Women look at the Hollywood sign in Hollywood
Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
There’s another Hollywood, and it has problems, too.
SCREENED OFF

Hollywood’s indie film industry is still waiting for a dose of #MeToo

Jed Gottlieb
By Jed Gottlieb

Producer Miranda Bailey spent two decades becoming an independent film industry powerhouse. Her production company, Cold Iron Pictures, has steadily built an impressive catalog—recent successes include 2015 Sundance sensation Diary of a Teenage Girl and Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 feature Don’t Think Twice. Bailey has switched from producer to director with You Can Choose Your Family, which stars Jim Gaffigan and will debut at SXSW next month.

Bailey began at the bottom with a crash course in industry culture. Her first acting job came in indie film where she needed to do a sex scene. But, her character also opened the film with some dialogue over a few scenes and appeared to be a plum first gig. On the day of the shoot, Bailey was given no costume, only a robe, and the set wasn’t closed—something she had negotiated before the shoot. Quickly, Bailey, who had never been on a movie set until this day, felt the situation pulled out of her control.

“The producer stormed in and said, ‘You gotta take that underwear off,’ and I said, ‘No way,’” Bailey said. “The producer told me I’m holding everybody up. I felt tremendous pressure. Everyone was looking at me. I was naked and 22-years-old.”

Bailey acquiesced while the producer and director changed the scene on the spot, adding another character who walks in over and over again on the couple simulating sex. After the scene finished they told her she was wrapped. They had cut her screen time with dialogue saying they ran out of money to shoot it. Bailey offered to come back for free—“I would never have done the movie just to be in one sex scene,” Bailey said. But, the scenes never materialized.

This was in the early 2000s, during the explosion of online porn. Hollywood-centric websites specialized in stockpiling every naked actress from every movie. For years, as she tried to make a name for herself as a producer and director, the scene followed her around.

While producing her first indie feature, the director told her she needed to fire one of the assistant editors, a woman. The call was the director’s to make but, as the producer, Bailey needed to tell her she was being let go. At the news, the editor burst into tears and said, “Miranda, you need to know why he’s firing me.” The director had pulled Bailey’s old sex scene off the internet and sneaked it onto a TV screen in the background of a scene in the new movie. Then the director and the crew sat around laughing at their secret joke.

“It was completely humiliating and this assistant editor was the only one who stuck up for me and I still had to fire her,” she said. “This one thing I did on my first movie haunted me for so long.”

At her first shoot, the producer and director cruelly mistreated Bailey. Years later, another director used the scene to degrade her and then forced her to fire the woman who stood up for her. Multiply Bailey’s story by a 10,000, mutate into countless variations, and you’ll start to comprehend the industry culture so many women have to battle through.

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On Oct. 5, the New York Times and New Yorker exposed the rot at the top of the business when they broke the news dozens of women had accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Since then, a flood of reports have revealed a sickening amount of abuse among the Hollywood elite. Actor Kevin Spacey, director Brett Ratner, and comedian Louis C.K. became three of the most prominent names to follow Weinstein’s fall (with at least six allegations each, all had high-profile projects canceled). But credible, heinous accusations felled many more major stars and filmmakers.

Through the firings, lawsuits, and headlines, the focus remains on the biggest names and most dramatic stories. Few have looked beneath the A list at the sea of exploitation at the lower levels of the industry. The people in the indie film scene exist in a world that mirrors the top—rife with sexual harassment.

“If you are in the business, you are going to get it,” said Jennifer Warren, the chairperson and founder of the Alliance of Women Directors, which has sponsored a series of roundtable discussions on harassment in the industry. “The prop guy is harassing the makeup girl, the sound guy is doing something to someone below him. It’s at every level of the business.”

But the problem is bigger, broader, and more subtle than constant, unwanted come ons and cat calls. Below overt harassment is a foundation of subtle manipulation, coercion, double standards, misogyny, and working conditions straight out of Mad Men.

“I was producing a film and the director on the project just came out and said he prefers hiring women because he gets more praise for it and he can pay them less,” indie producer/director/actor Porcelain Dalya said. “This is the culture. It’s everywhere. People suffer through it ‘because it’s art.’ That’s the excuse.”

