Summer". These new plaintiffs are alleging that they too were promised a learning experience, but instead were simply used as unpaid labour to replace paid staff positions.

Collectively, these interns have finally said enough is enough and ignited a debate on the long running practice of unpaid internships in the film industry.

But while some might think the interns taking a stand is courageous, they are not without their detractors.

Since scratching the surface on this issue, it has been suggested to me that this case is an example of the 'new generation's' greed, wanting to avoid paying their dues and not willing to put in the hard work.

I completely disagree.

If you agreed to teach an aspiring filmmaker something, anything, valuable about film production to fast-track their career, do you really think they would refuse to answer a phone or make a coffee? Do you really think they would sue you for making them take out some trash when they were mostly learning on a production what would take years to learn in film school?

Of course not.

But if you promise someone an ice-cream and they get a slap in the face instead, they are bound to be upset.

Now, my colleagues have worried out loud about me writing this newsletter on an active and seemingly powerful production company. They think it could be a career limiting move.

And, in a way, that is exactly why I wrote it.

There are real unpaid internships out there. Valuable experiences that I completely support, offered by the likes of excellent Australian Producers like Jenny Day, or the Australian Distribution guru John L Simpson.

Then there are 'internships' like those offered by Essential Media. Thinly veiled slave labour.

Pointing this out so that aspiring filmmakers, chasing their dreams, don't get exploited shouldn't be considered a revolutionary act.

It's just the truth.

These companies know they are not doing the right thing.

How do I know?

Because actions speak louder than words.

No one has admitted anything, but...

...Fox now pays its interns $8 an hour.

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