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Lawsuit challenges a Hollywood pillar: Unpaid internships

LOS ANGELES – Melvin Mar’s entree to Hollywood was far from glamorous. As an unpaid intern for “Platoon” producer Arnold Kopelson, Mar was responsible for fetching his boss’s lunch of matzo ball soup every day.

Mar calculated to the minute how long it would take to walk from the production company’s Century City offices to the Stage Deli nearby, buy the soup and decant it into a bowl on Kopelson’s desk, still piping hot, at precisely 1 p.m.

Mar parlayed his internship into jobs at DreamWorks and Scott Rudin Productions. Now Mar is a producer for “Bad Teacher” filmmaker Jake Kasdan – and he says he owes a lot to the lessons he learned as a humble Hollywood gofer 15 years ago.

“The soup – it was about getting it right, the details,” said Mar, 35. “It prepared me for everything else.”

Uncompensated minions are as central to the movie business as private jets, splashy premieres and $200 lunches. But the Hollywood tradition is under assault.

A class action by former interns on the 2010 film “Black Swan” could radically change the industry’s reliance on unpaid neophytes. The suit seeks back pay, damages and an order barring use of unpaid interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures and other units of Fox Entertainment Group.

A legal victory for the plaintiffs “would bring to a halt the many unpaid internships that offer real value to participants, giving them experiences and opportunities they would not otherwise receive,” lawyers for Fox Searchlight said in a March 28 filing.

It would also force Hollywood to change everything from the way film crews are assembled to the manner in which new talent is cultivated.

Eric Glatt, who was an intern for the New York-based “Black Swan” production, is a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. He gave up a $95,000 desk job at insurance company American International Group to pursue his dream of becoming a film editor.

Glatt’s “Black Swan” duties included running errands for the movie’s famously exacting director, Darren Aronofsky.

During post-production, Aronofsky needed a hypoallergenic pillow – he wanted to be comfortable in the editing room – and Glatt, then 40, was given the assignment. He walked nearly a mile through Brooklyn to a Macy’s, where he bought the pillow, then took the subway to deliver it to Aronofsky in midtown Manhattan, Glatt said.

During his roughly nine months on the film, Glatt said, he was also sent on errands to get Aronofsky “the perfect scented candle” and his favorite tea, PG Tips.

“The one thing you learn as an intern is don’t ask,” Glatt said.

Glatt, who spent $5,500 for a film editing course before signing on with “Black Swan,” had hoped an internship would be his pathway to a film career. But Glatt came to believe that Hollywood was taking advantage of people like him – and violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that unpaid internships benefit the interns, not the employers.

Aronofsky, whose latest film is “Noah,” declined to comment.

The lawsuit contends that minimum wage laws were violated during the making of “Black Swan.” The plaintiffs are seeking back pay and damages for themselves and an unspecified number of other interns who worked at Searchlight and other units of Fox Entertainment Group.

Attorneys for Fox Searchlight have argued that an independent company, Lake of Tears Inc., not the studio, hired and managed the “Black Swan” interns. Last year, U.S. District Judge William Pauley in New York rejected that argument and concluded that “Searchlight received the benefits of [the interns’] unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.”

Fox has appealed Pauley’s ruling, contending that interns are not employees subject to wage protection if they, not the employer, are the “primary beneficiaries” of the internships.

Interns do indeed benefit from the current system, the studio contends. In a recent brief, Fox argued that the interns should not be certified as a class because they “participated in a wide variety of activities in exchange for academic credit” and “performed an array of duties tailored to each intern’s unique interests.”

A ruling by New York’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals is expected by early next year.