Amid the massive changes in the entertainment industry, Thomas Schlamme has found stability in his role as the 26th president of the Directors Guild of America.
“I feel as if I’m more comfortable being the president now than I was when I started,” he says. “I’m able to balance the DGA presidency with my career.”
Schlamme was elected to a two-year term as president in June 2017, by acclamation of the 147 delegates at the DGA’s national convention, representing 17,000 members. He succeeded Paris Barclay, who had served for four years, and has continued the practice of the DGA president being a working director.
Schlamme has already won nine Emmys and three DGA Awards — along with serving as the co-chair for the guild’s bargaining committee at the last two master contract negotiations. Schlamme is best-known as a TV director who teamed with Aaron Sorkin on directing and executive producing “The West Wing,” “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” He’s an executive producer on FX’s “Snowfall,” which has been renewed for a third season and is set to direct part of HBO’s miniseries “The Plot Against America.”
But he admits the entertainment industry’s most prominent issues have continued to present a daunting challenge.
“We’ve carried on with the issues that matter, so my admiration for the DGA has actually increased. We’re not afraid to take on the issues of sexual harassment and inclusion. I’m committed to being the spokesman for the guild on those issues.”
Five months into Schlamme’s presidency, the DGA announced that it had launched disciplinary proceedings to expel Harvey Weinstein as a member, two weeks after the extensive sexual abuse allegations. The DGA has a long-standing practice of not commenting on internal union matters, but decided to make an exception in this case. Weinstein resigned a month later.
Since then, the DGA’s leadership has been focused on spelling out the specifics so that members understand the importance of the issue and providing training on how to respond, Schlamme says.
“We’ve taken our own initiative on how to best handle complaints and providing an executive point of contact,” he says. “At the DGA, our focus is on information, education and training.”
Additionally, the DGA has been an active part of the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. In late 2017, the commission selected Anita Hill to lead its charge against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
“It is most important for the DGA to be a part of the larger community on this issue,” Schlamme says.
The DGA has also continued to closely monitor the inclusion issue. It noted in its October report that women and directors of color posted record levels of employment in episodic television directing jobs during the previous TV season. The percentage of episodes directed by women rose to 25% of all episodes, and the percentage of episodes helmed by directors of color increased to 24% of all episodes. Schlamme said at the time that the survey showed that networks need to do more.
“It’s encouraging to see that the compass is pointing in the right direction, yet progress is mixed,” he said. “The bright spot here is that the doors are finally opening wider for women, who are seeing more opportunities to direct television. But it’s disappointing the same can’t be said for directors of color. The studios and networks who do the hiring still have a long way to go, and we are committed to continuing this important fight.”
In August, the DGA reported that women and minorities had seen significant gains among first-time directors in episodic television. The study of the 2017-18 season showed 31% (63) of first-time hires in the 2017-18 season were directors of color — an increase from 27% in the 2016-17 season; 41% (82) of first-time hires were women, up 33% from the prior season, with 13% (27) of first-time hires being women of color for a 9% gain. Schlamme had pointed comments about the report when it was issued.
“True inclusion is not just a single hire or a line in a speech, it’s a commitment that must be exercised through ongoing action, day by day,” he had said. “The hiring improvements covered in this report show an industry that’s headed in the right direction today, but also one with a long road ahead to keep up with the increasingly diverse world tomorrow.”
And in June, the DGA issued a report that found diversity among feature film directors remained disappointingly low in 2017. The DGA said that female directors accounted for only 16% of the 651 feature films that were released theatrically in the U.S. that year, including those that earned less than $250,000 at the box office. Of those features with a box office total of at least $250,000, only 12% of the directors were women and 10% were people of color. Schlamme offered a blunt reaction at the time.
“It’s outrageous that we’re once again seeing such a lack of opportunity for women and people of color to direct feature films,” he said last year. “Our new study shows that discriminatory practices are still rampant across every corner of the feature film business. These numbers hit home how the chips are stacked against women and people of color.”
Looking back at the reports, Schlamme says the most powerful numbers gains were in the first-time hires in episodic television.
“The DGA doesn’t hire — the networks do,” he notes. “It’s important to remind everyone that what it’s all about is who gets the job. In movies, the studios can do better. They need to make inclusion part of the systemic process.”
The DGA is also quietly ramping up for the upcoming negotiations for a successor deal to the current master contract, which expires on June 30, 2020. During the 2016 round of negotiations, the guild had been able to address the growth in streaming and bargain for a tripling of the residual rates in subscription VOD services such as Netflix.
Schlamme acknowledges that the DGA will continue to push for including language that would mirror the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation jobs. Negotiators attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to adopt a version of the Rooney Rule during the past two rounds of contract talks.
“We won’t let up on the Rooney Rule,” Schlamme says.
As for the upcoming 71st annual DGA Awards ceremonies at the Hollywood & Highland complex, Schlamme is particularly pleased about presentation of the DGA Diversity Award to FX Networks — the first time in five years that the guild has selected a recipient.
“In just three years, FX delivered on a promise to transform themselves from a network that trailed behind in the area of director diversity. They’ve gone above and beyond to turn words into action.”
The DGA noted that only 12% of the network’s directors were women or people of color in the 2014-15 season. John Landgraf kicked off the initiative in 2016 and in the most recent TV season, 52.6% of the channel’s roster of directors were women or people of color.
The DGA Diversity Award has only been given five previous times in its history: in 1997 to Bruce Paltrow, John Wells and Christopher Chulack; in 1999 to Steven Bochco; in 2000 to HBO; in 2005 to Stephen McPherson; and in 2014 to Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers.
Schlamme is also pleased about Don Mischer being presented with the lifetime achievement award for distinguished achievement in television direction. He notes that Mischer, winner of 10 previous DGA Awards, has directed Oscars, Super Bowl halftime shows, the Olympics and President Obama’s inauguration.
“He’s immensely skilled as a director,” Schlamme says. “Don Mischer really has taken us through our cultural history.”
Mischer will be the fourth recipient of the DGA lifetime achievement award for distinguished achievement in television direction. James Burrows and Robert Butler received the inaugural honor in 2014, and commercial director Joe Pytka got the award in 2016.
For a full list of DGA Awards nominations, go to: DGA.org/awards