You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

First Person: Sexual Harassers Are Poisonous, and So Are the Companies That Protect Them

“It was my fear of an army of corporate litigators that held me in silence.”

NDA nondisclosure agreement

Shutterstock / bfk

The day The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, I found myself choking back bile all day.

In the weeks since, it has become resoundingly clear that Weinstein is a virulent serial predator, and has earned whatever hell rains down on him. But Harvey Weinstein isn’t the problem, and bringing him down — while satisfying, necessary, and just — will be far from sufficient if we don’t simultaneously tear down our rotten corporate culture and reckon with our own complicity in propping it up.

As democracy derives its consent from the governed, tyranny derives its consent from the tyrannized.  And while it’s long overdue, I no longer consent to being tyrannized.

I wasn’t sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein. I worked with him briefly, consulting on “sex, lies, and videotape,” the film that changed the independent film business, Sundance, and Harvey forever; the film whose prescient title was the unspoken logline for what it really meant to work at Miramax. I was 28, a newly minted marketing MBA from NYU, excited about my budding career as a movie marketer. I found Harvey smart, but rude and intimidating. I was glad my boss (Ira Deutchman, one of the industry’s great good guys) took the brunt of our relationship with Miramax.

The running joke — not a joke — among women in the independent film industry in the 1990s was every female we knew who started working at Miramax would either gain 20 pounds or lose 20 pounds. It sounds like fat shaming today, but my point is the stress signs of working under predatory conditions were highly visible, well known across the distaff side of the industry, gossiped and fretted about in ladies’ rooms from Beverly Hills to Cap d’Antibes. I was glad Harvey never offered me a job, though I interviewed a couple of times over the years. It would have been a difficult choice.

So, no. I wasn’t sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein.

I was sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by a senior executive at New Line Cinema. At a company retreat in Snowmass, Colo., where we were plied with straight vodka, tequila, Jägermeister — it was like a frat party at high altitude. Shots, shots, shots. Group binge drinking was New Line’s idea of a corporate retreat trust exercise.

It was pre-meditated: The perp arranged for my room to be near his, in a far, darkened corner of the Snowmass complex. If I persist in viewing him as a human being — not a simple task — I can only imagine he did not fully grasp the terror he inflicted. Perhaps he thought my blowjob was consensual and the beginning of some kind of naughty extramarital affair: an employee “with benefits.”

I assure you, I did not consent, and between the alcohol and the power dynamic, I was in no position to do so. (If you are confused about what “consent” means, watch that three-minute Tea Consent video that your high school kids watch in Sex Ed classes to raise the odds that they don’t grow up to be dicks. Or worse.)

I was subject to sexual harassment for a long time afterward; creepy thigh strokes if seated next to him at an out-of-office event, stolen embraces in shadowy hallways and elevators. I was haunted by an overwhelmingly clear sense of ever-present danger — a heightened feeling of being prey, while patiently, slowly, eternally circled by something menacing. I was traumatized by that night in Snowmass and feared I could and would be assaulted again if ever I let my guard down. I remember barricading my hotel door in Cannes one night, while I shook in fear, unable to sleep, afraid he would be able to get the Majestic Hotel to give him a key to my room.

I had heard a number of claims were settled at New Line, if not at the level of Miramax/Weinstein. My case wasn’t settled, though, because I never filed a complaint. I had a lot to lose. I was an executive vice president, earning six figures, and more importantly, I loved my job. I was head of marketing at New Line’s arthouse division, Fine Line Features. I worked on amazing films — “My Own Private Idaho,” “Hoop Dreams,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Shine” — with world-class filmmakers whose exceptional work inspires to this day: Altman, Campion, Van Sant, O. Russell, Vachon, Korine, Armstrong, Cronenberg, Stillman, Waters, Jarmusch, Loach, Greenwald, Savoca, Egoyan, the list goes on.

At Fine Line, we were a tight crew of “cool nerds”: women, brown, LGBTQ+, and the few straight white men amongst us were card-carrying feminists. We loved each other, loved independent film, did great work, and had insane fun. Sundance, Toronto, Cannes. The Independent Spirit Awards, the Oscars, the annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner at Windows on the World, atop the World Trade Center … before it, and my film career, came crashing down.

