The firing of film titan and studio co-founder Harvey Weinstein on Sunday, after a New York Times story published allegations of years of sexual harassment, is getting billed as a potential landmark event for the culture of the movie industry.
Bloomberg News, citing civil rights advocates, reported that the scandal has the “potential to be a watershed moment for Hollywood,” encouraging victims of sexual harassment to come forward. The executive producer of the HBO series “Girls,” Jenni Konner, told the New York Times that “I see this as a tipping point, [the] moment we look back on and say, 'That's when it all started to change.'" A Vox headline said the Weinstein revelations were “the tip of a huge Hollywood iceberg — that may be starting to melt.”
Perhaps it will. Yet some industry observers and legal experts say such optimism could be premature. The courage of harassment victims to speak out may certainly help propel more change — or at least lead more women to come forward. And whatever media zeitgeist, business conditions or generational shift helped what is said to be a long-whispered story get told could surely bring about more disclosures. But translating explosive headlines into lasting industry change will also require Hollywood to finally reckon with the low numbers of women who hold leadership roles in front of and behind the camera.
“It's only a tipping point if structural things happen that change behavior,” Debra Katz, a Washington attorney who represents plaintiffs in harassment suits, said in an interview. “And structural things absolutely [means] having more women in top roles with the ability to put women in roles where they're directors, producers and have genuine autonomy and power.”
Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, editor at large Kim Masters made a similar point: While studios with corporate parents may be less willing to tolerate bad behavior today than in the past, she wrote, “until women are properly represented in front of and behind the cameras and in executive offices — and the statistics are grim — Hollywood won't truly cure itself of this particular sickness.”
The statistics are indeed bleak. According to research from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just 4 percent of directors of top box-office movies over the past nine years were women. Less than 21 percent of those films had a female producer, and just 13 percent of the films' writers were female. Only 31 percent of speaking roles for actors in these popular movies were given to women, a figure that has hardly budged over the past decade.
After two years of Oscar nominations that did not include minority actors, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the invitations it sends for membership and set a target early last year to double its female and minority rosters by 2020, after years of keeping the number of invitations relatively small. Even if all the new invitees accepted, however, female membership would rise only to 28 percent, the New York Times reported in June. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has even been probing the industry's failure to hire more directors.
Meanwhile, research from the Center for the Study of Women in Television in Film at San Diego State University found that women made up only 29 percent of protagonist characters in major 2016 films; the less-than-a-third figure is still a historic high. In 2016, women made up just 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers who worked on the 250 highest-grossing domestic films — a decline of two percentage points from the year before. Even among independent films screened at high-profile film festivals, the research finds, male directors far outpace women in number.
Martha Lauzen, who conducts the research at San Diego State, doesn't have high hopes for a quick reshaping of Hollywood's top ranks in the aftermath of the Weinstein revelations.
“I have my doubts that this one case — as egregious as it may be — will prompt film and television companies to place more women in positions of power,” she wrote in an email, even if it does help make the case for doing so over the long term. “It would be very unusual for a large industry to pivot abruptly as a result of the bad behavior of a single individual, though, of course, it's no secret that he is not the only producer to engage in this type of harassment even today.”
She said that if more women emerge in the coming weeks to share their stories, however, and the scandal expands to other power players, it could pressure studios for real change. “I think the impact this story will have depends on whether it begins and ends with Harvey Weinstein or evolves to encompass other individuals and the larger issue of sexual harassment in Hollywood.”
Attorney Katz drew an analogy between the male-dominated venture capitalist industry in Silicon Valley and the producers in Hollywood, both of which hold the purse strings, and noted the all-male board of Weinstein's studio. “It's the same thing. If you are beholden to them to [fund] for your companies and start-ups and they're the only game in town, they exercise the power,” she said. “When women break into exclusive clubs, it changes the dynamic.”