An early, unsuccessful, attempt at #MeToo in Hollywood

Two decades ago Harvey Weinstein’s name sat comfortably at the top of many publications’ annual power lists. David Pecker was not the publisher of the National Enquirer, cooperating with federal prosecutors on a criminal case that points to his friend Donald Trump, but the (admittedly controversial) chief executive of a prestige media company. Bryan Singer was a filmmaker with enough PR and legal clout that he was able to maintain a high public profile while addressing allegations of sexual misconduct.

It is a world that feels very far away now, in the midst of #MeToo, and its cascade of seismic scoops. As I have watched it unfold, I have returned to thinking about one particular story—an early attempt to hold powerful film-industry figures accountable for abuse that met with a very different response.

Twenty years ago, when I was a senior editor at Premiere magazine, I worked with reporter John Connolly on “Flirting With Disaster,” an article about sexual abuse and harassment involving powerful executives at New Line Cinema. Its primary subjects were founder Robert Shaye and his partner Michael Lynne, who ran the company until its parent company, Time Warner, absorbed and restructured it in 2009. A story about sexual harassment, assault, and a skewed power hierarchy, it had a good deal in common with the journalism that inspired #MeToo. But it didn’t have the impact we had hoped it would at the time.

ICYMI: The newspaper that #MeToo missed

The piece, published in the July 1998 issue after eight months of work, came about largely because Jim Meigs was keen to make Premiere, heretofore known as “The Movie Magazine,” a vehicle for investigative journalism. He had any good journalist’s passion for uncovering the truth. But he also wanted to prove that he wasn’t under the thumb of the magazine’s owners. Hachette, Premiere’s relatively new parent company, was at the time overseen by Pecker—a figure as polarizing then as he is notorious today.

Meigs had taken the editor-in-chief position at Premiere in the spring of 1996, after Pecker allegedly interfered with a feature story about the Planet Hollywood restaurant franchise owned by one of his friends, spurring a wave of resignations. Then-powerful media reporters like the New York Post’s Keith Kelly all but assumed that Meigs would do Pecker’s editorial bidding; according to the conventional wisdom, Premiere’s mission was to be “studio-friendly.”

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A prominent investigative story on New Line Cinema, then, had the potential to change the perception of the magazine.

Connolly was a one-time NYPD detective who had done investigative work for Forbes, then Spy; his long 1989 article “How To Fool All The People All The Time,” is a wonky and detailed look at the shady business practices and self-promotion of the New York real estate developer who is now our president. It was his tip, from a friend in the music business, that New Line was rife with excessive behavior, harassment and abuse. He found a receptive editing ear in Meigs, who deputized me to be Connolly’s editor. But “Flirting With Disaster” didn’t have the effect we had hoped it would. In fact it aroused no small amount of disapprobation from both the industry itself and some of its insider journalists. I wrote about the experience of working on the piece in late 2017. Since then, I’ve remained interested in it as a way to examine changes in both the culture of journalism and that of the film industry. Especially in the wake of the sometimes encouraging but often dispiriting reactions to the new reporting.

The cover of the July 1998 issue of Premiere magazine. Image by Glenn Kenny.

 

Our piece stood out in part because we bothered to take the matter of sexual harassment in Hollywood seriously. In show business, such misbehavior was par for the course. The “casting couch” was spoken of as a distasteful tradition but not something criminal. Kurt Andersen, co-founder of the magazine Spy, told me it’s important to remember that “stories of abuse, workplace sexual harassment and otherwise, seldom-to-never got reported in the press back then.”

“Which is why that was one of the things Spy did,” Andersen continued. Spy’s investigative work is too frequently overshadowed by the magazine’s goofs and pranks. But it was there, like in the magazine’s March 1989 feature by Vincenza Demetz, “The Pickup Artist’s Guide To Picking Up Women,” a multiple-sourced account of writer and director James Toback’s aggressive advances. That story yielded no career negatives for Toback. Recent revelations from actors Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams that painted Toback in a darker light would not have surprised anyone who’d been paying attention then.

