A Q&A About TV Creative Rights

Holcomb ZinbergIn this Q&A from May 2011, former Television Creative Rights Committee Co-Chairs Michael Zinberg and Rod Holcomb speak about some of the most pressing creative rights issues facing television directors.

What are some of the current issues affecting directors working in television?

Michael Zinberg: In pre-production, the biggest issue is the director's involvement in casting. In the shooting cycle, it's about the problems they may face on the set, including their ability to work with the actors. In post-production, it's about being able to do their cut, which they get the right to do in the contract, and to participate in other areas of post production.

Rod Holcomb: Another issue is the need for continuing attention to timely script delivery. This was a big campaign the Committee worked on several years ago, and I think the improvement has been remarkable, and yet we still have to be there pressing that issue, I think, every year.

What is the challenge related to casting?

MZ: Casting these days takes a village. Not only do writers and producers of the show weigh in on who gets which roles, the studio and the network have a very active voice in casting the actors. As we all know, the ability of the director to work with actors that the director thinks will do the best job and whom he or she will trust is critical. Sometimes the director can't be in the same town – the show is prepping in one town, actors are being read in another. So it's about the director's involvement with the producers, with the studio, and with the network in picking the people that the director would like to see in front of the camera.

RH: Every director needs to push for having a casting session. It seems to me, it undermines the responsibility and the strength of the director as a whole by not including him in those very important creative decisions.

Are episodic directors exercising their contractual right to deliver their own edit?

MZ: I think it's terribly important to do, even if you're in another town or scheduling makes it difficult. Technology is such these days that you can see edits online, they can send you cuts, you can give notes, there's all kinds of back and forth technology, so there's really no reason a director wouldn't give his input to a cut. It's something that has been fought very hard for and should be honored all the way.

What kinds of problems do directors confront on the set?

MZ: When there are writers and producers on the set that are there full-time, and the director is a "guest" for that episode, sometimes the interaction is a little cloudy because an actor will have a tendency to go to a writer or a producer as opposed to the director. It's up to the writer and producer to make sure it's the director's set and that they allow that director to have the communication with the actor and not get in the way. The Creative Rights Committee tries to make sure our directors are aware of what their rights are on the set and that our director-producers are helping the directors and supporting the directors on the set and making sure that the writers and producers are allowing a director to do his or her job.

Although the Basic Agreement in general prohibits the replacement of a director by somebody who is already assigned to the production in another capacity, there's a provision in the BA allowing a producer of a series who is a "career director" to direct added scenes or retakes if the original director is not available and agrees to the arrangement. Why does that provision exist?

RH: The BA guarantees the right of the director of record to direct added scenes and retakes. However, in episodic television, sometimes the director of record is unavailable to shoot added scenes or retakes – for instance, they may already be working on a different show. As a result, the Guild and the employers came to the agreement that if the director of record is unavailable, the production has the right to assign the work of directing added scenes or retakes to a producer of the series who has been a career director, but only if the original director agrees to the arrangement and has the opportunity to consult with the career director. The production must also notify the DGA as soon as practicable.

The principle goal was to protect the director of record for an episode when he or she was not available to shoot either the remaining scenes that could not be scheduled or any scene that had been added. So what we did was try to mitigate the confusion and the argument by stating as closely as we could a set of requirements that would give the director of record a sense of confidence that his work would be handled correctly.

Why did the Committee set about defining "career director," and what definition did it develop?

MZ: The Guild through its contract is concerned with protecting the original episodic director's vision. Not just anybody can step on the stage and shoot a scene – it has to be somebody who is a bona fide director. I think we've come up with a pretty good definition that allows for the director of record to be protected and for an effective execution of that director's vision.

RH: The Guild will treat someone as a "career director" for this purpose if he or she has spent at least three years in which their primary source of employment earnings came from work as a director in film or television. If there's no career director already employed on the producing staff, the Guild will consider allowing a staff director-producer to direct added scenes or retakes if they have some substantial previous experience directing, if they have responsibility for working with the episodic directors to help them prepare their episodes, and if they are employed to direct at least one episode out of an order of six; or two out of the first 13 ordered; or three out of a full order of 22 episodes or more.

We intend the policy to provide the director of record enough security to know that we're there, trying to protect their interest. I think that when people start to read about it and hear about it about it, they're going to know that this is really about protecting the individual director.

What is the role of a director-producer? What is the benefit of having one on a show staff?

RH: When you have a good director-producer who is on set, who is helpful to directors and in a real position of authority on a show, it's a tremendous benefit to the show and a tremendous benefit to the episodic directors. We want to encourage companies to utilize this role and also help our members who work as director-producers to improve their skills – to not only have authority and real input on the show, but to be supportive of episodic directors and help them do their best work.

MZ: A director-producer is somebody who is there on a permanent basis. They will know the ins and outs of the show, they'll know the ins and outs of the character. They know the budget, they know things that can help a director make a better show by bringing the director up to speed in terms of what's going on, what an actor likes, what a producer likes, how they like the show to be shot, any number of things.

RH: We think it's a very important role to help the episodic director perform his job. The real object is to give as much information as they can to the director, and to help guide them through some of the incredible personalities and requirements. Every show is different. The best thing you can possibly do is have somebody who is a native guide, who helps you get through this area. They are sort of the keepers of the right of the director to do a really sensational job on his episode so that he'll be asked back again to do more episodes.

What is the Guild doing to promote the use of director-producers?

MZ: One of the things that we want to do is to raise the awareness of what a director-producer does – not only with the writers and the producers that we work with, but also raise it with the networks and the studios, and demonstrate to them how effective a director-producer can be and how that person can not only improve the quality of the show, but can save them money.

RH: A really important first step is to gather information about how director-producers work in the current environment. We want to invite some of the more seasoned director-producers and to garner information from them, have an open forum discussion, even bring in some outside folks. How do they perceive the role of the director- producer? What do they think are the benefits or the negatives?

MZ: Hopefully at the end of it, we'll have enough info to provide a workshop over the next several years for not only folks who are director-producers, but for folks who want to become director-producers. And to create a template by which we can say, here are some ideas that if we follow, it will not only improve the quality of the work, but will improve the quality of the experience.

What are some of the other roles of the Creative Rights Committee?

MZ: Protecting the integrity of one director to a film in episodic television. It's the cornerstone of the Guild that there's one director to a film, one director to a television episode. It is the director's vision and integrity that's at stake. In a world where it's easy to erode that particular issue, you can make the argument about budgets, you can make the argument about schedule, you can do it a dozen different ways, but the quality of the single vision is really unbelievably important. Most of what we do in the Creative Rights Committee has that at its foundation.

Anything that the Creative Rights Committee can do to maintain the integrity of the role of the director and to raise the visibility of the importance of the director and the director-producer, that's what we do. We're doing our best to make sure that role is not diminished, but raised.