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

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. We have allowed bad behavior to rule our world and define our way of working. Manage the problem. Endure the chaos. For decades, Hollywood productions have been a game of survive the bully. Some of us even get praised for our singular focus and determination while we abuse and destroy anyone who gets in the way. These are some of my stories, and I guarantee that you all have yours.
We need guard rails to keep us from going over the edge. My mission is to help all of us be successful. 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. I don’t want us to fail. But it’s still not enough to deal with the holistic lack of humanity on our sets. Progress, yes!
And nothing ever blew up. I took care of them all behind the scenes. 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 had been warned, more than once. One actress I worked with was a known troublemaker. Why aren’t we all trained to listen and resolve problems like that? So, every day, I showed up at her trailer with her favorite Starbucks drink, during hair and makeup.
That’s bullshit! Productivity comes from an engaged workforce. Great comes from great. Is it any wonder we find ourselves at a crossroads on behavior in our industry? There have been many happy sets that have resulted in successful product. There have been plenty of difficult sets that have resulted in unsuccessful films and series.
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?
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. 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. It’s simply not true that you have to be a jerk [asshole] to get ahead. 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.
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’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.
Here it is: owning our role as leaders.
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. There is currently no consistent or formal process for developing leaders on set.
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. Why? Our mind-set is often: damn the consequences, we have a schedule to meet! If we knew how, we could take time to understand the root of it and resolve it. Not only is that approach to conflict not acceptable, it is short sided, expensive and reactive. But we don’t. Because we do not have the skills, tools and time to deal with it.
TIME TO LEAD AND COMMIT TO HUMANITY CODE
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.
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?
The entertainment industry is overdue to create a new standard for how we treat each other.
Anita Hill’s commission on sexual behavior in Hollywood is a very important resource on destructive trends that must be eliminated. 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. This historical lack of oversight is now finally beginning to be addressed. 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.
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. 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.
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?
But we don’t have the tools to stop them. When crises occur (after the fact) we figure out a plan to fix things. Our systems are designed to react to problems. We know the problems are coming. They always do.
We need to invest in leadership.
A LONG-TERM SOLUTION
Why have we settled on post-event crisis management rather than getting ahead of the potential problems from the start? Almost every week we hear about an issue that has occurred on one of our sets. …
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’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. 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 must be daunting.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. I was curious. 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.
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?
The chaos and destructive back-peddling must end. Is this really how we want to continue to roll?
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.
It’s time.” />
Inherently, we color outside the lines. It’s a point of pride among some in Hollywood that the structures that traditionally govern other industries are considered impediments. That’s what makes us great at our respective art and gives us the space to develop, translate and share original ideas. We are innovators, creators and thought provokers, and our stories create ripples that trigger empowerment and change. Our industry has a unique set of systems and people-management processes. We shrug off abnormal behavior, saying “it’s their process.” Sometimes they have served us well, but sometimes, as in the case above, they have not served well at all. We give our talent room to create.
We deal with them all. We are often forced to deal with unhealthy and unproductive processes—that could be avoided with proactive and intelligent conversations up front. We are not always aligned in our efforts to try and shield the creative group from outside interference.
Those were my credentials. 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. As with any production, issues arose—including interpersonal conflicts, inappropriate behavior, and problems around unaddressed unconscious or conscious biases. I had controlled a script that someone wanted to finance. 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. 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. I was qualified for the job of Associate Producer… not Associate Leader.
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No one turns in their best work under these conditions. 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. 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.
It’s about time to uphold and honor standards for how we are going to treat ourselves on set. 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. How is it that our industry upholds and honors standards for how we treat animals on set (the Humane Society of the United States).
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. In any other industry, there would have been some kind of intervention, some resources to help each individual deal with the circumstances.
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. Almost every week we hear about an issue that has occurred on one of our sets. Many of them even get international press attention. 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?
Yet, the nature of working with highly creative individuals, top talent and dynamic situations merits at least an above average set of leadership skills.

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