Spielberg & Scorsese spoke with WB CEO after layoffs at Turner Classic Movies

To preface this, I should say that I am completely obsessed with old movies, and that Turner Classic Movies has been important to me ever since I was very little. If you don’t know, TCM is a cable channel that exclusively plays older movies, and is commercial-free. The movies play 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with interstitial programming that often gives context or background info about each film instead of commercials. They also do film preservation and restoration work. Some of the movies they air are impossible to find anywhere else. I grew up watching Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe movies on there with my grandma. Why are we talking about TCM now? Warner Brothers Discovery owns TCM. And because Warner Brothers is currently stuck in a self-inflicted doom loop, the CEO David Zaslav seems hell-bent on destroying beloved brands one by one. First they rebranded HBO Max to “Just Max,” removed a ton of content from it, and made everybody download a new app that glitched and crashed. Now they’re laying off people at my beloved TCM, including the general manager and other execs. It seemed like TCM’s days were numbered. Fortunately, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson intervened to protect this resource. They seem cautiously optimistic about it after talking to WBD CEO David Zaslav.

After Warner Bros. Discovery announced layoffs at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Tuesday, filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson conferred with WBD chief David Zaslav about the future of the cinema network.

Variety has learned that the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO convened a call with the trio of top filmmakers on Wednesday for guidance following the departure of top TCM execs, including general manager Pola Changnon, who stepped down after more than 25 years with the network and Turner.

“Turner Classic Movies has always been more than just a channel. It is truly a precious resource of cinema, open 24 hours a day seven days a week. And while it has never been a financial juggernaut, it has always been a profitable endeavor since its inception,” Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson wrote in a joint statement following the conversation.

“Earlier this week, David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, got in touch to talk about the restructuring of TCM. We understand the pressures and realities of a corporation as large as WBD, of which TCM is one moving part,” they continued. “We have each spent time talking to David, separately and together, and it’s clear that TCM and classic cinema are very important to him. Our primary aim is to ensure that TCM’s programming is untouched and protected.”

The statement concludes: “We are heartened and encouraged by the conversations we’ve had thus far, and we are committed to working together to ensure the continuation of this cultural touchstone that we all treasure.”

Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson are key parties of the Film Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of classic cinema. The Film Foundation was founded in 1990 by Scorsese, with Spielberg serving on its original board of directors and Anderson joining in 2006. In 2022, TCM expanded its partnership with the nonprofit, announcing a multi-year financial commitment to fund education and restoration of classic movies.

[From Variety]

Do I think Scorsese and Spielberg have enough power in the industry to protect TCM? I’m not sure, but if they don’t, then nobody does. I’m very glad they threw their weight around here and I hope they and other powerful people continue to advocate for TCM. I’m not a business person, and I don’t understand math that well. But I can’t imagine that TCM is that much of a financial burden on Warner Brothers. Because they don’t have to pay to produce or create the content that they air! These movies were made decades ago, and some of them are already in the public domain because the copyright has lapsed. Licensing B-movies from the 1930s isn’t like Netflix paying millions to license The Office. (Besides the fact that many old movies they show, like Casablanca, are from Warner’s own archives.) Other cable channels with original programming have to be much more expensive. Even though it costs money to restore old films, I simply cannot imagine that TCM is that costly compared to other cable channels. Why try to cut costs there, when there are other ways they could trim down their budget? And if Scorsese et al say it’s profitable, I believe them.

What this round of layoffs is really about is values. David Zaslav doesn’t seem to understand–at all–what’s important to consumers or to industry creatives. Every decision he has made seems to revolve around delivering more value to shareholders, not to moviegoers, streaming subscribers, or industry professionals (directors, writers, producers, actors, and just about everybody else). On some level, Hollywood has always been about profit, of course. But it is also about making art–art that is usually mediocre, but sometimes sublime and important. TCM is recording and preserving this art form and making it accessible. It’s not just a cable channel, it’s a museum.

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27 Responses to “Spielberg & Scorsese spoke with WB CEO after layoffs at Turner Classic Movies”

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  1. North of Boston says:

    If TCM seemingly isn’t a money maker, for me it goes back to the way the channel is offered, or not, through cable, streaming providers.

    I would gladly pay something ($5-$10/month) to subscribe to TCM, since my cable provider doesn’t offer it on the still way overpriced tier I’ve got now. But it’s not offered that way, so it’s not an option.

    The only tiers that include TCM are prohibitively expensive and loaded down with a boatload of channels I don’t want. The last time I looked into it, the ONLY way I could get TCM was as part of some premium sports bundle so over $100 more per month with a load of sports content + TCM; it seems whoever decided to package it that way was laughing up their sleeves at forcing film buffs to subsidize major league and college sports content. And since I’m already irritated that basic cable in my area includes a ~ $20 monthly bolt on fee for sports coverage/franchise fees for content I’m not interested in, I don’t want to fork over more. (I hate having Xfinity as a monopoly here … even if I wanted to cut the cord, guess who is the only accessible data provider where I live? It’s that or relying on cellular which itself would get prohibitively expensive, throttled and has its own issues.

