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As Warner Bros. TV Group underwent a round of layoffs in October, the news that garnered the most attention seemed to catch the leadership of the newly merged Warner Bros. Discovery off guard: the shuttering of WBTVG’s long-running writer and director workshops.
The employees laid off as a result of the closures — workshop head Rebecca Windsor and administrator Elly Lachman — represented just two of the 125 positions eliminated Oct. 11 across the TV group, but the decision sparked backlash among the vocal community of writers on social media, followed by a swift rejoinder the following day from the DGA.
The guild claimed in a statement that the workshops’ cancellation violated the terms of its 2014 collective bargaining agreement mandating that each studio operate a development program for emerging writers, with a focus on improving diversity in TV. Half an hour later, WBD announced that its own report of the workshops’ death was greatly exaggerated; they were in fact moving under the jurisdiction of the company’s DEI unit.
Whether or not the move was planned, the financial motivations are clear: The TV group had a cost-cutting target to hit, and as a non-revenue-generating line item, the workshops were easy prey, even though their costs were relatively light compared to the production budget of any given TV show: two employee salaries, plus the staff writer salaries and episodic directing fees for workshop participants.
Still, that was roughly $2 million that WBD CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels could slash from WBTV’s content-focused ledgers — and easily offload as a corporate DEI priority when the need arose.
Details of the new workshops are to be determined, but WBD’s U.S. DEI lead, Karen Horne, told The Hollywood Reporter that they will involve at least one significant change: Writers and directors who secure jobs through the workshops would no longer be paid by the programs themselves, but by their individual shows. This follows the model Horne established for the directors pipeline program at her previous company, NBCUniversal. (NBCU’s DEI brand, NBCU Launch, does cover expenses for two episodes’ worth of shadowing for each director participant; Sony TV’s writers program splits costs 50-50 with individual shows.)
Opinions are split as to which approach — program-paid or show-paid — is more effective in accomplishing the expressed goal of creating lasting, ascendant careers for participants. The argument behind having program writers and directors paid no differently from the rest of the writers room or other episodic helmers is to help erase the perception that they are token or affirmative action hires.
In addition, alumni of the various network and studio pipeline programs have over the years reported having trouble being rehired on shows once they were no longer “free.” And the stigma often is exacerbated with programs branded under the DEI umbrella, which the WBD workshops now are.
On the other hand, advocates of the program-subsidized model argue that in practice, shows simply won’t take on workshop participants if they have to pay for them, especially with ever-stingier budgets. Many working writers are reporting a trend of smaller, top-heavy rooms with little vacancy for entry-level writers.
But the bottom line, as The Black List founder Franklin Leonard sees it, is, “If people are debating about who’s responsible for paying for the diverse writer, everyone’s already failed.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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