Over the course of five days, Harvey Weinstein went from a powerhouse player to a Hollywood pariah. His career is in tatters, and the company he co-founded has been wrested from his control following the Oct. 5 publication of a New York Times exposé featuring multiple on-the-record interviews with women accusing him of sexual harassment that occurred over three decades.
Arguably, no one did more to shape the world of indie film in the 1990s and early aughts than Weinstein. With a combination of sterling creative taste and a pugilist’s instinct for going for the jugular, he helped push edgy or emotionally potent films such as “The Crying Game,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The King’s Speech” into the mainstream, while fashioning himself into a mogul. That legacy has been tarnished. Weinstein now sits in ignominious company alongside Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, L.A. Reid and Bill Cosby — a symbol of a casting couch culture that is being upended by a new willingness by victims of abuse to stand up and be counted. The fall from power of these men promises that more alleged abusers will be named and asked to account for their misdeeds, potentially at the cost of their careers and reputations. As Shakespeare wrote, the truth will out.
“There are more people willing to come forward now,” said Anita Hill, an attorney and civil rights advocate who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. “There’s obviously strength in numbers.”
On Oct. 8, the board of the Weinstein Co. made the remarkable decision to fire its founder, co-chairman and namesake, determining that the company would be better off without him. Weinstein spent the weekend with his wife, Georgina Chapman, holed up at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, emailing industry leaders in a desperate bid for support. He argued that the board’s action “might be illegal and would destroy the company.”
Due to its financial woes, the New York-based company had already been moving away from the art-house films that defined Weinstein’s reputation in the 1990s, and toward prestige television. That strategy is now likely to accelerate with Weinstein’s younger brother, Bob, and chief operating officer David Glasser at the helm.
The company is also mulling a name change to avoid association with an ever-worsening sex scandal. Bob Weinstein runs Dimension Films, which will continue to operate as the company’s genre label.
Company insiders say that the Weinstein brothers have been feuding for nearly a year over whether to give priority to Weinstein Co. or Dimension releases, among other issues. The Times’ harassment exposé brought that clash to a head, with Bob pushing for his brother’s ouster.
Initially, the board placed Harvey Weinstein on an indefinite leave so that he could get professional therapy. But members quickly became aware that he had tried to intimidate company employees into not cooperating with an independent investigation of the harassment claims. Weinstein denied that allegation.
In a three-hour telephone meeting on Oct. 8, the board decided it would be best to fire Weinstein for breaching the company’s code of ethics, which the mogul signed when he renewed his contract in 2015.
Board members argued the firing would give certainty to company employees and assuage powerful industry partners like Netflix and Amazon. The board spent much of the meeting hashing out the language of the press release.
The ball is now in Weinstein’s court. He could file a breach-of-contract suit against the Weinstein Co. Such a complaint would likely allege that the board had insufficient cause to terminate him.
Weinstein might also sue for invasion of privacy. His attorney, Charles Harder, referred to a confidential memo from ex-employee Lauren O’Connor, which detailed numerous alleged incidents and was a key element supporting the Times story. Harder suggested that the memo was stolen from an employee’s personnel file. Conceivably, Weinstein could sue the company for leaking the document to the Times.
Weinstein could also file a defamation case against the company, though that would invite discovery into other allegations and could get messy in a hurry. Weinstein remains an equity holder in the company (he and his brother jointly own 42%), and would presumably want to avoid a legal battle that would cripple the company’s long-term viability.
“Corporate governance disputes are similar to divorces and can become ugly,” said attorney Max J. Sprecher. “People running companies frequently spend more time with each other than with their spouses and, as a result, may know unsavory secrets about their colleagues.”
The revelations about Weinstein inspired expressions of guilt and outrage across the movie and television businesses, to say nothing of the media tasked with covering the entertainment industry. After all, Weinstein’s questionable behavior toward women has been widely whispered around studio backlots and boardrooms, premiere parties and movie star trailers, for decades.
Kevin Smith, who worked with Weinstein on multiple movies including “Clerks,” was one of many who spoke out in the wake of the mogul’s firing.
“He financed the first 14 years of my career — and now I know while I was profiting, others were in terrible pain,” he wrote on Twitter. “It makes me feel ashamed.”
Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar for her role in “The Iron Lady” for the Weinstein Co., released a statement that read in part, “The disgraceful news about Harvey Weinstein has appalled those of us whose work he championed, and those whose good and worthy causes he supported.”
And Judi Dench, who got a (temporary) tattoo of Weinstein’s name to thank him for promoting her films, said, “I was completely unaware of these offenses which
are, of course, horrifying, and I offer my sympathy to those who have suffered, and wholehearted support to those who have spoken out.”
It was a day of reckoning that Weinstein had succeeded in delaying for years. Until last week, using a combination of legal coercion, personal wealth and power, Weinstein was able to keep allegations that he had harassed and abused female employees, aspiring actresses and industry players out of the headlines.
