'Toxic' culture at acclaimed Weta Workshop revealed by past and present employees

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

A dream workplace, a fantasyland, “the holy grail” of Kiwi creativity.

That’s how current and former staff have described their feelings about starting at Wellington’s Weta Workshop, the world-famous studio which helped create Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar, Thor Ragnarok, and dozens of other acclaimed international projects.

But for many, those feelings of enchantment didn’t stay for long.

1 NEWS has spoken to 11 current and former staff members of Weta Workshop.

They have worked across a range of departments within Weta Workshop - some former staff left many years ago, some very recently, but all described a workplace which was often toxic, where an unstable work environment coupled with competition for jobs allowed harassment and bullying to flourish.

1 NEWS has agreed not to use the real names of the people or identifying details of their stories. Many are fearful of the repercussions of speaking out, even if they’ve left the industry entirely.

“I wouldn't go back,” Maggie* says. “I couldn't work like that again. It's too ugly.”

She trained specifically to work at Weta Workshop, got a “hefty” student loan, but found herself disillusioned with the workplace culture.

“Toxic’s a great word. You’re not thinking, ‘yay I'm with my work team working on wonderful things’, you went in thinking ‘what's going to happen today? Am going to come out the end of the day? Am I going to be alright?’”

She says bullying from her manager, including making degrading comments to workers in front of a room full of people, was common.

“The people who've been there a long time know the ropes, they know how people behave.

"They have just gotten to know that I can do this, I can get away with this 'cause I'm powerful.

“The problem with that industry is people want to be there so badly, they just shut up. They just shut up and accept it.”

Shutting up is a common response to issues, according to the people 1 NEWS spoke to. The ‘feast and famine’ nature of the film industry means there is often intense competition for work when it is available.

Becca* quit her fulltime job for a contract at Weta Workshop – a decision she soon regretted when she noticed how the workplace was run when there was a project to work on. She says people would ‘hoard’ pieces of work to protect their jobs, leaving nothing for others.

“I found it extremely stressful,” she says.

“I would say it was toxic on many levels. I've never had to deal with people fighting over work… because you were faced with losing your job, you have to be seen to be working.

"If you sit for a couple of minutes not doing anything someone will pounce on you and make sure you work. I was constantly trying to find work… you'd got to work but there's no work there, so what are you supposed to do?”

She says despite her years of experience, she felt “completely useless”, and the stress from working there had a long-lasting impact.

“I became agoraphobic. I couldn't go out of the house for over a year because I had people constantly asking ‘how is it going there?’ I hated telling my story over again. It was soul destroying, I couldn't do it.” 

Emma* says she was targeted by a much older man when she began working at Weta Workshop. The man did business with Weta Workshop, but she had to interact with him regularly as part of her job.

Emma says that while he was doing business with Weta, he touched her without her consent and made inappropriate sexual comments.

“He gradually became more physical over time, so initially it was a lot of hugs, then he'd touch my leg if I was sitting down… he would put his hand really inappropriately high up on my thigh… he’d try and grab my hand or if he was trying to hug me his hands would get lower towards my bum.”

Emma says she told the man she didn’t want him to touch her.

She says she told her manager about how uncomfortable she was having to work with the man, but nothing was done and she was regularly left alone with him.

“I told my manager I was feeling really uncomfortable and I was being harassed at work… Nothing was done about it, he still came into work he still did exactly what he was doing the whole time.”

1 NEWS has spoken to other current and former staff who also allege sexual harassment and bullying while working at Weta Workshop.

Some told their stories off-the-record as they feared the details would identify them to the company. Others did share their stories but didn’t want to be named.

One person says: “The culture of systemic bullying at Weta is top-down, if you bring up problems, you’ll likely be seen as a troublemaker and let go. People working on projects together at times deliberately sabotage other people’s work.”

Another claimed: “My dream job quickly turned into a nightmare as female colleagues and team leaders bullied me and the male colleagues and team leaders sexually harassed me and made inappropriate ‘jokes’.”

And another hadn’t personally experienced harassment or active bullying, “but I've had people in my team who've had issues, and I've subsequently been given a nudge or two to consider moving them out of the company”.

Weta Workshop told 1 NEWS it takes the allegations “extremely seriously”.

Weta Workshop General Manager David Wilks says Weta Workshop has “no tolerance for any form of harassment or bullying”.

“It is distressing to hear of any situations in which people may have experienced this in our environment,” he says.

“Everyone who comes to work at Weta Workshop must feel safe. We aspire to have an environment that is diverse, inclusive and supportive, and one in which crew members can feel safe and supported raising any concerns or issues.

“As a result of a previous historic allegation, we engaged an external organisation, Hive Consulting, in June to conduct a comprehensive and independent inquiry into current and historic allegations of this nature.

"The scope of the inquiry is broad, looking into the specific allegation, along with the HR policies and procedures in place at that time. The inquiry is also receiving and considering any new information that may come to light as a result of this situation and considering the HR policies and procedures in place now.”

It says it wants staff with issues to make a confidential submission to the review.

“We encourage any staff member or former staff member who has relevant information or a particular issue or concern to contact the reviewer in confidence.

“We would like to receive the review as soon as possible – but it is important the review is comprehensive and conducted independent of Weta Workshop and that we take the opportunity to consider its findings and make any changes that are necessary.”

Weta Workshop says while it awaits the findings of the inquiry, it would be inappropriate for them to make any further comment.

*Names have been changed.

 Do you have more information about this story? Contact our reporter Kristin Hall at kristin.hall@tvnz.co.nz