“The level of bullying, to put it mildly, is deeply troubling,” she said, noting that a commission survey of nearly 10,000 industry workers found that 3 out of 4 workers ages of 18-29 experienced some form of bullying in 2019, and that women and people with disabilities were more likely to be the victims of bullying.
But with the recent revelations about producer Scott Rudin’s decades of bullying behavior, she asked: “Is this time different? Now is the time for those inside the industry to decide if we are ready to seize the moment and begin the hard work of ending bullying in our workplaces, and if so, how will we proceed? All of us have a stake in this. Bullying and other abuse acts as a segue to other behaviors – to illegal behaviors. Targets of bullying, and those around them, suffer when workplaces are unsafe. It’s not just the specific victim who suffers – everyone around them suffer.”
“Bullying is destructive to dignity, to diversity and to innovation,” she said, quoting a survey respondent, adding that “Leadership makes the difference. Leadership can change the culture that we work in. If you’re a leader, or have the power to persuade leadership, keep in mind that your role is significant. We all have something at stake here, and so does the American viewing public.”
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh agreed that accountability “starts at the top,” saying on the panel that “the messaging is very important: that this type of behavior is not acceptable. I think the biggest argument that we can make, as a community, is to dispel the myth that being an a-hole is a path to some sort of success. I think this is demonstrably untrue, and I think if I could get in the way-back machine and ask Harvey [Weinstein], ‘Why did you behave this way?’ he would go, ‘Well, I had to in order to get where I am.’ And my response would be, ‘You’re half of what you could have been if you weren’t this way.’ ”
“That’s the message that we have to create – that treating people well is really good business,” Soderbergh said. “It’s really good business in the near term, and it’s really good business in the long term. In the near term, people don’t do their best work in an abusive environment – they just don’t, because so much of their psychic real estate is stolen by dealing with the toxicity of the work environment. The other near-term loss is high turn around – high burn rate. People can’t take it, and they leave. And that’s really inefficient, when you have turnaround that’s that rapid.
“And the long term is that people say ‘I don’t want to work there,’ so you don’t get the best people. “And in order to get the best people, you have to overpay them, because everybody knows everything in this industry. And that’s what I think we should really be focusing on: that there are no secrets here. We all know who the bad actors are. And we all know that there are certain people who accept jobs on toxic shows because it’s like hazard pay.
“We need to figure out a way to address this in a fluid fashion, because a broad edict here – it’s a big problem – and I think the tendency when there’s a big problem is to come up with a big solve – and I don’t think that’s how we do this. We need to be fluid here, because every interaction between two people is different, and we need to acknowledge that and come up with some sort of structure and ways for people to communicate when they’ve had an interaction that is not cool and toxic.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “these people that are abusive have to pay more money to get people to work for them. They do. That is an actual economic fact. So I think the argument we should be proposing is that treating people well is good business. It is. I think it’s demonstrably positive.”
Amy Baer, president of Women in Film and president of Landline Pictures who formerly ran CBS Films and was Sony’s EVP Production, said, “I do think it’s significant that there’s been this reckoning with Scott’s behavior. It’s been an open secret for 30-plus years. I do think the accountability must start at the top of all these companies. Part of the problem with someone like Scott Rudin, and I don’t mean him individually, but as a producer who is not inside a corporate structure, is that there’s very little accountability. When a studio or a network makes an overall deal with a producer, it’s sort of at arms’ length. So there really isn’t an accountability intrinsic to that transaction because that producer technically, under an overall deal, isn’t an employee of the studio or of the network. So we really have to think about how we can hold accountable the independent contractor – the gig economy, so to speak.”
“There is an understanding,” Baer said, “that abusive behavior is a rite of passage. You come into the business; you become an assistant, and with very few exceptions, most people have to start their entertainment careers as assistants. And there’s just a general understanding that ‘It’s hard, it’s gonna be difficult, you’re gonna be screamed at, you’re going to have to do certain things that really aren’t part of the job description.’ And we have to break that down, fundamentally, in order to really change that, and change this sort of tolerance of bullying behavior. And again, that has to come from the top of every organization, every media company, every agency. It’s obviously something you can do in a sort of localized scenario, and I have done that on movie sets. But there really is an expectation that that’s just a rite of passage, and for every one person right now who hears that and says, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that,’ there’s a hundred others who are eager to get into the entertainment business who at least for the moment will tolerate that kind of behavior. And the employers know that.
