“It’s about time.” That was Mara Brock Akil’s initial reaction as devastating tales of sexual harassment and assault blanketed the media in the weeks after allegations against Harvey Weinstein first surfaced. But then Akil registered a series of more nuanced reflections on power, gender, race and value — ideas that became the meat of a raw and long-overdue conversation among five high-ranking Hollywood women: Sue Naegle, who held top roles at United Talent Agency and HBO before segueing into a producer/executive role at Annapurna Pictures; Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff; CBS Films chief Terry Press; producer Stephanie Allain (2014’s Beyond the Lights); and Akil, a producer who counts The Game and Girlfriends among her credits. Gathered in Hollywood on a Saturday in late October, the women ping-ponged between passion and frustration as they discussed everything from the industry’s obsession with “fuckability” to why so many women on TV are corpses. “I’m really excited that we’re having this conversation,” says Vernoff. “Let’s do the next one with men at the table.”
In the aftermath of these stories breaking — about Harvey Weinstein, about Roy Price — I wanted to check in with everybody about how you’re feeling.
MARA BROCK AKIL Two thoughts: One was, “You know what? I’ll read those articles later. I already know the truth. Been there, done that. Seen it, heard it.” And not just in this industry. In [my] personal life — it’s everywhere. So, I decided, in a selfish way, that I’m not going to get distracted by that. Oftentimes women, not only do we have to suffer the trauma, we have to deal with the trauma, unpack the trauma, therapize the trauma, work through the trauma. Now I’m supposed to be distracted by it? When we are in that distraction place, I can’t get to the work. And I need to work because I’m still competing with those whom the industry has set up for success. The second thing that came up for me really quickly was, I was thankful because my path in this industry, although challenged with other issues — being devalued as being black, the content that I make having no value — the sexual harassment part I didn’t have.
SUE NAEGLE I was grateful for that diligent reporting that we’ve heard so many times has been rumored or in the works and has somehow been shut down, and the story never comes out. And I was grateful for the women who came forward and told their stories with the detail that they told their stories. When I see the cover of Time magazine with Harvey Weinstein’s face on it and the word “predator” underneath, that is a huge culture change.
TERRY PRESS All I thought was, “He’ll be happy he’s on the cover of Time magazine.” (Laughter.) I was actually sad they put him on, because I know him, and he won’t care that it said “predator” and “pariah.” When you are a narcissist, you cannot differentiate from bad publicity.
STEPHANIE ALLAIN Like Trump.
KRISTA VERNOFF I wish they had put the women on the cover.
Have you looked back on your own experiences through a different lens?
NAEGLE I don’t know if you guys feel this way, but there is this idea of feeling complicit, not knowing things specifically — I never saw a terrible injustice or assault, but somehow I was feeling this feeling of, “How did we all allow this to happen for so long?” and a feeling of powerlessness. Everyone at this table has fought for women and protected women in our business, and yet to hear all of those women and those terrible stories, it’s tough.
VERNOFF I have been really grateful and really excited that we’re having this conversation. And like many women that I know in this town and not in this town, triggered — I have been retriggered. You have these experiences and you tuck them away in a small, quiet place because you have a bigger goal. You want to work your way up in a system that is not really friendly to those who go, “That is not OK,” when they are young and powerless. There are things that I’ve survived and that every woman I know has survived, and we’ve all been talking about them. It’s like pulling dirty dust balls out of the closet corners where they have settled, and suddenly you’re sneezing again.
ALLAIN It reminds me of being a person of color and the microaggressions that you just tuck away: “I know that’s not true, but I’m going to move forward.” I’m grateful to all of the journalists and all the inspiration that journalists have provided to us and the young people out there to get the stories out and especially to the women who came forward first.
PRESS I was grateful that I have never worked in an environment where this was an issue. I can’t say it didn’t go on in the company or there weren’t incidents of this, but as a philosophy I have genuinely worked for men who value women. That is worth something. I thought it was incredibly ironic that the media brought Harvey Weinstein down because I have sat for years and watched them blow him. And to know the irony that The New York Times and the The New Yorker and all of these places that he had tried for so many years to charm and corrupt [were the ones that ultimately broke the story] was incredibly satisfying. And then lastly … I felt so awful for his children. Because my children can Google me, and they think it’s hilarious and you sort of think, “Oh, my God, please don’t let that thing from 19-whatever be up there.” But he has four daughters who will spend their lives googling their father. It will not be because [Miramax’s] The English Patient won best picture. This is the legacy that he’s going to leave for his daughters, and my heart broke for them.
