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How Hollywood abuses women — and steals our work

This business is predatory beyond the sexual.

Audience members wear 3-D glasses while watching a movie at the Tennessee Aquarium Imax theater in Chattanooga. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

It took me two years and two drafts, and when I finished the script, I knew it was good. Screenwriting can be grueling, especially when you aren’t getting paid and have to find other ways to pay your bills. The producer I was writing for called to tell me the news: Two major talent agencies were interested, and the script was going out to several actors, some of the biggest names in film. It felt like Christmas in May.

The producer (let’s call him Bill) asked if I’d put the production company name on the cover of the script, to which I said: Of course. And then he said he wanted his name on the title page of the script, with a Story By credit.

A Story By credit is a writing credit. It results in upfront payment on the sale of the script and yields residuals in perpetuity. Yes, Bill had pitched me a one-sentence concept, from which I generated the script, and he’d given me verbal notes on a handful of drafts. He had done precisely what producers get paid to do. Now, though, he wanted to strong-arm me into publicly giving him a writing credit for my work.

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s fall, people ask how his abuse could be so prolific, so off-the-charts awful, in such a small town. The answer is simple: Hollywood is predatory, in ways beyond the sexual. The business pays a powerful few with salaries and fees, and everyone else in promises, champagne and air. The amount of free and uncredited work I’ve completed in the past 20 years is staggering. As a woman who writes comedy, I’ve measured my success by the successful men who attach their names to my ideas. The person who puts their name on someone else’s work, or takes a meeting with a star based on someone else’s script — they have no incentive to step in and draw the line at sexual harassment. Harassment is one of many ways to keep people feeling insecure, desperate and willing to work for free. Another is the looming threat of poverty. Sexual harassment and labor abuse coexist as ugly forces in this business, and women overwhelmingly bear the brunt.

I can’t speak to all of the ways people work for free in Hollywood. I know actors are pressured to work for footage for their reel, as are cinematographers and other crew. But I can speak to the way screenwriters are taken advantage of and how that system specifically exposes women to sexual harassment and abuse, while also ensuring they rarely see real employment opportunities.

For example, my last project for a successful producer, a guy I like and respect, played out this way. He read my indie spec script and brought me in to meet with his president of production, Bill. In our initial meeting, we made a handshake deal: I would write a romantic comedy script for them on spec (code in Hollywood for you will never see a dime) and, in exchange, they’d help me get an agent. As the saying goes, I’d been to this rodeo before. As usual, I was going as the horse. But they struck me as good guys and I badly needed an agent, so if I had to write them a script to get one, I would. I said I’d do it.

Two years later, I’d kept my end of the bargain, and Bill intended to put his name on my unsold work. This malfeasance goes on daily in Hollywood, even for acclaimed professionals. Consider the brilliant writer-director Elaine May, described as “one of the best filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood.” Her writing credits for the past few decades are sparse, but as a 2012 Vanity Fair interview revealed: “What few people know is that she was also the co-author of Reds, Tootsie, Labyrinth, and Dangerous Minds — all uncredited.” Uncredited.

Writers with good agents and managers are still encouraged to turn in free drafts, do free punch-ups, and give producers, directors and studios pretty much anything they ask for, or risk appearing difficult and unsupportive of the project, and being badmouthed in meetings. For obvious reasons, this exploitation is incredibly lucrative for the people in power.

I refused to add Bill’s name to the cover. The script still went out, but, unsurprisingly, I never had a single meeting or phone call with an agent or manager. Had the script sold, Bill would probably have made fast work of replacing me on the project. In a business that functions on relationships, this is what happens when an individual stands up for herself. Is it any wonder that women in Hollywood remained silent over rape and assault for so long?

My experience with Bill happens to all writers, but the Hollywood water is extra-muddy for women and minorities. Every conversation feels like a minefield. On this project, Bill called me to discuss an all-white list of actors to cast. I’m offended by all-white cast lists, especially because I hadn’t written an all-white movie. I pushed him for diverse options (which meant emailing him my picks from his list and writing “LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER” at the top). Bill disparaged a top-flight comedic actress by saying, “I don’t want to look at that.” He told me we should cast Rachel McAdams “because she looks like you.” Rachel McAdams is beautiful, but from a writing standpoint, this comment is not a compliment. It implies that I’m a diarist instead of a professional screenwriter. Put another way, every character in my script is me, because I can only write myself. This common framing of the work of female screenwriters feeds the perception that we’re limited in imagination, skill and scope.

The first person to pay me for my writing early in my career also sexually harassed me. He groped me in the car. He shoved his tongue in my mouth outside a sound studio. He would poke at me roughly for no reason, bruising me on more than one occasion. I did not report this harassment because this same guy paid me $3,000 to write my first script treatment, and he sent my play to a friend who ran a prestigious playwriting program, where I was verbally offered a scholarship. My next boss was an Oscar-nominated producer, a sweetheart to work for and someone I loved collaborating with, but the last time he offered to pay me for my work was $5,000 under the table to rewrite his script, and I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I did it.

Writing comedy is fun. Years of exploitative work with no end in sight is not fun. I turned him down despite being in my mid-30s and one month away from living in my car. I’d be contributing to a toxic system. How else does this end?

The lesson I took from my early experiences in Hollywood was that I had choices. I could put up with sexual harassment and try to make something of the opportunities that came with it, or I could give away credit on my work in the hope that a powerful guy would catch sight of my writing, figure out it was mine, and eventually give me a real shot. I don’t know a single male writer who would describe his choices thusly. For years, my unspoken plan was to outlive the sexism, assuming it was endemic to the generation that ran Hollywood when I arrived. In the past few years, however, I’ve encountered sexism from guys like Bill who are my age. The culture is thriving. It’s not dying off. Putting Weinstein in jail would be symbolic and would, hopefully, give his victims a modicum of peace, but in my mind it doesn’t change a thing for women in Hollywood overall.

Workplace sexual harassment predominantly comes down to job security and money. If you’re paying women for their work, they’re one step removed from complying with a harasser. Women made up just 13 percent of writers on the top 250 films of 2016 (the figure for directors was a paltry 7 percent), and when we do work, we’re earning 68 cents for every guy’s dollar. I’m tired of blaming myself for failing to navigate out of the cycle of free work in exchange for personal recommendations for jobs that no one is hiring women to do in the first place.

If Hollywood is serious about ending sexual predation, it will have to begin by shaming people who benefit from free labor. No more writing on spec, or paying paltry cash sums under the table. Money is the currency of a legitimate business. The accounting for sexual harassment and abuse begins with dignity and recognition in a credited job with a paycheck. I don’t want to sit in all-male meetings listening to disparaging comments about women for the rest of my life. I refuse to believe that’s the future. The only way the system changes is when women have an equal voice in the material we put out. Equal voice means equal numbers of women working in all jobs across the entertainment industry, and equal pay while we’re doing it.