Lack of skilled screen leadership exacerbates systemic cultural issues, contributes to talent loss: report

Screen leaders – such as producers, EPs, line producers, key creatives and HODs – have outsize influence on industry workplace culture, with producers the most influential of all. Yet the vast majority have received no leadership or people management training, and of those that have, only 7 per cent received it in a screen-specific context.

An absence of skilled leadership can lead to a ‘producing at all costs’ mentality, which then exacerbates cultural and behavioural issues like bullying and harassment. This in turn leads to a loss of emerging talent, contributes to crew shortages and negatively impacts the wellbeing of the workforce.

That’s according to new research conducted by the University of Melbourne, Screen Well and independent consultant Jonathon Dutton, complied in a new report released today, Leadership Matters.

The research was based on in-depth interviews with 20 experienced and emerging leaders from across the industry, as well as anonymous survey of 156 self-reporting leaders and 57 non-leaders.

Leadership Matters builds upon ongoing calls for cultural change in the screen industry. Past reports, such as the Australian Cinematographers Society’s 2022 A Wider Lens, have found that workplace conditions like as long hours, unpredictable schedules, competition for work, and job stress, have negative impacts on worker wellbeing and mental health, and that bullying, harassment and discrimination are rife within the industry.

Screen Well founder Ben Steel, the University of Melbourne’s Jo Briscoe, and Jonathon Dutton.

The Leadership Matters researchers aimed to understand how the culture of screen industry itself was contributing to these identified problems, how people’s creativity and therefore the commercial outcomes of projects are impacted, and what influence leaders had.

They found workplace culture in the screen industry was guided by four key things: standard work conditions, seen as challenging at the best of times; historical culture, that is, “the way things were”, global socio-political influences like #MeToo, and market forces and current industry challenges.

While previously tolerated norms were being challenged, the historical culture – described as male-dominated and celebrating and expecting overwork and personal sacrifice in the name of the job – was seen as the root cause of many behavioural problems in the workplace, like bullying and discrimination.

Some 74 per cent of survey respondents reported having witnessed unacceptable behaviour at work in the last year, while 95 per cent said industry culture was an ongoing problem, and 95 per cent felt that was a leadership responsibility. Of those who reported unacceptable behaviour, 63 per cent felt their concerns were not adequately dealt with.

Reasons people did not report behaviour included power imbalances or presumed inaction by management, as often people perpetuating the bad behaviour were leaders themselves; reputational risks in speaking out, like being perceived as ‘difficult’; and the gig-to-gig nature of the industry – people preferred to grin and bear it, knowing that the job will be over soon.

Toxic workplaces were found to occur when there were poor or absent leaders, and/or with “aggravated” workplace conditions. The latter could include longer than standard hours, disorganisation, under-resourced productions, and unrealistic creative, budget or leadership expectations.

By contrast, effective leaders were seen as those who were people-oriented and organised; those who made their expectations clear, preempted issues and checked with colleagues, and were responsive and visible. Where leaders were producers, they also allocated appropriate prep time, created realistic schedules and budgets, and prevented avoidable last minute script changes.

“The standard work conditions of screen workplaces are challenging at the best of times, even when they are well resourced and organised. It was evident from our interviews, however, that when leaders actively created positive workplaces, people felt more engaged, valued and like they were a part of something. This fosters a sense of resilience in the face of these challenges,” the report stated.

Given the hierarchical nature of the industry, individual leaders’ influence over culture was seen as outsized. The researchers also noted that the influence of the production company itself “cannot be overstated”; producers who are employed full-time by a business bring that business’ culture to set.

“Although workplace culture is everyone’s responsibility, screen leaders do have a disproportionate influence – it starts with them,” the report states.

“We found leaders can mitigate [negative] effects by taking a more active and pre-emptive approach to workplace culture, and screen businesses and the wider industry can help by equipping and supporting them to do so.

“This will not only respond to the calls for cultural change, but will improve the experience and wellbeing of workers and the creative and commercial outcomes of screen projects.”

In workplaces where people felt their wellbeing was impacted, they reported a negative impact on their creativity – they lost confidence, felt anxious and had self-doubt. Some decided to leave the industry.

“Time and time again, we heard that if people don’t feel safe to speak up creatively, they won’t. If people have been hired for their creativity and experience and they withhold their honest views, the creative potential of the work is diminished, which has a compounding effect across a project,” the researchers wrote.

“We heard this affects people’s desire to try new things or make or suggest bolder choices, resulting in the work becoming more conservative and risk averse… which is often the opposite of what producers, production companies and broadcasters say they want.”

However, the report acknowledged that being a leader is no walk in the park. Only 8 per cent of all leaders reported feeling supported ‘all the time’, while 57 per cent felt they never felt supported. Most were found to be elevated into leadership roles due to past commercial or creative success, rather than their ability to manage people. Those surveyed also reported instances of people being elevated to leadership positions before they were ‘ready’.

Crew shortages were also seen as a current challenge for leaders, one that meant that people’s behavioural issues were less likely to be addressed, given the difficulty in finding a replacement for a bad egg. Eyes were also reported as averted from the bad behaviour of ‘stars’, like actors, key creatives and HODs.

“Interviews revealed that producers often use crew selection to influence culture on their production, with HODs identified as the most critical. With the crew shortages however, producers are not always getting access to their first choices, and we heard that all it takes is ‘one person’ for issues to arise,” the report stated.

“With HODs and freelance producers being in high demand, they can also be selective about the production companies and producers they work with based on their reputations and past experiences. This is an opportunity cost that production companies may not be considering.”

Leaders were also increasingly needing to navigate a generational divide and a clash of beliefs about how workplaces should operate.

“Older workers are often frustrated by the work ethic and expectations of younger generations, while younger generations are well versed in the socio-political changes and find the old ways of working in need of updating. While there can be resentment on both sides, it was reported that this was resulting in young people leaving the industry, which was expected to be an ongoing problem,” the report said.

Given the unique challenges of the industry, the researchers recommended that leaders look for chances for leadership training that is screen-specific, and that industry bodies invest in such programs.

Dutton, who has also worked in the industry as an actor, director and producer, told IF respondents had an aversion to “corporate” leadership training. As such, the team are looking off the back of the report as to how they can work with learning designers to develop targeted solutions that consider the uniqueness of screen workplaces.

“We want to be front and centre as part of the solution,” he said.

With regards to production companies, Dutton and his colleagues suggested they develop company values and co-create behavioural expectations with staff; renew existing policies for what needs to be ‘brought to life’; and implement feedback mechanisms, as feedback was found to rarely be sought or given. Companies should also pay attention to budgets, ensure specialist supports for leaders relative to their experience, and try to have a ‘people-oriented’ producer on each production.

It was also recommended funding agencies and broadcasters play a role in feedback and accountability measures on projects they invest in, particularly given “all-too-often” leaders are actually the perpetrators of bullying and harassment.

It’s suggested this would have two-fold benefits: If accountability measures exist, leaders are more likely to act appropriately, and if serious issues are identified, whenever leaders next apply for funding, they will be asked to include a plan to address past known issues.

“There’s no safety net when leaders are the problem,” Dutton said.

“We need to find a way to have some kind of external accountability mechanism in place that also allows people to learn; that creates opportunities for people to learn and to grow by the information that they receive about their productions.”

Off the back of the report, Screen Well founder and director Ben Steel and Dutton will host session ‘Top 5 Screen Workplace Priorities for 2024’ at Screen Forever Wednesday March 20, 10am. Speakers also include Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight and Unless Pictures’ Rosie Lourde.

Read the full report here.