AKIL Let’s [talk about] the Oscars and that whole institution of film festivals. Think about it: Powerful, rich men get to go to the most glamorous spots around the world to have beautiful ingenues, bejeweled and adorned in the finest of wares. They stay in these palace hotels and everyone fawns. “I’m making deals in the day and raping women at night and then I go get this award.” And we keep giving it to pedophiles and other rapists.
Sue, you spent years at a major agency, and a lot of questions are being asked about reps’ role in this. How much do agents enable? How much do agents look the other way?
NAEGLE I started at [UTA] when it was only a year old, and I was an agent relatively quickly, so I was lucky enough to be part of the management of that company. I didn’t experience [sexual harassment], but I along with my colleagues, a lot of them male, really did work hard on the culture. We hired a lot of female assistants, I promoted a lot of female agents, I hired in the mailroom, I ran the training program for a long time and hired people of color, women, as often as I could. There was some bad behavior along the way, but it was routinely and quickly punished.
I remember being in the mailroom, it was all men, a lot of them had gone to Ivy League schools, a lot of them had advanced degrees, they had MBAs, they were JDs. I remember calling my mother and saying, “I am going to get booted from this place.” And she was like, “You’re going to work harder than anyone else. Remember, the cream rises to the top, and thankfully there isn’t much cream.”
VERNOFF I’d like to add that when you said that we’re maybe regretting things or looked the other way — while I have been retriggered, I am not regretting anything that I did in my career to reach the point where I can have a voice and a status. I want to change the culture. And I believe that we in Hollywood have more potential to change the culture as a whole than really any other industry because of how much representation matters.
We here at this table have fought and clawed and worked harder than anyone else and stayed later at night and put up with a bunch of bullshit to get a seat at the table. And now we have a seat at the table. And I get to put overtly feminist messages on a major network television program every week unapologetically because I survived what I survived, I thrived where I thrived, I did what I did, and there were people who helped me and people who made it harder. And it was all a part of my story. My hope is that the next generation doesn’t have stories like mine.
ALLAIN And then you have to quadruple that if you’re a person of color.
Krista, you were working at ABC when Steve McPherson ran the network, yes?
NAEGLE Who originally programmed Grey’s Anatomy, right?
NAEGLE And put it on midseason because everyone in town thought it would never work.
VERNOFF He hated it. And he said to [then-ABC executive] Suzanne Patmore Gibbs at the time, “This show is going to be the chapter in my book titled ‘Why I Should Trust Myself or Why I Should Trust the People I Hire.’ ” Because she forced that program on the air. And then it was a great big hit, and he got all the credit.
AKIL What’s interesting is that [not being valued] has been one of the secret weapons of my success. I remember when Grey’s Anatomy was coming out, and I ran into some of the writers and I said, “How’s it going?” [And they said,] “We don’t know if we’re going to be on the air. They are just leaving us alone because they don’t care.” I remember that same feeling on Girlfriends. I was new, and it hurts when nobody values you or what you’re doing.
NAEGLE Before that show came out, I remember male network presidents routinely saying, “We don’t program shows with female leads — no one watches them.”
McPherson was later outed, by my reporting, as a sexual harasser. When you were there, did you know? Did you feel like you couldn’t do anything about it?
VERNOFF Yes, I knew. Yes, I felt powerless to change it. I remember casting a pilot at ABC, when Steve McPherson was the president, and [having] open conversations about “fuckability.” And you’re sitting in a room and you’ve got a person who’s in a very dark place. You’ve got 30 professional people sitting in that room, and the weight of that darkness blanketing that room is so heavy that everybody can feel it and nobody could breathe. But nobody says, “This is not OK.” Nobody says, “Hey, let’s take a break. This is abusive. This is awful. This is toxic. This is dark. Let’s shake it out. Let’s confront what’s raw.” Everybody just has their shoulders up. My hope is that this Harvey thing, this turning of the tide, allows us all to go, “This feels really toxic to me. I don’t want to talk about her fuckability. This feels awful.”
