By most estimations, The New York Times’ initial reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment changed everything. That perspective includes the Times, which published a timeline on November 11 called “After Weinstein: A List of Men Accused of Sexual Misconduct and the Fallout for Each,” detailing the public outcry surrounding a range of public figures who have faced varying degrees of repercussions for their abhorrent treatment of women and men in recent weeks.
It’s a curious framing device, particular with regard to its start. While Weinstein may have been the tipping point, there was a palpable drum roll leading to his downfall.
From a broader cultural standpoint, the backlash against powerful men doing terrible things started with Hannibal Burress’ tossed-off remarks about Bill Cosby, and the ensuing process through which Cosby was shunned by the industry; later, the business threats to Fox News following reporting about years of sexual misconduct by Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly ushered along a similar process of estrangement.
Weinstein’s behavior epitomizes the death of Hollywood’s “casting couch” era, while simultaneously messaging that the independent film community was in desperate need of redefining its image. The Times played a critical role in stimulating that reality check, but starting the timeline with Weinstein ignores that the community began wrestling with these issues at a much earlier point. Ignoring these developments threatens to erase their ongoing relevance as the independent film community struggles to improve its standards.
In August, news broke that Cinefamily co-founder Hadrian Belove had engaged in countless acts of sexual misconduct with staffers at the funky L.A. arthouse over the years — hitting on, dating, and verbally degrading female staffers, all under the assumption that the theater’s casual environment meant a breakdown in traditional standards of decency.
Belove tried to make the case that disgruntled staffers were trying to take him out, but — in a notable foreshadowing of the swift Weinstein fallout two months away — the repercussions unfolded with rapid-fire justice: The board forced Belove to resign as more women came forward with allegations, and those with longstanding relationships to Cinefamily (including Brie Larson, who co-founded the “Women of Cinefamily” initiative) publicly denounced Belove’s behavior while offering support to the victims. The institution itself has been effectively shut down.
This snowball effect provided an instant reality check for a scene that steeped its identity in raucous gatherings and film screenings forged out of a mutual interest in DIY, anti-Hollywood exhibition. Suddenly, film festivals and independent art houses seemed less like sacred ground for hipsters and cinema purists and more like a giant liability.
From there, it only got worse: In 2016, the midst of a presidential campaign in which the winning candidate was caught on tape confessing sexual assault, longtime film writer Devin Faraci was accused of behavior in a similar vein and promptly stepped down from his position running the film publication Birth.Movies.Death. About a year later, it was revealed that the site’s publisher, the Alamo Drafthouse, continued to pay Faraci for copyediting work involving its genre festival, Fantastic Fest.
The online fury yielded a series of swift responses: Faraci stepped down (again), and Drafthouse co-founder Tim League stumbled through a series of half-formed apologies before launching on a tour of his theaters around the country to regain his staff’s trust. Meanwhile, Fantastic Fest took off under duress, a key programmer stepped down, and its dudes-and-drinks vibe came under fire for enabling reckless behavior under the auspices of a fun-loving genre festival where likeminded movie geeks just like to party. Rather than face a queasy storm of bad publicity, Fox Searchlight pulled its “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” from the lineup.
Then came the real tipping point: Fantastic Fest co-founder and Ain’t It Cool News proprietor Harry Knowles, arguably the most famous film geek on the planet, faced accusations of sexually assaulting women in the Austin area and in private Twitter messages for years.
Again, the Drafthouse was implicated for not taking action when victims reported Knowles’ behavior, but it’s safe to say nobody except Knowles himself knew just how appalling the situation had become. Here was an amateur journalist high on his fame and exploiting his niche in plain sight.
Anticipating these stories, Fantastic Fest cut ties with Ain’t It Cool News as a sponsor, and the Drafthouse issued a statement that it would no longer have any affiliation with Knowles, who said he would step aside from running his flailing site and hand the reins to his sister, Dani. Several longtime writers quit. The site’s famed talkback section was shut down. Knowles vanished into the bubble of his Twitter feed.
At Fantastic Fest, women mobilized for group discussions about how to take a stand against sexual assault in a world they wanted to steer in a better direction, rather than watch burn to the ground. There was a strong desire for the independent film world to survive and do better. Women and their male allies started to wrestle with the notion of a more-responsible infrastructure to sustain this passionate crowd drawn together by a mutual love for movies beyond studio-system constraints.
And then, a few weeks later, the Weinstein story dropped. However, anyone who relies on the New York Times’ news updates would have viewed it as a solitary wakeup call. There was no indication that the earlier events transpired, or that the personal and professional functions of a creative network were already in the midst of a reckoning.
In the days and weeks since the Weinstein news became a global phenomenon, I have heard more than one person suggest that it provided welcome cover to others in the film world under attack. In the last month, few have mentioned Belove, the Drafthouse, or Knowles; everyone’s talking about Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, and Louis C.K. The Times’ “After Weinstein” feature, which promises ongoing updates, effectively erases them from this narrative.
This is not meant to diminish the extraordinary, months-in-the-making efforts led by Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who underwent the painstaking challenges of convincing victims to go on the record about Weinstein’s abuses. In a widely circulated tweet, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait called the reporters’ work “one of the most socially influential pieces of reporting in U.S. history,” and he may be right: Only the Times could push these issues into a broader arena of social consciousness and embolden hundreds of victims to come forward about sexual assault. The #MeToo phenomenon and the dozens of sexual predators under fire would almost certainly never face such immediate scrutiny without the ubiquity of the Times’ story.
The earlier instances of sexual assault belong on any responsible timeline. Weinstein’s undoing defamed a very specific group of movie professionals; they are part of an often-insular world that’s in an already-fragile moment. To understand how Weinstein could have obtained such authority in the film industry, it’s important to recognize that he wasn’t an anomaly but merely one of the most prominent architects of systematic dysfunction.
Some may still get away with it. In a way, it’s too bad that we learned about Knowles before Weinstein; he continues to use his Twitter feed to fuel traffic to the site, never apologized for his behavior, and the various prominent filmmakers that curried his favor have yet to publicly disavow his behavior. It’s hard to imagine that would happen if his story broke a month later; today, people and companies don’t hesitate to cut any and all ties in the most transparent ways possible. Even as the worst villains are called out, it’s all too easy to ignore the misdeeds hiding in plain sight.