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Oprah Talks #MeToo as Issues Keep Making an Impact on Sundance Films

If there were any doubts that the impact of sexual-harassment exposés­­ and backlash against them had died down, Oprah Winfrey put them to rest when she withdrew her name (and Apple’s distribution) from “On The Record,” a film about allegations against music execs Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid — just two weeks before its Sundance Film Festival premiere.

Variety reached out to Winfrey and the directors, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, and learned what she wanted changed and why she left the project. We also talked with talent behind other Sundance films that have been impacted by #MeToo-related issues (Janicza Bravo’s “Zola,” Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias”) and tackle harassment head on (Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” Kitty Green’s Harvey Weinstein-inspired “The Assistant”), along with veteran filmmakers Miranda July and Anne Carey, whose work has been shaped by the movement.

On March 25, Winfrey announced a documentary covering workplace issues, tentatively titled “Toxic Labor,” and planned to air Dick and Ziering’s work as part of her first limited series for Apple TV Plus. But by June, Winfrey decided to executive produce “Record” as a standalone feature, and Apple TV Plus signed on as a distributor in July. The film, in production since a raft of #MeToo scandals broke in fall 2017, follows former music industry exec Drew Dixon as she comes forward to the New York Times with a rape allegation against hip-hop pioneer Simmons and a sexual-harassment allegation against music industry exec Reid, as well as other alleged victims.

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Simmons has been accused of multiple sexual-harassment allegations. Reid was dismissed from his post as CEO of Sony’s Epic Records amidst reports of sexual harassment. Both men have strongly denied the respective allegations.

Apple and Winfrey’s Harpo Productions issued a Dec. 3 press release touting Winfrey’s role in the project, one day before Sundance announced its Jan. 25 premiere. Reaction was swift: Simmons sent Winfrey a letter on Dec. 13 asking her to stop the documentary, and rapper 50 Cent accused her of “going after black men” following her 2019 interview with Michael Jackson’s alleged sex abuse victims from the HBO doc “Leaving Neverland.”

Winfrey soon asked for additional changes to the film, but according to her, they were unrelated to outside pressure. “After the Sundance announcement, additional information came forward that created gaps and inconsistencies to the stories, and we wanted to pause to make sure we were getting the stories right,” Winfrey tells Variety. (The directors say they have extensive research files that corroborate the accounts of the women they interviewed.)

And in an interview with the New York Times posted last Friday, Winfrey said Simmons “reach(ed) out multiple times and attempted to pressure me. I told him directly in a phone call that I will not be pressured either into, or out of, backing this film. I am only going to do what I believe to be the right thing.” (A rep for Simmons responded that he “did not do anything unjustified in trying to counter the film.”)

But did Harpo or Winfrey’s concern over the African-American community’s response to the film prompt them to give the new notes? “Oprah felt that in the 90’s, the culture in the music business needed to be expanded upon,” a source close to Winfrey responded. “She felt that there was greater contextual information that was needed to be put into the film.”

The directors felt that the new issues raised with the film “were notes we could address, and we immediately set out to work on them. Our whole team cancelled holiday plans and we delivered an updated cut on Jan. 8.”  But on Jan. 10, Winfrey issued a statement saying that while she “unequivocally believe[s] and support[s] the women” in the film and would continue to do so through Time’s Up (the org that helps harassment victims), she was withdrawing the doc from Apple TV Plus because there was “more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured,” and that “given the filmmakers’ desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, I feel it’s best to step aside.”

For their part, the directors seem shocked by the process. “Everything had been approved and vetted by everybody [at Apple and Harpo] and they had signed off enthusiastically” after the film was picture-locked in November, Ziering says. “The film was signed off and vetted by three incredibly impressive legal teams … We worked with [Ms. Winfrey] on this for about half a year. We never, ever would have gone to Sundance without Harpo and Apple saying ‘Let’s go—we think this is the best platform for it… We had glowing notes from start to finish [from Winfrey and Apple], which we took and addressed. And then the Sundance announcement came out, and there was a very abrupt and surprising change of heart. We were very surprised and disappointed, [and] we still remain kind of perplexed about the decision.”

The directors added that Winfrey didn’t ask them for the film to include Simmons or Reid, who declined to be interviewed for the doc. “A film is never locked,” a source close to Winfrey responded, “and it was Oprah’s desire to have the film be opened up to expand on several of the women’s stories.”

“Oprah’s only desire was to get the women’s stories right,” a source close to her continued. “As a survivor herself, she knows all too well what these women have gone through. The decision to withdraw from the film was solely based on creative differences. Oprah did not want to feel that she, or the filmmakers, should be pressured by the timing of Sundance. The film already had distribution through Apple and did not need to go to the film festival. Ms. Winfrey and Apple control the rights to this film, and if they wanted to stop this film from being seen — they could have pulled it entirely. [But] because she supports the survivors and recognizes that the women’s stories deserve to be heard, she gave the film back to the filmmakers and respectfully acknowledged the creative differences.”

Ultimately, Ziering is worried about how the incidents around the film might reflect on alleged victims. “There started to be an intimidation and harassment campaign against the women in our film, and we felt strongly that any change in course would call their testimonies into question,” Ziering says. “Once a lot of public attacks came, they were very, very rattled, and we assured them: ‘We are not going to succumb to this kind of intimidation and bullying. The film is going to Sundance and we will weather this.’”

