'Black Swan' Unpaid Interns File Lawsuit Against Fox Searchlight

PHOTO: Natalie Portman in a scene from Black Swan
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Two men who interned for the film "Black Swan" have filed a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight on behalf of hundreds of unpaid interns, taking aim at a long-accepted practice in the entertainment industry.

The lawsuit alleges that the film production company violated federal and state labor laws by using unpaid interns.

"This is a widespread practice and most of the time it's unlawful," said Elizabeth Wagoner, one of the attorneys representing the interns. "I haven't seen other suits like this, at least not on this scale. I hope their example will make others feel they can come forward and that they're owed wages for their work."

The "Black Swan" interns are Alex Footman, 24, and Eric Glatt, 42.

Footman interned for full five-day weeks of at least 40 hours as a production intern on the film in New York from October 2009 to February 2010.

His responsibilities included preparing coffee for the production office and making sure the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders, taking out the trash, cleaning the office and collecting receipts for expense reports, according to the lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court Wednesday.

"With this lawsuit, I hope that we can help interns and former interns throughout the entertainment industry who should have been paid wages under the law," Footman said in a news release from Outten and Golden, the law firm representing the interns.

The film cost $13 million to produce and grossed more than $300 million worldwide. The lawsuit alleges that Fox Searchlight has been able to reduce its production costs "by employing a steady stream of unpaid interns."

The class-action lawsuit is seeking "to recover unpaid wages and other damages for all unpaid interns who have worked on films produced by Fox Searchlight between Sept. 28, 2005, and the date of final judgment in this matter," according to the lawsuit.

While Wagoner does not know the exact number of interns involved and cannot yet comment on the amount of money being sought, she estimated that hundreds of interns were involved.

"This is not a symbolic lawsuit," Wagoner said. "They certainly have a right to be paid."

The lawsuit alleges that Fox Searchlight's practices violate the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Laws. The U.S. Department of Labor has criteria to determine whether someone is a trainee or an employee, but the rules are rarely enforced.

A person is a trainee if he or she receives training similar to what he or she would receive in an academic setting. In order for a person to be a trainee, an employer cannot derive any immediate advantage from him or her. In other words, an unpaid intern cannot do the work of a regular employee, which is what the lawsuit alleges happened at Fox Searchlight.

Fox Searchlight did not respond to requests for comment.

Interning on a film set has long been seen as a way for people to get a taste of the industry and get their foot into Hollywood's door, but it has also been criticized as giving an unfair advantage to those financially able to do it for no pay.

"As we talked to the plaintiff, we realized that it's a pretty huge far-reaching problem in the entertainment industry and Fox Searchlight is a player in that, but they're not the only one," Wagoner said. "So we wanted to do something big and public that would let interns all over the country know that they have the right to minimum wage and overtime when working for a private corporation."

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