The shocking allegations of sexual harassment and groping of women by bloggers popular in the fringe film community is a microcosm of what happens when bad behavior isn’t addressed head-on. Just as we saw with Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly and even filmmaker Nate Parker, there is no statute of limitations on the emotional scars inflicted upon women who’ve seen their complaints fall on deaf ears.
Harry Knowles, the founder of Aint It Cool News — the website that first became Hollywood relevant back when it aired reviews from readers who sneak into studio test screenings months before movies got released — has announced he will step away from his website for a leave of absence, with his sister taking over. This comes after the Austin Film Critics Association booted him, and after the abrupt exits of several longtime contributors said to be the site’s backbone in spearheading its genre film coverage. All this came days after our sister publication IndieWire bared a report — flatly denied by Knowles — that nearly two decades ago he had groped a woman, one who said it happened more than once. Multiple women have since come forward with harassment claims of their own.
Meanwhile, Alamo Drafthouse chief Tim League, who co-founded the genre film festival Fantastic Fest with Knowles, has twice been forced to issue apologies for bad behavior by Knowles and Birth.Movies.Death film blogger Devin Faraci. Faraci was quietly kept on the payroll after it was believed he had been banished after a woman claimed he had assaulted her on a dance floor. Faraci responded with an explanation that he didn’t remember it. Acknowledging a past as a blackout drinker, he apologized and subsequently went into a 12-step recovery program.
These incidents closely follow the shuttering of another film geek stronghold, the L.A.-based indie film venue Cinefamily, which halted operations in August in the wake of an unrelated but similar-sounding scandal that prompted the resignation of two top executives after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault became public. The closure is temporary, as the company said it is investigating the incidents and overhauling how such things are handled in the future.
What is emerging here is the high corporate price and brand damage that is attributable to even appearing to condone loathsome behavior, partly because the likelihood is high that these allegations aren’t isolated incidents. As we saw in the cases of Ailes and Cosby, it took one courageous victim and a journalistic outlet willing to risk lawsuit by airing an allegation denied by the alleged perpetrator, to trigger an avalanche. Others who suffered indignities and swallowed the shame are emboldened to come forward.
For Knowles, the fanboy Ain’t It Cool News brand might never recover from the damage of defecting staffers and a suddenly tarnished reputation.
The future outlook is just as uncertain for Cinefamily (an indie theater on Fairfax that curates a program of screenings of rare films and discussions with artists) after Oscar-winning Cinefamily co-founder Brie Larson called for an investigation after an email was sent to members, accusing two higher-ups of sexual harassment and lewd behavior. One of the execs who resigned, Hadrian Belove, denied the allegations and claimed it was payback from a disgruntled ex-staffer.
League has been doing heavy damage control, and no wonder. The potential consequences of all this could be devastating to his expanding Alamo Drafthouse brand. When the revelations about Faraci prompted Fox Searchlight and Film4 to pull the Martin McDonough-directed Three Billboards In Ebbing, Missouri from Fantastic Fest, League was busy visiting the Alamo Drafthouse theaters to explain.
A lot is at stake: Alamo Drafthouse is broadening its theater holdings, one opened in Brooklyn, another in San Francisco, and one coming to downtown L.A., coming next year. In addition, League partners with former RADiUS chief Tom Quinn in the upstart film distribution shingle Neon. That label is fast gaining momentum, and just won the most heated auction of the Toronto Film Festival for the hottest acquisition title there, the Margot Robbie-starrer I, Tonya.
So League moved much more quickly when Knowles became the target of complaints. In a lengthy apology, League said he had “severed all ties with Harry Knowles and he is no longer affiliated with the company in any capacity. We are striving to better respond to allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and will take actions so those who work at the theater or attend as a guest are not made to feel unsafe.”
Time will tell how the fallout impacts Alamo Drafthouse’s future fortunes.
The startling thing here is how quickly these figures and the branded entities they work for have been tarnished, when the incidents happened so long ago, with no trail of police reports or criminal investigations that used to be a standard for press reports.
That doesn’t mean these incidents didn’t happen, or that the allegations aren’t abhorrent. The alleged incident involving Knowles that got this started happened way back in 1999-2000. Jasmine Baker claimed that Knowles “rubbed up against her buttocks and legs in a way that made her feel uncomfortable” while at a Drafthouse event, according to IndieWire, which has covered the daylights out of this story. She confronted him about it and said that he “giggled about it.” She also said that he put his hand under her shirt on one occasion.
Knowles took to Twitter to deny the allegations saying that the story was “100% untrue.” He added “I was this person’s friend and confidant. I wish her nothing but the best.”
Baker’s allegations opened a floodgate as many came to applaud her bravery for coming forward. This included Gloria Walker, who shared her own story about Knowles allegedly harassing her in a series of tweets.
She added, “One occasion that stands out: I wanted to get into the original Captain America screening and he told me I had to kiss him to get in,” and also said “It’s not a secret. So many women have these stories. We have learned to steer clear of someone so we can pursue our love of cinema. It’s time for us to stop letting these creeps with power to get away with their creepy behavior. We all have to stand up and say it’s not ok.”
In addition, Britt Hayes, an associate editor at Screen Crush, posted an encounter with Knowles, while former Drafthouse employee Jill Lewis took to Facebook to give a detailed account of the numerous occasions she was harassed. This included an incident with Knowles. An anonymous user that goes by the Twitter handle “sick__66” also posted an exchange with Knowles.
This whole thing is a slippery slope and a real challenge to journalists. That certainly was the case last fall with Parker, the maker of The Birth of a Nation, whose Oscar frontrunner status evaporated after the revelation of details that he stood trial for rape back when he was a student at Penn State. Parker was acquitted (his co-defendant, Jean McGianni Celestin who shares story credit on the film), was initially convicted. That verdict was eventually thrown out. The plaintiff committed suicide 11 years later. When Parker spoke about it on 60 Minutes, his defensiveness was perceived as a lack of remorse (he was acquitted after all) and that left the award chances for his film in tatters.
Parker was more measured in a subsequent interview in Ebony when he said, “I called a couple of sisters that (I) know that are in the space that talk about the feminist movement and toxic masculinity and just asked questions. What did I do wrong? Because I was thinking about myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive.” That reflection came way too late and the film disappeared quickly from the awards race and the box office.
More slippery slope: many media outlets accepted as credible a litany of accusations of sexual abuse made by Michael Egan, who claimed he had been sexually abused as a teen by four prominent movie executives, all of whom denied the charges. Egan eventually recanted his claims made in press conferences, but the story was covered extensively in the trades, and the damage done.
In the wake of Cinefamily and the Austin earthquake, there is already plenty of regret, and reflection on how to handle a growing problem. As Austin Film Critics Association president Brian Salisbury said after the members of the AFCA voted to cut ties with Knowles: “It is heartbreaking to me to discover that the Austin film community, the sole reason I moved here 10 years ago, wasn’t the inclusive safe place I always believed it was. But obviously that disillusionment pales in comparison to the suffering felt by the women in our community. I feel awful for the victims here. My only hope is that we are taking the appropriate actions to move forward. Not more of the same, never more of this, but better than we were before.”
What is clear is that whether it is a studio, network, talent agency or fringe film festival, the corporate price for dismissing sexual harassment complaints, and not enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior, can be devastating as careers and possibly branded companies fall by the wayside.