Geek Girls vs. the Boys’ Club: Arthouse Scandals Shift the Culture

Ten years ago this month, Hadrian Belove was about to launch Cinefamily, a repertory theater that would feature weird and hard-to-find movies. He was sitting in the theater with his friend, Matt Cornell, who would handle operations.

“He told me there would be groupies coming once we opened,” Cornell recalls. “He was letting me know we were going to get laid.”

It was, Cornell says, an omen of things to come. Cinefamily would become an epicenter of young Hollywood, where film nerds could mingle with figures like P.T. Anderson, Benicio del Toro, and Aubrey Plaza. But numerous former employees say it was a boys’ club, where women were disregarded and mistreated, and then shunned or fired if they complained. The institution has now collapsed after an anonymous email accused Belove of harassment and of covering up for a Cinefamily board member.

The scandal was the first of several in the last month that have rocked the film world and which have prompted talk of a real shift in male-dominated arthouse culture. In Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse came under fire for secretly rehiring Devin Faraci, the former editor of the company’s Birth.Movies.Death website who was fired last year after a groping allegation. Soon thereafter, IndieWire reported that Harry Knowles, the founder of Ain’t It Cool News and a co-sponsor of the Drafthouse’s annual Fantastic Fest, had sexually assaulted a woman nearly 20 years ago. The Drafthouse was compelled to cut ties with both Faraci and Knowles, and Knowles stepped aside from Ain’t It Cool News as several contributors resigned.

Fantastic Fest, the genre film festival held at the Drafthouse last week, became an impromptu seminar on misogyny and harassment in the film world. Tim League, the CEO of the Drafthouse, issued a lengthy statement apologizing “to the women we have let down,” and launched a series of listening sessions to improve the company’s harassment policies. (League declined to comment for this story.)

“We’re in the middle of an opportunity to change things, not just in the film community but throughout the country,” says Britt Hayes, an associate editor at ScreenCrush, who was among five women who lodged allegations against Knowles. “We’re finally in a place where we can talk about this publicly.”

Those speaking out have described a film culture where women’s perspectives are not valued, where women are evaluated based on their looks and targeted for unwanted sexual advances and assault. Some see the latest round of resignations as a watershed.

“We’re in the middle of an opportunity to change things, not just in the film community but throughout the country.” Britt Hayes, associate editor, ScreenCrush

“The way the political climate is in the world now, it’s out in the open — the president was like, ‘Grab ’em by the pussies,'” says Karina Chacham, a former Cinefamily volunteer who has spoken out against Belove. “I think we were all expecting a female president and now we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. We can’t get steamrolled by these guys.”

In a highlight of the festival, Suki-Rose Simakis publicly debated a caricature of a men’s rights-activist film nerd over the proposition that “women matter in the film community, and we all need to do better.” In an interview shortly after her return from Austin, Simakis says the lessons apply equally to the film industry as a whole, not just to the festival world.

“When you’re a woman and you enter into the industry, it’s ever-present,” she says. “You might not get groped, or it might not be an assault, but you might be consistently talked over, or have somebody else take credit for your work. There are all these tiny acts of tearing you down that underscore a larger issue.”

At the same time, some have raised concerns that the debates over these episodes — especially online — make little room for nuance, empathy or redemption. The anonymous email that led to the downfall of Cinefamily included a rape allegation against the board member which was, at best, unsubstantiated.

Belove, for his part, argues that Cinefamily was unfairly targeted by bitter ex-employees. In Facebook posts responding to the scandal, he sought to combat the allegations, calling them “full of demonstrable lies and half-truths.”

More recently, in interviews with Variety — his first since the scandal broke — Belove sought to stake out a middle ground. He acknowledged mistakes — such as yelling at subordinates and dating employees in the organization’s early years — while continuing to contest the more serious allegations of misogyny and harassment.

He also said he was speaking out in hopes of adding nuance to the story of Cinefamily, which he argued was maligned in a social media maelstrom.

“I want the truth — the messy, complicated, nuanced, mixed-up truth — to come out,” he says. “It hurts me enormously that people think it was some kind of boys’ club or den of harassment when I know it was one of the most special things to happen in Los Angeles.”

Belove freely admits that he was a bad boss, especially in the early days. Cinefamily was an unstructured environment, without boundaries or hierarchies, and there was an open bar during work hours.

“I worked people really hard,” he says. “I was very demanding. I was very critical… I didn’t give a lot of reward or gratitude. I would sometimes yell at people under stress.”

But he flatly rejects claims — which have been widely reported — that he hired and promoted people based on their looks and fostered a culture of harassment.

“It had dysfunctions like any workplace, but I don’t believe it was a place that was unsafe for women,” he says. “I tried to make it one of the most female-friendly organizations around.”

In a follow-up interview, he expressed a little more regret while stopping short of a confession.

“It was my role to create an environment that made everyone feel comfortable and safe,” he says. “If that wasn’t the case, no matter how I feel about these specific allegations, I still failed and I’m sorry for that.”

To Belove’s critics, his protestations come off as another round of gaslighting.

“He genuinely thinks he’s the victim in all of this,” says Hayley Pogue, a former Cinefamily employee.

She argues that industry gatekeepers remain blind to omnipresent misogyny. “These places just don’t get it, and it doesn’t get better until they get it… The way forward is a lot of soul-searching that is not happening.”

“We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. We can’t get steamrolled by these guys.” former Cinefamily volunteer Karina Chacham

Belove does have defenders, some of whom did not want to speak publicly for fear of inviting a storm of social media animosity.

“I think it’s insane these people are ruining his life,” says Olivia Wright, a former Cinefamily volunteer. “If you say someone’s ‘rapey’ or ‘rape culture,’ there’s this whole Twitter army that comes full force.”

To others, though, the meltdown of Cinefamily and the Drafthouse crisis present an opportunity to alter the terms of engagement with film culture.

“We’ve had to make this choice between our own personal comfort and being a fan and being a nerd,” says Gloria Walker, a member of the Austin film community, who tweeted last week that Knowles had repeatedly grabbed her. “If you’re going to be a geek girl, you gotta be able to hang with the boys. If you can’t do that it gets hard.”

Going forward, she says, “What matters is that you create an environment where harassers are uncomfortable being there.”

Theaters can take steps like improving their harassment policies and posting them. But the real goal is to change the culture.

“The easy part is saying we’re going to put this process in place or we’re gonna put out a statement,” says Debbie Cerda, an Austin-based film writer. “The culture always lags though.”

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