My predator was smart. I firmly believe he targeted high-level female executives because he calculated that we had too much to lose. Interns or assistants who might have been harassed by other execs might file a claim because the money they got from a settlement could buy them at least a few years to reinvent themselves. But to my knowledge, the female senior executives at New Line who got harassed (or worse) never filed claims. We had careers at stake and knew such a claim could never be kept quiet and would result in being blackballed in the industry.

Within a few short years, I think a half-dozen high-level, female executives quietly left the company. Some quit, some were fired.

“Women don’t leave New Line. They get carried out in body bags,” said one senior female executive quoted in a notorious Premiere magazine article about New Line that ran the summer of 1998, six months after I had been fired from the company.

We had won the company’s first Oscar in almost 20 years, for Geoffrey Rush in “Shine.” My contract came up for renewal and all I heard was crickets. Ira was long gone, and my new boss Chris Pula, New Line’s president of marketing — a dazzling creative genius who I loved working with — left for a major studio gig. After seven years with the company, I no longer had any advocates in, or a buffer from, upper management.

I received a check, which included my unused vacation days, a bonus for “Shine,” and, to the best of my recollection, some six months’ severance, a fraction of what I’d heard male executives at my level received in their goodbye packages. It was OK. The writing was on the wall and I had been looking for a new job, an escape hatch. The day I signed my exit contract, complete with the non-disparagement, confidentiality, and general release clauses required for me to receive the severance, Ben Zinkin, New Line’s chief counsel, tossed the check to me across his big desk. “Nice chunk of change, Liz,” he said. “Nice chunk of my life, Ben,” I returned. I pocketed the check, said goodbye to my crew, and walked out of the office for the last time.

What I realize now, and didn’t then, was that my exit contract from New Line — garden-variety corporate legalese that had nothing to do with my sexual assault or harassment — constituted the real crime against my person. It was a permanent gag (a chillingly apt term) that ensured my enduring status as chattel of a publicly traded multinational media corporation. One man assaulted and harassed me. But it was my fear of an army of corporate litigators that held me enslaved in silence for decades to follow.

The Premiere article, an investigation of New Line’s notorious, bad-boy, booze, sex-and-drugs culture — was 1998’s film-industry bombshell. It was mostly anonymously sourced, by multiple insiders, including by me, for reasons that hopefully more people might understand today, now that so many women have come forward with their stories that so poignantly describe their wrenching experiences. We survivors made choices of anonymity back in the day; we consented to the tyranny of silence, even as we did not consent to the crimes and damages committed against us.

From my perspective, the Premiere piece was painfully accurate, though New Line denied it and fought it with vigor. Some of my former female colleagues denied the story in a naïve and enraging letter to the editor. Let me summon some compassion. Some of those signatories were single moms or their family’s primary breadwinners. They had mouths to feed and averted their gaze.

Competing journalists — and many others in the film industry — excoriated Premiere and the reporters who investigated New Line. They were skeptical the stories could be true, and felt that even if true, the article had violated some kind of immutable taboo. In actuality, like The New York Times today, Premiere was serving the crucial role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. The article was dismissed as a hatchet job, sour grapes, a cruel grudge fest sourced by failed executives who simply couldn’t thrive in the boys-will-be-boys playground of New Line Cinema. These deniers were unable to wrap their heads around why sources would remain anonymous, and even in anonymity be unwilling, or unable, to describe the gory details of their own trauma.

That was then.

Since the grab-her-by-the-pussy nadir of the 2016 presidential campaign, an unrelenting cascade of sexual harassment stories has broken. Weinstein is simply the slimiest, O’Reilly the most eye-popping, and #MeToo the most heartbreaking. As each revelation lashes the ragged shores of my survivor psyche, despite all of my personal work — seven years of classical Freudian analysis and a twice-daily meditation practice — I have found myself re-traumatized.

It’s happened at other times in the intervening 25 years since my assault. The Stanford dumpster case also cut very close to the bone. My father was a professor there, and I had grown up on the campus. I used to collect aluminum cans out of the frat house dumpsters during Earth Day recycling drives in the 1970s. I could feel the grass the girl lay in, as if it were myself. Shots, shots, shots.

