The Death of the Unpaid Internship



For those who ever wanted to work in film, music, or design knows – the unpaid internship is the first step into that world. Los Angeles and New York are crowded with folks wanting to be the next big thing, but also just the next ‘thing’ – animator, writer, audio engineer, set builder.

I worked a few unpaid internships, one in Los Angeles and another in San Francisco. The unpaid internship at the recording studio in San Francisco became a paid part-time job, then a full-time job, then I was the studio manager and full on recording engineer doing audio post-production for commercials and other video content. I wasn’t unpaid for long. Once the owners realized they wanted to keep me around I was paid.

I worked alongside interns that left after a few weeks or months, returned to school or got jobs in the real world.

That’s what the unpaid internship does – I wouldn’t calling it ‘weeding out’ because that sounds horrible like they weren’t good enough, but it creates an environment where you have to think if this is the lifestyle for you. You get a harsh glimpse at the work-life of professionals. You see the long hours. The creative beatings. You’re there to learn not only how to better do your chosen trade, but how the work changes and morphs the lives of those that have it as a career.

Unpaid internships have been illegal since 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, but studios and production companies have been able to get away with it unscarred because there are enough people wanting in, that working for free with a vague promise of potential employment is worth the risk.

The jobs that unpaid interns do aren’t for your normal industries – you don’t see unpaid lawyers or dentists. Accountants, baristas, and gas station attendants definitely don’t work for free. These internships are for work in film, TV, print, music – art jobs. Those dream jobs parents always tell their children if they work hard enough, they will get.


Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' from Fox Searchlight

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ from Fox Searchlight


On the set of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film ‘Black Swan’ two unpaid production interns ended up filing a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight, claiming they were doing the work that would normally be done by paid employees. The judge agreed, saying –

“[Fox] Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees. Even under Defendants’ preferred test, the Defendants were the “primary beneficiaries” of the relationship…

“Undoubtedly, [the interns] received some benefits from their internships, such as resume listings, job references, and an understanding of how a production office works. But those benefits were incidental to working in the office like any other employee and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them. Resume listings and job references result from any work relationship, paid or unpaid, and are not the academic or vocational training benefits envisioned by this factor.

[The interns] performed routine tasks that would otherwise have been performed by regular employees. In his first internship, Glatt obtained documents for personnel files, picked up paychecks for coworkers, tracked and reconciled purchase orders and invoices, and traveled to the set to get managers’ signatures. His supervisor stated that “[if the intern] had not performed this work, another member of my staff would have been required to work longer hours to perform it, or we would have needed a paid production assistant or another intern to do it.”

I’m not sure what this judgment will mean to the creative industries that took advantage of worker’s willingness to start their careers doing non-paid grunt work. Hopefully it’s over and we will start to see these positions offered with a paycheck.

The change to a livable wage will make the competition for those jobs even stronger, but everyone will win. The studios will be able to pick and choose rather than taking anyone willing to work for free, and those potential employees will have an incentive to take a risk on a dream career. That actually sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?



3 thoughts on “The Death of the Unpaid Internship

  1. The sad part is they may just stop accepting as many people, and folks who have less of a resume may have less opportunity. In the Government we often took unpaid interns who wanted the experience/ resume builder, but if we were forced to pay interns we would have gone from 5 interns in one semester to a grand old 0. Sucks for them! Maybe sucks for folks wanting into the film industry?

    1. Some bigger film companies take unpaid interns if they’re in school getting credit for it, otherwise they don’t. Pixar being one of them. Not sure how the government handles it.

      I’m torn. I don’t like to see unpaid workers like in the case of ‘Black Swan,’ but they kept working without payment, so if that bothered them why didn’t they just leave? The experience must have been worth it or else they wouldn’t have stayed until the end of the production. They did the work of a paid worker, unforced and could have walked but didn’t, then sued for it. Both sides aren’t very cool in that instance.

      Having done a handful of unpaid internships myself, once I realized it wasn’t going anywhere and I got all I could out of it, I left. They’re good experiences to have, but might only work in certain industries. Can’t see an unpaid internship bagging groceries.

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