The New #MeToo Economy: Hollywood Lawyers, Crisis PR Pros Seeing "Unprecedented" Uptick in Business
Permanent change? Maybe, but the movement already has led to a steep rise in clients for image managers, therapists and even fraudsters: "You're going to see charlatans making money from this."
The #MeToo movement has very publicly iced the careers of accused sexual offenders like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer, but the movement has been a job
The new ecosystem of sexual harassment consciousness also includes quirkier cottage industries such as life coaches shepherding the suddenly fired, designers crafting awareness accessories like the Time's Up pin and new "chief people officers" (aka human resources) brought in by companies to redefine the boundaries of workplace behavior.
"You're also going to see an industry of charlatans and bottom-feeders making money from this," says a PR exec with major entertainment clients. But given the exponential spike in calls to established professionals in crisis management, law and mental health, there is plenty of business to go around.
It's no surprise that litigators who handle harassment claims have seen an uptick, but for some the size has been remarkable. "I'd say it's easily a 300 percent [increase]," says Marina Fraigun, a plaintiffs' lawyer specializing in harassment. "While events like the Bill Cosby case often cause a temporary blip, this is unprecedented in volume and duration."
Genie Harrison, an L.A.-based employment lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment and abuse cases, concurs: "Day after day after day, I've been receiving telephone calls." Many of these stories date back nearly three decades. "As women started banding together and coming forward, it gives power to the rest of us [to do so]," she adds.
Hollywood heavy hitters Mark Geragos, Marty Singer and Shawn Holley also told THR in the fall that their phones began ringing off the hook when the Weinstein scandal broke.
Of course, not all new business calls are legitimate, which requires additional scrutiny. "There has been an increase in what I call 'bad' sexual harassment claims — complaints about conduct that was not unwelcome, where the person is just trying to get on the sexual harassment bandwagon," says Fraigun. "In some cases, the 'victims' clearly communicated that the conduct was welcome."
A Hollywood lawyer who asked to remain anonymous noted that often the accused are being fired before their employer does a full investigation. He also notes that there are many cases that have not yet become public, and purported victims are proposing backdoor deals in exchange for silence. "I am aware of many lawyers, including myself, who have received secret demand letters with disguised threats to make an allegation public unless there is a quick settlement," he says. "Whether these are legitimate claims or extortion is case by case, but certainly the media attention has created a fear in people that even illegitimate claims could lead to unwarranted consequences."
Although several Hollywood men have disputed allegations, there have been few lawsuits over such claims — with the exception of those filed by producer Brett Ratner and Crash director Paul Haggis — but attorneys expect that to change. "People who are falsely accused may start standing up for themselves, which could make the pendulum shift," says litigator Christine Lepera, who reps Haggis.
Some lawyers not experiencing an uptick are looking to pivot. L.A.-based Geoffrey Lyon, whose firm primarily handles disability and medical leave issues, recently advertised with THR for the first time to get word out to Hollywood that he also handles harassment. "I thought the recent publicity might cause more people who had claims to speak up," he says.
Publicists who specialize in crisis PR, including Michael Sitrick, Matthew Hiltzik and Howard Bragman, have scarcely found a moment's rest. "Sadly, the phone has been ringing quite a bit with those seeking reputation help and crisis communications," says a consultant working with one of the accused A-listers, adding that the firm has declined most requests to represent more people. "The workload can be relentless, involving waves of stories sometimes breaking at 4 in the morning."
It isn't just the accused who have suddenly found themselves needing a professional fixer, either, as bystanders including Matt Damon and Lena Dunham have suffered backlash after weighing in on the headlines. "Even people who are not directly involved are engaged, so it's definitely been a greater concern," the consultant continues. "There are [clients] who thought, 'I don't need this,' but all of a sudden they realize, 'Maybe I do.' That's where the pie grows a little bigger as well."
One corporate communications consultancy has decided not to take on any new clients who have been accused of sexual misconduct. "I could've paid off part of my mortgage," says one of its principals, explaining it was a matter of personal ethics. Nonetheless, says the exec, 100 percent of their business has been impacted by #MeToo. "Everyone's going to be asked about it on the red carpet. And we have to coach clients to be more sensitive: 'No one's really interested in your news about a development deal because reporters are consumed with this.' You'd have to be tone-deaf not to advise your clients accordingly." And existing clients are nervously revisiting past behavior, "so there's a lot more high-level consigliere type of business."
Ultimately for publicists, profiting from the current opportunity (as much as $800 an hour or a $30,000 project rate) will hinge on parlaying new business into sustainable relationships beyond the initial emergency. "The lawyers see the biggest burst of business," says the strategic consultant. "The [publicists] who have a greater range [of services] are going to benefit more on a long-term basis."
Industry labor lawyer Ivy Kagan Bierman, who reps a slate of reality TV series and several entertainment companies, says she has been fielding calls from clients who want to make sure their sexual harassment training is not only legally compliant but also practically effective — estimating she's seeing a 25 percent increase in such requests. Pasadena lawyer Ann Fromholz says she also has seen "a definite increase in the one-on-one training that a company might require an individual to take after an investigation finds they engaged in less-than-ideal activity, as well as requests to conduct workplace investigations."
Notes Kagan Bierman, "One of the challenges for our industry is we try to foster very collegial, comfortable work environments where people can dress more casually, be creative and be familial. Clients are struggling with how to minimize people feeling uncomfortable without creating sterile work environments. They are seriously considering whether to continue having wrap parties, holiday parties and other social outings." While some have limited the alcohol served, so far no one has pulled the plug on an event entirely, and she wouldn't advise it. "These events are a way to celebrate our achievements," she says.
THERAPISTS AND HOTLINES
"For therapists, there's a lot of cleanup to do," says psychotherapist Ilana Bar-Din Giannini, who wrote about her own sexual harassment by a mentor in AFI's directing fellowship in a THR guest column in November. A significant portion of calls that mental health practitioners now are fielding involve past trauma.
Since the first accusations against Weinstein were made public, Arnold Gilberg, clinical chief of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai, has seen a 40 percent increase in referrals from patients experiencing anxiety over being accused or over the threat of exposure. "They want to come in now because they're in trouble and are hoping I find some way to mitigate the circumstances," he says. "These are not people motivated to [change]. These are men who [had] an entitlement to their behavior through their power and their narcissism. Now that they've been exposed, they have a new dilemma."
Notes the program manager for Women in Film's sexual harassment help line, the entertainment industry's first known "neutral-party" resource for fielding such reports: "If you're a survivor, hearing constantly about harassment and assault can be re-traumatizing." Since going live Dec. 1, the line has received 25 to 30 calls a week, about a third regarding incidents in the distant past. Peace Over Violence, which runs the Los Angeles Rape and Battering hotline, has received around 30 percent more calls. An uptick always occurs when something related to sexual assault permeates culture, says executive director Patti Giggans, whether it's a film plot or Kobe Bryant's 2003 sexual assault case. "What's different is that it isn't just a weeklong surge — there is a consistency, it's persisting."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.