When the Harvey Weinstein scandal reached a fever pitch last month, Ben Affleck's handlers found themselves with a problem. It wasn't just that Weinstein had helped launch Ben Affleck's career in the 1990s with "Good Will Hunting" and "Shakespeare in Love," or that the movie star had his own history of troubled relationships with women, including an on-camera groping of an MTV host.
The scandal was also coming just as Affleck prepared to hit the circuit for his role as Batman in one of the biggest movies of the year — November's "Justice League" — which aims to make $1 billion globally.
So Affleck and his team at the high-powered public relations agency Sunshine Sachs came up with a damage-control strategy, according to a person familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the plan. They posted a message on Facebook saying Affleck was "saddened," "angry" and "sick" over the revelations and that as a father he shared people's grave concerns. But when the actress Rose McGowan accused Affleck of knowing about Weinstein's behavior and lying to cover it up, and then others accused him of groping women at the 2014 Golden Globes, the star went the other way. He stayed silent, reasoning he could only lose by engaging popular anti-harassment activists.
His team's next major action, according to the person, was to provide information to the celebrity news site ETonline.com about a rather different subject — Affleck's adoption of an adorable husky. But that piece caused its own social-media snickering. Sunshine Sachs declined to provide a comment for this article.
Affleck's inability to adopt an effective strategy showed how Hollywood's reputation-management machine is struggling with the best way to protect celebrities' image in a new era of sexual-harassment awareness.
For years, a behind-the-scenes network of personal publicists, assisted by agents and managers, sought to divert interest from the misdeeds of the Hollywood elite. But the newly hot climate has thrown the image industry into crisis, according to nearly a dozen publicists who spoke anonymously because of the background nature of their work — pitting their traditional instinct to suppress negative attention against the growing demands for candor.
The challenge is particularly pressing as celebrities begin to get in front of journalists to hype their work for upcoming holiday movies and the Oscar campaigns that run until the March show.
"It's a no-win situation," said a veteran publicist who represents several high-profile film personalities, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing attention to clients. "Nobody knows what to react to or what to respond with."
What path they choose could determine whether the film-promotion circuit finally begins to tackle hard truths — or an age-old system remains in place.
"For far too long sexual trauma hasn't been talked about in Hollywood," said Angela Rose, founder of PAVE, a Washington-based advocacy group that does outreach to the entertainment industry. "We need these questions to shatter the silence."
As recently as last Oscar season, candor was jostled out by celebrity.
Affleck's brother, Casey, had an acclaimed movie in Amazon Studios' and Roadside Attractions' "Manchester by the Sea," in which he played a troubled janitor looking after his teenage nephew. (Amazon Studios is part of the company led by Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos.)
But the star also had been the subject of two sexual-harassment lawsuits by women who worked on the 2010 faux-documentary he directed, "I'm Still Here" — allegations included numerous lewd comments and climbing into one woman's bed in the middle of the night — both of which had been settled out of court.
Fearful of jeopardizing his Oscar campaign, handlers from the firm ID PR steered the dialogue away from the allegations. In the five-month run-up to the Oscars — a period marked by screenings, festivals and smaller awards shows courting media and the 8,500 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — ID PR took numerous steps to tamp down talk of the lawsuits.
The blue-chip firm sought to limit its client's exposure with journalists interested in the subject, according to a person familiar with the matter. It also stressed to reporters who did talk to Affleck that questions about the incidents would yield little because the settlement precluded the star from discussing them, according to two reporters on the receiving end of that caveat.
Hanging over ID's suggestion, according to the reporters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid undermining their relationships with ID: Any sexual-harassment questions would not be relished by ID, also the gatekeeper for many other Oscar contenders.
The strategy proved effective. Although dozens of outlets interviewed or wished to interview Affleck over months of pre-Oscar campaigning, he wound up having to answer sexual-harassment questions in only two major publications, according to a Washington Post review. Even then, he mostly did so dismissively, noting in one, "I guess people think if you're well known, it's perfectly fine to say anything you want."
"Manchester" became a hit and Affleck won the best-actor Oscar.
Roadside co-president Howard Cohen said he didn't want to comment specifically on Affleck but felt comfortable with how the campaign unfolded. ID declined to provide a comment for this article.
Handlers faced a similar dilemma with Nate Parker, who wrote, directed and starred in the 2016 historical drama "The Birth of a Nation." Centering on the Nat Turner slave rebellion, the movie was an Oscar front-runner thanks to its frothy reception at the Sundance Film Festival and its timely themes of black resistance. But when stories revealed Parker had faced rape charges over an incident at Pennsylvania State University in 1999 — he was acquitted — and that the alleged victim had since committed suicide, his Oscar bid looked precarious.
