Notebook

June 13, 2013 7:52 pm

Interns, Hollywood and Sunderland

Unpaid workers win their day in court to prove they’re worth the money, says Matthew Garrahan

If you happen to run into Rupert Murdoch in the next few days, it might be best not to compound his misery by mentioning the word “intern”. The term may be acquiring some negative connotations in the corridors of power at News Corp. Its movie studio, 21st Century Fox, which will soon separate from News Corp, last weekend released what executives hoped would be a summer film hit.

The Internship , which reunites Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson on screen for the first time since Wedding Crashers in 2005, looked a good bet on paper. The two play middle-aged salesmen who become unlikely interns at Google.

But in spite, or perhaps because, of Google branding and a cameo from Sergey Brin, co-founder of the technology company, the film, which cost about $60m to produce, was dead on arrival at the US box office, generating a paltry $18m. It was the weekend’s fourth most popular film: the first, The Purge, was made for a mere $3m but grossed $36.4m.

Leaving aside whether it was wise for Fox to collaborate so closely with Google on a film – Mr Murdoch has in recent years criticised the search group over how it aggregates stories from his newspapers – more intern trouble lay ahead.

A federal judge this week ruled that interns working unpaid on Black Swan , which was released by Fox Searchlight, a 21st Century Fox division, should have been paid. The interns had contended the unpaid programme violated minimum wage and overtime laws and the judge, William Pauley, agreed. Eric Glatt and Alex Footman “were classified improperly as unpaid interns”, he said. “They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer,” Mr Pauley said.

In a statement, 21st Century Fox said it was “very disappointed with the court’s rulings”, describing them as “erroneous”. It plans to appeal but the ruling could have big implications for internships across the US and whether companies should be allowed to benefit from unpaid work.

The Fox case brought back my own memories of unpaid work. “Internship” was not a word I heard much growing up in the UK. In my day it was always called “work experience” and it was invariably deadly dull.

Banx cartoon

I had two stints: one, while I was at school, at my local newspaper in the northeast of England. It was a grim, brown-walled office, full of stacks of yellowing newspapers and old rheumy-eyed hacks smoking cigarettes endlessly. They would disappear to the pub for hours at a time and come back swaying gently but still able to bash out copy in time for deadline.

My second stint was several years later. I worked for a few weeks during the summer at a music magazine in London, where my vitally important duties included opening the post, making cups of tea and answering phone calls. There was no formal programme – I just called and asked if they needed someone – and I wasn’t paid. However, I did receive a big bag of unwanted vinyl 12-inch records for my efforts but, rather unfortunately, they were all terrible, earning me the princely sum of £15 when I sold them in a second-hand shop.

I’m not sure how relevant these work experience stints were, although the fact I am writing these words now implies that they must have been useful. Still, my heart goes out to the two young men who were unpaid interns on Black Swan. Who knows what drudgery they experienced, running errands on a film that starred Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, two of the world’s most beautiful women. Compared with my glamorous and soul-enriching time on the Sunderland Echo newspaper, their Hollywood experience must have been hell.

In the US, unpaid internships must meet certain criteria: labour law says the programmes must be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment” and “for the benefit of the intern”. If they are not, the intern should expect to be paid. The question now is what the Black Swan interns will do next. I find it difficult to believe that either of them will land a job at a studio anytime soon: the lawsuit probably put paid to that. But who knows: Mr Footman is now a “freelance documentary maker” and if he comes up with a blockbuster, moneymaking film, I am sure the studios will quickly forget about the lawsuit. As one producer once told me: “In Hollywood, the golden rule is that gold rules.”

Just ask Rupert Murdoch – but be sure not to mention the “I” word.

matthew.garrahan@ft.com

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