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Left: Juan Luis Garcia's initial design for a poster for Spike Lee's "Oldboy"; right: a final poster for the film (via juanluisgarcia.com)

Left: Juan Luis Garcia’s initial design for a poster for Spike Lee’s “Oldboy”; right: a final poster for the film (via juanluisgarcia.com)

When famed film director Spike Lee launched a Kickstarter project for “The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint” this past summer, we rolled our eyes. Another celebrity using the crowdfunding method despite the fact that he’s, you know, a celebrity, who likely has the means to raise funds elsewhere. But when Spike Lee hires unpaid interns for administrative labor and steals a designer’s work — well, then we feel compelled to say something.

Yesterday evening, photographer and designer Juan Luis Garcia posted an open letter to Spike Lee on his website. In it, Garcia details his experience designing posters for Lee’s new film, Oldboy. Garcia says he was approached by an ad agency:

They wanted me to design some comps to present to you. They told me the budget was small and that they could only pay me peanuts for the comps but if you and the studio liked any of them I would then be compensated fairly through the licensing buyout fee.

You can already see where this is going. The agency was a nightmare to work with. They showed Garcia’s posters to Lee and he loved them, but the agency, in turn, offered Garcia “an insultingly low” amount for licensing. So he turned them down, and they in turn insulted and threatened him. They never paid him the money that had been agreed upon for the initial designs. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, Spike Lee and his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, took some of Garcia’s poster designs, released them as final, and slapped their own copyright on them.

Garcia’s poster posted on the 40 Acres and a Mule Facebook page and copyrighted by the company (via Facebook)

Garcia gives Lee the benefit of the doubt, telling him that some of the posters are stolen and expressing a “sinking feeling that you are as much of a victim in this as I am.” The designer writes under the assumption that the agency did the stealing, not Lee himself. That may very well be the case — the filmmaker undoubtedly has people who handle pesky details like rights for him. The question is what, if anything, Lee will do to rectify the situation. People have been posting Garcia’s letter on 40 Acres and a Mule’s Facebook page, and it’s been tweeted at Lee countless times. There’s no way he can’t know what’s going on.

Screenshot of part of 40 Acres and a Mule’s employment page (via 40acres.com)

At the same time, minimal digging on the 40 Acres website has led us to two postings for unpaid internships. Both of them sound a whole lot like jobs (even though the website says “We are currently not hiring”). If this is Lee’s track record — taking money from his fans, refusing to use it (or any other money) to pay the people who work for him — we’re not holding our breath for Garcia. But if Spike Lee is out there, reading the blogs, being inundated with Facebook comments and tweets, we hope he realizes that he needs to do the right thing.

UPDATE, Thursday, November 28, 11am: Spike Lee tweeted this roughly 25 minutes ago:

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

48 replies on “Spike Lee Doesn’t Do the Right Thing [UPDATED]”

  1. aren’t most internships unpaid…i got ripped off 12 years ago in college if they’re not…and i’m sure there are tons of people that are willing to be unpaid interns for spike lee…stealing the guys poster is obviously bad…and i hope he’ll be compensated somehow now

    1. No-one should not get paid for working. Unpaid internships are slave labour, and should be illegal. Pay. Your. Workers.

      1. While I agree that unpaid internships are never ideal, I think you paint with too broad a brush. Some non-profits, for example, have budgets that can cover intern pay; others don’t. As the Managing Director of BAASICS, the 20-30 hours a week of work I put in are entirely unpaid. Likewise, all effort by the Executive Director. If we, the founders and directors, can’t pay ourselves because all of our budget goes to programming, we certainly can’t pay our interns. Still, this work is a labor of love, one that we support by working other jobs and getting little sleep. If a younger and ambitious person wants to volunteer some of their time in order to garner experience in the non-profit world and is willing to work for ~5 hours/week for 6 months, all unpaid, more power to ’em. Their help is the only way many arts non-profits limp along…and so long as the organizational powers that be aren’t abusing the volunteers/interns, I don’t think it’s a problem.

        In an ideal world, we’d all be paid for the long hours we put in — that should be the goal; sometimes, it’s not possible.

        1. Indeed, registered non-profits are allowed to use voluntary labour, but ONLY registered non-profits. Spike Lee’s production house is not a non-profit, so is not allowed to use unpaid labour.

          He *can* use unpaid interns but ONLY if they’re carrying out educational projects that benefit the intern, not the company.

          Give an unpaid intern the opportunity to edit a making-of video that you distribute free on the internet — OK.
          Get an unpaid intern to make your tea — illegal.

          1. Yes, exactly. I used to run an internship program in the entertainment industry. The only way it is legal to not pay your interns is to provide them with an educational experience–which in most (all?) cases also requires that the intern be receiving class credit for their work.