When our story was published, the reviews were, in the parlance of movie publicists, “mixed negative.” David Poland opened his Movie City News column about the piece with “Can you say hatchet job?” (“My take at the time was that when you go after the king, you better not miss,” Poland says now, in a phone interview. “I didn’t think and still don’t think the piece nailed it down. But the basic norms of Hollywood were different back then, which contributed to my overall judgement. But I was gunslinging back then, shooting from the hip more than I should have.”)

The preponderance of anonymous sources was something we grappled with a lot. Because what we were doing at the time was relatively rare, Premiere was more vulnerable to this question than it might have been in an era when people more seriously considered the risks that women were taking in coming forward. “I was definitely concerned that much of the real meat in the story was from unnamed sources,” Meigs says. “The story of course would have been stronger if we had more on the record. But I thought the story was important. And, since I knew who the sources were, I knew they were solid.”

Another reason for our confidence in the lead-up to publishing the piece was that we had been cooperative and transparent with the PR people and lawyers dispatched by New Line to challenge us. We prepared documents laying out just what we had—stories that the subjects, we made clear, were free to try to rebut or otherwise comment on.

Our caution was borne not just out of a passion to get the story right, but knowledge that if a lawsuit was brought against the magazine, Hachette had a $100,000 deductible on its libel insurance.

Peter Bart, a veteran film producer and executive who at the time was the powerful editor of Variety, jumped on this in a column he wrote for that paper in June 1998. Bart wrote, “I don’t want to sound like a professional apologist for Bob Shaye and I’m also reluctant to criticize Premiere […] I nonetheless get queasy when I read punitive quotes from ‘former executives’ or angry employees who hide behind anonymity.” Echoing a very common sentiment from the time, he also averred, “I think it’s also out of bounds to scorn the mavericks and the nonconformists in our business.”

Speaking now, in a phone interview, Bart says, “In retrospect, it was a really good story; Premiere was smart to run it. And it was a clear signal.” He’s still mildly critical of the lack of named sources in the piece, but acknowledges the difficulty, especially then, of convincing people to go on the record. Additionally, Bart says that he would have loved to run a similar story on Miramax in Variety, but in speaking to potential sources, that trust was hard to come by; Variety was looked upon with suspicion because Miramax was such a prominent advertiser in the paper. “We were making so much money at that time we could have taken the hit,” he insists.

 

Weinstein, who long considered New Line his main competition in the big-indie department, was delighted with “Flirting With Disaster.” We heard that he kept a stack of photocopies of the article on his desk to hand to visitors—along with copies of a Weinstein-penned piece that—rather ironically—appeared in the same issue, decrying the use of anonymous sources in film journalism.

As the New Line story percolated, Weinstein was hatching Talk, a magazine that would also have a book publishing arm, overseen by Tina Brown, who left the editorship of The New Yorker for the gig. This mercifully short-lived enterprise would , among other things, make it difficult for anyone working in New York media to avoid complicity with him.  

In a piece for The Cut last year, Rebecca Traister, the superb feminist journalist and commentator, recalled the incident during which Weinstein publicly screamed obscenities at her and physically assaulted her companion, the writer Andrew Goldman, proclaiming “I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” There were no repercussions from the incident for Weinstein; it was considered just another a juicy story about him.

 

The blowback from “Flirting With Disaster” included Premiere being shut out by New Line from covering any of its movies, which inconvenienced us plenty, but not incredibly. Connolly eventually got a book deal with Talk, which his agent negotiated through Tina Brown’s office. The book never materialized and the deal was called off, but this alliance briefly allowed Harvey Weinstein to crow, erroneously, that he now had a Premiere writer in his back pocket.