Maybe Dayla and Bailey’s stories seem tame compared to Harvey Weinstein’s actions. And that’s exactly the point. The most horrific stories get our attention; Hollywood’s ability to normalize coercion and humiliation of every kind doesn’t.

Assault might bring about criminal charges, but plain old immoral behavior is harder to prosecute and many tolerate the behavior for fear they will be labeled “problems” and get blacklisted from other sets. Sources for this story repeatedly acknowledged anonymously there are indie producers and directors they would discourage female peers from collaborating with, but they suffer through because they want to keep working. Even if they didn’t want to report incidents, victims of exploitation often feel they have no recourse—not with the press, police, or production staff.

Part of what keeps exploitation at the bottom of the industry off front pages is the lack of celebrity—Harvey Weinsteins and Selma Hayaks aren’t working on $100,000 features. But also these stories aren’t newsworthy because they are perceived as being part of normal behavior. They are part off “paying for dues” or “suffering for art.”  Where is the news hook in a story about a director bullying an actor into doing a nude scene she didn’t agree to do?

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Industry organizations are trying to combating the helplessness victims experience. Out front has been Time’s Up, who didn’t make a spokesperson available for this story, and its legal defense fund. “I am pretty jaded about what’s happening right now, but I did love seeing the creation of the fund. It’s the best action they can take,” Dayla said. But the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, known collectively SAG-AFTRA and referred to as SAG, seems to be taking steps to address the the problem.

SAG will soon release an official Code of Conduct. The goal is to provide clear conduct guidelines for behavior outside of work—the ubiquitous industry social events such as wrap parties, festivals, and press events where harassment frequently occurs.

“Our goal is to eradicate sexual harassment and discrimination while working to ensure equity,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said. “(The two) go hand-in-hand.”

For decades, SAG has maintained a 24/7 hotline, which handles sexual harassment complaints from its 160,000 members. Since October, the hotline has fielded 40 times more calls than usual regarding sexual harassment.

Often thought of in conjunction with the star-studded Screen Actors Guild Awards, SAG’s reach covers a huge portion of the industry—they contract with about 4,500 independent and student projects a year and have agreements with dozens of university film and production programs. SAG is banking its broad reach can leverage a systemic change in the industry from blockbusters to B movies.

Many believe change can only come with gender parity. The flood of sexual harassment stories helped illuminate the massive power inequality between men and women in Hollywood. In 2017, women made up 18% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers behind the top 250 grossing films. In 2016, women filled 17% of those roles.

Sources for this story see a clear link between the lack of parity in the workplace and the scourge of harassment. The fastest, simplest, most-obvious approach to tackling abuse, harassment, and exploitation is replacing men with young women. In a world where today’s unknown writers and cinematographers become tomorrow’s blockbuster directors, women can’t rise when men overwhelmingly promote other men.

“The only way I see any of this changing is to put multiple women at the top with firing power,” indie producer/director Sophia Cacciola said. “One woman is no good, she has to tow the line with shitty dudes. And give women directors money to make films… It’s simple, give them the same access to money and let them hire who they want.”

There is evidence of progress. Bailey exists in a different world than the one she began in. Her feature directorial debut, You Can Choose Your Family, had an impressive 38% women on the crew — yes, it’s sad but 38% represents progress.

Desiree Akhavan’s film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a woman sent to a gay conversion therapy program, won the 2018 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Last month, Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated for a cinematography Oscar for Mudbound. The FX TV network is breaking up the white male cabal controlling much of television—the company made a concerted effort to change after being labeled the worst in the industry in 2015; a year later 51% of FX and FXX’s directors are women or people of color.

“What FX CEO John Landgraf did made a big impact in a short time, and their ratings went up,” Warren said. “There is finally some momentum. We’ve been pushing this rock up this hill for along time trying to get more women hired. All that time it’s been a non issue. At least now it’s an issue.”

“Getting women hired may be the best, fastest way to combat harassment,” she added.

And combating harassment may be just the first battle in war within an industry built on exploitation, manipulation, and misogyny.