When Oprah Winfrey abruptly dropped out of a documentary she was executive producing about Russell Simmons rape accusers Jan. 10, women’s groups found themselves torn between two potent forces: entertainment’s most powerful and inspirational female mogul and defending survivors of sexual assault.
Time’s Up, the influential anti-sexual harassment organization in which Winfrey is a founding donor, seemed to side with the mogul.
With the May 27 premiere of the film, On the Record, on HBO Max, activists, sexual assault survivors and Hollywood stakeholders are raising questions about Time’s Up’s lack of support for the film and about the organization’s structure, mission and opacity.
“Time’s Up has positioned itself as the primary nonprofit voice on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace,” says Stanford Law professor and sexual harassment expert Michele Landis Dauber. “They put the blessing of the organized women’s movement on Winfrey’s behavior, and that was a real betrayal of these survivors.”
Days ahead of a planned Sundance premiere for the film directed by Oscar nominees Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, Winfrey and original distributor Apple TV+ backed away from On the Record, with Winfrey telling The New York Times and CBS This Morning that there were “inconsistencies” in the accounts of accusers — mostly women of color, a demographic that has been largely ignored in #MeToo media coverage — without elaborating. Winfrey did not respond to a request for comment for this piece. Simmons has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex. The women’s stories featured in On the Record were legally vetted by multiple companies including Apple and HBO Max, which will mount a full awards-season campaign for the film. In addition, Drew Dixon, the film’s main accuser, first went on the record about Simmons in a December 2017 Times exposé, a story that has remained on the newspaper’s website for two-plus years without challenge.
On Jan. 21, a publicist representing a group of Simmons accusers emailed Time’s Up COO Rebecca Goldman and communications vp Amanda Harrington, asking the organization to sign a short open letter that stated, “We are unequivocally united in supporting the survivors in the film and all survivors of Russell Simmons.” A number of advocacy groups had already signed the letter, including Equality Now, Women in Film and National Women’s Law Center, which houses the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. But Harrington wrote back six hours later with a no, explaining that “Time’s Up does not sign on to promote films or any other specific projects.”
To many in the industry, Time’s Up’s refusal to support the film and seemingly align with Winfrey, one of the founding donors to its Legal Defense Fund, exposed an inherent conflict of interest — that the group is largely funded by Hollywood power brokers. That perception has dogged the organization since its inception in fall 2017 in the aftermath of New York Times and New Yorker exposés on Harvey Weinstein, when it accepted a $2 million founding contribution from CAA, then still taking heat from its decades-long association with the convicted mogul. Time’s Up also piggybacked one of its early retreats in June 2018 on a CAA Foundation offsite at the Ojai Valley Inn.
Time’s Up’s absence from the On the Record letter of support, which included signatures from Gloria Steinem, Alyssa Milano and Thandie Newton, was not lost on women at the forefront of the gender equality movement.
“How could they not get on board with it?” says one high-profile signee who has been very active with Time’s Up and has no involvement with the film. “This is literally the reason they exist.”
Added Weinstein accuser Rosanna Arquette during a February interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “There are many important voices in Time’s Up that don’t support this film. I have the utmost respect for Oprah. But I don’t understand what happened there. It’s very painful as a survivor.”
Through a spokesperson, Time’s Up maintains that its legal, media-training and security support for Simmons accusers has been ongoing: “Time’s Up support for the survivors depicted in the film, and those who were not, has been unwavering, and it is both inappropriate and inaccurate to suggest that Time’s Up policy not to do publicity for creative projects suggests that we have not supported the survivors.”
Two and a half years after Time’s Up’s launch, the organization is at a crossroads. As it grows and leverages its strong brand in the gender equity space, the group faces an existential question of whether to be guided by the interests of the Hollywood community that founded it or the needs of less powerful women. THR spoke to more than two dozen survivors, executives and Time’s Up donors, nearly all of whom are women, and found a sentiment ranging from cautious support to growing skepticism to downright hostility.
Some of that skepticism stems from what several in the industry characterize as the high cost of doing business with consultants referred to them by Time’s Up. Multiple high-level publicists and producers say it was understood that if you wanted to remain in the good graces of Time’s Up, you had to do business with Wade Davis, a football star turned inclusion consultant whose high-paid advisory gigs have included Viacom, Netflix and Vice Media.
That scenario played out with David Ellison’s Skydance Entertainment back in fall 2018, when the studio first began taking meetings with John Lasseter, who was accused of sexual harassment and resigned from Disney, apologizing for “missteps.” Lisa Borders, Time’s Up’s former president and CEO, who resigned in February 2019 after her son was accused of sexual assault, connected Skydance with Davis. Though Davis called himself a “Time’s Up ambassador,” including on his Twitter bio, Time’s Up says no such official position exists. Davis removed the title from his bio after he was contacted for this story.
