If it takes a story in The New York Times to alert a company’s directors to prolonged misconduct by its co-founder, they are not paying much attention. Perhaps The Weinstein Company’s board did not want to listen for allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, or notice that he was a bully.
It may have come as a surprise to them that Mr Weinstein had reached private settlements with women who chronicled his alleged harassment in hotel suites over three decades. It cannot have been news that a man who propped a baseball bat in his office as his personal style signifier was prone to volcanic fits of temper and used intimidation as a management technique.
This is Hollywood, where the “casting couch” — the sordid tradition of film executives abusing their power to make female performers have sex with them — reaches back to studio bosses in the 1940s such as Darryl F Zanuck. “I’ve slept with producers, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t,” Marilyn Monroe once said. “If you didn’t go along, there were 25 girls who would.”
The sexual side of Hollywood exploitation occurs behind closed doors. But displays of male dominance are treated not as a regrettable side-effect of creativity but as a routine part of how business gets done. The difference with Mr Weinstein is that he took the opportunity for abuse to horrifying extremes: he is Hollywood’s monster.
A few months ago, I received a message that a Hollywood director wanted to meet me. He had directed a hit film, was looking for fresh material in the business world, and apparently thought that I might help him. Flattered, I presented myself at a hotel in London to be greeted by several female assistants and ushered to his suite.
It soon became clear that the director had no idea who I was, or what I was doing there; he thought I was another journalist there to quiz him. It was the end of a day of interviews for the international release of his film, he was tired and had a sore back. He lay on a sofa and talked while recumbent.
It was not a distressing experience; in the end, it was amusing. But it was a tiny example of how the film business works: the agents and enablers who initially spread word of interest; the distant summons to a hotel room; a kinglike director who assumes that the world is one big casting call.
Mr Weinstein’s rise illustrates the point made by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor, in an article titled “Why the assholes are winning”. As Prof Pfeffer wrote, leaders who create “toxic and hellish work environments” are often admired nonetheless: “It seemingly doesn’t matter what an individual or a company does . . . as long as they are sufficiently rich and successful.”
This does not just describe Hollywood: the powerful and capricious chief executive with broad freedom to act as he or she chooses is a feature of much of the media industry. There is good reason: one US study found that companies gain from having strong leaders when they are in unstable industries in which decisions must be made rapidly and there is a threat of new entrants.
A CEO can draw more authority from also being a founder, and from the “soft power” of having close ties to other board members. In Mr Weinstein’s case, his brother and co-founder Bob Weinstein sits on the board that finally dismissed him this week.
At Miramax, the company which the brothers sold to Walt Disney in 1993, Harvey Weinstein used charisma to lure and nurture directors such as Quentin Tarantino. But power has a dark side if it is unrestrained. In Down and Dirty Pictures, his book about Miramax, Peter Biskind described the Weinstein brothers’ reputation “for brilliance but also for malice and brutality”.
Another study of the traits of dominant people noted that greater power triggers “disinhibited behaviour”. In other words, leaders who are allowed to do whatever they want can end up behaving very badly. The powerful “more frequently act on their desires in a socially inappropriate way”, the authors concluded.
Over-eating, over-aggression and predatory sexual behaviour were among syndromes they described for “high status, powerful individuals” whose moods swing from irritability into mania. Mr Weinstein once claimed that his tantrums were caused by eating too much sugar, and that he had behaved himself better after stopping.
Hollywood’s silence during the past week suggests more than a reluctance to criticise a well-known producer. Few in the film industry are sexual harassers, but which among them does not recall hotels they treated as courts, publicists they exploited and underlings they shouted at? Someone who worked with a Hollywood actor with a wholesome image recently told me how nastily he behaves on set.
This is what an industry that runs on power encourages. It has business logic, but Mr Weinstein’s long inviolability proves its perils. When personal patronage is the surest route from obscurity to glamour, danger lurks.
The fact that Hollywood has been like this for so long shows how resistant it is to reform, but the Weinstein scandal could bring progress at last. Greater honesty would also help.
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