    I’ll have to look into whether they’ve changed their offerings, I can stream it separately these days.

    Also, WB is really intent on driving their bus into a ditch aren’t they? They are the Elon Musk of video content.

    • Brassy Rebel says:

      Oh, North of Boston! You are singing my song. I don’t have access to TCM either and for the exact reasons you state. I had it 10 years ago and watched religiously, but then the top tier became prohibitively expensive and I had to drop down. And I also have Xfinity which will not allow me to subscribe a la cart. Maybe Spielberg and Scorsese should be leaning on cable and satellite providers as well. The fact that TCM is always in the most expensive tier tells me these providers know how popular the movie classics niche is. Carina is so right about the economics behind this. TCM has always been a profitable channel because it doesn’t cost much to air. And it’s a treasure!

    • chumsley says:

      Have you looked into Max, they’ve got TCM as one of their hubs. We cut our cable off since we never really watched it and cancelled our Netflix because we found we were never watching it either. We’ve got Max through AT&T (we have a deal where we get it for free because we signed up for the gigabit internet), but before that I had a subscription through Amazon for about $14-15/month. A much better deal than cable and you can watch a lot of classic movies on demand and they’ve got a lot of other content as well.

      • Becks1 says:

        oh I didnt know TCM was on Max. I will have to check that out.

        I loved TCM but my cable dropped it a few years ago I think.

        I know I can watch a lot of the older movies through other platforms, but not all, and I thought there was something fun about just turning it on and seeing what came next. Its one thing to actively search for Casablanca, its another thing to just turn on the TV and oh look, its Bringing Up Baby which I haven’t seen before (that’s how Bringing Up Baby became one of my favorite movies, watched it randomly on TCM like 30 years ago lol.)

      • Chantal says:

        @Chumsley and @ Becks1 yes TCM is one of the hubs on Max, which starts at $9.99/mo. I pay for the higher tier of $14.99/mo bc I don’t like commercials. There are a lot of movies on that hub tho…

        @Kaiser. Agree. I’m just waiting to see what else Zaslav destroys bc he is ruining so much! When is the board going to vote him off the island?

      • tealily says:

        100% I finally realized I could log in with my parents cable info (they are the only people I know who still pay for cable and they don’t do any streaming), but it’s ridiculous that there’s not option for me to buy it outright. While it is available on Max, it isn’t the full run of what they have on the channel, and to me that’s a poor substitution.

    • The Recluse says:

      It’s available via YouTube TV without all the jumping through hoops. They also carry your local PBS.

  2. Jais says:

    Zaslav is really just spitting into the face of creatives and consumers of creative content both. There is no sense of passion for film or the preservation of film at all. It’s beyond messed up.

  3. lisa says:

    this is so upsetting to me. I would gladly give them money directly instead of having cable.

  4. Susie says:

    It’s performative cost cutting. Like many of these mergers the current company has been saddled with high debts that came with the sale. These are attention grabbing cost “saving” measures that tell Wall Street look at us being smart and getting rid of things to save money. Add a touch of the ego that comes with telling all the “too emotional” artists the word no. Oh look I’m such a disciplined business man that when Spielberg comes to me an big I don’t back down like some of those other celeb worshippers that care about fame to the detriment of profits. Zavala’s has a bit of trump where he came up thru the trashy reality side of tv and is jealous and angry that the prestige side looks down on him.
    Also this isn’t a good financial or business. As we saw with Disney and the Bobs and even HBOMax losing big profitable directors for Warner brothers when they skipped theatres and put everything on streaming during covid, pissing off talent in a talent based business is stupid and screws you long term for a measly few dollars. These guys think they are the adults in the room and yet they are immensely incompetent at their jobs

    • FilmTurtle says:

      You’re correct. These “cost-saving” measures are entirely performative so they get a blip on their stock price and fawning Wall Street profiles about how they’re making tough decisions, blah blah.

      How many dozens (if not hundreds) of executives with high six- or seven-figure salaries and expense accounts who do nothing , really, do they have on staff across the company? Get rid of enough of them until TCM’s budget is covered. I knew someone who worked at a big studio for years and years and she would tell stories of execs being bored to distraction because they had nothing to do but go to pointless meetings and look at dailies.

    • SarahCS says:

      This sounds eerily like a construction company where I worked that was profitable but not profitable enough for some of the shareholders so they pushed the CEO out and then there was a trickle down of changes. In our department we made a strong case that keeping more of the junior positions would generate a significant amount for the business (helping trainees complete their programmes and accessing funding as a result), we’re talking 3-4 million pounds over maybe five years. How about have all of these instead of stripping the team out and keeping it top heavy. Nope, it’s the headcount cuts that matter.

