How Hollywood aims to change its culture of sexual harassment

Hollywood is scrambling to establish standards to effectively tackle the culture of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault that has been laid bare by the allegations against powerful producer Harvey Weinstein and other influential players.

“I think now there’s a clear “BW” and an “AW” — before Weinstein and after Weinstein,” said Esla Ramo, founding partner of Hollywood law firm, Ramo Law PC.

Ramo, whose law firm represents film and TV financiers, producers and production companies, told MarketWatch that figuring out how to address sexual harassment on set and during production has become a key part of her job since the Weinstein allegations first surfaced.

See: Time magazine names ‘The Silence Breakers’ 2017 person of the year

Also read: These workers are ready to end America’s sexual harassment epidemic

She and her colleagues have been exploring drawing up tailored morality clauses for actors, crew members and producers.

This year alone, Ramo has represented indie darling “Call Me By Your Name,” worked on Netflix Inc.’s NFLX, -0.39%  docuseries “Chef’s Table,” and has racked up 33 IMDb film and TV credits, including for Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.’s LGF.A, +1.08%  Tupac biopic “All Eyez on Me.”

“We’ve already had to remove known executive producers and producers. We were in “The Hollywood Reporter” because Andy Dick got fired from one of our sets for groping women,” Ramo said. “We have morality provisions in our actor and distributor contracts, but now we’re talking about a very customizable situation where it would go so far as an accusation of sexual misconduct alone really giving us contractual rights to modify the contract.

“We’re really being very specific about it.”

Elsa Ramo (right) with colleague Tiffany Boyle at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Ramo, who sits on the committee for UCLA’s Entertainment Law Symposium, said some of her clients have even asked her to explore the possibility of contracts that would give them the legal right to terminate contracts for accusations of sexual misconduct, though that is a fight that would be hard to win, she said.

Hollywood agents are unlikely to support such stipulations being placed on their clients and Ramo is wary of creating an environment of presumed guilt.

“This is a good thing. It’s creating a dialogue, and creating an intolerance of something that people should have been intolerant of from the beginning,” Ramo said. “But you also have to be conscious as a legal advisor to not presume guilt without any analysis or due diligence. You still have a responsibility to ask those questions.”

When a person is accused of sexual harassment or assault, Ramo and other production companies and those representing them, call in lawyers who specialize in investigating such issues.

Ramo recently worked with Scott Tepper, a 45-year veteran of labor law, for an investigation into a situation that led to the firing of one person from one of her productions.

A lot of companies have failed to do the work before hiring that could help prevent sexual harassment, Tepper said, but the industry is in a period of change. Many production companies aren’t aware that they’re required by law to conduct workplace investigations into sexual harassment accusations. Some companies don’t even have human resources divisions, and others who do often fail to investigate.

“We’re the ones dictating the tone of conduct and context and terms between people on a movie set, which is empowering. It’s an opportunity for growth and change in a positive way.”

Elsa Ramo

When he arrives on a set for an investigation, Tepper is responsible for interviewing the parties involved, along with witnesses, friends and the cast and crew.

His task is to uncover the facts and advise production heads on what to do, or as in Ramo’s case, ensure that the right decision was made.

“The necessity to have an investigation isn’t going away,” Tepper said. “The problem is, in the motion picture industry sometimes you have an actor, or someone in the crew, who’s completely at the mercy of those in power.

“There should be contractual provisions with some sort of financial liability to hold perpetrators to account. It’s really about setting up an entity that can enforce the standards that already exist, and I think the guilds should be the places to go.”

Don’t miss: John Oliver confronts Dustin Hoffman over sexual-harassment allegations at public event

With the industry now firmly in the spotlight, Hollywood needs to ensure that there’s a fair process for individuals speaking out and for those who are accused.

At the American Film Market this year, Ramo recalled people saying in conversation that, “women are really going to regret this.”

“As if it’s going to be harder for them to be among men in this industry. I mean that is a place where this can go, and I just don’t want to be a part of that,” Ramo said. “This community is really sort of shell-shocked by what happened with Harvey Weinstein, and the way we govern ourselves.”

For the independent studios that Ramo does most of her business with, there is no association they can turn to for standards on how to operate. Companies still use loose standards established over time by the major studios.

A group of top Hollywood executives, led by Walt Disney Co.-owned DIS, -0.24%  Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, founded a commission on Dec. 15 that is charged with combating sexual harassment in the industry.

Read: The Weinstein Co. struggled financiall even before Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations

The Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace has tapped lawyer Anita Hill as its chair. Hill came to prominence in 1991 for testifying during Justice Clarence Thomas’s Senate confirmation hearings that he had sexual harassed her in the workplace.

“The commission will not seek just one solution, but a comprehensive strategy to address the complex and inter-related causes of the problems of parity and power,” Kennedy said in a statement. “The fact that so many industry leaders — across film, television, music, digital, unions, agencies, ATA AMPAS, television academy and guilds — came together, in one room, to explore solutions speaks to a new era.”

The commission will convene early next year to define its mission, determine its scope and lay out its priorities.

Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently adopted a code of conduct for members.

“There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their power or influence in a manner that violates recognized standards of decency,” said the academy, and anyone who does may be suspended or expelled by the academy’s board of governors.

“The reality is, the advice that we give today is going to be completely different than a year ago. So what does that mean?” Ramo said. “I think it becomes like a common law practice, like how do we deal with each other? How do we make movies? How do we deal with these issues as a community?

“We’re the ones dictating the tone of conduct and context and terms between people on a movie set, which is empowering. It’s an opportunity for growth and change in a positive way.”

Netflix shares have gained 55% in 2017, while Disney has gained 3% and Lions Gate has added 24%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.48%  has gained 25% and the S&P 500 SPX, -0.52%  has gained 20%.

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