Filmmaker Amy Berg is no stranger to chronicling abuses of power, often centered on sex and male hegemony. Berg put the Catholic Church’s myriad sexual abuse scandals in the crosshairs for 2006’s “Deliver Us From Evil,” and she takes the same exacting and carefully considered aim on alleged Hollywood sex rings in the alarming expose “An Open Secret.” A quietly explosive, no-holds-barred look at sexual predators within the Hollywood community—many of them well known industry figures, some of whom are convicted sex offenders—Berg’s unsettling and incendiary doc takes a deep dive into what many call Hollywood’s worst kept secret: child sex abuse within its ranks and the blind eye that many choose to turn on the victims.
While shocking and devastating, what defines Berg’s respectful documentary from others covering similarly lurid stories is its acute lack of sensationalism. Obviously a deeply sensitive subject, her film is unflinching and yet carefully considered. Meticulously crafted and investigated (and no doubt heavily vetted by lawyers), Berg brings a sobering solemnity to a very grave matter, but also lends a dignity to its subjects without pandering.
Centering on the story of five men abused as naive teenagers while struggling to break into acting—Evan H., Nick S., James G., Chris T., and Mike E. (Michael Egan, who brought sex abuse charges against “X-Men” filmmaker Bryan Singer and other Hollywood figures earlier this year)—each former actor goes into harrowing detail about sexual abuses from a decade or more earlier that have left them scarred, traumatized, and in many cases suicidal.
As their seemingly disparate stories unfold, a pattern emerges and a shady nexus comes into focus. At the center of all these allegations are the founders of the now-defunct DEN (Digital Entertainment Network), an early internet channel that attempted to create their own programming for teens online. The matrix of DEN includes founder Marc Collins-Rector; founder Chad Shackley; former child actor/founder Brock Pierce; former DEN President and Current TV and Disney television executive David Neuman; acting coach Bryan Peck; and, to a lesser extent, DEN investor Bryan Singer, who is seen on camera in ‘90s footage talking about DEN, the appeal of the “X-Men” series to disenfranchised teens, and programming for adolescents.
“An Open Secret” casts much damning evidence against all of these men, but needs not slant or frame to put them into a corner. Peck is a convicted child sex offender still working in the industry (he’s featured on the commentary track of the first “X-Men” movie with Singer and has a cameo in the film) as is Collins-Rector, who, by the end of the documentary, flees the country for the U.K. to escape jail time for his crimes.
The five victims recount chillingly similar tales: sex parties hosted by the DEN founders and their friends filled with naked teenage male actors that would soon take on even darker dimensions of emotional and psychological coercion, drugging, and even rape. Each actor also describes emotional blackmail that boils down to: go with the flow or find your career coming to an abrupt halt, or manipulative notions implying that this behavior is normal and how it’s done in this industry.
Not every story orbits directly around DEN, and one of the more haunting tales from Evan H. recalls how teen entertainment manager Marty Weiss became an honorary member of his family. Yet Weiss was just another predator grooming both Evan and his parents for their trust, only to cross the line at the most opportune moment.
An outspoken voice against the child abuse epidemic in Hollywood, actor Cory Feldman is seen in archival interview footage speaking about Bob Villard, a convicted sex felon and former publicist to teen actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Feldman, who is found in the documentary selling suggestive photos of former clients on eBay for top dollar. Former child actor and “Diff’rent Strokes” star Todd Bridges opens up candidly about his abuse at the hands of his publicist too (distressingly, the doc opens up with the infamous educational two-part “Diff’rent Strokes” episode that chronicled Arnold’s experience with a pedophile).
The tentacles of the epidemic go long and deep and their defensive layers are unnerving. Investigative journalist John Connolly, an ex-NYPD cop and veteran magazine reporter, is interviewed and tells how a similar story about L.A. sex rings centering around DEN was spiked by an undisclosed publication prior to publication.
Berg’s persuasive doc pulls no punches and in so doing lands a lot of blows, but one shot feels questionable. Actor Ben Savage, star of “Boy Meets World” and the new “Girl Meets World,” is seen attending the DEN mansion on his way to what might be a sex party. The situation is unclear, but the implication is palpable.
One of Berg’s most chilling and effective techniques is portentous and austere docu-recreations that are brief, simple, and staid. As one boy recounts how he was manipulated into sex on the way to play basketball at night, Berg’s camera simply soaks into starkly lit and empty courts that echo with unspoken gravity.
The elephant in the room is of course Singer, who has helmed some of Hollywood’s biggest superhero tentpoles. In April of 2014, “An Open Secret” subject Michael Egan accused Singer of sexually abusing him during trips to Hawaii in 1999 when Egan was 17, and filed suit against him (and subsequently filed similar suits against Garth Ancier, David Neuman, and Gary Goddard, three Hollywood execs that are all mentioned in the film in connection with Mark Collins-Rector). While the documentary is not about Singer, Egan, or the lawsuits, it also makes no bones about Singer, Ancier, Nueman, and Goddard’s connection to Mark Collins-Rector, DEN, and the sex parties that took place at the DEN Mansion.
Stopping just shy of describing the DEN Mansion and some of these predators and convicted sex offenders as a crime sex ring, Berg drops a devastating salvo in the film’s final minutes, where she draws a connecting visual line between men like Weiss and Villard to industry power players like Singer and Neuman, in the kind of visual aid you might see in a courtroom connecting a crime syndicate.
Berg’s documentary boldly moves through its dangerous territory without resorting to salacious tactics. At worst she gives subjects enough rope with which to hang themselves—a former SAG committee chief named Mike Harrah resigns by the time the film is over (it’s manipulative, arguably entrapment, but he’s captured on speaker phone admitting to molesting one of the now older victims who has called him by phone).
Featuring a score by members of Snow Patrol, including a rousing closing credits song called “A Call To Arms,” musically “An Open Secret” is simple but effective, vacillating between an early wistful innocence and a portentousness that emerges as each story grows darker and more disconcerting. Berg’s aesthetic choices in general are razor sharp, well chosen, and often deeply unsettling.
A difficult subject that zeroes in on a rampant industry problem that needs attention and an open, safe forum to discuss the topic, “An Open Secret” will hopefully be a much-needed first step. But the doc will face much opposition and there’s already talk going around that the film will have a difficult time finding a release. “We get one screening,” the director told the audience in the post film Q&A. “Maybe we’ll get distribution. It’s not very likely.” The filmmaker might simply be advocating her own case, but in any event the silencing of “An Open Secret” would be tragic, but perhaps eerily apropos for a doc that dares to discuss the complicity and collusion that many in Hollywood would rather have quieted. [A-]