Showrunner and Activist Glen Mazzara on Creating Real Change in the TV Industry

Glen Mazzara
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Few showrunners are as well-positioned as Glen Mazzara to help create change in the TV industry.

A veteran of “The Walking Dead,” “The Shield” and “Damien,” among other shows, Mazzara was an activist in the realms of inclusion and gender equity long before the recent wave of allegations over the abuse of power in Hollywood. But going through this post-Weinstein moment has only strengthened his resolve to help bring about a new era.

What’s occurring in the entertainment industry at this moment, Mazzara told Variety, “is a major correction that is long overdue. I don’t think it’s going to dissipate.”

Mazzara, who is currently at work on the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” novels, is on the board of the WGA, which has been working on a code of conduct for members that include “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment as well as due process for those accused of misconduct.

But well beyond his WGA duties, Mazzara has done outreach among Hollywood writers for a decade. He’s run seminars for his peers at various networks and hosted meetings designed to help educate agents, executives, creators and staffers learn more about the barriers that exist for men and women of color, white women and others from underrepresented groups.

“I found that in my experience as a showrunner, when I tried to bring more women on to staffs, when I tried to bring in more female directors, I got pushback from studios and networks and from non-writing producers,” says Mazzara. “I started talking about this at the Writers Guild ages ago, and I was an anomaly because I’m a straight, white, male, middle-aged guy who is benefiting from the system. So people would say, ‘Why’s he talking about it? Oh, I guess it must be an issue.’”

Mazzara admits that he’s said and done things that are less than ideal as he rose through the ranks as a writer and producer. But he’s been willing to educate himself and be open about that process.

“Every showrunner has a responsibility to open up their process, to say, ‘This is how I manage my staff.’ They also have to talk to the staffs, ask them how the experience is for them,” says Mazzara. “If you put that in the story you run, I’m sure I’m going to get laughed at.”

Mazzara says there’s hidebound resistance to the idea that anyone can or should question showrunners’ hiring patterns or management style. But one thing that gives him some perspective is his experience outside of TV: Before entering the TV industry, he worked as a hospital administrator in New York for 13 years.

“A good manager would be open to the conversation, ‘What am I doing right and wrong? Give me some feedback.’ I’ve mentioned this kind of thing in public and people think I’m a lunatic,” he says. “But you know what? It worked in hospital administration, and that’s saving lives. This is making TV shows.”

Do you think that things are changing right now?

I do. There have been a lot of people around town who are very earnest and want to talk about this. And these conversations are uncomfortable. Most people want to say, “Well I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, but the system is. I would hire more women, but the agencies don’t rep them. I would hire more women, but the studios don’t approve.” The studios and networks say, “Well, we would hire more women, more people of color, more Latinos, more Asian-Americans. We would hire different groups of people, but the showrunners have a boy’s club culture and we don’t want to force them.”

Everyone passes the buck. They blame the system, and it’s disingenuous because the studios are the employers. The studios are very adamant with showrunners about creative decisions and other matters when it comes to the shows — the studios will be vocal about what they want and don’t want. But with these hiring issues, they tend to defer.

So what I’ve done is try to educate the community — I’ve spoken to agencies and studios and networks. I’ll get 40 or 50 people in a room, and we’ll talk about programs we’ve started at the Writers Guild, trying to educate our members. Trying to roll this back.

I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of horror stories.

Yeah. Over the years, a lot of people have come to me privately and said, “Hey, I’ve been in a room. I’m African-American and there were writers using the N-word.” And then you say that to other people, they say, “No, nobody’s really doing that.” When you would talk about the fact that people are being harassed, the reaction to that would often be, “No, that’s ridiculous.” Like, it’s outrageous to assume someone’s really grabbing somebody and sexually harassing them.

There was just a disbelief from a group of people — I think that disbelief is gone. I think people are now saying, “OK, there is a problem.” I’ve heard the statistic from a reputable source that 15% of men commit domestic violence and harassing behavior and all of that. And 85% of men are complicit and silent.

Now I’m hearing from people, “This is wrong, we need to fix this.” There are issues where a lot of those men are afraid of being called out, because there’s not a single man out there who hasn’t tripped over the line, who hasn’t said something inappropriate. So I think a lot of men are sort of hunkering down. Women are having a lot of conversations about feminism, the workplace and what the standards should be. I think many men are on the sidelines, and the idea is, to some extent, “Let’s allow that to play out.”

But people are really, genuinely engaged. They may be fearful, they may be agitated, they may be angry. People may be at different places in terms of their levels of engagement or understanding. I will not make any prediction on where it’s going — we don’t know.

What could help going forward?