Thinking Harvey Weinstein is the sex abuse problem is like thinking David Duke is the racism problem or Wayne LaPierre is the gun problem. These insidious horrors haunt us because, like infants, we Americans have no comprehension of object permanence. Hashtag here today, gone tomorrow. As the terrifying tragedy in Las Vegas shows, people will continue to be slaughtered in mass shootings until commonsense gun-safety legislation is passed. Unarmed boys and men of color will continue to be murdered in their cars and neighborhoods until we decide how to organize the relationship between police and the communities they are chartered to serve and protect.

And women in Hollywood, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, police custody, and minimum-wage jobs will continue to be raped, assaulted, and sexually harassed at shocking rates; much more so if they are women of color, let alone transgender, and especially if they are Native. (If you need to be “woke” on the latter, see “Wind River,” which, in this Oscar season’s most stomach-churning irony, was a Weinstein Company release — although now all mention of TWC will be purged for home video, streaming, and awards-season screeners.)

This violence will continue until the culture is changed, laws are changed, and companies change their corporate policies. Until we change.

Is Harvey the last straw? I’m afraid no more than Newtown, or Philando Castile. The stories come and they go. But one thing stays: the institutionalization of silencing victims. It happens in the ratings-seeking shoutfests of cable-TV news, legislative obstruction, quasi-legal sellouts to lobbyists, systemic discrimination (explicit and implicit), or — in the case of women in the workplace — the widespread use and abuse of “confidentiality” and “nondisclosure” clauses in corporate employment and termination agreements.

My experience — the sexual assault, the sexual harassment, and, most enduringly, the contractually mandated muzzle — crushed my career ambitions and caused me emotional and physical suffering that affect me to this day.

So, here’s my trauma lemonade:

If I can spare one woman, then coming out will be worth the acidic pain of revelation, not to mention the risks my good counselors (then and now) have advised me to avoid. If a gigantic multinational media company decides to sue me for violating the terms of a 20-year-old contract, so be it.

I wish I had had the guts to tell my story in the ‘90s, and deeply regret that I didn’t. But here I am now and here’s what I have to say: Just stop it, you assholes. Stop it, right now.

And by “assholes,” I don’t mean the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein or the now-defunct men’s club of New Line Cinema. I’m not naming my perp because he’s long gone from his post, and fuck that guy, anyway. Wait, I think I meant to say because I forgive that guy. OK, maybe partially both. Anyway, I don’t want a head on a stick, I’ll never get restitution for what I lost, and naming him would not serve the political point.

It’s not about him. It’s not about me. And it sure as hell isn’t about Harvey Weinstein.

It’s about the NDAs, these nefarious and ubiquitous clauses that persecute and gag women in perpetuity. It’s about these draconian legal devices that force us women to negate parts of our life and pretend that sexual violence is on par with patent violation, multiplying our pain many times over.

So, with my voice, let me make some clear calls to action in support of future generations of female DPs, actresses, crew members, and women marketing executives, CEOs, and board chairs:

To the creative guilds and trade unions: Summon your inner Wonder Woman. Be fierce and relentless warriors protecting your members. Go beyond your statements of solidarity and condemnation (as important and welcome as they are). In future negotiations with financiers, studios, and producers, you must ensure that any contract provision — past, present, or future — that silences workers about harassment, discrimination, and recrimination is null and void. Intrepid elected officials in New York and California are trying to pass this kind of legislation. The Teamsters, DGA, WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and IATSE can lead the way through their considerable political influence in Sacramento and Albany.

To the boards of directors: Commit to being 50/50 women by 2020, and alter your legal boilerplates so they reflect your companies’ stated values. Provide a blanket release to all current and former employees and contractors, freeing us to speak publicly about our experiences without fear of litigation or retribution. Confidentiality clauses are reasonable when it comes to protecting secret recipes, but not when it comes to protecting secrets and lies about harassment, discrimination, and assault.

All of us together — not just the perpetrators — have been complicit in sexual violence and harassment because, for too long, we have stood by, averted our gaze, been silent.

That ends now. We no longer consent to tyranny.

Liz Manne was a co-founder and Executive Vice President of Marketing of Fine Line Features, where she worked from 1990 to 1997. She consults to nonprofit organizations and progressive campaigns. Her publications include #PopJustice: Social Justice and the Promise of Pop Culture Strategies. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities from 2008­–2016. She has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1997.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,