      Given the work that TCM does in film preservation I really hope that common sense will prevail but as we keep seeing, short term profit shouts loudly and we pay the price later.

    • The Recluse says:

      This yahoo of a CEO could skim a few million off of his bloated annual paycheck and fund TCM the way it should be funded, but he won’t. Too greedy. Too selfish. Another bloodyminded, know it all CEO like the maroon who ran OceanGate.

  5. Onemoretime says:

    I just canceled my Maxx subscription after being a faithful HBO subscriber for 10 years. With the merger they brought way to many reality shows with them and ruined to app for me. I liked HBO because I loath reality shows. The first strike is when they started removing content, strikes 2&3 Discovery content.

  6. Mandy says:

    First of all, thank you so much for covering this story. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t watch TCM, and now I have my entire family, including teenage son on it. It is saved our sanity through numerous dire and stressful situations. We have a list of films that we simply stop everything if they’re on a watch, no matter what appointment film it’s currently at.
    When I learned of the I became absolutely panicked . I even went so far. Send a message on Instagram, to Ryan Reynolds. I learned years ago that he too was, he is a TCM super fan. To my knowledge my message hasn’t been ready yet and I know the chances are slim but I figure he saved a struggling football league. Why not our cultural cinematic heritage?
    Thanks again for writing this

  7. Mel says:

    We were just talking about this last night. The Warner Bros. CEO has mad MAJOR missteps. The crazy thing he did at CNN, continuing to prop up and spend money on The Flash instead of calling it a wash and just letting it have a minor release. Ezra Miller, now he’s messing with TCM. I predict that he’ll be booted out the door shortly. I do believe that Spielberg and Scorcese still have that juice, he’s toast.

  8. Ameerah M says:

    The idea of TCM no longer existing is bonkers to me. I grew up watching old movies. My mother introduced me to so many classics and the idea of those no longer being easily accessible (or accessible at all in some cases) is really disheartening. I feel like we are already losing so many touchstones to earlier eras in music, films, TV and pop culture simply for lack of interest by the younger generation (I am an old man railing at clouds, I know) and now this… David Zaslav is an evil corporate robot with no soul. He’s a Trump supporter! The man is terrible. And I don’t have any faith that he won’t just pull the plug – he has no respect for the industry he now finds himself in. And certainly no respect for film and it’s history.

    • Dutch says:

      Wholeheartedly agree that Zazlav is the worst and has been a disaster since the merger. That being said, TCM still has a hub on MAX so it’s not totally going away. Cable TV subscriptions are in a nosedive so cable networks both large and small aren’t generating the carriage fees they once did to make them profitable. According to Variety, TCM lost nearly $30 million in subscriber revenue between 2019-2020 and it’s probably only gotten worse going forward. Given the debt the company is saddled with, there is some logic with scaling back on a platform without a lot of growth potential where the content has a home elsewhere.
      My greater concern is that Zazlav appears to be looking to sell a big chunk of the music catalogs for its films and TV for pennies on the dollar: https://variety.com/2023/music/news/warner-bros-discovery-500-million-deal-sell-film-tv-music-publishing-assets-1235652398/

      • Ameerah M says:

        That’s operating under assumption that he would keep TCM on MAX. Which considering how much content has already been pulled from MAX…I don’t believe that he wouldn’t do the same to TCM content

  9. GorgeousGecko says:

    I give kudos to Scorsese and Spielberg for getting involved with this. But I’m still really tired of old white men at the top of everything, making all the decisions.

  10. SpankyB says:

    I remember when Ted Turner launched TCM, everyone thought he was crazy. Old movies? Who’s going to watch those?? Um, everybody! I used to spend my Sunday mornings recovering from Saturday night club hopping watching Cary Grant movies on TCM. I love Cary Grant.

  11. tealily says:

    If Zaslav lays a finger on my TCM, heads will roll.

  12. Teagirl says:

    I love old movies and often buy them on DVD. I agree with @North of Boston, it’s the marketing. I don’t have cable TV. I have the Internet and I have access to channels like rarefilmm and Kanopy. If TCM were available as a standalone option, through Roku or as an app for the iPad, I would gladly pay for it. Instead, it’s only available in stratospherically expensive tiers on cable.

    • Ameerah M says:

      It would be smarter to adjust how the content is offered rather than scrap it altogether. I know some content is offered on MAX – but I don’t know how long that will last. Zaslav has been chopping content from the app since he took over.

  13. The Recluse says:

    Even Ryan Reynolds, Patton Oswalt, and Valerie Bertinelli have expressed their concern and alarm about the fate of TCM. There is a petition online and a letter/postcard writing campaign ongoing. You can find that info on Twitter.
    By the way, it was reported today that Vaslav has gutted the staff at TCM from 90 to 20, including firing the brilliant woman who assembled their awesome video montages. No more amazing and moving In Memorium reels from TCM.