Feb 1, 2020
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How #MeToo Is Smashing the Casting Couch

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A basketball court at the Park City Municipal Athletic and Recreation Center has been converted into a screening room, as have a nearby synagogue and the auditorium at the local high school. The roads of this old mining town are gagged with standstill traffic.

And the Utah attorney general’s office is staffing a 24-hour hotline in case anyone is sexually harassed or threatened while at the Sundance Film Festival.

No matter how Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial in Manhattan turns out, the revelations about the way he used his power over women have altered Hollywood in ways big and small. There are new rules on where and how to hold meetings, legal changes that make it easier to sue for sexual harassment and different ways to report when something goes wrong — all efforts to make Hollywood a bit safer. And while the industry is still very much dominated by men, women have begun to land more directing and executive roles, the positions of power that shape its culture.

Hollywood is a business of freelancers going from one project to the next, a setup that makes predators difficult to contain and blowing the whistle especially risky. Still, activists and industry professionals say that the steps being taken represent sustained attention to the issue, some improvement in day-to-day working conditions and perhaps signs of bona fide change.

“I think most people would like to see a situation where people go to work and feel good about the environment,” said Gail Berman, a producer and co-president of the Producers Guild, which now offers sexual harassment training to independent projects. “Does that mean there is no longer any predatory behavior in this business? I’d say that would be a ridiculous assumption. But I can tell you I think there is a great deal of sincerity on the part of a lot of people to change the culture.”

The Manhattan sexual assault case against Mr. Weinstein focuses on two women. One was a film production assistant who said Mr. Weinstein forced her to have oral sex in his apartment. Another was an aspiring actress who said that he raped her in a Manhattan hotel room. Mr. Weinstein’s lawyers say that “loving emails” between him and his accusers show it was all consensual.

But for many of the dozens of women who have accused him of sexual misconduct, the story was the same: Actresses say he cornered them in hotel rooms and offered them roles as a form or coercion. Sleep with me and you’ll be a star. Or don’t, and I’ll ruin you.

At least two women have accused Mr. Weinstein of raping or sexually abusing them while at Sundance, the country’s premier annual exhibition for independent films. In 2018, just a few months after the accusations against Mr. Weinstein exploded, the festival announced its hotline, which is now advertised on signs around Park City and on the Sundance credentials. A spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office said while the office did not keep a log of harassment complaints to the hotline, investigators recalled receiving one in 2018 and none last year.

While the casting process has been professionalized for years, concerns about the “casting couch” — a euphemism for demanding sex in exchange for a job — are as old as Hollywood.

Filmmakers started arriving in Los Angeles around 1910, according to Denise McKenna, a historian who has researched the early history of the film industry, and by 1915, a minister named Charles Selecman was campaigning against what he called the “moral conditions in Los Angeles.” Articles appeared in the local press that insinuated women were being forced to have sex for work, under headlines like “Girl Tells Selecman of the Vice Dangers in the Movies” and “Studio Evils to Be Fought to the End, Says Pastor.”

An arm of the Los Angeles Police Department called the City Mother’s Bureau was installed at studios, Dr. McKenna said, and was supposed to check on young actresses to be sure they had enough money and places to stay, and that they didn’t become the city’s responsibility.

One of the earliest known instances of casting couch behavior was not in the movies, but on Broadway. In his book “Boys From Syracuse: The Shuberts’ Theatrical Empire,” Foster Hirsch described an “elegantly furnished boudoir” the theater owner Lee Shubert kept near his office, where he brought leading ladies and promising up-and-comers. He kept a separate, sparsely furnished room with “a single couch” where he would bring chorus girls.

This brand of predation extended deep into the studio system. “Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer,” described Mayer’s MGM — and every other studio — as housing “a supply of what were known as ‘six-month-option girls’ to be passed around the executive offices.” The book quotes a producer once saying of the studio executive Darryl Zanuck: “You must realize one thing: Every time Darryl takes a girl to bed, a star is born.”

The abusive behavior went beyond the major studios. One of the blind spots exposed by the #MeToo movement was how the Hollywood system, in which the studios often do not have direct control over the employees of powerful independent producers like Mr. Weinstein, left workers with nowhere to turn with complaints. Among other changes in the industry, Warner Bros., for example, has created a human resources team specifically assigned to its productions. And the Hollywood Commission, led by Anita Hill, is building a system where anyone in the industry who does not already have a place to file complaints can report harassment or discrimination.