Executives at the Fox Searchlight studio knew Parker was unwilling to apologize — they had unsuccessfully attempted to coax a public mea culpa out of him, according to a person familiar with the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions. So they tried to keep him out of sight.
Some sought to stop Parker from attending the Oscar-oriented Toronto International Film Festival in September, according to the person present at such meetings. They were outvoted.
At the Toronto news conference, a moderator paid by Searchlight mostly kept the focus on the movie, asking just one indirect question about the assault.
"I was conflicted about it," the moderator, Essence's Cori Murray, told The Post. "I really liked the film and thought it was important to talk about it but I also felt I had to be true to myself as a woman." (The studio declined to provide a comment for this story, and Parker's manager didn't respond to a request for comment.)
The approach worked — for 45 minutes. Then one reporter in the gallery asked about the Penn State incident, then another, and another. Parker did not apologize. His movie's Oscar prospects were declared dead on the spot, and the film bombed commercially soon after.
Some experts believe these deflection attempts — successful in Affleck's case, futile in Parker's — won't pass muster in the new accountability-minded Hollywood.
"A lot has changed in the last six months," said Mara Reinstein, a former editor at Us Weekly who follows celebrities and the film business. "If Casey would campaign in this climate, I don't think his reps can keep it out of the conversation. And I don't think he'd win."
One personality who could test the theory is Gary Oldman, who plays Winston Churchill in Focus Features' historical drama "The Darkest Hour" and has been handicapped as a best-actor front-runner by Oscar pundits.
Oldman was accused by his ex-wife in divorce papers of physically assaulting her as their marriage dissolved in 2001 and the pair engaged in a custody battle. He denied the allegations. A judge awarded Oldman sole custody of their two children. In an interview, Oldman's manager and producing partner, Douglas Urbanski, said that the assault "never happened and charges were never filed," saying this represented a full vindication.
In an email to The Post via Focus, Oldman wrote, "This was a deeply personal and painful time in my life and I appreciated the due diligence of all involved. I was most thankful for the outcome." His ex-wife did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Still, Focus must navigate that past — and a notorious Playboy interview in which Oldman appeared to support Mel Gibson's racist and anti-Semitic rants (he later apologized) — as it makes a case for his portrayal of a great 20th-century leader. A Focus spokeswoman did not provide a separate comment for this story.
Other contenders could face criticism, including Kevin Spacey, accused by two actors of sexual misconduct.
Spacey plays J. Paul Getty in upcoming oil-family drama "All the Money in the World." Executives at Sony Pictures have convened meetings over how to promote the film, according to a person familiar with the studio's plans who was not authorized to talk about them publicly.
Sony late Monday said it was canceling the "Money" premiere outright, issuing a statement that, "given the current allegations surrounding one of its actors and out of respect for those impacted, it would be inappropriate to celebrate at a gala at this difficult time. Accordingly, the film will be withdrawn."
But citing the hundreds of people who worked on the film, the statement added that "it would be a gross injustice to punish all of them for the wrongdoings of one supporting actor in the film" and thus would still come out Dec. 22.
Spacey's publicist did not respond to comment.
Several Oscar publicists noted that while they believe in transparency, it's not as simple as encouraging clients to speak honestly; in the current social-media atmosphere, they said, even well-intentioned statements can be misinterpreted.
Complicating the issue is negative campaigning — Hollywood's version of mudslinging — in which consultants call reporters with unsavory background information about Oscar hopefuls to boost their own candidate. In the new environment, a male contender's questionable reputation is, some fear, ripe for exploitation.
"I think negative campaigning is going to be amplified this year because of the climate," said Fox Searchlight President Nancy Utley, adding that she believes merit-worthy allegations should be aired.
Also tricky are award-show appearances: As 2017 best actor, for instance, Casey Affleck is slated to present the best actress award at the 2018 ceremony.
Those are issues the commercial-minded "Justice League" won't face. Ben Affleck will probably be sheltered — given a spot on a softer late-night show, or grouped with co-stars like emerging feminist icon Gal Gadot at so-called roundtable interviews, as he was during a recent Asia junket.
Oscars season is different. It has a longer run, serious films and upper-tier journalists. The process could well involve more rigor — and allegations.
"There are a lot of contenders who, if you pull the thread, a lot will unravel," Reinstein said. "This season I think you'll see many people pulling the thread."
This story was updated Nov. 7 to include Sony's comments on its plans for the movie "All the Money in the World."