Former movie producer Harvey Weinstein is a serial sexual harasser, exercises zero anger management, and abuses nearly everybody with whom he has contact. He is one among a number of powerful, or once powerful, Hollywood men who share some or all of these behaviors and characteristics. Trying to avoid the rapists, gropers, and grinders is, therefore, a very serious dilemma for women in the entertainment industry. Sadly, it’s not the only one.
Of those credited with working on the 100 top-grossing films in 2016, women comprised just 4% of the directors, 11% of the writers, 3% of the cinematographers, 19% of the producers, and 14% of the editors. Men don’t just dominate behind the camera either. They filled two thirds of the speaking roles in commercial films released in fiscal year 2015. People of color trying to break into films or climb the industry ladder face similarly daunting statistics.
The two-headed monster oppressing women – sexually abusive men and limited opportunities – stalks Hollywood because a handful of big shots possess multi-generational wealth and wield extraordinary power over nearly everybody working in movies. Slaying this monster therefore entails: 1) Cutting significantly the gap in wealth and living standards Hollywood heavyweights enjoy over those scratching to survive. 2) Creating a viable alternative to the commercial film industry for those seeking a career in movies.
Weinstein’s very deep pockets – London’s Sunday Times estimates his net worth to be between $240 and $300 million – have almost certainly helped him avoid criminal prosecution. Two years ago, Weinstein retained $2,000 an hour trial lawyer David Boies to help him skirt prosecution for allegedly “assaulting 22-year-old model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in March 2015.” According to Vox, “Gutierrez reported the assault to the NYPD the night it happened, and wore a wire the next day, when she recorded Weinstein saying, ‘I won’t do it again.’” Nevertheless, after meeting with Boies, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., directed assistants to abandon the case. A few months later, Boies contributed $10,000 to Vance’s reelection campaign.
The Gutierrez assault was rare in that police investigated it and recommended prosecution. In other cases, Weinstein’s victims were shamed, threatened, or bribed into silence. The Weinstein Company – 42% of which is controlled by Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob – has paid out nearly $1 million in eight known settlements since 1990 plus an undetermined but surely significant amount in associated legal fees.
By publishing these facts, the New York Times ultimately laid Weinstein low. But even when Executive Editor Dean Baquet ultimately decided to approve the story, he was mindful of Weinstein’s wealth and the potential negative impact on the paper’s bottom line. Without a hint of irony, Baquet told reporter Jim Rutenberg “Harvey Weinstein is an advertiser – but that never even crossed my mind.” Former New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman speculates that Weinstein’s advertising dollars may have played a role in the New York Times decision to redact from her 2004 story sexual harassment accusations against Weinstein by an Italian actress and an intern.
Weinstein’s victims explain their silence by referencing the studio mogul’s influence and reach. One woman told a colleague: “I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.” In 2008, Weinstein cornered Los Angeles TV journalist Lauren Sivan and then ejaculated in front of her. Although, the Huffington Post reports, “the experience left Sivan shocked . . . she remained quiet because she was in a long-term relationship and fearful of the power that Weinstein wielded in the media.”
It wasn’t just victims who remained silent or, worse, abetted Weinstein even when his appalling behavior was an open secret at his company. Weinstein’s company Miramax produced Matt Damon’s breakout hit Good Will Hunting and two early Russell Crowe films before he was widely known. Sharon Waxman contends that Damon and Crowe, possibly in a show of gratitude towards their benefactor, helped kill most of her 2004 New York Times story on Weinstein.
It’s certainly understandable that the New York Times might be reluctant to slaughter a cash cow. Likewise, it’s easy to see why aspiring actors and filmmakers would be leery of antagonizing Weinstein while ones who made it big would feel grateful. The reward for success in Hollywood is so extraordinary and the cost of failure can be so great. Fame, influence, beautiful women and men, race cars, and homes in Beverly Hills, New York, and Italy flow to the few at the top. A marginal existence, without a secure retirement, health care, or even perhaps permanent housing awaits those at the bottom.
Truly redistributive policies that both 1) reduce the after-tax rewards afforded those who hit the jackpot and 2) guarantee a decent quality of life for all would surely help detoxify Hollywood. They would change the cost-benefit calculus of those contemplating exposing sexual predators. The potential rewards for keeping silent wouldn’t be so outsized and the potential downside of speaking out wouldn’t be as great.
Ultimately though, higher marginal tax rates and a tight safety net wouldn’t be enough to rein in the moguls. Their might does not derive merely from the size of their bank accounts and their consequent ability to bribe D.A.’s and kill newspaper stories. Nor does the silence of those in their orbit reflect solely their ability to make a pauper a king and to impoverish a chorine. Harry Cohn, the chief of Columbia Pictures, during Hollywood’s golden age, faced a 91% top marginal tax rate. Nevertheless, he was by many accounts an abusive tyrant in the Weinstein mold. Cohn got away with it because he decided who got very desirable and highly-compensated work and who didn’t.
In order therefore to effectuate real change, we need to develop a supplemental structure for making movies. The for-profit studios have shown that they can produce subversive, sometimes even transcendent, art. But they have also demonstrated that while they are good at protecting abusive power mongers, they are especially poor at both 1) devolving power to women and people of color and 2) portraying them on screen. In response, the federal government should create and fund an agency tasked with producing and distributing movies made by and about individuals and groups whom Hollywood has traditionally ignored.
This would lead to a number of positive developments. Many more Americans would have the opportunity to see communities like their own in movies. A much greater percentage of women and people of color would be able to make a decent living making movies and this would mean that would-be Weinsteins would no longer have the juice to run subordinates out of the business for reporting abusive behavior.