The filmmaking community was rocked last week when Oprah Winfrey pulled her name as executive producer from a Sundance Film Festival documentary alleging sexual assault against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the film now titled “On the Record” was set to be distributed by Apple TV+ following its Park City bow next week, but in a swift chain of events, Oprah’s split from the project by way of a statement shared with media last Friday effectively killed Apple’s commitment to stream the documentary.
A report from The New York Times on January 17 details what went on behind the scenes of Oprah’s departure from the movie centered on former music executive Drew Dixon’s accusations, including that Simmons raped her after luring her to his apartment (a testimony first revealed in a December 2017 NYT story). “What preceded Ms. Winfrey’s announcement was more than just a dispute over filmmaking. It involved an intense campaign by Mr. Simmons and his supporters to get Ms. Winfrey to pull the plug. That campaign also targeted some of the women in the film on social media and, in at least one case, through direct contact with a family member, in what the women viewed as attempts to threaten and intimidate them ahead of the film’s premiere,” NYT’s Ben Sisario and Nicole Sperling wrote. “On the Record” is still set to premiere January 25 at Sundance, where the filmmakers will look for a new distributor.
Oprah, who long held a professional relationship with Simmons before repeated accusations of sexual abuse against him surfaced in 2017, said that he did try to dissuade her from putting her stamp on the movie. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” she told the Times. She added, “I told him directly in a phone call that I will not be pressured either into, or out of, backing this film. I am only going to do what I believe to be the right thing.” However, Oprah reportedly became the target not only of Simmons, but of his associates looking to debunk Dixon’s claims and intimated Oprah into dumping the project.
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Dixon told the Times, “I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime…I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.” Dixon also said, “Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t get to decide for any of the silence breakers in the film whether or not this movie is worth seeing and Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t get to decide for the whole rest of the world.”
The Times story also reports that Oprah had doubts over Dick and Ziering’s presentation of the various claims against Simmons. In a statement to the filmmakers, she said, “I think it is a disservice to the women and this film to have their gut-wrenching disclosures reduced to a montage of sound bites and not give them the stature of elevating their stories.”
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Oprah also reportedly sent the film to director Ava DuVernay, whose films include “Selma” and the documentary “13th.” “She’s got Simmons on one side pressuring her, and then she’s got a film on the other side that she doesn’t agree with,” DuVernay said. “So if she walks away from the film she seems like she’s caving to Simmons, and if she stays with the film then she’s putting her name on something that she feels doesn’t quite hit the mark.”
The Los Angeles Times also investigated Oprah’s exit from the film in a report published on Thursday. In the story, the filmmakers claim that Oprah’s damning statement against the film, which she said she didn’t believe to be “complete,” conflicts with their own experiences with her in the lead-up to last week’s news.
“She loved, loved, loved what we did,” Ziering told the LA Times. “And then she saw it numerous times throughout the editing process. We had a very close working relationship and very, very positive — enthusiastically positive. There weren’t any issues.”
Ziering and Dick also felt that Oprah’s sudden announcement prevented them from properly contacting and preparing Simmons’ alleged victims. “I felt horrible that we didn’t have more advance time to set them up and warn them,” Ziering said. “That’s a shock wave. It was horrible. It’s been horrible.”
Nevertheless, as the film heads for Park City, the filmmaking duo stands behind their film and its portrayal of the alleged trauma suffered by Simmons’ accusers. “We wish we were going with Apple and Ms. Winfrey. I mean, we do. But it’s bigger than those two, really,” Kirby Dick told the LA Times. “We feel the film is completely solid, addresses everything very powerfully. We know that it does because the responses of hundreds of people from all walks of life have been so glowing and enthusiastic. We stand by the film, we stand by the survivors’ stories completely, we know that the veracity is completely locked down. We think the film is strong and we are very hopeful that audiences at Sundance will feel the same.”
United Talent Agency will now represent the film as it looks for distributors at Sundance next week. IndieWire has reached out to Apple and Oprah’s representatives for additional comment.