Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: As the awards season ignites a blast of screenings and parties, the conversation should be focused on the comparative merits of the movies, but instead it’s about the decline and fall of Harvey Weinstein – his potential jail time and also deeper financial woes involving his former company which is trying to keep itself afloat and out of bankruptcy. Harvey’s absence is noticeable on several levels. Consider revenue: The town’s press agents (and caterers) will testify that Harvey could be counted on to throw the most parties and spend the most money. Ad salesmen worry whether Oscar campaigning will lose some of its zeal in a post-Harvey era. Similarly, political fundraisers will also miss Harvey’s checkbook. But if Harvey has left a maze of worries, he has also left behind a sense of betrayal. How could anyone have behaved so badly and kept it so secret? There have been lots of movies about characters leading double lives, but no one suspected that such an individual dwelled at Hollywood’s epicenter.
FLEMING: The Harvey Factor has created an unprecedented atmosphere of chaos and collateral damage that has put Oscar in secondary position for the moment. Here is a stream-of-consciousness rant as I try to summarize what people are saying around town. The collateral damage is spread all over. Some of it is about movies, like the backers of All The Money in the World pulling out as closer of the AFI Fest. Who could blame them? Why would Ridley Scott, Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg walk a red carpet where every question would be about their co-star Kevin Spacey? Can that film have a happy ending? The director wanted to keep the date, arguing a lot of blameless people worked hard on the movie and deserved better than to have it ignored. The makers of Wind River were able to strip the Weinstein taint off their movie, but there have been myriad series and movie canceled, and that means the elimination of jobs people were counting on. That includes the Amazon TWC series that David O Russell was directing with Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, which had a two-season commitment. The trio had pay or play deals, I’m told, and have a chance to get paid, but everyone else is out of luck. What will happen to future projects if the actors, directors and executives rumored to be in the cross hairs actually become headlines?
Meanwhile, there is a growing feeling around town that we are in the second act of The Crucible right now, although I am hard-pressed to see anyone exposed so far who didn’t have it coming. Agents and former agents who grew up in the alpha male culture that once dominated agencies and studios aren’t sleeping well, wondering if decades-old frat boy behavior and HR complaints or settlements might kill their careers decades later. The line in the sand that started with Weinstein, sexual harassment, rape and non-consensual sex has blurred into bad behavior, the kind that was glorified in Entourage. They see journalists as bounty hunters, with lists of suspected bad boys as long as 75 names, each needing only a corroborating witness to be publishable. Agents who got caught in a web of rumors last weekend were being called by their own clients, asking if it is true their rep had been escorted out of the building. That indicates that if rival agents aren’t spreading the rumor, they are certainly not above exploiting it.
We’ve all heard the rumored names that include well-known executives, filmmakers and actors who might be the subject of stories. THR, which was rumored to be considering Warner Bros’ Kevin Tsujihara as CEO of the year, ran instead a vague story basically accusing him of being Brett Ratner’s friend, a report most interpreted as the equivalent of baiting a hook and floating it in the water, hoping others will come forward. Kim Masters is tenacious though, and while it took her a year, she got the story that ended Roy Price’s run at Amazon Studios. Bryan Singer, a name widely whispered, was brought into the conversation yesterday with a thin story about a petition circulated on the USC campus to remove his name from a film school. Another baited hook?
Some of the incidents have been surreal. WME partner Adam Venit’s leave of absence — for allegedly grabbing the crotch of Terry Crews at a party — has in particular set past and present agents and execs on high alert, wondering how far this will go. Most feel Venit will survive if this was an isolated incident and a misunderstanding, and there is an instinct to discount the complaint by Crews. After all he is a former football player who looks like he could kill you with a hard stare. If you didn’t know him, the alleged transgression seems the equivalent of tugging on Superman’s cape, or maybe towel snapping in a locker room if you did know him. But as we’ve seen in some of the pained testimonials against Weinstein, Spacey, Ratner and deposed Primary Wave co-CEO David Guillod, none of us can judge how people process feelings of shame and anger that comes with feeling violated physically, or even from being screamed at by some temporarily unhinged producer or director. Crews clearly felt wrongs, and because Crews is a client, WME was obliged to act.
Another curious case is Dustin Hoffman. Some jumped to the defense of the actor after it was revealed he made lewd comments to young assistants in his orbit. At our recent The Contenders London event, I moderated a panel where Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Noah Baumbach discussed their Netflix film The Meyerowitz Stories. Hoffman has a sly sense of humor that connected with the BAFTA audience. Rebecca Miller is in the film and when I asked if they had an encounter with her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sandler said he watched Hoffman and Day-Lewis have a conversation. Glowing with having observed two great actors with five Oscars between them sharing secrets, Sandler later asked Hoffman what he had discussed with Day-Lewis. Hoffman looked at him and asked what Sandler was talking about. Hoffman had no idea the person he’d spoken with was the actor, he told Sandler.
