A Year After #MeToo, Have Talent Agencies Actually Changed?

metoo_Clap board_illo_Black background - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Irene Rinaldi

CAA helped incubate Time's Up and WME began a process for vetting clients, but a recent high-profile firing reveals a lingering struggle to address "not really harmless" behavior.

On Sept. 18, Katie McGrath, co-CEO of the production company Bad Robot and wife of J.J. Abrams, placed an urgent call to CAA president Richard Lovett. McGrath, a vocal member of Time's Up, the Hollywood-backed women's legal defense fund launched in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal, had troubling news: At the Governors Ball after the Emmy Awards the night before, top CAA television agent Adam Berkowitz allegedly had groped Bad Robot TV head Ben Stephenson. As some of CAA's top earners, Bad Robot and its principals hold considerable sway. An investigation immediately was launched and six days later, Lovett joined CAA's Bryan Lourd, Joe Cohen and Steven Lafferty in terminating Berkowitz, who repped such high-earning clients as Beau Willimon, Doug Ellin and Kenya Barris. (A rep for Berkowitz declined comment.)

Berkowitz's ouster comes exactly one year after the agency let go Ryan Ly, who headed its TV literary division, for allegedly groping a female staffer in plain view, also at the Emmys Governors Ball. The twin firings raise the question of how much talent agency culture at CAA and its rivals has really changed in the 12 months since articles in The New York Times and The New Yorker first exposed Weinstein as an alleged sexual predator and sparked industrywide momentum for a cultural reckoning.

Indeed, as the industry marks the one-year anniversary of #MeToo, Hollywood agencies — famously home to a male-dominated and, say critics, abusive culture — have become a flashpoint of the movement. One agent who worked under Berkowitz describes a culture of excessive drinking that continues unabated within CAA's TV division (another insider disputes that characterization). "This is something you do when you feel invincible and empowered by the system," this insider says. "The behavior is considered harmless, but it's not really harmless."

Still, top agencies have been among the first to enact meaningful changes to their policies, with CAA, for one, helping to incubate the Time's Up movement. In fact, Berkowitz's quick exit is being cited by some leaders as a sign of this shift. "It was swift. That feels different. And that's significant," says Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood and director of the Athena Film Festival.

At the same time, multiple sources say Berkowitz's behavior at CAA had been a concern in the post-#MeToo climate, with the agent known to be touchy-feely with both men and women and to comment on staffers' clothing — behavior that inched close to crossing a line. Still, he was well liked inside the agency by both male and female colleagues and is said to have mentored several underlings. His dismissal has proven to be polarizing within CAA's TV division, with some saying privately that they had hoped for a suspension instead of termination.

But CAA, like its rivals, has, at least in theory, adopted a zero-tolerance policy for workplace abuse. This year the agency parted ways with agents including Cameron Mitchell and Amit Naor, both dismissed after sexual misconduct claims. Across town, APA agent Tyler Grasham was fired after sexual assault claims emerged via a former client. Others have been cleared after outside investigations, including ICM Partners agents Steve Levine, Matt Sorger and Will Horowitz, who were accused by Fox News contributor Tamara Holder of allegedly discouraging her from filing a sexual assault complaint against the network.

Agencies have found themselves making difficult and unfamiliar decisions: Move fast when an agent or client becomes ensnarled in a public scandal, or wait for the outrage to die down? WME quietly dropped Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner and Arrow creator Andrew Kreisberg after sexual misconduct claims emerged. Dustin Hoffman, however, remains a client after being accused of decades-ago harassment. To help make these decisions, WME has created a committee of some 20 staffers — split evenly along gender lines and from a broad cross section of divisions — to evaluate and determine the fate of clients who are accused of sexual improprieties. Dubbed the "client advisory committee," it was launched in an effort to weed through all the information that WME is receiving about its clients via media reports, social platforms and anonymous tips, and to try to figure out the truth. Other considerations include: Has the client been charged criminally? Is there a civil lawsuit? Are there other clients complaining? The committee then comes to a recommendation and presents it to management.

Still, WME and its parent company Endeavor faced heat when Adam Venit was suspended rather than fired after the agent was accused of grabbing client Terry Crews' genitals in a highly publicized incident. In September, Venit "retired" from WME as the agency settled a civil suit with Crews, leaving behind a roster of clients that includes Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy (Sandler and Murphy are now said to be taking meetings at other agencies, underscoring why WME was loath to part ways with Venit despite the backlash). Top agent Philip Raskind was investigated for allegedly inappropriate behavior but remains in his job at WME following an inquiry conducted by outside attorney Ann Fromholz (McG, Matthew Vaughn and James Mangold continue to be repped by Raskind).

For its part, CAA declines to discuss the process for booting clients like Kevin Spacey and won't comment on Berkowitz. The agency continues to represent a number of filmmakers who have been accused of rape, including Paul Haggis (civil suit pending) and Nate Parker (acquitted after a criminal trial) — a decision that doesn't sit well with some female staffers, say sources. Likewise, UTA has resisted parting ways with such clients as James Franco and Jeremy Piven even as they have faced serious allegations. Black-ish star Anthony Anderson continues to be a UTA client despite having been the subject of an LAPD rape investigation (the district attorney declined to file sexual assault charges after the alleged victim refused to cooperate with investigators). But Danny Masterson, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by five women, was dropped by UTA. A spokesperson for the agency declined to explain why some remain at UTA but others do not.

Timing appears to drive some of the decision-making. Most men dropped by their agencies were named by accusers in the three-month period following Weinstein's fall, almost exactly a year ago. By early 2018, agency decision-makers were taking a more cautious approach about wielding the axe.

Nevertheless, the prevailing mood in Hollywood, both inside the agencies and outside, has many focused on whether past indiscretions could trip them up. "I see a lot of my regular patients being more anxious around the specific issues of 'possible' past inappropriate behavior," says psychologist Larry Shaw, who treats many Hollywood patients. "They are going back over past business relationships that turned into sexual relationships and then ended badly a year or two later. They are wondering if this could end up in some sort of revenge act. Some are on high alert waiting for the next shoe that drops [that] will have their name on it."

In the wake of Weinstein's demise and the accusations that have brought down Leslie Moonves at CBS, John Lasseter at Disney/Pixar and many others, the spotlight has been squarely on Hollywood and its response to what appears to have been a systemic problem of sexual harassment. The major agencies all have launched various initiatives to streamline the reporting of incidents, including anonymous hotlines and so-called "safe" reporting structures. Insiders tell THR that in the short term at least, the new focus on workplace safety is having an impact on culture at the agencies, which, like many workplaces throughout Hollywood, have a long history of tolerating abusive behavior from high-performing employees.

On Sept. 30, California Gov. Jerry Brown forced the agencies' hands even more by signing new legislation that requires talent firms to make educational materials on sexual harassment prevention, retaliation and reporting available to their clients. WME played a key role in getting the legislation passed.

"Knowing that there is a process is encouraging for people who want to come forward," says one agency lawyer. "It's not just that they're going to come to HR or call the hotline and nothing's going to happen. If they've seen a track record of either clients leaving or executives leaving, then they know that someone will take it seriously. That holds people accountable because they know that this stuff doesn't just come to HR to die. There are actually people who are taking this seriously and looking at it."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.