Winfrey had said that she wanted to delay the release of “Record,” but Ziering strongly feels that “you can’t alter distribution paths with films about sexual assault. The time for that decision is well before you make public announcements, because we don’t want anything to impugn the voices in the film in any way.” And, Dick adds, “This film is ready for Sundance.”

The directors, who’ve had eight Sundance films and several features about sexual assault (“The Hunting Ground,” the Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War”) are seeking a new distributor at the fest.

The U.S. Dramatic Competition dark comedy “Zola” has also been affected by the #MeToo movement. In February 2016, James Franco was announced as director and a producer of this wild tale of a stripper’s road trip, which went viral as a 2015 Twitter thread. But Franco left the project in early 2017 — about a year before sexual-harassment accusations against him began surfacing on Twitter in January 2018, according to Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”), who came aboard as director and co-writer in May 2017. Franco has denied all harassment accusations.

His brother Dave came on as a producer and A24 as its distributor around the same time as Bravo. Yet Franco remains tangentially involved. His production company Ramona Films, which he founded with his brother Dave, is still a credited producer on “Zola” alongside Killer Films and Gigi Films.

“He wasn’t really there when I came on board, and there’s an eight-month window before [the allegations came out], and that’s important for me to stress,” Bravo says. “I was not brought on to replace James or patch something up that felt unsavory. I got it because of my ability — not because I’m black, not because I’m a woman.”

Even feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem wasn’t spared #MeToo fallout. Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias,” in which multiple actresses portray Steinem, had an equally bumpy road to this year’s Premieres section. The film was announced in September 2017 with June Pictures partners Andrew Duncan and Alex Saks producing, a month and a half before multiple sexual-harassment allegations against Duncan were reported. [He’s denied the claims, calling them “either distorted or demonstrably false.”] That was two months before Saks arranged to buy out Duncan’s stake in June, and three months before she launched her own Page Fifty-Four Pictures shingle, which is now producing “The Glorias.”

“Unfortunately, when allegations like that exist, [the company] is tarnished,” Saks told Variety in 2018. “[Taking over] felt like the necessary thing to do to protect [our] amazing pieces of work.”

Sundance fest director John Cooper and programming director Kim Yutani cite “Zola,” Channing Godfrey Peoples’ beauty pageant chronicle “Miss Juneteenth,” Eliza Hittman’s teen pregnancy drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and Eugene Ashe’s romance “Sylvie’s Love” as some of the U.S. Dramatic Competition films addressing #MeToo-related issues.

“Empowerment, as opposed to victim[hood], tends to be a driving force right now,” Cooper says.

But perhaps no film embodies the post-#MeToo era better than the darkly comic thriller “Promising Young Woman” from “Killing Eve” showrunner Emerald Fennell.  This Premieres entry features Carey Mulligan as a woman who fakes being drunk to turn the tables on would-be attackers.

“Part of this movie was the #MeToo conversation, [yet] #MeToo was not news to any woman,” Fennell says “There have been a lot of revenge thrillers around this subject, but I’d never seen female protagonists behave in a way any woman I’ve ever met would. I’m interested in probing how women don’t necessarily have to be good. I think it’s important that we’re not always portrayed as empowered, in a way that’s become a sassy trope.”

Cooper says they’re addressing this year’s theme, Imagined Futures, by adding experts to select Q&A film panels “to create more of an impactful moment around certain films.” One will be at a Jan. 26 screening of Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” whose protagonist works for a Harvey Weinstein-like film exec, making it certain to resonate at a fest where the reviled exec — accused of sexual harassment or rape by more than 90 women — dominated dealmaking for decades. (Weinstein has denied the charges). But Green says she based her film on interviews with nearly 100 women in several industries.

“We did take inspiration from the Weinstein Co., [but] the same stories were popping up all over the world in these different workplaces,” she says.

The movement has also affected what kinds of films are getting made, including Liz Garbus’s Premieres entry “Lost Girls,” a fact-based crime drama about missing sex workers.

“It’s a good time for female stories that, just five years ago, were impossible to get made,” says producer Carey. The “Lost Girls” protagonist “is a ferocious, abrasive woman. I think they’re allowed to exist as protagonists in a way they haven’t been before. It’s awesome.”

Sundance Institute exec director Keri Putnam is proud of the progress they’ve made. “Women are 50% of the artists across all our labs and programs at Sundance,” she says. “Our Momentum Fellowship is a full-year program offering support for [emerging] writers, directors, and producers from underrepresented communities.”

There’s also been momentum in expanding the fest’s already diverse staff. “Since I became director of programming [in May 2018], I’ve made more deliberate choices on who I’ve brought in,” Yutani says. She singles out Dilcia Barrera, Ania Trzebiatowska and other newcomers as “broadening our horizons and minds as we’ve discussed films.”

And hiring Yutani has encouraged writer-director July (the Premieres crime drama “Kajillionaire”), who founded and ran the underground female filmmaker distribution program Joanie 4 Jackie for a decade before her 2005 feature debut “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”

“The first time I showed up at Sundance, I had one of two movies made by women out of 16 in competition,” she says, a stark contrast to the 46% of women directors among all competition titles this year. “That we now have a queer woman of color programmer [Yutani] is really exciting to me. That’s real change.”

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