Actors are now encouraged to avoid one-on-one meetings in private settings. SAG-AFTRA, the screen actors union, has issued guidelines saying its members should not go to meetings in hotels and residences, and if they feel they must, they should bring someone along.

Sharon Bialy, a casting director in Los Angeles, always has at least one other person in the room with her during auditions. Long a practice she’s done herself, she now makes it a point that everyone on her staff does the same.

While private meetings certainly still happen, even in hotel rooms, some industry professionals mentioned that a hotel meeting might now take place in the lobby instead, or what might have been a meeting in a home office now takes place at a coffee shop.

“Everyone is aware of the optics now,” Ms. Bialy said. “And I do feel like people are more careful and cognizant about it.”

What could make someone more vulnerable than taking off his or her clothes in a room full of people and pretending to have sex with a colleague?

Difficult in the best of circumstances, sex scenes can easily go horribly wrong. According to Time’s Up, the Hollywood-led group that combats sexual harassment, actors have arrived on the day of the shoot and been pressured to show more of their bodies than they agreed to, or later discovered that members of the crew had taken videos of them on their smartphones and posted them online. Some actors have been told that they should have actual sex instead of simulating it.

Time’s Up has released guides on how to handle intimate and simulated sex scenes, and what actors should do in an audition if someone tells them to “come back sexier.” New laws in California and elsewhere make it easier to sue people like producers and directors for sexual harassment and have restricted the use of nondisclosure agreements, which prevent victims from speaking out and allow abusers to continue their harmful behavior.

And in the past two years, productions have been turning more and more to intimacy coordinators, whose job, which falls somewhere between stunt coordinator and therapist, is to make the scenes as comfortable as possible for the actors while still creating a convincing shoot. They have conversations about boundaries and sexually transmitted diseases. They make sure the performers have robes to wear between takes and covers for their genitals during filming. They also have precise conversations about what will and will not be shown, and see that those limits are written into contracts in the form of “nudity riders.”

“It’s often been, especially in TV, an actor would have a rider for the series and the rider used to say, ‘Actor agrees to appear nude and perform scenes of a sexual nature during this series’ — and that was it,” said Claire Warden, an intimacy coordinator. “Now there’s a rider for each scene in each episode, and it will say, ‘actor will show top of breast and side of breast but not nipple,” she said. “Or they agree to three-quarters of buttocks shown, but not a full shot.”

There is some resistance, however, especially from directors who are concerned an intimacy coordinator will step on their toes creatively, or interfere with their relationship with the actors. Teniece Divya Johnson, an intimacy coordinator based in New York, described being told on set not to speak unless spoken to.

But overall, coordinators say that the directors come around.

“There is an acceptance,” Ms. Warden said, “that this needs to be paid attention to.”

As part of the #MeToo movement, there has been a vocal push to hire more women, and more people of color, to positions of power in Hollywood. That, activists say, is the key to changing the culture of the movie business, as well as the kinds of stories that are celebrated and told. (The Oscars were criticized this year for nominating a best acting field that was almost exclusively white and overlooking women completely in the best director category.)

Darnell Hunt, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who produces an annual Hollywood diversity report, said that while the share of women directing and starring in big movies has increased, it is still nowhere near where it should be. Women directed about 4 percent of the top 200 films in 2011, he said. By 2017, they had increased to a little less than 13 percent.

Perhaps most crucially, at some of the biggest movie studios, including Disney, Warner Bros., Netflix and Amazon, 82 percent of the chief executives today are male, and 91 percent of them are white, according to Dr. Hunt’s coming 2020 diversity report. In 2015, about the same percentage of those executives were white — but every last one of them was a man.

The problems, of course, have not gone away. Genie Harrison, a lawyer in Los Angeles who represents some of Mr. Weinstein’s accusers, says she still receives cases alleging sexual harassment in the industry, and retaliation when someone comes forward to report it.

Mara Grobins Nasatir, one of the leaders of Time’s Up’s entertainment work, said that while there were definite improvements, “it also feels that we’re moving at a glacial pace.”

“While I am very hopeful and excited because the conversation is happening in a way that wasn’t the case two years ago, I also think there is an urgent need for change because people continue to be harmed,” she said. “Safety is at stake.”

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