As the cascade of sexual harassment and assault allegations rock the entertainment industry, Hollywood’s largest talent agencies are girding for tougher scrutiny of their working environments that, in many instances, have long been compared to that of a frat house.
Over the past six months, ICM and CAA have forced out male agents accused of sexual harassment of co-workers. The scandal at Fox News that enveloped CEO Roger Ailes and star anchor Bill O’Reilly, both of whom were fired amid sexual harassment allegations, has heightened sensitivity to the legal liability of working conditions that could be viewed as hostile for women. Talent agency leaders are nervous about how aspects of their businesses will hold up to closer examination as fallout from the explosive allegations of Harvey Weinstein continue to ripple across the industry.
Last month, APA talent agent Tyler Grasham was fired for alleged sexual misconduct involving some clients that has expanded well beyond a workplace behavior issue into a criminal investigation by the LAPD. The latest wave has involved such high profile stars Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, who generate millions of dollars in commissions for agencies, have also been in the news for sexual harassment allegations.
Talent agencies have long been known for operating in a hothouse environment, spurred by intense competitive pressure and hard-charging, Type-A personalities. Stories of verbal abuse, long hours, and extraordinary commitment demanded by agents of their support staff are legendary. As privately held companies, Hollywood’s largest agencies are also less vulnerable to concerns about bad PR than the networks and studios that are part of publicly held conglomerates. But people working at all levels of the talent agencies are now extremely nervous and hope this will mark a turning point in an industry that has long operated by its own rules. Sources at multiple agencies said there is renewed attention being paid to standards of behavior expected for agents who travel together to film festivals, content markets, set visits and other work-related treks.
A sexually charged working environment at agencies has long been a fact of life for many women trying to make their way up the ranks in a male-dominated industry. The incidents at ICM and CAA underscore how routine it has been for women to face lewd comments and sexual overtures in the workplace — behavior that may have been overlooked as harmless in the past but is being viewed in a new light amid the deluge of harassment disclosures from women in the industry. And ICM and CAA are surely not the only agencies to deal with sexual harassment problems.
In the case of CAA, allegations from multiple female staffers brought a swift decision in September to part ways with Ryan Ly, a 12-year employee who was head of the TV lit department. At ICM, allegations of inappropriate behavior from longtime employee Erik Horine, who was forced to resign in June, went unchecked for years despite concerns raised to senior agents in the TV department and the agency’s human resources department.
In a statement to Variety, Horine expressed regret for his actions and said he was taking steps to change his behavior.
“I now understand the pain and offense my behavior has caused. I am truly sorry for that,” Horine said. “The fact that my conduct involved words, rather than physical actions, in no way excuses it.”
Insiders say CAA has sought to make Ly’s dismissal an example of the agency’s zero-tolerance stance on harassment.
In meetings held after Ly’s departure, leaders reminded staffers that the agency has long had an internal tip line to register concerns about co-workers or the general working environment. There is no doubt that the Ly situation has made an impression on the company.
Ly’s situation at CAA came to a head in September when the agent was accused of inappropriate behavior with five female staffers, all of whom were his direct reports, during the weekend of the Emmy Awards. Knowledgeable sources said Ly allegedly made lewd comments to co-workers on Sept. 15 at CAA’s pre-Emmy Awards party at Bouchon. On Sept. 17, the day of the Emmy Awards ceremony, sources said Ly appeared to be drunk, made inappropriate comments and allegedly groped a female staffer in front of other CAA agents at the Governors Ball.
The following day, the women came forward to senior leaders with complaints about his behavior for the first time. Sources said a probe uncovered more alleged instances of harassment going back about a year. Many of the incidents occurred in connection with industry parties and business travel. Ly was let go, just four days after the complaint, on Sept. 22.
CAA declined to comment on personnel issues. Ly did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
ICM also asserts it took appropriate action after an internal investigation uncovered troubling behavior.
“Once the company fully identified the issue, it acted swiftly and decisively,” said Brad Turell, ICM Partners spokesman.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former ICM employees, including four women who say they received unwanted and persistent attention from Horine, paint a picture of a well-liked and well-connected agent in ICM’s television lit department who was perceived as too powerful to be challenged by the female assistants who were allegedly his targets.
Horine is not accused of engaging in any physical acts of harassment, nor did his behavior rise to the level of legal wrongdoing.
