The outgoing president of Boston University lashed out at graduating students who booed and heckled Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive David Zaslav while he was speaking at the university in the midst of a strike by the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA).
“Our students were not picking a fight. They were attempting to implement the cancel culture that has become all too prevalent on university campuses,” President Robert A. Brown wrote in an op-ed published on May 31 2023, adding, “The attempt to silence a speaker with obscene shouts is a resort to gain power, not reason, and antithetical to the mission and purposes of a university.”
Zaslav’s appearance at BU drew nationwide attention after photographs and footage of Zaslav spread online, including footage of students chanting “Pay your writers” at Zaslav as he told them, “If you wanna be successful, you’re gonna have to get along with everyone and that includes difficult people.”
Zaslav can be seen pausing his speech as the chant picks up in intensity:
David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros Discovery, hit with a massive "Pay your writers!" chant from Boston University students during his commencement speech. Love to see it. #WGAstrong pic.twitter.com/Ja4ZmZHf9E
— SPENCE TODD (@Todd_Spence) May 21, 2023
Brown’s op-ed acknowledged the chant, but focused more on what he claimed was “a handful of students” who were shouting profanities at Zaslav.
“I can’t imagine how Mr. Zaslav felt hearing these obscenities directed at him,” Brown wrote. “I have apologized to Mr. Zaslav for the behavior of these students.”
The university has reported that nearly 200 people also protested outside of the commencement ceremony, adding:
Opposition to Zaslav as the speaker at the University’s 150th Commencement began almost immediately after his name was announced on May 3—one day after the Writers Guild of America began its first strike in 15 years.
However, organizers said that the protest drew closer to 350 people:
Boston is a union town! F*!# Zaslav
Get over here we’re going all afternoon! B Line Babcock Street
👊🏼 👊🏿 👊🏽👊🏽 👊🏻 👊🏾 pic.twitter.com/4HIOnUhT6D
— Boston DSA Labor Working Group (@BDSA_Labor) May 21, 2023
According to Hollywood Reporter:
Among them were members of BU’s graduate workers union and the resident assistants union, as well as IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, SEUI, IUPAT, hospitality union Boston Local 26, and Local 537 and UA Local 447, which support plumbers, pipefitters, refrigeration fitters and service technicians. The Greater Boston Labor Council, some local university professors and parents of graduates also joined the line.
The Writer’s Guild of America strike began on May 2 2023, after negotiations broke down between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which includes Zaslav’s company. As the WGA said in a statement:
From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a “day rate” in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.
Zaslav, who reportedly made $246 million in 2021 thanks to a stock option grant worth $203 million, has become a lightning rod for criticism for both himself and the AMPTP; shortly after the strike began he claimed that it would end because of a “love of working”; and he has defended the heavily-criticized May 10 2023 CNN “town hall” event featuring disgraced former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Days after Zaslav’s speech, the streaming platform Max (formerly HBO Max) was also criticized after its users reported that credits for directors and writers on listings for its titles had been replaced by the more nebulous title of “creators”:
We contacted the WGA’s East and West branches seeking comment but did not hear back. A spokesperson for the university told us Brown’s op-ed “speaks for itself” but did not comment further.
Less than a month later, Zaslav again attracted criticism — and even a highly-publicized intervention by filmmakers — following reports that the leadership of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) network, including general manager Pola Changnon, had been laid off from his company.
While TCM itself would continue airing under new management, the move spurred fear from film lovers that Zaslav would do away with it entirely.
“It is really the only consistent place where an entire art form exists,” filmmaker Gina Telaroli told the New Republic regarding the network’s role in film archivism. “The first chunk of cinema is a vastly different art form than what’s being made today. To do away with that is just a huge atrocity. No other art form has to deal with that. You’d never be like, ‘Here are the three pieces of classical music.’ That’s not how that exists! Or, ‘Here are the three paintings, enjoy them!’ That’s what it feels like with film—we have Casablanca and two other films. That’s all there can be.”
In response, celebrated directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson released a statement saying that they had contacted Zaslav both individually and all together seeking to save the network and came away “encouraged” by their discussions.
“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,” their statement read.
Variety magazine reported on June 28 2023 that the trio would serve as curators for TCM working alongside programming head Charles Tabesh, who will remain at the network and report to the heads of Warner’s film division, Pam Abdy and Mike De Luca.
“We have already begun working on ideas with Mike and Pam, both true film enthusiasts who share a passion and reverence for classic cinema that is the hallmark of the TCM community,” the three directors said in a statement.
The Washington Post reported in July 2023 that GQ magazine pulled an article critical of Zaslav after Warner Bros. Discovery complained that the reporter, film critic Jason Bailey, did not contact the company seeking comment. The newspaper also noted:
GQ has a corporate connection to Warner Bros. Discovery. The magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast, is owned by Advance Publications, a major shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery.
Variety uncovered another connection between the magazine and the company, reporting that GQ‘s editor-in-chief, Will Welch, is producing the studio’s upcoming film “The Great Chinese Art Heist,” which is based on a 2018 piece that ran in the magazine. According to Variety:
Sources say Welch was involved in the discussions surrounding the removal of Bailey’s initial story and made the call to pull the revamped story, which ran some 500 words shorter than the published version. Those same sources say Warner Bros. Discovery complained about the initial story to two GQ editors, one of whom was Welch.
“We contacted the outlet and asked that numerous inaccuracies be corrected,” Warner Bros. Discovery said in a statement. “In the process of doing so, the editors ultimately decided to pull the piece.”
Bailey confirmed that he declined to rewrite the story, which referred to Zaslav as “the most hated man in Hollywood.” He also said that a rewritten version of the piece that was briefly posted — which prompted him to ask that his byline be removed — contained no corrections.
“I think a side-by-side comparison of the piece before and after GQ’s internal edits reveals exactly what WBD wanted changed, and that GQ was happy to do so,” Bailey said.
Update 6/26/2023 3:53 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect criticism regarding WarnerDiscovery laying off the heads of the Turner Classic Movies network. — ag
Update 6/28/2023 10:39 a.m. PST: Updated to reflect that Turner Classic Movies network would retain Charles Tabesh as head of programming while adding directors Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg as curators. — ag
Update 7/5/2023 1:30 p.m. PST: Updated with note on GQ magazine pulling an article critical of Zaslav after publication at the request of Warner Bros. Discovery; further updated to note relationship between the studio and GQ editor-in-chief Will Welch — ag