“So it is important, this sort of reckoning – this outing, so to speak – of what has been going on with Scott Rudin for many, many, many years, but we do have a long way to go because there is really some foundational DNA built into the assistant ecosystem that perpetuates the problem.”
Soderbergh said the industry has and is changing for the better in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. “This industry, which is a really big economic engine, has tried, at least, to react in real time to all of these issues in a way that other industries that are of similar size haven’t. Since the MeToo movement emerged, I saw an immediate change, and an ongoing change in how people react in a really positive way. And I don’t know any other industry of this size that has really focused on talking about interactions in the workplace. And all of this has been positive. It’s different. It’s better. People are happier because they feel safe.”
Noting that abusive behavior falls on a spectrum, he said that “We need a way of notification, an understanding of what the consequences are that’s kind of fluid, and that goes against the industry’s kind of desire to have broad edicts that fit every situation. And the fact of the matter is that every interaction between two people is unique, and we have to figure out a way to deal with that. But I’ll go back to my premise that treating people well is good business. It works – it works in the short term and it works in the long term.”
Writer Liz Alper, who founded #PayUpHollywood and has long been advocating for better treatment and better pay for those at Hollywood’s lower rungs, said she wanted to “gently push back” on what Soderbergh said, saying that “the MeToo movement hasn’t necessarily included everybody in Hollywood, because the assistants and the support staff community have been incredibly outspoken about feeling left behind by the movement because they are part of an unseen, usually faceless group in Hollywood that goes largely unprotected. And I think that one of the things we’re seeing right now with Scott Rudin, and with the recent article that came out about ICM, is that of all the changes that are being made in Hollywood, often support staff are left out of those changes, and they are not necessarily protected. And I think it has a lot to do with this idea that assistants and anyone who is low on the totem pole is easily replaceable. And I think we are trending towards a more accountable industry, but I did just want to speak up for the people who have been speaking up but haven’t had the platform to.”
Soderbergh, pushing back on her gentle push-back, stressed that he has repeatedly told reporters, when asked about Weinstein, that he “hoped that this would morph into a larger conversation about abusive behavior generally. That was my whole thing. I was like, ‘This is great that this is happening, but it needs to be part of a larger conversation about generally abusive behavior by a-holes that we all know. That was my first thing: Can we pivot the energy that is being generated by MeToo into a larger conversation about people who are a-holes? Can we fuse those two things? I was very hopeful that that would happen.”
Andrew Coles, the CEO of The Mission Entertainment and a whistleblower who helped bring the behavior of Rudin – his former boss – to light in an April 7 article in The Hollywood Reporter, revealed that on April 6, the day after he’d agreed to go on the record in the story, “That article leaked somehow from The Hollywood Reporter and started making its way around Hollywood – to Steven’s point, there’s not many secrets in this town. On April 6, someone called the mental health crisis line of the LAPD and they phoned in a false murder-suicide threat and targeted my home and office in West Hollywood. A SWAT team was sent to my home and office; my housemate was taken out of the house at shotgun-point; there was a helicopter circling overhead; there were barricades in front of my street. I do not know if it was connected to my participation in this article. What I can tell you is, I’m not a particularly high-profile individual. This is probably the highest-profile public event that I’ve ever participated in. I do not know the intention of whoever sent that SWAT team to my house, whether it was to intimidate, to dissuade me from further speaking, to have a chilling effect on anyone else who might speak. I don’t know who’s interested in upholding the status quo of how broken this industry is. What I can tell you is that I do not regret what I did, and if speaking the truth makes me unable to work in this industry, it is not an industry I want to work in. And I think that has to be the question that everyone has to ask themselves.”
To which Soderbergh said: “Why are we punishing people who tell the truth, and why are we rewarding people who lie or abuse?”
“And to that point,” Coles continued, “all of us have to ask, when we look in the mirror, when we look into our children’s eyes, when we talk to our friends and family, we all have a decision every day about who do we want to be. And we have to decide what industry we want to work in. If we look at the state of the world; if we look at what is going on in our own country in the last few years, we have to decide if we want to be leaders, or whether we want to be followers. I am not seeing a lot of leadership in our industry right now, but I remain hopeful and optimistic. Because I know that of all the faults and all the problems within our industry, our industry can be one of the greatest leaders of change and inspiration that this world has.”
The panel, the first of several the Hollywood Commission is sponsoring on the subject of bullying, was ably moderated by Lauren Rikleen, president and founder of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.
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