PRESS I’ve had it the opposite, where I’ve talked about men in terms of fuckability. There are a lot of movie stars where you say, “Does this person have the fuckability factor?” And I’ve always used it in terms of men — sorry.
VERNOFF It’s not the use of the word. It’s the power dynamics in the room. When it’s not a physical assault, when it’s a cultural dynamic and the person using the word “fuckability” has all the power in the room. … We don’t want to get into a thing where people can’t say fuckable, and we don’t want to get into a thing where we can’t be kind and flirtatious and playful and friendly with each other. Sexual harassment has to do with abuse of power.
PRESS These days it also has to do with the workplace environment.
AKIL It is a system set up to protect the powerful, and it’s crumbling. How can we take bigger chunks of stone out of the wall to let that fall?
Do you believe change is going to be real?
AKIL Whether you say “fuckability” or not, there is a new dynamic of thought and storytelling and images that allow for humanity beyond, “Are you fuckable or not?” And just getting other values out there about storytelling, that’s why it matters what gatekeepers are around. I think the fix is hiring more conscious people, people who want to come in and get the work done at the level we all do.
ALLAIN That’s why I’m proud to be a part of ReFrame. It was founded a couple of years ago, and we brought together 50 men and women in the industry to brainstorm because we all know what we want, but how do we get there? Over days and days and weeks and months, we came up with a three-pronged approach which is: change the culture, make sure the pipeline of women and people of color is there and make the business case — which you guys are doing by showing that programs and movies featuring women and people of color make money. We’re trying to engage the entire industry. Eventually, we’ll have ambassadors sit down with all of the heads of the studios and agencies and talk about unconscious bias.
AKIL I think TV showrunners have one of the most powerful moments right now, just by their hiring practice in the room.
What about the movie business, Terry?
PRESS It comes down to money. It always comes down to money. Culture takes a long time to change, and it changes in spurts and then it goes back. There are things happening in the culture where you’re like, “OK, I thought we were past this. But I guess we’re not.” The one thing that everyone in the film business understands is money and success.
AKIL Can I challenge that? Because what’s interesting is there’s been a trend in movies where white actors are being cast for what are traditionally roles for people of color …
ALLAIN It’s always been.
AKIL It’s always been, but recently they’re spending $60 million, $100 million, and the audience says, “We’re not showing up.” So fail, fail, fail. But yet it’s still hard to get budgets for movies like Girls Trip [with black leads]. Where’s the next Girls Trip? There should be 50 Girls Trips after Girls Trip [which grossed $136 million at the box office] but there are not. Yet there will be another movie in the $100 million range that will star white people. When you say money will change it …
PRESS No, she asked me for the film business, what the bottom line is. The bottom line is success, meaning Patty Jenkins is going to work. Patty Jenkins can do whatever she wants.
AKIL Of course, she’s going to work, but …
ALLAIN That’s one.
AKIL That’s what I’m saying.
Kathy Kennedy recently gave a speech where she talked about wanting zero tolerance. Is zero tolerance the way to go? Because we are dealing with a world where guys will see women at work — and vice versa — and want to date them and maybe give it a shot. Does that mean you can’t say, “Yes, I’d like to date you?”
PRESS That’s a consensual relationship. That is not an abuse of power.
AKIL You’re right, if a woman says yes.
PRESS A lot of women go out with people at work. A lot of people marry their bosses.
NAEGLE You work 16 hours a day, who else are you supposed to go out with?
ALLAIN We spend so much time at work, and people become attracted to each other at work. You can’t just throw it all out. But the power dynamics need to be looked at better.
PRESS There is going to be a lot of, “Where is the line?” There are a lot of douchebags. But a douchebag is different than a sociopath with a clear pattern of behavior that is against the law — where there are people who are calling saying they were raped.
NAEGLE I have a lot of male friends, too, who are reacting very nervously about how they act, and I’ve worked with these men forever, they’re extraordinary, they’re wonderful, they’re husbands, they are fathers. I feel like it would be a step backward if everyone believes that all of a sudden all of these workplaces or all of these companies are going to be policed. It’s just respectful behavior.
AKIL It’s the pause that it will take. The pause that someone will say, “Hey, is my thinking a little bit out of line, or is it this unconscious bias that I might have?” Reprogramming what we have allowed. Even language. It’s very commonplace in a writers room for someone to say, “Let’s gangbang this bitch.” What they mean is, “Let’s all work together to write a script.”
