The movie industry finds itself in uncharted waters. The downfall of heavyweight figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Roy Price and the tireless work of equality campaigners has afforded the business a rare opportunity for self-improvement. Calls for reform are reverberating across continents, with hiring practices, workplace conditions, NDAs and pay all under the microscope like never before.
Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux described it as an “earthquake moment,” one which has prompted the festival to “address” its own “practices” and even set up a hotline for harassment victims: if Heelgate was a bad dream for the festival, #MeToo and Time’s Up should be a wake-up call, as they have been for the whole industry.
In a series of interviews running this week, we speak to some of those at the heart of driving change about how they are sustaining momentum without losing force, and how they are helping turn watershed moments into genuine cultural shifts.
Zelda Perkins is one of the first women ever to lift the veil of secrecy regarding corporate non-disclosure agreements. Twenty years ago Perkins left her job as Harvey Weinstein’s assistant at Miramax after she said he sexually assaulted and attempted to rape one of her colleagues. She herself suffered repeated harassment, she says. Miramax bought the duo’s silence via a crippling and “morally lacking” NDA, which came with one-time payoffs and promises that Weinstein would reform his behavior. It was drawn up by UK magic circle law firm Allen & Overy, working for Weinstein. The two women’s careers were over before they had barely started.
However, last December, after 20 years of fear and silence, Perkins had had enough. She became the first Weinstein employee to break her NDA, and in the spring she testified before UK politicians about the need to eliminate such contracts. We spoke to Perkins — who has also returned to producing — in her first trade interview.
How have the last few months been for you? Painful, I imagine…
Somewhat exhausting. I think I’ve reached a saturation point. Up until the UK inquiry I was going flat out. It has been distracting and discombobulating, but not painful.
Are you hopeful of changes to the law following your testimony to UK MPs?
I’m optimistic. For me this is a broad issue that crosses a number of industries. I’m trying to cut this at the root rather than at the trunk. The thing that stands out for me is that Harvey’s behavior was culturally allowed. There are always going to be people who behave badly—we’re human beings—but in this instance money, power and the legal system enabled crimes to be covered up. Before my agreement, as far as I’m aware, no one signed unusual NDAs at the company [strict NDAs have been standard since].
One of the horrifying things for me in recent weeks has been the big announcement TWC made about signatories being released from their NDAs. That’s a fallacy. It was just PR spin. I still can’t get a copy of my agreement. UK parliament asked for a copy and didn’t get one (they also requested Harvey, Miramax and Disney give evidence, which they all declined). They put the company into liquidation, in part because that defeats the possibility of women coming forward and claiming.
I’m not aware of new victims or TWC workers speaking out since they supposedly scrapped the NDA, despite some lawyers expecting an opening of the floodgates. There’s still a lot of fear.
It’s very upsetting. Part of the reason I stepped forward was to give others the courage to step forward. Harvey still holds people in thrall. I think that’s partly because he hasn’t been arrested, which is incomprehensible to those who have accused him of assault and rape. Whistleblowers are viewed with trepidation. I have friends who are former Miramax colleagues and who are now in very senior positions in the industry who have been afraid about coming forward because of the impact it might have on their careers. I lost my career at the time I signed my NDA and my life took a very different path. But I wasn’t ambitious. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but it can mean you have an Achilles heel when it comes to making moral judgments.
Do you think Weinstein will make a comeback?
I can guarantee you he will try with every fiber in his body. He is a total and utter sociopath, which is why he can manipulate people so well. I can assure you he won’t feel like he has done anything wrong and he will feel like he has the ability to turn this around. I personally don’t think he will be able to. He can have forgiveness but he shouldn’t have power.
At one stage a potential buyer of TWC promised to launch a fund for his victims.
It’s a great flag to wave but it’s a slightly pacifying idea. I don’t know the facts behind it. It would be more useful to have free legal help. I’m never going to be negative about a fund that’s there to help disadvantaged people, but its use and how you qualify victims is very complex.
Do you ever regret taking the money you were given as part of the NDA?
No. I was given no option: I was told that if I wanted to get into the ring to make any meaningful change, money would need to be involved. I regret that money had to be involved, but as a 23-year-old I was given no choice. Without the money we wouldn’t have got the other clauses about Harvey put into the agreement.
Another thing I’m not sure people are aware of, and another reason my NDA should be unenforceable, is because I have been criminalized by it. Ironically, I could go to jail for it. I have accepted money to obscure a criminal act. I imagine that is relevant to many NDAs and, again, it makes a mockery of the law.
Industry bullying still goes on. I’ve witnessed it in recent months. It’s interesting how we indulge it.
Power is exciting. Domination and submission comes with that. That’s part of the human psyche. There’s a form of security we feel when someone takes control. Women are driving calls for change but how much commitment has really been made by the most powerful studios, for example? That’s why it is important that laws change. The language of law is masculine. It has historically been written by men for men. We’re now at a time when we can make a change to that. It’s not a sexy story, but ultimately it all comes back to the law, which still protects the powerful.
**Harvey Weinstein has denied all allegations of non-consensual sexual contact.