But Hoffman and others like him should realize that when he is around a young person, it will be a memorable moment in that person’s life, one that might encourage them to go further, or go home. To make an anatomical joke that demeans a young woman or proffer something that feels like a pickup line? Hoffman should be better than that and his comeuppance is a cautionary tale to others. Most believe Hollywood will be a more thoughtful place after this toxic tidal wave passes, but one producer put a more cynical spin on things. He believes that it might be harder for women to get hired on movie sets, or as assistants; some men are saying the easiest, most practical way to avoid problems is to surround yourself with men who are better at rolling with the punches. That would be a step backward. There is also a belief that the women who have come forward will also find it challenging to get hired, and that it is possible that agencies and studios will use cloudy harassment stories as easy ways to get rid of employees who make too much money or are on the back nine of their careers.
Another complexity: those outed as abusers in press articles suffered instant downfalls, and some of them painted by this broad scandal brush might already be exploring slander lawsuits for sketchy press reports they believe will make it hard for them to find jobs. The courtroom judgments against Gawker and Rolling Stone cannot be far from the minds of editors making decisions on these things. And how about the esteemed lawyer David Boies, whom Ronan Farrow reported in the New Yorker helped facilitate Weinstein’s campaign to hire ex-Mossad agents to spy on his accusers and the journalists talking to them, even as his firm worked for the New York Times? Boies was always Weinstein’s go-to lawyer, but he is also the man who defended gay marriage in front of the Supreme Court. NYT dropped his firm, and Boies’ reputation is now more collateral damage in this Weinstein mess. As for Farrow, his articles are the best I’ve ever seen in Hollywood reporting and if he doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer, who does?
People are also wondering if any of those tarred by the scandal brush can reclaim their positions, and why certain bad boys get a pass. In the midst of all this madness, David Letterman was named to receive the Mark Twain Prize. A few years ago, Letterman was bedding a show employees and only admitted it when in danger of being blackmailed. There were no reports of non-consensual encounters or harassment, but what he did was deplorable. Letterman owned it, though, and seemed genuinely regretful in his walk of shame. Maybe those who’ve fallen from grace, or are about to, might want to try figuring out why Letterman’s image didn’t suffer that much. Maybe it starts with being honest and not explaining away indiscretions with short statements obviously crafted by crisis publicists. We have also seen textbook examples of how not to handle PR, like when Spacey answered an accusation of trying to bed a 14-year-old boy by coming out as a gay man, or when Weinstein answered the first fusillade of sex assault accusations against him by revealing he planned to take on Wayne LaPierre and the NRA.
As for the Oscar race you mentioned? Other than all I have described here, Mrs. Lincoln is enjoying the play.
BART: So Harvey Weinstein’s legacy: He is already both loathed and missed — missed on the filmmaking level more than others. He is a bully and a shifty negotiator but, over the years, he has stepped up and supported many extraordinary films and filmmakers. All right, Weinstein’s campaign for Shakespeare in Love – the year he beat out Saving Private Ryan for an Oscar – will always be a milestone for a sort of Oscar bullying, but it was Weinstein who helped get the movie made, and who also funded Pulp Fiction and The King’s Speech and scores of other remarkable movies. Sure, some damn good movies will continue to be made in post-Harvey Hollywood. Major players like Netflix and Amazon are just starting to find their way and a cluster of movie-minded billionaires have stepped up to support important filmmakers. Weinstein has left a hole. It will be filled.
FLEMING: It is easy to pummel Weinstein after he has taken a tumble, but when he was on top, he had tentacles everywhere, including book publishing, and I am sure you regret having published books with him while you were the editor of Variety.
BART: Ratner, like Weinstein, operates on many fronts. He is very active in book publishing, in documentaries, and in many other arenas as well, and has helped foster the careers of many young people. So a deal with Ratner usually involves other partners, all of whom inevitably are now weighing these relationships. In Weinstein’s banner days, he, too, had many partnerships. You mentioned a book deal between Weinstein and Variety at a time when I was editor in chief; Weinstein at that time was publishing through an established publisher, Hyperion Books. Hyperion was really the lead player on the deal and did the actual editing. For the record, I also published my books with Morrow, Simon & Schuster and six other established publishers, which did a lot better job.