You all just gasped.
VERNOFF I changed that language at Grey’s Anatomy the first year I was there. “It’s now called a group write.” Because I’m tired of hearing gangbang.
NAEGLE It started out as “gang written” and someone turned it into gangbang.
AKIL And you [became] inoculated to it because it was just a common thing. You knew the intention of it — but when you realize you’re just digesting that language … My point is (to Naegle) when you said that men are squeamish, I’m a little bit OK with that right now, meaning it’s OK for them to do a little bit of checking in with themselves. Check in with yourself, talk to your daughters.
ALLAIN Be an ally.
VERNOFF Talk to your sons.
AKIL Step up. Talk to your sons. It’s funny, our sons, they love the music, and I talk about rap music. I said, “I could love the beat and I actually get the general message, but as innovative as rap music is, and it is really expansive and really growing, their creativity just stops when it comes to describing a woman. We’re still a bitch, a ho …” I make my kids spell the word misogyny. We have to unlearn the behavior that we have dealt with to survive, and that’s great. I used to explore it in my work that I thought women were liars, but we were liars for our own survival. Now we are at a tipping point where the lies no longer serve us.
VERNOFF Human nature and gender dynamics and human sexuality are so fluid and complicated, it’s very hard to go, “These are the rules!” Which is why we need a more circular approach to the culture of misogyny. Start casting more women as things other than corpses on your TV shows. Start asking if women can be talking in your TV shows and can the camera stop lingering so lovingly on her bleeding corpse?
NAEGLE Why are there so many shows about dead women?
VERNOFF Why are we so often depicted as corpses? Why are there so many shows about serial killers? Why are there so many shows about rapists? Why don’t we start to tell human stories where people get to be whole people? Men and women who get to be whole people. And begin to change the overall conversation, because the misogyny is everywhere. We live and thrive in a city where women are openly paid radically less than their male counterparts. Until we change that, until we say, “Women are not literally worth less than their male counterparts,” until we change our stories and the way we’re building our writers rooms, our directorial staffs, we have a much bigger problem here than, “Can that boss ask that woman out?”
What about the guilds? In a lot of these jobs, there’s no HR to help you.
VERNOFF I’ve been on TV shows where the male stars are problematic and where people go to HR, women, assistants, PAs, actresses. And HR, their whole job is to quiet it down because of that machine where that male star is making so much money for that company — people are afraid to go to HR because HR is going to report it to somebody else and somehow the person who is making the claim is going to get fired before the male star.
PRESS The systems are failing people because they are so afraid. Meaning, if I tell somebody this, six bad things will happen to me. When [Weinstein’s accusers] started talking about rape, I said, “Oh, my God. This is a criminal offense. This is punishable by time in prison.” And yet these women did not feel that they could go say, “This person raped me.”
ALLAIN And even if they do …
PRESS They all thought no one would believe them.
ALLAIN What about the woman who went back and then they still did nothing?
PRESS Right. Where’s the net? Where’s the, “If I’m going to jump out the window, I’m not going to hit the ground?” Going forward, that is imperative. The systems have to be looked at and either ripped down or reinforced so that the fear is not pervasive. The idea that these women lived for years like this is really staggering to me.
Many have suggested that Harvey was brought down because he was no longer at the top of his game. Going forward, are you optimistic or pessimistic?
ALLAIN I’m a producer; I’m always optimistic.
PRESS Optimistic [about] what?
That we’re at a turning point.
PRESS (Pauses.) Yes. I actually believe that we are here.
VERNOFF I’m optimistic.
NAEGLE I’m very optimistic.
NAEGLE If Hollywood can be additionally helpful in anything, it’s when these high-profile women and women whose names and faces may not be as well known to us have the bravery to come forward, the hope is optimistically that others will feel the same way and will feel the wind at their back a little bit more.
VERNOFF Our most powerful women stood up and said, “Not here, not anymore, enough of this,” and that monster came tumbling down, and I am so optimistic that this is the beginning of really turning over that ornate, beautiful carpet and cleaning out that mold that’s making us all sick.
AKIL It really is a call to arms to men because they’re going to be the best people to talk to, to talk the language, to understand the code, to understand what’s going to get other men to do the right thing — and that’s hiring based upon talent and fairness and creating work environments where people can actually do their best. That is what’s needed.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.