Avi Lerner Says He Never Read His Controversial Statement Defending Bryan Singer

Avi Lerner_Illo - THR - H 2019
Illustration by: Adam Rosenlund

The studio chief who called an exposé accusing the director of raping teens "fake news" is clarifying his comments as Hollywood insiders wonder if stars will boycott the duo’s upcoming 'Red Sonja’ project.

On Jan. 24, Millennium Films CEO Avi Lerner was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when crisis PR guru Howard Bragman sent him a statement to sign off on regarding the controversial move to allow Bryan Singer to keep his job as the director of the studio's Red Sonja.

Bragman has been working for both Singer and Millennium in the wake of explosive allegations published in The Atlantic that Singer had raped teen boys. Lerner, 71, says he OK'd the statement without reading it and now tells The Hollywood Reporter that it "came out the wrong way" when he called the Atlantic story "agenda driven fake news" while citing the $800 million-and-counting box office haul for Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody and adding, "I am very comfortable with this decision."

The backlash was immediate, with many interpreting the box office shout-out as a crass justification for sticking with someone facing serious allegations. The question now looms: Will there be any fallout for Millennium? The company is one of the most prolific studios in town, producing more than 10 films a year, albeit largely shoot-'em-up action thrillers. Either way, Red Sonja is shaping up as a definitive moment in post-#MeToo Hollywood and could set a precedent for those accused of sexual misdeeds but not facing criminal charges, as is the case with Singer.

By Lerner's account, there won't be fallout. Though Millennium has been inundated with angry calls and emails from the public, he says he has received zero negative feedback from the Hollywood community. "Nobody called me, not from one agency," he says. "I got support by the head of a studio to say, 'Well done, Avi. You stand by what you believe, and people should be innocent until they are proven guilty.' Nobody told me that they're not going to work with me."

Perhaps that's not surprising given that Singer's last film, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, has mostly weathered any repercussions from Singer's alleged behavior or even a well-publicized lawsuit filed in 2017 by Cesar Sanchez-Guzman that claimed Singer raped him aboard a yacht in Seattle in 2003 when he was 17 (Singer has denied all claims of sexual assault). Bohemian earned five Oscar noms, including best picture, and star Rami Malek won the best actor SAG Award on Jan. 27, putting him in the favorite position for Oscar honors. Even though Singer, 53, was fired from the film after going AWOL on set, he remains the credited director. Two knowledgeable sources say Singer has not received any backend yet, but his final payday is expected to exceed the $40 million range. However, the studio is exploring its legal options in terms of its financial obligations.

Among the negative ramifications, GLAAD removed the Queen biopic from its nominees and Time's Up released a statement saying those who hire abusers "perpetuate a broken system that rewards powerful people and allows them to act without consequence."

THR reached out to a wide swath of representatives, producers and talent to gauge if Millennium would suffer any consequences for keeping Singer in the Red Sonja fold. No one wanted to be quoted. But even with the veil of anonymity, no one said he or she would stop working with Lerner. A few agents and managers said they would balk at putting a client in Red Sonja. "The fact that he’s making a movie so quickly after the allegations became public feels wrong," says a founder at a top management company. "If a manager [here] came to me and told me they were doing it, I’d have a problem."

Others noted it would depend on the client and the role in the film, while one lawyer with an A-list roster predicted no real issues with Red Sonja moving forward. "Avi will be able to put 'From the director of Bohemian Rhapsody' on his one-sheet. That's all that matters," the lawyer says. However, an Oscar-winning producer who has worked with Singer in the past predicts, "I don't think any domestic distributor will jump on it right now." 

Most agree that casting the film with big enough names to justify the $70 million to $80 million budget and Singer's payday of up to $10 million will prove to be the trickiest task for Lerner. The female-empowered Red Sonja is expected to begin shooting in Bulgaria in the spring.

Lerner, who famously hired Mel Gibson for Expendables 3 when no one else would touch the star, is facing heightened scrutiny. Journalists are pointing to a lawsuit filed in 2017 in which a former female employee claimed she was subjected to a "discriminatory, harassing and misogynistic work environment, hostile to female employees." The suit was settled last fall.

Also picking up momentum is a claim made by actor Terry Crews, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Lerner called his manager and threatened that if the actor didn't drop his civil suit against former WME agent Adam Venit he would be let go from Expendables 4.

"I swear in the name of my children, my parents, I called him and said, ‘Can we make some kind of peace between you and Adam because you're going to work together with Stallone, and [Sylvester] Stallone [is repped] by Adam, and I want everything to be happy," Lerner insists. "He didn't call me back. The next thing I see in the newspaper: ‘Avi Lerner tries to silence me and threatening that I will not put him in Expendables 4. I wanted him to be in Expendables 4." Crews did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.

As for Singer, Lerner insists that he is conducting his own investigation into the claims, which date back decades. "I have got a reason why I doubt that he has done it," he says, though he wouldn't elaborate. A source says Millennium co-president Jonathan Yunger is close friends with Singer outside of work and had vouched for the director’s behavior over the past 10 years.

Though Lerner admits his earlier Singer statement was mishandled, he isn’t backing down either. "I don't want to apologize. I just want to clarify [the statement]," Lerner says, noting that English is his second language. "I think victims should be heard and this allegation should be taken very, very seriously. I just don't agree to judge by the Twitter. I want [the accused] to be judged by the court."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.