Any illusions that Weinstein could once again quash a damaging story were shattered after the Times report featured multiple on-the-record interviews with women who accused Weinstein of being sexually suggestive, appearing in states of undress in business meetings and offering to boost people’s careers in return for sexual favors. Since the news broke, more women, including a former Fox News channel anchor, have come forward alleging harassment. A New Yorker story, written by Ronan Farrow, is awaiting publication.
Weinstein fought back in a series of combative board meetings last week, insisting he could weather the storm. As the talks progressed, top talent agents and executives at other companies who work with the Weinstein Co. signaled that Weinstein had to be ousted. Though Bob Weinstein and Glasser urged Harvey to reach some sort of financial settlement, he refused to leave.
Dench, Streep and other celebrities claimed they were ignorant of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses, but sexual harassment experts found that hard to square.
“He was so powerful and successful in his repeated systemic abuses of power that he became completely brazen about it,” said Genie Harrison, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment suits. “I do not believe people didn’t know. That’s not the way this works.”
Multiple former staffers reported that even if they never saw evidence of abuse, Weinstein’s behavior was common knowledge at TWC and at Miramax, the studio
Disney bought from the Weinstein brothers in 1993. Those rumors kept swirling, yet top filmmakers and A-list actors continued to partner with Weinstein, hoping he would propel them to awards glory and box office success.
Leading Democratic politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama accepted donations and fundraising help from Weinstein. And major investors, from WPP to Goldman Sachs, backed him financially. Many different people and institutions, ranging from Hollywood to Wall Street to the Beltway, are apparently complicit in allowing Weinstein to enjoy a position of privilege and influence that enabled him to keep allegations of sexual improprieties out of the press.
The Times report stated that Weinstein’s history of getting settlements paid out to his accusers dates back to his Miramax days. They occurred under Disney’s leadership, raising questions about whether the entertainment giant approved the settlements to alleged victims and how much the studio’s top brass knew.
One former Miramax staffer said that there had been mutterings that Weinstein’s accusers had received settlements but stressed they had never personally
witnessed any harassment. At the Weinstein Co., a former staffer said, Weinstein always showed a special interest in young and attractive women, and rumors persisted that he was overly aggressive, but it was unclear if his behavior amounted to anything more than philandering, staffers said.
Beyond Weinstein’s alleged harassment, the indie maverick ran his company more like a personal fiefdom than a buttoned- down corporate enterprise. Employees were expected to work brutal hours and were subjected to vicious dressing-downs. Rachel Pine, a former publicist with Miramax, wasn’t aware of any sexual harassment, but she made it clear that working for Weinstein was an emotionally challenging experience filled with lots of shouting.
“It was like being in the service of the king,” she said.
So far, Disney has refused to comment publicly on Weinstein’s Miramax years.
Disney sources emphasize that Miramax operated under then-CEO Michael Eisner with autonomy, a level that would not be tolerated today at the company under the current Bob Iger regime. Miramax’s financial activity was not heavily scrutinized so long as the company stayed within its yearly budget.
Even if Disney were shown to have behaved improperly or to have created a hostile work environment, legal action would likely be deemed outside the statute of limitations. Eisner did not respond to multiple interview requests.
“That’s long gone,” said Debbie Katz, a Washington, D.C., harassment and discrimination lawyer. “I don’t think Disney has any liability. I don’t think Miramax has any liability.”
Charles Elson, chair of corporate governance at the University of Delaware, said that the Weinstein settlements with Miramax employees are “certainly an
embarrassment” for Disney, but because the amount of money paid out wouldn’t materially impact the company’s bottom line, investors can’t argue they should have been informed.
Despite his personal failings, Harvey Weinstein was the driving creative force behind the Weinstein Co.’s film and television projects. He would orchestrate Oscar campaigns, having a sixth sense about which horses to bet on, while on the small screen front, he was famously effective as a salesman in meetings with TV buyers.
At present, TWC’s TV efforts are run by two executive VPs: Patrick Reardon on the unscripted side and Megan Spanjian in scripted. Industry sources say both are well regarded in the creative community but don’t have the stature needed to drive deals and big sales. TWC would have to recruit an experienced TV producer or programmer from the outside. That figures to be a tall order with the drama swirling around the company and the persistent chatter that it is grappling with financial constraints and pressure from investors.
The studio moved to contain the fallout from the Times revelations Oct. 9 by telling network partners that Harvey Weinstein’s name should be dropped as an executive producer on all of the company’s series. Upcoming projects include a David O. Russell drama for Amazon starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, and “Yellowstone,” a series for the Paramount Network that features Kevin Costner.
It was also announced Oct. 9 that the company was removing Weinstein’s producer credit for the forthcoming release “The Current War,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Even as movie stars and directors rushed to condemn Weinstein on social media and through publicist-issued statements, the fact remains that this isn’t an
isolated incident. Sexual harassment continues across the entertainment industry and beyond.
“The root problem is the same as it always has been, which is abuse of power,” said Harrison. “It’s the same dynamic in every sexual harassment case, whether it’s at a mom-and-pop store or at the Weinstein Co.”