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A recent spate of high-level entertainment industry firings – concerning well-established industry figures and in one case a household name – has got Hollywood running scared. 

In the last 10 days Disney has booted Guardians Of The Galaxy writer-director James Gunn off the franchise after offensive old tweets resurfaced, while Paramount has shown the door to its TV chief Amy Powell after she allegedly made inappropriate remarks on a conference call to colleagues.

This follows the dismissal in late June of Netflix chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland for reportedly making unsavoury remarks in front of staff.

The sackings have sparked a debate over the whys and wherefores of and what may or may not have been said and their consequences. They have also elicited strong opinions on the potential benefits and drawbacks of what is being viewed as a direct offshoot of the #MeToo movement, the cultural earthquake triggered by last October’s Harvey Weinstein exposé that continues to shake up the entertainment industry and other sectors.

On Friday CBS chief Les Moonves became the centre of a fresh furore after a New Yorker article ran in which six women accused him of sexual harassment. The executive admitted he may have made some women uncomfortable “decades ago” but insisted he understood “no means no”, and never used his position to harm or hinder careers.

While not in the same category as the cases of Gunn, Powell, and Friedland, the Moonves case illustrates more broadly how people are no longer prepared to remain silent if they feel they have been slighted or witnessed what they deem to be unacceptable behaviour.

The right reaction?

“It began with Harvey Weinstein and behaviours that would no longer be tolerated and now it’s moved to words that will no longer be tolerated and casting choices that will no longer be tolerated,” says Tom Nunan, a former studio and network executive who now lectures on producing at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “The response is swift and severe.

“There’s no question that what these people are saying and have said in the past is controversial at minimum and unacceptable at maximum. The issue is how do we respond to it.”

While not judging the specifics of the aforementioned cases, Nunan says he would find it troubling were summary dismissals of employees to become part of the Hollywood landscape.

“If there’s a feeling of over-reaction, shock, fear, doubt, then possibly our response to these trangressions need to be reevalutated,” he continues. “There’s something about this that doesn’t align with American values of due process and having the punishment must fit the crime.”

Gunn’s tweets were ill-advised and highly unsavoury, poking fun among other things at rape and paedophilia. They were made years ago and recently dug up by a right-wing website. After he was fired by Disney, the filmmaker issued a statement apologising for the tweets, adding that he understood Disney’s decision and pledged to be more thoughtful about his public statements going foward. His firing sparked outcry among fans, industry friends, and Guardians cast members.

“The word police and the tweet police are eliminating people left and right who may have made a misstep, but boy do they need to pay the price of a career?” asks Nunan. “If you’re Harvey Weinstein of course you have to pay the price, but [in the case of episodes like Gunn’s tweets] can’t we help people?

“I don’t think it’s that different from drug and alcohol abuse, where people are found to have transgressed and are given the treament and need to have that treatment be ongoing.

“Generally speaking if someone is known to be creating a hostile environment, it’s brought to their attention and they talk about it and what the solution is,” says Nunan. “In the past, if an executive or person in power violated a law they would get a warning and undergo workplace training… But in every case you have to ask is this person able to admit they were wrong and were they given a chance to course-correct?”

Powell was fired after Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, a vastly experienced executive with a reputation for being about as calm and even-handed as it gets, issued a statement saying the studio acted after a “thorough investigation”. Screen understands Paramount chiefs received complaints from several people who alleged Powell made racially insensitive remarks on a conference call. The executive issued a strong denial of the allegations in a statement after she was fired.

It is understood Friedland apologised to people who had been present in a meeting when he used the N-word, and repeated the behaviour before Netflix fired him.

Rise in complaints

“The volume of sexual and other harassment lawsuits and pre-lawsuits has increased markedly this year,” notes Jeffrey Thomas, a Los Angeles-based labour and employment law litigator and partner at Akerman LLP.

“We have the #MeToo movement, people reacting in a very negative way to President Trump’s apparent treatment of women for years, we have Harvey Weinstein’s apparent behaviour coming to light, and along with that the fact that the industry apparently tolerated bad behaviour for so long.

“So there’s an enormous pressure on employers in and out of the industry to take a stand and not tolerate insensitive and abusive behaviour.”

Thomas shares Nunan’s concern over dismissals that follow in short order after complaints are made, in particular when he considers how this might shape future workplace culture.

“Industry players who adopt zero-tolerance policies will two to four years later possibly regret having done so, because over the next few years they will see situations where someone has made some sort of offensive comment that’s out of character for [a person who is] a unique creative force or has value to a company, and someone will either have to make an exception or fire that person where firing might not be necessary or smart.”

Yet the #MeToo climate has emboldened people to speak up. Social media has amplified the reach of the court of public opinion and while discplinary, civil and criminal cases will ultimately rest in the hands of the appropriate authorities, there is a palpable sense talking to more junior industry employees that leaders in today’s studio and network landscape must take heed.

Nunan references the unapologetically chauvenistic culture of the studio and media landscape many decades ago, embodied as he points out in a show like Mad Men, and agrees things are headed in the right direction.

“On balance we’re operting in a better time,” he says. “It’s empowering the outsiders, the little guys, the whistle-blowers.”

But can it go too far? “With zero-tolerance you’re arguably equipping employees with a new tool to be misused,” argues Thomas. “If an employee wants to get rid of a supervisor or a competitor based on performance, making a complaint of harassment is a method of removing someone you don’t want around.”

Nunan adds: “Imagine if someone has a grudge against you, whether you’re still working with them or not. They get something that makes you appear to be a bully, a bully that needs to be eliminated. None of us want bulies around. In many ways this is encouraging Hollywood to act in an ‘awake’ manner, but two words that give me chills when they’re put together are ‘swift’ and ‘justice’. We always have to be careful.”