A source with knowledge of the deal says Davis submitted a contract to Skydance for his services, charging nearly $900,000 and first-class travel accommodations from New York. Davis began consulting with the company, work that another source says amounted to “some amateurish PowerPoint presentations.” Davis, who denies he ever made any presentations in PowerPoint, says he was only paid $10,000 after he chose not to complete the assignment for reasons that are unclear.
THR has reviewed a Davis contract with a studio that explicitly promised to deliver a partnership with Time’s Up Now and regular meetings with its leadership.
Davis says there was no commercial relationship between him and Time’s Up and these are examples of proposed contracts for work that did not proceed. “A partnership was never promised,” said Davis. “Had the work gone forward, we were going to work ‘in’ partnership with Times Up to ensure transformational change occurred inside the organization, but I decided not to pursue the assignment and that work never occurred.” A spokesperson for Time’s Up praises Davis as “a respected and outspoken advocate” and says that “Time’s Up has no specific knowledge, involvement, financial interest, or role in the services he offers any company.” A spokesperson for Skydance declined to comment.
Sources say Time’s Up also recommended Davis to others, even after joining Netflix as its vp inclusion. He was a paid member of Vice’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board alongside Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen and Legal Defense Fund co-founder Roberta Kaplan. (Davis and Tchen finished their board terms, while Kaplan remains on the board.) Time’s Up declined to say if it still refers Davis.
Several #MeToo survivors who have engaged Time’s Up assistance tell THR they were left with the feeling that the original mandate has been obscured.
“The problem is any time you are an organization or a company or an institution that takes money from powerful donors who may be problematic, you at the bare minimum have a conflict of interest when you also purport to be an organization that helps survivors,” says Weinstein accuser Sarah Ann Masse, who supports some of the work Time’s Up has done on behalf of survivors but was disappointed that the group declined to provide legal funding to Joe Biden accuser Tara Reade. “You can’t do both and actually help the communities that you’re claiming to help.”
Winfrey, a survivor herself, has been an influential figure in Time’s Up since the beginning. She made a $100,000 founding donation to Time’s Up’s Legal Defense Fund in 2017 and played a pivotal role in raising awareness of the organization. In the two hours after her 2018 Golden Globes speech referencing the group, Time’s Up received 200 phone calls offering donations, co-creator of the fund Fatima Goss Graves told CBS News. But the relationship between Winfrey and Time’s Up has helped fuel survivors’ and activists’ questions about the group’s behavior regarding On the Record.
In summer 2019, after Winfrey became involved with the documentary, Washington-based publicist Ann Walker Marchant began representing Dixon. Marchant, the cousin of former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and a close friend of Tchen, agreed to help Dixon and several other women in the film navigate the looming PR demands. That December, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund came in to pay for her services, Marchant says.
Multiple sources, including on-camera participants in the film, say Time’s Up began to gradually pressure them to disavow On the Record, making vague and unsubstantiated assertions the filmmakers had behaved unethically.? On Jan. 9, Marchant and Jarrett, the latter a member of the governing board of directors of Time’s Up, met several Simmons accusers for drinks at New York’s Core Club. It was the night before a trio of the accusers would tape a segment for CBS This Morning. At the meeting, Jarrett indicated she had seen the film and was supportive of the women. The next day, hours after taping the segment, the women were blindsided by Winfrey’s exit. According to a source familiar with the conversation, Tchen then told Dixon that the filmmakers were problematic and Time’s Up support hinged on distancing themselves from the pair.
A Time’s Up spokesperson says, “Time’s Up’s leadership who was on this call respectfully remembers this differently — the purpose of the call was to reiterate our steadfast support for the survivors, irrespective of what would happen with the film.”
One women’s rights activist recalls that, around the same time Winfrey pulled her support, “[Time’s Up’s Harrington] began to say that the survivors aren’t behind the filmmakers.”
While vacationing in Cabo with Tchen and Jarrett, Marchant steered the film’s accusers away from making statements that embraced the film or criticized Winfrey’s exit, sources say. (Marchant denies that characterization.) The accusers, including Dixon, cut ties with Marchant on Jan. 17, and some began distancing themselves from Time’s Up (though Time’s Up acknowledges that Walker was paid to represent a number of the Simmons survivors, a source involved with the film’s publicity says only Dixon had ever agreed to her services and the other accusers were unaware that Marchant was being paid to represent them).
Most of the accusers attended Sundance, where they were vocally supportive of the film’s Jan. 25 premiere. The ones who didn’t make the trek to Park City had all seen the final cut and were excited to finally have their stories come to light, according to a producer of the film.
