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Hollywood, rocked by sex scandals, takes a hard look at change

by James Rainey /
The famed Hollywood sign as preparations continue for the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California February 26, 2016.CARLO ALLEGRI / Reuters

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The flood of allegations of sexual harassment and assault that began with the Harvey Weinstein scandal already has altered some of Hollywood’s cultural mores, but people who work in the entertainment industry differ on whether more fundamental change is on the way.

Complaints about sexual harassment and assault continue to pour in at an unprecedented rate. Some studios and production companies are renewing training, in hopes of curtailing future abuses. And a new reticence has crept in to social interactions: Hugs and cheek-kisses with new associates are less frequent, some once-private casting sessions now occur with doors wide open and dates with subordinates are not so readily made, Hollywood workers and managers say.

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The iceberg scarcely hidden beneath the show business seas appears to be the scourge of men using their power to physically impose themselves on women. But industry insiders say that the more fundamental obstacle has been men’s stubborn grip on power and decision making at every level of the entertainment industry.

Related: Sexual misconduct allegations take emotional toll for loved ones of those accused

Men hold 80 percent of the most powerful positions in Hollywood and 60 percent of the top 1,550 jobs at major companies, according to a study at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Men received nearly 90 percent of the screenwriting credits and directed all but five of the 100 highest grossing films of 2016, the same study found. And three-quarters of the television programs the prior year were created by men.

 The famed Hollywood sign as preparations continue for the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California February 26, 2016. CARLO ALLEGRI / Reuters

“Butt grabbing and more serious harassment are symptoms of something so much bigger,” said Elizabeth Craft, a veteran writer and co-host, with Sarah Fain, of the podcast “Happier In Hollywood.” “It has been absolutely accepted that men are dominant and superior in this world. There has been a double-standard and now that reality is being absolutely acknowledged. That is what I am happy about.”

The discussion of bigger solutions mostly has taken a backseat to what has felt like an almost daily drumbeat of new allegations — from the seemingly once-invincible Weinstein to screenwriter-director James Toback, and producer-director Brett Ratner to Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey. The adjacent world of media also has seen a growing roster of those whose careers have ended after allegations of misconduct — including Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, NBC TODAY anchor Matt Lauer and former “Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor.

The performers union, SAG-AFTRA, used to get a call or two a month about sexual misconduct. Now, it is taking five or six calls a day, said Adam Moore, national director of equal employment opportunity and diversity for the union. And operators at its hotline see no sign of a slowdown, he added.

Related: Here’s a growing list of men accused of sexual misconduct

“I think we have passed the point when it will just all go away," Moore said. “A lot of this has built up over a long time and there is a lot that they still feel the need to get out.”

Union representatives talk to members about recourse that ranges from seeking counseling, to filing complaints inside their studio or production company, to complaining to local or state agencies, to launching "higher volume” responses, such as going to the media or filing criminal complaints.

The process of bringing out old hurts has been “painful” for all involved, Moore said. “We are going to continue to have to do this person by person, hour by hour to walk people through what their options are going to be," he said.

Nestor Barrero, a labor attorney with long experience advising entertainment and media clients, said that two studios have approached him in recent weeks to schedule additional training. In the past, companies would just offer online courses, but recently they have preferred the additional urgency and immediacy provided by in-person classes, said Barrero, who works for the firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete. The veteran lawyer said he is seeing supervisors, in particular, paying much closer attention in the training sessions.

"I think we have passed the point when it will just all go away."

"I think we have passed the point when it will just all go away."

“They are becoming more aware that, if they are a manager, they have a responsibility to speak up and take a complaint to someone higher, even if the problem is not in their department,” Barrero said.

One television writer, a man, said that every meeting in his show’s writer’s room now begins with chatter about the latest sexual harassment revelations, often spinning into a dialogue about what behaviors should change. On a recent day, the writer asked his male and female colleagues: “Why is it that when I go into a room to pitch television executives who I know, I shake hands with the men, but hug the women?”

“We had a debate about that: Is that okay? Is that bad? Is that, by definition, a sexist work environment?” said the writer, a veteran of multiple television shows, who didn’t want to be named, so he could speak more candidly. “Someone suggested that I should head it off at the pass by holding out my hand to everyone as soon as I see them — a preemptive handshake. Is that an over-correction? Maybe.”

A film publicist said that a producer he works with has stopped auditioning actresses with his office door closed. “He just doesn't want any risk, or any slight appearance of anything inappropriate,” said the publicist, who also declined to be named, because his associate had not given him permission to speak. “It really protects both sides.”

Related: Playwright Israel Horovitz accused of sexual assault, harassment by several women

Several people said the harassment revelations have also created a minefield when co-workers think of dating. They cited examples of long-time couples in Hollywood that wouldn’t be together if they followed the restrictions against bosses, typically men, dating employees, typically women. But they also recalled many men asking young associates, with little power, to meet after hours.

A film publicist said that a producer he works with has stopped auditioning actresses with his office door closed.

A film publicist said that a producer he works with has stopped auditioning actresses with his office door closed.

Barrero, who previously was a lawyer at NBC Universal, said many people have asked him if they should take “the Mike Pence approach” — referring to the vice president's comments that he never dines with women alone or attends functions without his wife if alcohol is being served.

Barrero advises supervisors, in particular, to move cautiously and not create any situation where there could be the slightest hint of taking advantage of their position. But he also cautioned against creating a "sterile" workplace and said that “a lot of appropriate business happens in social interactions; at restaurants and dinner and drinks.”

Scott Gold, who has written for a number of one-hour dramas on broadcast and cable networks, said there is “pain and revulsion at the collective understanding of how widespread this problem has been in the industry.”

“And many men and women — in some ways, this is the most difficult part — knew, and did little or nothing," he said. "All of that has to change.”

Partners Craft and Fain, once writers and producers on the FX television show “The Shield,” said they have committed themselves to be extra vigilant for their employees on future projects. They haven't encountered big problems in the past, but feel their relatively senior status gives them a special responsibility to speak out.

“I think people all over town feel the same way,” said Craft. “Our bar for bullshit is much lower.”

There appears to be a consensus that the swift fall of many of the men exposed as sexual abusers will create a permanent shift in Hollywood’s culture. But that feeling is not unanimous.

Lee Lawson, a psychologist and workplace counselor, said she heard from one client who was told by a powerful Hollywood figure: “This will all blow over. Just watch yourself.”

Craft said she thinks things “absolutely” will change, because studios and production houses don’t want to face the nightmarish blowback they will receive if women continue to be abused and massively underrepresented in management circles.

“I think companies are going to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Craft. “And because women are just as capable as men, once we start fixing the balance, the momentum will just continue.”

And the enormity and buying power of the female audience will one day demand a larger role for women, the writing partners agree. The benefits will be felt well beyond Hollywood, said her writing partner, Fain.

“The long term consequence should be that more women are empowered,” she said. “And that only fosters ideas, it fosters creativity, it fosters better stories.”

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