Tribeca Film Festival 2014: Interns Will Be Paid This Year Amid Growing Scrutiny Of Volunteers At For-Profit Events

DeNiro Actor and director Robert De Niro waits for the start of a media day at the Tribeca Film Festival, April 13, 2008.  Reuters/Lucas Jackson

In yet another sign that the tide is turning for unpaid labor in the for-profit sector, Tribeca Enterprises LLC, the company that produces the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, will begin paying the hundreds of interns who help make the event happen every year.

“We have assessed our staffing needs for the festival with respect to what it takes to run this 12-day event, and this year we will pay all individuals who work during the festival,” Tammie Rosen, a Tribeca spokeswoman, told International Business Times in a statement Monday.   

Tribeca's statement, which has not been previously reported, follows an announcement on Saturday that Madison Square Garden Co. (NASDAQ:MSG) will acquire a 50 percent stake in Tribeca Enterprises, whose holdings also include Tribeca Digital Studios, Tribeca Cinemas and the independent distribution label Tribeca Film. Rosen said the decision to pay interns -- dubbed “crew” by the festival -- isn’t directly related to that deal, but the acquisition did place the privately held company and its financials under a sudden microscope. On Monday, Amy Yong, an analyst with Macquarie Securities, said in a research note that Tribeca Enterprises generates much of its revenue through sponsorship deals with major brands such as Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), the American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) and PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE:PEP), among others. The MSG deal valued Tribeca Enterprises at $45 million.

Add it all up and you have a lucrative company in an increasingly difficult position to justify an unpaid labor force. Most major U.S. film festivals are operated by nonprofit arts organizations -- the Sundance Institute or the Film Society of Lincoln Center, for example -- which are allowed to use volunteers under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In contrast, Tribeca has been a for-profit festival since 2004, and yet in a typical season it had used about 1,000 unpaid crew. That’s problematic, according to labor experts. “The Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t allow volunteers in the profit-making or for-profit sector,” said David C. Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University and director of the New Workplace Institute. “The whole volunteer exemption for nonprofits in public service was to honor the importance of encouraging volunteer service in our society.”

In 2011, Tribeca stopped calling its crew members “volunteers” and reclassified them as “interns.” It also added an educational component to the crew program, giving members access to “educational seminars and lectures,” presumably those already offered for festival attendees. But it’s unlikely that the program, especially given the size of the crew, would have passed muster in a labor dispute. Unpaid internships are legal in the for-profit sector only under stringent training-focused environments. Specifically, the FLSA says unpaid interns may not displace regular employees, and employers may derive no immediate benefit from an intern’s work.

Christina Isnardi, an NYU student who worked as an unpaid crew member for Tribeca in 2012, said she doesn’t think the event would have been able to function without her and her hundreds of cohorts. “We were the ones who were manning the lines, who were checking the tickets, who were bringing people to the theaters,” she said in a phone interview. “We were basically doing all the operational work of the festival from what I could tell.”

Isnardi, who studies film production and political science, has since become a vocal critic of unpaid internships. Last year, she launched a campaign to get NYU’s career center to stop posting unpaid internships on its CareerNet portal. She took the Tribeca gig as a resume-booster and said it was a mostly positive experience. But, looking back, she said she believes she should have been paid.

The issue of unpaid or underpaid labor is spreading into various aspects of media, entertainment, the arts and even sports -- including a wage lawsuit filed by an NFL cheerleader earlier this year who said her pay amounted to less than $5 per hour when rehearsals and unpaid charity events were factored in.

Whether it’s interns, volunteers or cheerleaders, Yamada said the pitch sold to unpaid labor is often similar, incorporating a seductive element that lures prospects with the idea that being part of a glamorous event is its own reward. And it’s a pitch that works: The Tribeca Film Festival has typically had no shortage of eager applicants for crew positions, some of whom are put on a waiting list. “I think what we see with these high-profile arts, entertainment and sports events is that there’s a desire to be part of something like that,” Yamada said. “The organizers of the events figure they can get a lot of free labor out of it in return for, I guess, being able to bask in the reflected glow of whatever that event is all about.”

With Tribeca leading the way, however, the writing is on the wall for other for-profit festivals, and many are no doubt paying attention. (Last month, Salon pointed out that the for-profit SXSW in Austin, Texas, which relies on some 3,000 volunteers, may be risking a class-action lawsuit.) The 2014 Tribeca Film Festival opens April 16. Although the FAQ page for crew members doesn’t mention payment, a current member who asked not to be identified confirmed with IBTimes that they are being offered pay once they’ve been accepted. Exact amounts aren’t being disclosed, but the festival said it would be at least minimum wage.

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