Multiple sources allege that the agent’s pattern was to inundate selected female staffers with text messages, emails and social media communications asking them out for dinner or drinks. Horine is alleged to have sent messages to lower-level female employees during working hours telling them they looked “hot,” that he was aroused and couldn’t stop thinking about them. According to sources, he would often jokingly tell his targets that his goal was to get them drunk and socialize on weekends. These people said Horine’s pattern of harassment dated back to at least 2009, when he was promoted to agent.
The unsolicited attention, according to the four sources, was both frustrating and demeaning. They said it was a significant distraction for assistants trying to excel at a job that is famously demanding.
“It’s hard enough to be an assistant making minimum wage – and then you put sexism on top of it,” said one ICM alum with direct knowledge of Horine’s actions.
Horine said that since leaving ICM he has been “working hard” through therapy, sensitivity training and volunteer work to better understand the effects of his past behavior toward women.
“I recognize that I can’t undo the past, but at least I can make sure that I never again act in a manner that makes my co-workers or others upset or uncomfortable around me,” Horine said. “I am regretful every day for any pain I have caused. I will do everything possible to continue the personal growth that is needed on my part.”
At ICM, sources said Horine’s alleged pattern became so well known that new female recruits in the TV lit department were routinely warned of his behavior by other women in the department. They were also cautioned that Horine’s deep friendships with top partners meant it could be damaging to their career ambitions to confront him.
“I was told (by other women) you had to just suck it up because no one was going to do anything about it,” said a former female employee.
However, other senior agents were aware of the dismay over Horine’s alleged behavior that circulated among assistants in the department. At least two explicit references to Horine’s alleged targeting of young women were made to ICM’s human resources department in the form of oral and written exit interviews with departing employees in 2015 and 2016.
No formal HR complaint was ever filed against Horine. But it was one of those exit interview references that spurred the eventual probe into his behavior.
Horine came to ICM after he impressed former agency chief Jeff Berg while working as a tennis coach at Riviera Country Club. He joined ICM’s mailroom shortly before the agency merged with Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann in July 2006. Sources described him as a good agent and an effective team player who was skilled at managing the needs of high-maintenance clients. Horine was promoted to partner in March 2016.
“You’re an assistant — you’re not going to go up against a partner,” said a former ICM assistant.
Another source said that numerous women in the department tried to “laugh it off” and debated where to draw the line between boorish behavior and sexual harassment. For ambitious young women hoping to build careers in a famously rough-and-tumble business, there was a sense that dealing with a steady stream of unsolicited romantic overtures was part of the dues-paying process. There was also fear that speaking out would hurt their advancement opportunities at the agency and in the future, a sentiment that persists even with the post-Weinstein deluge of harassment revelations.
“When it’s not anything physical, you ask yourself ‘Am I making too big a deal out of this?’ It’s that gray area,” said a former ICM assistant. “You know it’s not OK but you have to weigh the ramifications of coming forward. He’ll probably just get a talking-to but you will have a real problem.”
Horine’s tenure at ICM came to an end in part because the agency was dragged into the periphery of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal by then-client Tamara Holder. Holder reached a $2.5 million settlement with Fox News earlier this year following her allegation that former Fox News vice president Francisco Cortes tried to force her to perform oral sex on him. Holder later said publicly that she was discouraged by three of her agents at ICM – none of whom were Horine — from filing a sexual harassment claim against Fox News.
Responding to Holder’s allegation, ICM in May hired attorney Marvin Putnam of Latham & Watkins to conduct an investigation. As part of that investigation, ICM asked Putnam to take a broader look at the company’s workplace culture, which led to the scrutiny of Horine. Around the same time, Horine is alleged to have made overtures to a new female hire who complained about him to senior leaders.
As ICM’s board members reviewed the results of the Putnam investigation, sources said there was alarm, particularly among female partners outside of the TV department, at the extent of the allegations against Horine. He resigned under pressure as of June 16.
ICM emphasized that it has taken steps to make it easier for employees to alert leaders to problems in the workplace. It is also expanding its human resources department.
”We have implemented numerous comfortable lines of communication to bring forward any complaints or concerns should the need arise,” said ICM’s Turell.
The departures of Horine and Ly from ICM and CAA, respectively, are vivid examples of changing expectations for workplace standards. Amid Hollywood’s extraordinary moment of reckoning with sexual harassment, it is highly likely that they won’t be the last to face harsh consequences for bad behavior.