Harvey Weinstein shows Hollywood protects its abusers – until their star begins to fade

Rumours about the Hollywood mogul’s behaviour have been around for decades. Why have the allegations surfaced now?

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Abuse of power comes as no surprise. The latest high-profile scandal sees Hollywood producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein accused of sexual misconduct, harassment and rape, with accusations dating back over the course of his 30-year career in the film industry to today. Actresses as famous as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie have come forward to claim he harassed them, while three women told the New Yorker Weinstein raped them. A spokesperson for Weinstein insists he denies “any allegations of non-consensual sex”.

After the string of accusations against figures such as Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, it’s hard to feel shock or even faint surprise at the alleged behaviour, or that Weinstein’s power and connections allowed the claims to remain a secret for decades.

“This has been an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond,” Ronan Farrow writes in the New Yorker, introducing his ten-month investigation into Weinstein, “but previous attempts by many publications, including The New Yorker, to investigate and publish the story over the years fell short of the demands of journalistic evidence. Too few people were willing to speak, much less allow a reporter to use their names, and Weinstein and his associates used nondisclosure agreements, monetary payoffs, and legal threats to suppress these myriad stories.”

Why is it only now that these horrific stories have become public? Undoubtedly, the conversation about sexual violence has improved over the last decade, which, hopefully, has enabled more women to speak up with less of a fear of being automatically, overwhelming disbelieved by the public. The shift is clear in how accusations against other powerful men in the entertainment industry - such as Fox chief executive Roger Ailes - have only recently surfaced after many years.

But while a wider awareness of the dynamics of harassment has clearly played a role, there is almost certainly another, less positive reason these stories have come to light. Weinstein is no longer the industry kingpin he once was.

Once one of the most reliably powerful players in show business, Weinstein’s stock has declined steeply in just a couple of years. As recently as 2014, he was still considered the one man in Hollywood who could secure an Oscar win for any film he wanted. By 2017, that reputation had almost entirely faded away.

The Weinstein Company was founded in 2005 when brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein were on a winning streak. Having founded distribution company Miramax in 1979, grown its reputation for producing critically and commercially successful films until it was bought by Disney in 1993, and released a sequence of major successes (Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love), they were extremely well placed to start their own independent production company.

For years, The Weinstein Company delivered what it promised, finding critical acclaim and box office hits. 2009-2014 were particularly successful years for the company, with Inglourious Basterds, The King’s Speech, The Artist, The Iron Lady, Django Unchained, Silver Lining’s Playbook, The Imitation Game, Philomena and more.

Weinstein once prided himself on his ability to win Oscars for his pictures, and has long been obsessed with finding the winning formula that gets a movie an Academy Award. In 2014, Vulture wrote that Weinstein “pioneered the modern Oscar campaign” through a tried-and-tested combination of “big schmoozy events, whisper campaigns, and old-school cold-calling”, running through the campaigns from 1990-2014 that saw him secure “more than 300 Academy Award nominations to date”. 

And then, in 2015, around the same time the company faced massive layoffs, something changed. The company’s most critically successful films of the period (Lion and Carol) aside, TWC it has struggled to offer Oscar contenders or big box office hits.

It’s not for a lack of trying, as usual: The company has been deliberately making awards-focused films. It hoped Woman in Gold would secure an Oscar for Helen Mirren, Southpaw for Jake Gyllenhaal, Gold for Matthew McConaughey and The Founder for Michael Keaton, all to no avail. “This year, to put it mildly, TWC has not been the big-dog awards presence that Harvey Weinstein — who practically invented the campaign fervor that now defines Oscar season — once prided himself on being,” Variety wrote in December 2016.

Box office returns have diminished over the same time period –Jane Got a Gun, Leap!, Burnt, The Founder, Gold were all labelled flops. “The luster of the Weinstein brand isn’t what it used to be,” the LA Times observed, “as the company has dealt with a tough two years at the box office”.

In recent years Weinstein has also developed a reputation for being attached to long-delayed projects, embarrassments hidden out of sight for as long as possible. As IndieWire noted in 2015, it happened to Grace of Monaco, Suite Francaise, Shanghai and The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet. More recently, the release date of Burnt was repeatedly changed for fear of bad word-of-mouth reviews, as was Jane Got a Gun.

Perhaps the most obvious example of all three of these trends converging is in the disastrous release of Tulip Fever, which will now be Weinstein’s last release with TWC. As Vulture explains, it lingered in pre-production for years, only being filmed in mid-2014. In 2015, when “rumors had been flying over the quality of the film and the health of the Weinstein Company in general,” its release was delayed repeatedly from May 2015 until September 2017, where it was revealed to be less than “the Oscar-contending drama… Weinstein had hoped to engineer”.

In two short years Weinstein appeared to have lost his Midas touch, and with it the power to hand out successful careers. It’s not hard to see how that may have weakened his ability to maintain a veil of silence around his behaviour. Many women have have cited his influence, and a lack of support from other industry professionals, as factors in their reluctance to come forward. “If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,” one former employee told the New Yorker. “It felt like David versus Goliath,” another added, “the guy with all the money and the power flexing his muscle and quashing the allegations and getting rid of them.” Had they felt that other powerful men in Hollywood had their back, perhaps they would have felt able to speak up sooner. But for decades Weinstein was more powerful than pretty much anyone else.

Since the allegations have surfaced, Weinstein’s career seems to be over for good. But rumours about his behaviour have been around for decades, and the struggles of The Weinstein Company have been discussed by industry insiders for just two years. This perhaps speaks to a worrying truth: in Hollywood, no matter how many stories about abusive behaviour circulate, the powerful and successful are safe from public exposure – as long as they remain powerful and successful.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.