People have to be held to a standard. I think the studios and networks have to get their act together, and clean up their H.R. departments, because the H.R. departments have not been welcoming. As a producer, I’ve certainly had issues on shows in which people have gone to H.R. and I find that H.R. is worried about the accused male launching a lawsuit.

There are practices in other industries that could be adopted. We have to try specific solutions now. What I have found is that almost every solution that has been put forward, someone argues against it. Hollywood is very good at coming up with all the reasons why things won’t work. But try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

How do you see your own work on this going forward?

Right before the #MeToo movement started, a couple of weeks before, I went into a big network to talk about some of the programs at the Writers Guild. I brought a woman with me, a fellow writer. She had worked at the network, and we prepared for the meeting in advance. I said, “Well I’m going to go in, we’ll introduce ourselves, and I’ll run through the agenda of the meeting. And then if they have questions, we’ll address them.” But really she was attending my meeting, so I didn’t want to burden her with a lot to do.

But before I could even shake someone’s hand, she started telling them how she had been harassed on one of their shows, and how it was a bullying culture, and that since then, she was considered difficult, and she had been blackballed at that network.

I’ll admit, I was taken aback because this was not the agenda we had talked about. I was just thrown. And then I started listening to her, and I realized how incredibly hurt she was. Now that she had this forum, it just came spilling out. Later I was discussing this with someone who said, “She only got that opportunity to say those things because they set the meeting for you.”

I realized, that’s my role here, as a man. I may want to fix everything and I may want it settled and want things resolved — but actually that’s not my role right now. My role is to listen to people. My role is to help. My role is to provide the forum for other people to tell their stories, and to try to be supportive of an existing movement, and to look at ways that I can use my power to make a difference on my shows. My job is to help fellow male writers and showrunners work out their issues and try to change.

There’s a lot of agitation out there — and until recently, not many places for it to go.

So here’s one suggestion: Hollywood is one of the only industries that does not have exit interviews. It would be better if everyone got to have an exit interview: “This showrunner has created a toxic climate.” Or “The showrunner’s a sweetheart, but the number two is a bully when the showrunner leaves the room.” Studios would get to know what’s going on.

This terrifies showrunners. I’ve brought this up, and a lot of people have argued against this. It works in every other industry, and yet Hollywood is resisting. But whether or not it works, try it. You may not get a job back on that show, but you don’t have to get blackballed by the network. There are entire networks and studios blackballing people because a powerful man said, “She didn’t get the show. She didn’t work out.” “She was difficult,” or “The female director was hard on the crew.”

That happens all the time, but that can just be veiled discrimination or retaliation.

Yes. I had a woman direct an episode of “Damien,” and we had a scene that we were planning to use digital special effects for, and she had a really brilliant way to shoot it practically. There were men in the crew who thought it was a crazy idea. I put everybody on the phone and I let her explain it. As she started explaining it, everybody cut her off. Everybody spoke over her.

So I said, “OK, let her finish. Explain it again.” I asked her to explain it two or three times, and the third time, it started to make sense. And we shot it, and it was a home run. She’s a huge talent. I’m very grateful, but I had to use my authority to calmly redirect the men to listen.

I have to add, there have been many times when I haven’t listened. I don’t want to be up on a soapbox here. I don’t want to say I’m woke. I’m just saying, I pay attention to all of my employees and try to get the best out of them.

For every showrunner who’s decent, there’s another who is vindictive, and either way, there are often no real limits placed on their behavior.

If you look at the EEOC’s recent study on sexual harassment, it says that sexual harassment is pervasive in industries in which you have what they call playmakers — Wall Street, Hollywood, Washington, Silicon Valley [Note: Look for the section of the 2016 report that discusses Risk Factors and High-Value Employees]. When you have a star figure who is either generating a lot of revenue, or is in charge of babysitting a lot of revenue, people will turn the other way and let them do what they want. So the EEOC has proposed solutions to correct for that, but it’s more or less left up to each industry to self-police, and that’s where the problem is.

One of the things that I think is worthwhile is to go to our existing showrunners and start a think tank. This is something we’re looking at within the Guild — just sitting people down and say, “OK, what are the best practices we can use? What are the obstacles that we face in doing that? How do we unpack issues so that we have a safe work environment?”

Or, “What do you wish you had known when you became a showrunner?”

One of the things that I have experienced is that when I have taken a corrective action, there has been pushback. From studios, from networks, from fellow writers, from non-writing producers. I think a lot of non-writing producers are unchecked, and do need to be part of this solution, and right now they don’t seem to be part of the conversation. But they have incredible power because they’re connected to the studio, and they certainly have a lot of power over young showrunners.

