Film

Producer Gary Foster On Why Abusive Set Behavior Happens & How The Industry Can Stop It – Guest Column

Editor’s note: Often kept secret until retroactive reckonings occur like the ones going on now with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Justice League, on-set bullying and drama that was once the calling card of some power players is something the powerless suffered in silence. Gary Foster, a second-generation film producer who followed his late father David Foster into the movie business, makes an argument that many of those abuses are eminently preventable. Foster, president/partner at Krasnoff Foster Productions, has been at it 40 years with credits that include Denial, Sleepless In Seattle, The Score, Ghost Rider, Tin Cup and Short Circuit. Here, he proposes a new multi-step program he believes will institutionalize reform, and he lays out a case that nicer can actually be more efficient, in addition to leading to fewer bruised feelings and future social media posts.

Ava DuVernay On Launch Of Array Crew: On-Set Inclusion & Getting Studios And Streamers Onboard

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TIME TO LEAD AND COMMIT TO HUMANITY CODE

My dad always used to tell me: “Be nice to people on your way up, because people like to kick those who bullied them when they are on their way down.” We’ve all heard some version of this advice. He wasn’t really telling me to be nice. He was warning me about the bullying, kicking and knocking down that everyone in this industry has experienced.

I’ve learned a few things as I have made my way, most importantly, to be kind and treat all humans on set with respect. It’s simply not true that you have to be a jerk [asshole] to get ahead. People who treat others badly always pay a price for it, one way or another—on the way up or on the way down, out of their pockets or out of someone else’s. Yet, treating people well has not hampered my career at all. In fact, on every set, I’ve been able to get people to perform above and beyond because everyone I’ve ever worked with actually wants to do a great job—at least until someone starts kicking them.

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When the film Short Circuit was greenlit in 1985, I was given my first producing role, suddenly in charge of hundreds of cast and crew members. As with any production, issues arose—including interpersonal conflicts, inappropriate behavior, and problems around unaddressed unconscious or conscious biases. I had no warning that the role I would be stepping into went beyond making the film, but in fact – I discovered that, along with filmmaking, I was also stepping into a much more critical position, charged with responsibility for the crew, cast members and their well being. I had never taken a class in people management, conflict resolution, nor had I (or most producers on set) been trained on how to be a de facto HR executive, which it turned out is a significant part of the job. I had controlled a script that someone wanted to finance. Those were my credentials. I was qualified for the job of Associate Producer… not Associate Leader.

My experiences on sets since Short Circuit, and stories relayed to me from so many of my colleagues, sadly reveal that not enough has changed in our industry. It’s really crazy that studios put untrained managers (producers and directors) in charge of hundreds of employees on multimillion-dollar productions and rarely is the question raised about their ability to actually lead people. I think of the talented writers who get their opportunity to direct, but have likely spent years in their office creating, and rarely interacting with large groups of people, let alone now having hundreds of people looking to them for direction and leadership. It must be daunting.

Yet, the nature of working with highly creative individuals, top talent and dynamic situations merits at least an above average set of leadership skills.

Was I educated on how to handle the manager/wife of a star whose only mission was to create chaos, who only wanted to show her power, who demanded that an actor be fired because of her astrological sign, who spent her time wreaking havoc rather than focusing on supporting her client as he strived to do his best work?

Was I trained to deal with a director who snorted cocaine all day and couldn’t communicate with anyone about how he wanted to shoot a scene, what was the overall vision of the film, or what he wanted from his actors who were relying on him to guide them?

Was I taught to “produce” a legendary actor who went to war with a director and was openly and viciously destructive every day–including getting a professional doctor to declare him “allergic to the director”—therefore forcing us to have the director moved away from the actual working set for health reasons?

Was I trained on how to handle another producer, when they decided to create problems solely to undermine and attempt to harm my relationship with the director (which failed) for their own self-serving reasons?

These are some of my stories, and I guarantee that you all have yours. For decades, Hollywood productions have been a game of survive the bully. Endure the chaos. Manage the problem. We have allowed bad behavior to rule our world and define our way of working. Some of us even get praised for our singular focus and determination while we abuse and destroy anyone who gets in the way. A famous director once said: “No good film comes from a pleasant experience.” That wisdom was passed down to others who saw no reason to disprove the message.

That’s bullshit! Great comes from great. Productivity comes from an engaged workforce. There have been plenty of difficult sets that have resulted in unsuccessful films and series. There have been many happy sets that have resulted in successful product. Is it any wonder we find ourselves at a crossroads on behavior in our industry?

This historical lack of oversight is now finally beginning to be addressed. I recently read about the program that Ava DuVernay and Peter Roth have instituted — Array Crew — bringing diverse candidates to the set, addressing a vast need for greater representation and inclusion. Anita Hill’s commission on sexual behavior in Hollywood is a very important resource on destructive trends that must be eliminated. And of course, the #MeToo movement raised awareness of a deep problem that has finally forced mandatory sexual harassment training on every set and in every workplace.

Progress, yes! But it’s still not enough to deal with the holistic lack of humanity on our sets. I don’t want us to fail. My mission is to help all of us be successful. We need guard rails to keep us from going over the edge. Our work is inherently emotional and to protect our projects we need to know what works to keep people from damaging themselves and those around them.

A LONG-TERM SOLUTION

I’ve spent the past several months in conversation with my childhood friend and neighbor Eileen Coskey Fracchia, founder of El Camino Group, a well-respected leadership development and business consultant firm for Fortune 100 companies and industry leaders. Our conversation began as a simple interview—Eileen was working on a research paper for the Harvard affiliate Institute of Coaching, where she serves as a strategic consultant and thought leader and wanted my perspective on how people are managing social skills and change within our industry. By nature of the conversation, we both realized something was amiss.