    1. Link please? I’ve seen several versions of the poster/cover for the original and this doesn’t look like any of them.

  2. Steinhauser have something against Spike Lee? Sure seems so. This is a hatchet job on Spike Lee. Steinhauser tells a convoluted tale of an artist who claims to have come up with a design for an agency that then reneges on an agreement (written? oral?) Somehow Spike Lee is to blame even though he has no idea who the artist is. Then it turns out that the design is based on a film clip, so the originality of the design is really nothing but placement and a background – most of which is changed in the ultimate design. Steinhauser writes the article without consulting Spike Lee. She seems more interested in protecting Garcia and fails to mention the name of the agency – who she didn’t consult, either. Getting chosen to be an intern for a project with a renowned director is a dream come true for a lot of people. Financing on Kickstarter? Sure beats waiting to find backers.

    1. If he had made that design without being solicited, the similarities could be dismissed as coincidence. Having commissioned him to create the design, then refusing to negotiate a price, they’re on pretty shakey ground, because it’s easy to conclude they’re directly inspired by his poster.

      It risks them showing themselves acting in “bad faith”.

  3. This kind of stuff, unfortunately, happens to graphic artists all too often. People don’t understand that you can’t steal someone’s work after they’ve said “no deal” just because you liked the idea and can’t come up with a new one you like better.

  4. Maybe Spike Lee didn’t know the guy and didn’t know the inner workings of the design firm but its good for him to get criticism. It gives a needed incentive to folks at the top of any production that you need to ask questions as to where something came from. You cant call it a spike lee joint and not take slack if it has sticks and seeds in it.

    1. This is exactly how I feel. Of course he may not have known—there are so many people involved in these decisions, it actually seems likely he didn’t know. But now he does know, and he’s choosing to ignore it and not do anything about it. That tweet was so obnoxious, when he could use this situation to set a positive example of an artist of his stature taking responsibility for all aspects of his work.

  5. The creative arts has been oversaturated with people in this generation, and it has led to employers having all the leverage in the world in taking advantage of artists. I work at a studio and the boss almost has a “they should feel lucky to even have an unpaid internship here.” While in some ways it’s true, because the kid is getting experience, foot in the door, etc. it’s still incredibly douchey for senior members to have that kind of attitude. I guess you just get so used to young artists kissing your ass all the time looking for work that you just completely take their talent for granted.

  6. It’s amazing that Spike Lee is always in the center of some obnoxious conflict, and yet he’s never, ever been in the wrong.

  7. More of the kind of attitude we’ve all come to expect from Spike Lee. He has no talent so he steals it from others.

      1. spike lee has made some great films.
        my biggest problem with him is that he doesn’t know when to fade music in a scene and his need to use music over scenes where it doesn’t even need to exist.

        1. The idea that Spike Lee is either a) straight-up terrible, fraud, talentless OR b) hasn’t made a good movie since DTRT is beyond laughable.

  8. Let it never be said that great artists are necessarily also great people.

    For a film prodco to be named “40 acres and a mule” and then to use wage slavery as a means for its daily work is cruel irony.

    1. Equating *actual* slavery and unpaid internships is really pretty ridiculous. Patently absurd, and truly offensive. Displays a profound lack of perspective, also. Regardless of what one thinks of Spike, and his work.

      1. Also, wage slavery involves a wage. Unpaid interns, by definition, don’t get paid: i.e. NO WAGE. Try again “simalex2000″….

        1. patently absurd AND truly offensive to boot! I’ll give myself a thumbs up for that.

          “wage slavery involves a wage”

          you’re right. and FREE is, in fact, a wage (hang with me here): it is the DENIAL of wage, the refusal to compensate workers for their work (time, effort, whatever “work” is.)

          and don’t tell me “education” counts — education doesn’t pay for groceries, it doesn’t pay rent.

          i agree that it’s not the same as being forced on a boat and sent to a plantation, but there are gradations here, no?

          Also, “do the right thing” is a great film; everything else he’s done is garbage.

          1. And no, there are no “gradations” here. There is no comparison. Why not go the distance and just call Spike “Goebbels”. Really. Nut up, don’t pussy around with plantation-era slavery. Go big, or go home.

          2. Also, if his other “garbage” (LOL) movies were “great film”, would the exploitation be OK? Or is this ‘mistep’ just a convenient cover to dish on a filmmaker you don’t have an appreciation for.

      2. “Displays a profound lack of perspective”

        to name a prodco after a slavery-era term and then to engage in a type of labor practice that involves not paying workers to do work is … well, I’ll let that speak for itself.

  9. The work is derivative of the original movie and most importantly, there was no way they would use the comp, because the arm and the leg are not attached to Josh Brolin’s body. It doesn’t make sense to not have your star, who draws in an audience, NOT show on the poster. Duh.

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