Sometimes the issue is that a young showrunner does not have the clout — they don’t have the power to establish the culture. So what has historically happened is, people say, “We will correct these issues in season two or season three.”

And that doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t happen, and there are billion-dollar shows on the air in which issues have not been addressed. So then, let’s try to do this education for new shows, which are the most fragile. What I’ve proposed at the Guild is that we bring our showrunners to talk about these issues. I’m interested in trying to help people unpack messy issues, and trying to find solutions that can work.

Do you think that this kind of changes and reforms and discussions would make for a better creative product?

Without a doubt. It would make for better art, because you’re bringing more voices into the creative process in a positive, constructive way. People want to tell their stories. When you have a staff that more accurately represents the world — it’s not necessarily that they challenge, in a threatening way, your point of view. They just add something that you could not possibly have thought of — or they have a very different approach. That so often has proved to be a very good thing, in my experience.

When Hollywood’s working and it’s going well, people love this job. I am a firm believer that people work better when they’re relaxed and they’re comfortable. I’ve known people who think it’s better to shift people out of their comfort zone and throw everything up in the air.

Or pit them against each other.

That’s not how you get good work. I don’t have that management style. But again, I worked in a hospital for 13 years. I received management training. Most of our showrunners do not receive management training. They may go through a showrunner training program, but those are just people who identify as potential showrunners, so we need to have a conversation with existing showrunners. How can we support them to make change that they probably want to make?

You’re not going to convince some people. How can you get them involved? Do you make anything mandatory? What limits can be enforced?

This goes back to the studios. Our contract’s with them. People like to say, “Well, showrunners do the hiring.” No. I can say who I want to hire, but the contract is not with me. It’s with the studio.

There should be sexual harassment training on the first day of the writers room, or the first day of production. By the way, a lot of the sexual harassment training is bogus. It’s goofy. It’s based on old videos and old scenarios. It hasn’t been freshened up. And it’s not mandatory. I have been in this industry for 20 years, and I believe the last sexual harassment training I went to was on “The Shield.”

This kind of training and conversation has to be updated to reflect the kind of sophisticated and challenging material that a lot of people are putting in their shows. I give a speech on the first day of my writers rooms: “You can say whatever you want. You can say the filthiest things. You can say anything about any character. The minute you say something to another writer or you show disrespect, I have an issue and that’s not OK. Stay on the creative target and be as free as possible.” My shows have sexually explicit material and very violent material, and this is material that my writers are coming up with. I’m not saying that you’re not going to have ruffled feathers in the room. You’re going to have that at times. But these kinds of discussions can be conducted with respect.

And here’s one simple rule that would work for Hollywood: Showrunners should not discuss their personal sex lives or the sex lives of anybody working for them.

That seems reasonable. It’s amazing how much that happens, though, in inappropriate ways.

One reason is the model for the writers room is the college dorm room. The writers’ room is intimate. People are talking about their own stories. People are blowing off steam. The conversations tend to get personal very quickly.

I learned that things that I say as a showrunner have an impact on my writers in a way that didn’t occur when I was a staff writer. I’m setting the tone, and I think sometimes showrunners don’t realize that their job is actually to set the tone. You do not get paid to treat the room as Archie Bunker’s living room, where you get to say whatever you want. There has to be some self-discipline

There are some who not only dont set a healthy tone, they aggressively use people as mental and physical props in their own personal psychodramas.

We’ve been talking in-house at the Writers Guild about establishing a code of conduct about setting expectations [a WGA statement on the topic was issued in late January; the Guild continues to work on and refine the actual code of conduct]. Other industries that generate the type of massive revenue that we do have standards, and it’s considered fair game to look at management styles at those industries. But there’s that resistance: “Anything we try is not going to work, so let’s not do this, let’s not do that.” The industry talks itself out of these changes. Studios frankly need to launch fact-finding missions. What are the cultures at the show they’re paying for? The studio has to set professional standards and hold people accountable.

Showrunners can do this too. Shawn Ryan [the creator of “The Shield”] used to sit us down in the writers room and say, “What can we do better this year? What went right? What went wrong?” He met with every writer individually. “Where can I improve? Here’s how you can improve.”

I think one major change that could lead to an improvement is getting men of color, women of color and white women into more positions of power.

I think you’re right. I don’t think we have to make the case anymore for inclusion. We’re sort of past making the case for why we have to do this. I’m starting to get focused on, how do we actually do it and avoid pushback? The studios have to get their act together and stop protecting bad behavior.

Do you think they will?

They say they will. I haven’t seen that. That’s up to them. My role is to support my fellow writers, and go and have these conversations.