I was curious. After multiple conversations with fellow producers, studio colleagues, directors and guilds, it became increasingly obvious to us all that we are missing a critical piece. It’s something in which other industries consistently, proactively invest. It’s not sexy, or flashy, or catchy, and it feels somewhat out of place in our industry, but I’d argue that’s exactly why we need it.

Here it is: owning our role as leaders.

There is currently no consistent or formal process for developing leaders on set. I suspect that most of us have NEVER sat in a meeting with our producer/director team and discussed how to present a unified vision on leading and communicating with our production. Or decide together what the process should be for resolving conflicts that will arise. No, mostly we charge forward and try not to let anybody, or anything, get in the way of our creative mission. There are a lot of stakeholders, i.e., potential points of disagreement—the studio/financier, the distributor, the talent, the filmmaking team, agents, managers, publicists, marketing teams, etc.

We deal with them all. We are not always aligned in our efforts to try and shield the creative group from outside interference. We are often forced to deal with unhealthy and unproductive processes—that could be avoided with proactive and intelligent conversations up front.

I could have used a professional coach/trainer to work with me to design a way forward when I was hired by a studio determined to make a film against the creative and personal concerns of the lead actress. They had the right to force her into the production, and they did. The barrage of angry and threatening calls between all parties went on for weeks. No one turns in their best work under these conditions.

In any other industry, there would have been some kind of intervention, some resources to help each individual deal with the circumstances. Of course, that never happened. We had to figure it out for ourselves – which we eventually did, but not without causing weeks of avoidable stress on all parties.

Almost every week we hear about an issue that has occurred on one of our sets. … Why have we settled on post-event crisis management rather than getting ahead of the potential problems from the start?

Our industry has a unique set of systems and people-management processes. Sometimes they have served us well, but sometimes, as in the case above, they have not served well at all. Inherently, we color outside the lines. We are innovators, creators and thought provokers, and our stories create ripples that trigger empowerment and change. We give our talent room to create. That’s what makes us great at our respective art and gives us the space to develop, translate and share original ideas. It’s a point of pride among some in Hollywood that the structures that traditionally govern other industries are considered impediments. We shrug off abnormal behavior, saying “it’s their process.”

Our systems are designed to react to problems. We know the problems are coming. They always do. But we don’t have the tools to stop them. When crises occur (after the fact) we figure out a plan to fix things.

Almost every week we hear about an issue that has occurred on one of our sets. Many of them even get international press attention. They cost the studios considerable dollars to “fix.” They also cause negative PR to the personnel, the product and the financier. The individuals involved are advised to apologize and eventually do an interview begging forgiveness. Sometimes the issue is unredeemable, and careers are tarnished forever. Why have we settled on post-event crisis management rather than getting ahead of the potential problems from the start?

One actress I worked with was a known troublemaker. I had been warned, more than once. So, every day, I showed up at her trailer with her favorite Starbucks drink, during hair and makeup. I sat and just listened to her vent for 20 minutes or so and made mental notes of every little problem she complained of. I took care of them all behind the scenes. And nothing ever blew up. Why aren’t we all trained to listen and resolve problems like that?

Usually, when there is a cast and crew issue that we do not know how to resolve, we simply find a way to get rid of the problem, often by getting rid of the most junior person, then rehiring and training, sometimes at the cost of two people where we needed just one. If we knew how, we could take time to understand the root of it and resolve it. But we don’t. Why? Because we do not have the skills, tools and time to deal with it. Our mind-set is often: damn the consequences, we have a schedule to meet! Not only is that approach to conflict not acceptable, it is short sided, expensive and reactive.

Is this really how we want to continue to roll? The chaos and destructive back-peddling must end.

We need to invest in leadership.

If we made it a priority to lead better, we could simultaneously create an opportunity to raise the bar in terms of how we work together.

The entertainment industry is overdue to create a new standard for how we treat each other.

How is it that our industry upholds and honors standards for how we treat animals on set (the Humane Society of the United States). We uphold and honor standards for how we treat the environment on set (the Sustainable Production Alliance). We uphold and honor the standards for how we treat children on set. It’s about time to uphold and honor standards for how we are going to treat ourselves on set.

Therefore, Eileen and I are launching Humanity on Set (HoS) and the LEAD Program. We are now poised to present a purposefully designed mechanism and support system, built by experts, to empower leaders with the tools and techniques to create an inclusive, positive environment. Where every individual is encouraged to share their perspectives, constructively voice their challenges, and feel appreciated for their diverse contributions.

HoS and LEAD will not impinge on the creative process, rather it will build unity, understanding and clarity at the top of each production. It will give both film and TV production teams and their studio partners the foundational skills to empower, engage and execute wildly successful productions that can be positive experiences.

Imagine the possibilities if there was a Humanity Code for us to uphold and honor, a standard of being with one another that allows for all of us to do our very best work while committing to the respectful treatment of others.

Let’s invest in and educate ourselves to lead better and treat each other better. Let’s commit to improving our industry – together. Let’s avoid the future industrywide reckonings that are sure to come if we do not course-correct now.

It’s time.


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Deadline is an online news site founded by Nikki Finke in 2006. The site is updated several times a day, with entertainment industry news as its focus. It has been a brand of Penske Media Corporation since 2009.

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