In an industry known for attracting its share of screamers, few raged as violently as Harvey Weinstein. “There was a lot of pounding his fists on the desk and a lot of yelling,” said one of his former employees. “There was an anger inside of him that was jarring and scary.”
Another onetime staffer says that in recent years Weinstein had reined in a penchant for physical altercations but had not lost his talent for berating employees. He was particularly cruel with assistants and executives who didn’t push back when he tore into them.
“If he thought he could walk all over you, it was sport for him,” the person recalls.
And bad as Harvey was, his brother, Bob Weinstein, was known for having even more explosive outbursts.
“He was always shouting through gritted teeth,” said another ex-employee. “He was the scarier brother.”
That kind of abuse — the ritualistic dressing downs and the talent for driving staffers to the brink of psychological collapse — isn’t what led to Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. It’s the pervasive allegations of sexual harassment and assault over several decades that were finally made public and prompted his firing from the Weinstein Co., leaving the New York-based indie film and television studio that he and his brother founded in ruins.
Harvey Weinstein’s implosion, coming on the heels of a series of similar scandals involving prominent media figures, has focused attention on sexual harassment in a way not seen since Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of making crude remarks and unwanted advances a generation ago. In the days since Weinstein’s collapse, the industry has engaged in a period of soul searching. The major studios and agencies have reaffirmed their commitment to a zero-tolerance atmosphere for sexual harassment. In many cases, strict rules were already in place, and ombudspeople had been installed to ensure that staffers who complained about mistreatment weren’t subjected to retribution.
Still, Hollywood at large is under increasing pressure to take further steps to ensure safer, more productive work environments.
There’s a larger conversation going on, as well. The men and women who labor in the Hollywood trenches are hoping that Weinstein’s banishment may lead to a kinder, gentler entertainment industry.
“There’s a younger generation that’s not as jaded and cynical and is less willing to put up with things that people had been willing to accept over the years,” said Joe Pichirallo, a film and TV producer who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
But for years, Weinstein was just the most extreme example of a kind of volcanic personality type that was not only embraced but lionized. Just look at HBO’s former series “Entourage” and its breakout character, super-agent Ari Gold. His trash talking and sexist rants, as well as routine bullying of underlings, was idealized and humorized. And just as Gold was a loose imitation of real-life agent Ari Emanuel, an equally voluble figure, he also helped shape a popular perception of how executives and players in the rough-and-tumble industry operate. Nor is Emanuel alone in having frequent decibel-busting tirades. Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin and superstar directors such as James Cameron and Michael Bay are all infamous for their fits and tantrums.
“I’ve been involved in the entertainment business for over 40 years,” said Seth Willenson, an industry consultant and former New Line executive. “In that time, I’ve seen a lot of aggressive yellers and people who run their companies like paramilitaries. High-pressure businesses attract type A personalities, and that can lead to a lot of rudeness and insensitivity.”
The nature of employment in the entertainment industry for creative talent lends itself to an atmosphere where abusive behavior flourishes. Many jobs are on a project-by-project basis. In film, this means a vagabond existence of moving from studio to studio. There’s no central firm where actors, writers, directors, producers and crew members put in years and years of work — unless the producer also has his or her name on the door à la Harvey Weinstein. In TV the dynamic is different for successful shows that run for multiple seasons — but the high failure rate means that many productions last only months or a year at best. The short-term nature of employment makes management less inclined to dig in to the messy business of policing bad behavior, and victims less inclined to complain because they never know who they might be meeting with for their next job.
Numerous industry observers are calling on the creative guilds to lead the way in establishing a system that will allow complaints to be brought and investigated in a timely manner. The feeling is that the guilds should undertake this as an urgent effort to provide a measure of protection for union members.
“What changes come out of this is really going to be the key,” said Warren Leight, veteran showrunner and screenwriter. “Otherwise, we’ve got a guy who got away with vile behavior for a long time being outed. There’s value to that but it won’t matter much if there is no real change.”
The wealth that success brings in entertainment also becomes a shield for misconduct, in that perpetrators have resources to pressure victims with legal retribution. Moreover, the promise of future financial rewards explains why some people submit to verbal and sexual abuse from superiors. Hollywood’s high pay scales mean that employees will put up with a lot to maintain six- and seven-figure incomes. There’s the sentiment that some of it is paying your dues, and some of it is what you have to endure to maintain the beach house in Malibu or cottage in the Hamptons.
There’s a thin line that exists between tough talk at agencies and some production companies and outright sexism. It’s part of a boys’ club culture that still lingers.
“Agents and executives say horrible things to me — none of that should be OK,” said a young female literary agent at one of the big agencies. “I had an agent once after a meeting tell me that he didn’t listen to a word I was saying because he was so busy looking at my tits. I sucked it up because as an agent, you’re supposed to have thick skin.”
Weinstein’s employees have acknowledged that he could be abusive and volatile, and have described living in fear of his temper. But that sort of behavior is not criminal. So even if there is a sea change on sexual harassment, everyday bullying is unlikely to end.
“There are no workplace civility laws,” said attorney Doug Silverstein. Adds Leight: “Abuse isn’t peculiar to this industry, but what makes it worse is that there is no mechanism whatsoever to report bad behavior.”
Attorneys are accustomed to hearing stories of abusive workplace conduct that does not rise to the level of a lawsuit. Such conduct is only actionable if it is discriminatory — that is, if it is directed against women or racial minorities.
“People think ‘If my boss is hostile and screaming and yelling at me,’ which is par for the course in the entertainment industry, ‘that’s a hostile work environment claim,’” attorney Lee Feldman said. “A hostile work environment is not illegal.”
Feldman says he recently lost a case in arbitration because the defendant was able to argue that his abusive behavior was not discriminatory.
“His defense was ‘I’m a horrific asshole to everyone,’” Feldman said.
In 2015, California enacted a law requiring managers to undergo training on workplace bullying, as part of broader efforts to combat sexual harassment. But the Legislature has not taken the next step of outlawing bullying.
“The employers would argue that the courthouses would be clogged with claims,” Feldman said. “I don’t think it would be a bad thing. People don’t change their behavior unless they’re required to do so because there’s a consequence.”
But some observers believe that a younger generation of industry leaders is taking a less operatic approach to management. Indie film leaders such as Bleecker Street’s Andrew Karpen or Focus Features’ Peter Kujawski are much lower-key than the Weinsteins of yore. While Sony Pictures movie chief Tom Rothman is notorious for his hot temper, studio bosses such as Universal’s Donna Langley, 20th Century Fox’s Stacey Snider and Warner Bros.’ Toby Emmerich may be demanding, but they lack the caustic edge of earlier moguls. It helps that they run studios that exist in sprawling media conglomerates. These businesses have more safeguards in place and are more buttoned up. But there’s also a growing sense that the bare-knuckle mogul that Weinstein aspired to be has become an endangered species. It’s not just that their sexual politics are considered abhorrent and illegal. It’s that their bluster and barking has worn thin.
“I think that the culture has evolved so that things that were acceptable 20 years ago and prevalent 35 or 40 years ago aren’t allowed today,” Willenson said.
Gene Maddaus, Cynthia Littleton and Elizabeth Wagmeister contributed to this report.