A Sundance source says that Time’s Up attempted to secure festival space to hold its own press event at the same time as the On the Record panel. (Time’s Up denies its event, held at Latinx House, was ever intended to conflict with the panel.) On the ground in Sundance, the film drew a raucous response and rave reviews (including from THR), but according to buyers and sellers, a whisper campaign had begun to scuttle efforts to find a distributor. One A-list actress and Time’s Up backer, in town meeting with distributors, continued to malign On the Record to top buyers, citing vague problems. None of the major buyers bit. Netflix passed, and a source involved with the On the Record sales effort says it appeared that the streamer’s buyers never even opened the screener link. (A Netflix source says a company employee attended a screening.) Nine days after its premiere, HBO Max bought the film.
“I’ve gone from being skeptical of Time’s Up exploiting survivors to raise money for pay equity of celebrity actresses to thinking they are nefarious,” says one of the film’s subjects. “Time’s Up was trying to engineer an outcome where we would disavow the film.”
During a Feb. 29 Silence Breakers panel in New York, Dixon pointed to what she considers Time’s Up’s conflicts of interest. “I think it’s difficult to incubate a social justice organization when you are adjacent to powerful entertainment executives.”
Members of other similarly minded NGOs have noted to THR that Time’s Up maintains a confusing and opaque structure.
Time’s Up consists of multiple arms, including the Legal Defense Fund housed by the well-respected National Women’s Law Center. According to paperwork filed with the IRS, the fund lists $14.2 million in net assets and $7.5 million in expenses as of June 2019. According to its annual report, it has backed more than 200 cases, nearly half of them representing plaintiffs of color. Murkier are the Time’s Up Foundation, which is the main 501(c)(3) public charity and which lists $361,651 as its total revenue for 2018, and Time’s Up Now, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, for which donations are not tax deductible, enabling the group to engage in political lobbying. The latter lists $3.8 million in gross receipts, $1.4 million of which goes to employee salaries.
The 2018 tax forms these two organizations filed with the IRS only list two voting members, Bad Robot co-CEO Katie McGrath and Shonda Rhimes. According to Time’s Up, the organization has since added more than 20 people to its board. Additionally, $2.9 million of Time’s Up gross receipts in 2018 came from three undisclosed donors. “What this tells us is that, at least for 2018, this organization appears to have largely been funded by a small group of people,” says Laurie Styron, executive director of the American Institute of Philanthropy.
The Legal Defense Fund’s most recent annual report for 2019 is long on style, complete with slick photo shoots, but short on numbers, and neither of the other two arms of the organization creates annual reports. By contrast, the ACLU’s annual report provides a financial summary with a line-item breakdown.
“[Time’s Up] is providing a way for corporate entities to look good without actually participating,” says Dauber, who draws a distinction between the work of the Legal Defense Fund and the the National Women’s Law Center, which she says she supports, and the other arms of the organization. Referring to the Time’s Up Foundation website, Dauber says, “It’s just a pile of platitudes. It’s similar to what you see in a whole host of areas where you’re supposed to see legal and regulatory compliance. Environmental polluters have fantastic handbooks.”
The existence of a sister 501(c)(4) is not unusual for a nonprofit, and there is a fine-print disclosure underneath a website “donate” button, but the distinctions may be lost on some Time’s Up donors who are prompted to give to the 501(c)(4) in frequent fundraising mailings tied to trending news stories (those contributions are not tax deductible).
A source shared internal proposed budget information with THR about the Anita Hill-led Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, a Time’s Up offshoot (a source involved with the commission at its inception says it was initially part of Time’s Up and then pulled out “as a separate but parallel entity” because “it would be most efficient with a singular focus for fundraising and for plan execution”). The commission’s first-year numbers were eye-opening. Total expenditures topped $5.2 million, including $700,000 a year for Hill’s part-time services as well as $1.65 million total for the top four executives, including $450,000 for the CEO and $400,000 for the COO. By contrast, Equality Now’s top full-time executive earns $184,942 a year, according to the organization’s filings. In September of 2019, more than a year after its official launch, the Hollywood Commission began its first notable project: a survey of entertainment workers devoted to harassment and bias; no survey has been published.
In the weeks leading up to the May 27 HBO Max premiere of On the Record, Time’s Up scheduled a Zoom meeting in mid-April to strategize about any bad PR that might be heading its way, according to a source with knowledge of the call. (A Time’s Up spokesperson says no such call occurred.) After all, the group — so adept at navigating the news cycle — might be vulnerable to renewed discussion about why the film and the accusers faced a daunting journey to the screen.
As one of the accusers says, “You can’t support us without supporting the film.”
That point is echoed by Stanford’s Dauber: “The right thing to do would be to return Winfrey’s donation and stand with survivors.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.