'Black Swan' Intern Ruling: Landmark Case Could Mean the End Of the Unpaid Internship

If you've ever worked an unpaid internship and fetched coffee, made copies, and done other work for your employer, it might have occurred to you that you were actually just working an entry level job. And Federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III would probably agree with you. On Tuesday the judge ruled that Fox Searchlight should have paid two interns on the set of Black Swan, because they were essentially regular employees.

When evaluating if the studio environment of Fox Searchlight Pictures met the criteria to offer unpaid internships the judge used Department of Labor standards.

Those six standards are as follows (language abridged but feel free to check the DOJ document above):

1. Even if internships occure on site, they must be in an educational environment.

2. Internships are for the benefit of the intern.

3. The intern cannot displace regular employees, but can be supervised by staff.

4. The employer does not get an immediate advantage from the presence of the intern. It is expected sometimes interns may actually slow operations.

5. Interns are not entitled to jobs when the internships are over.

And lastly, if all those criteria are met, 6. The employer and intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages.

However in the case of on set interns which Hollywood has come to depend on — and in this case of Fox Searchlight Pictures the interns are working in a professional environment not and educational setting, are displacing production assistants who normally do coffee fetching and other such work, the employer does get an immediate advantage through their work, and the intern tends not to benefit. In fact the only part of these type of internship arrangements Fox Searchlight seemed to be in compliance with was the expectation that the interns were not entitled to jobs or wages.

The film this case debated, Black Swan, cost approximately $13 million to make and grossed $270 million worldwide, with $2 million going to Natalie Portman who earned an Oscar for her performance as the lead. Meanwhile the average production assistant at Fox earns $12.13 an hour. These unpaid interns on a hugely profitable film in what has been ruled a violation of both federal and New York wage laws, saw nothing for their contributions. 

In ruling on this case, Judge Pauley also granted class certification to another group of unpaid New York interns working in Fox Entertainment Group. Such a case could completely change the way companies treat their unpaid interns, and if millennials are lucky, will allow some of those entry level jobs to begin paying again.