FLEMING: You said Weinstein will be missed on the filmmaking front; I disagree. Weinstein’s Oscar influence has waned in recent years because of money woes. It can’t be coincidence that TWC’s investors tightened the purse strings after publicity about the NYPD investigation into his alleged groping of Ambra Battilana Gutierrez scuttled a mega-deal with ITV that would have allowed them to cash out. Is that why many worthy films — the Michael Keaton-starrer The Founder comes to mind — sank like stones, because there was no money to support them with proper P&A campaigns? This cost TWC opportunities on other movies it made: the Dimension shark attack pic 47 Meters Down was headed straight to video before Byron Allen stepped in, bought it and watched it become a big summer sleeper. The Weinsteins (who famously took 5% first dollar gross to let go of The Lord of the Rings) shared some in the upside, but a hit-starved studio doesn’t make hit movies to give them away. As for my own feelings on Weinstein, Spacey, Ratner and probably others who’ll follow, I choose to beat up on myself. I’ve covered the business of Hollywood almost 30 years, from Long Island, and never felt I sacrificed that much by being a mostly virtual presence, because my focus was on transactions, on business. While I’ve been involved in revealing controversies in the past (that the director of the Disney film Powder had a pedophile conviction the studio was trying to keep quiet, the Nate Parker situation, the Heidi Fleiss scandal), the distance has left me at a disadvantage here. I related well to Weinstein, Spacey and Ratner on what clearly was a superficial level. It is frustrating to read all this stuff and feel like that person on the sidewalk who tells a news reporter that their neighbor, who turned out to be a serial killer, seemed like a perfectly nice guy.
BART: While Harvey Weinstein’s fall stirs the strongest emotions, the Brett Ratner accusations may provoke the broadest business consequences. RatPac’s handsome offices (or former offices) sit symbolically at the center of the Warners lot. It is steeped in studio memorabilia (Sinatra was its most illustrious former occupant). Historic photos and awards adorn the walls. RatPac has been supplying one-third of the funding for most studio films. Ratner has had an impact on studio development and on potential pickups. Studio chairman Kevin Tsujihara has hung with Ratner and his associates. Ratner’s TV company has deals with many companies outside of Warners. Ratner’s home, which once belonged to Allan Carr, is famed as a party house, but Ratner has also filled it with important filmmakers and executives. Ratner has important friends in the business who have trusted him and consulted with him. When Warren Beatty was editing his Howard Hughes film, he was a mainstay at Hillhaven Lodge, consulting on each editing change. It was not uncommon for directors of Warner Bros releases to seek Ratner’s counsel on future projects, given his financial relevance to the studio. Ratner will now be enmeshed in a complex web of litigation. Harvey may disappear but Ratner will not. And there are a lot of important people who will continue to fret about whether their own social and financial entanglements may somehow be caught up in Ratner’s.
FLEMING: The collateral damage and fear of scandalous headlines is influencing the filter that those running studios use in their never-ending quest for slate financing money. In recent years, the priority has been to bring in the cheapest possible money in deals that allowed them to exclude slam-dunk tentpole hits. Where it came from was secondary. Does Warner Bros keep RatPac funding 25% of its slate after Ratner’s fall, continuing with money from Len Blavatnik, who bought out James Packer? Paramount’s announcement that it walked away from the slate deal Brad Grey made with Huahua Media might just be the start of a slow exodus from Chinese capital that has proven unreliable, with suggestions that some deals were being syndicated with places like Macau casinos. The potential for scandalous headlines that could blow holes in the stock price of publicly traded companies has made the term “reputational risk” a mantra for the money men as studios scramble to fund their tentpoles.
As for Ratner: Deadline’s reporting years ago contributed to his ouster from Oscar producer when he made homophobic and sexist comments while promoting Tower Heist. Still, I found him an affable character and always enjoyed his company. But if he, Weinstein or Spacey have twisted sides, why would they show them to me? When I encounter Weinstein in person, we’ve mostly talked about our kids. Peter, my approach has been to cover things objectively as they come up, good or bad, and it is hard for me to participate with you in a posthumous pile-on now, when it is so easy. When it mattered, I was ignorant of the things these three have been accused of and I felt terrible, especially after reading Annabella Sciorra’s description of Weinstein’s attack. When I saw her on The Sopranos, I wondered, where has this terrific actress been? Perhaps that article provided the answer. As for the tail of this scandal: I recall that a couple years ago at this time, the Sony hack occupied every waking moment for me and every other reporter covering Hollywood. Then, the town shut down in the final two weeks of December and when people returned January, the scandal had played out and everyone moved on. Will that happen here? I suspect not, given the pedigree of some names that might yet be exposed and potential criminal trouble for others who already have been exposed.
What should happen is a coalition of moral-minded leaders in Hollywood comes together to create a mechanism where the powerless can file complaints that get seriously investigated. And when predators and serially abusive people are rooted out, expose them and run them the hell out of town. If the Academy could take emergency measures to change the complexion of the voting body from old and white into something more youthful and diversified to give women and artists of color a fairer shake, why can’t the agencies, studios, unions, producers and artists band together to eradicate this scourge? If this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is. You can say there are HR departments to complain to, but most Weinstein complaints never got to HR. These scandals have made Hollywood seem like a completely immoral place, worse with each disgusting allegation. Decent people shouldn’t let the bad ones define this business and there is an opportunity here to turn this into a catalyst for meaningful change, as opposed to simply making statements of outrage that are all beginning to sound the same.