The magazine did other investigative pieces, though. One was about Arnold Schwarzenegger and his entitled, philandering, butt-grabbing ways, among other things. That, too, elicited howls from within various power structures. “It didn’t do me any favors, internally or externally,” says Michael Solomon, who commissioned the story very shortly after he became Premiere’s editor-in-chief in late 2000. A slew of Schwarzenegger colleagues, two of them women who subsequently spoke out very favorably of the #MeToo movement, wrote very indignant “how could you do this?” letters to the magazine. Reporting on Schwarzenegger circa 2011, when Maria Shriver filed for a divorce from him (the case has still not been settled), more or less confirmed everything in our piece. And in a recent interview in Men’s Health, Schwarzenegger admitted that he could have been a little less intrusive in his behavior all those years ago.

Another was about possible sexual exploitation of male extras in the film Apt Pupil, a film directed by Bryan Singer. Earlier this month, The Atlantic published an explicit and outrage-inducing piece about Singer, bringing forward four new men making allegations of sexual abuse against him. One of the reporters is Maximillian Potter, who wrote the piece for Premiere back in 1998. Singer has dismissed the piece, saying it’s the work of an “obsessed” and “homophobic” journalist. (I worked with Potter on several pieces at Premiere, and he is not homophobic. He is, however, persistent.)

 

When I was working on the New Line piece, I fortified myself by telling myself I was doing something important—that I was contributing to stopping sexual harassment in Hollywood. I really did say that to myself. It was 1998, and I was 39 years old.

A lengthy 2009 Vanity Fair article by Frank Di Giacomo chronicling New Line’s history up until that year’s ouster of Shaye and Lynne treated “Flirting With Disaster” as a mere hiccup, describing it as an article “replete with allegations that Shaye and Lynne had sexually harassed female employees and that Shaye was a heavy drinker.”

After last year’s #MeToo stories in The New Yorker and The New York Times, there was the feeling of a dam breaking. Premiere went under in 2007, had a brief and ignominious existence as an online-only entity for a short while, and then was allowed to die. The contents of its print run were never properly digitized, so there’s no online archive of its content.

The Times and New Yorker continue to report on these issues. Ronan Farrow has achieved a pop-culture status as the guy prominent men who are also sexual predators should fear. At the Hollywood Reporter, reporter-at-large Kim Masters, who broke the story on Amazon’s Roy Price, remains vigilant. Anne Thompson, who was at Premiere at the time of the New Line story and contributed some reporting to it (which she told me cost her some relationships) and the rest of the staff at IndieWire walk the line on issues of equality and weeding out abusers. But there’s a large contingent of Hollywood denizens who’d like to force the pendulum back. In an instantly legendary November 9 article on “#MeToo malaise,” New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes quotes an unnamed producer saying “Yap, yap — go back to your kennels” apropos the organization Time’s Up. 

As to where things stand now:  Harvey Weinstein’s sex assault case is set to go to trial in May, and the New York Post has referred to the defense lawyers Weinstein has assembled as a “dream team,” a dismaying, albeit predictable, indication that much future coverage of the trial will be distastefully like accounts of a sporting event.

In a recent email, Liz Manne, who in 2017 wrote a piece for Indiewire in which she revealed that she was a victim of sexual assault while she worked at New Line in the 1990s, said to me: “The execs — the perpetrators and their protectors — are all still counting their millions, and the women they victimized are paying for therapy when they don’t have jobs or health insurance and we have largely faded into professional irrelevance. The boys protected the boys and the women are flotsam and jetsam.”

It felt familiar when I heard that the new story on Singer had originally been written for Esquire. Potter and co-writer Alex French have said the article was squashed by higher-up executives at Hearst, which publishes Esquire.

ICYMI: The story BuzzFeed, The New York Times and more didn’t want to publish

Correction: A previous version of this piece misidentified Alex French as Alex Forrest.

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Glenn Kenny now works as a film critic, contributing reviews to The New York Times and RogerEbert.com