In 2017, Woody Allen signed a contract with Amazon, and his latest project, a feature called A Rainy Day in New York, was slated for release by the studio. The following June, after Jennifer Salke took over as Amazon’s head of studio from the disgraced Roy Price, Amazon backed out: Allen’s films were struck from the distribution list. The film-maker is now suing Amazon for a $68 million breach of contract.
Amazon and Allen had been on the verge of promoting Allen’s previous film, Wonder Wheel, in October 2017, when Allen made public statements in support of the disgraced Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein. In an interview with the BBC, he said:
“The whole Harvey Weinstein thing is very sad for everybody involved. Tragic for the poor women that were involved, sad for Harvey [that] his life is so messed up. There’s no winners in that. It’s just very, very sad and tragic for those poor women that had to go through that.”
Allen went on to lament the state of the American entertainment industry under the prevailing attitudes of #MeToo and #TimesUp. His perception was that this era of heightened suspicion between men and women would hinder creativity.
“You don’t want it to lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself,” he said. “That’s not right either. But sure, you hope that something like this could be transformed into a benefit for people rather than just a sad or tragic situation.”
When asked to explain himself, he said: “When I said I felt sad for Harvey Weinstein I thought it was clear the meaning was because he is a sad, sick man.”
Amazon alleges the director’s comments “sabotaged” its attempts to promote his movies.
#MeToo cowardice is threatening artistic freedom
These weren’t, of course, the first allegations of impropriety against Allen. His adopted daughter Dylan has said he molested her in 1992 when she was seven, which he strongly denies. The claims were repeated by her brother Ronan. Those allegations were thrown out by courts in Connecticut and New York but Ronan Farrow stands by them. Amazon knew about them when the deal with Allen was signed.
According to court documents filed in a Manhattan federal court seeking to dismiss some of the claims from Allen’s lawsuit, Amazon believes that “Understood in the broader context, Allen’s actions and their cascading consequences ensured that Amazon could never possibly receive the benefit of its four-picture agreement (despite already having paid Allen a $10 million advance upon signing)”.
If Amazon had a clean track record of only working with artists that comply with these #MeToo approved standards of conduct, Allen and his lawsuit would not have a leg to stand on. You’d think they might have put some provisions in his contract to make it clear what kind of personal behaviour they expect from artists on their payroll. But perhaps it’s not as straightforward as that. A close examination of Amazon’s practices in acquiring contracts suggests that they wouldn’t appear to be quite so strict with their international artists as they have been with Allen.
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In a sweeping move designed to increase diversity of language and offerings on the Amazon Prime platform, Jennifer Salke recently acquired a large slate of international projects. Work from India, Germany, Mexico, and Japan got the green light. While the work itself looks like it may be worth the price of a subscription, it’s not clear that these artists or production companies signed up all accord with the vague, shifting tenets of Me Too and this new era where an allegation goes quickly from public accusation to publicly assumed guilt.
The new work in development under the Amazon banner, for example, includes an Untitled Reality Series from the event management company Only Much Louder in India. The show creator and host is Sapan Verma, of East India Comedy, and the show promises to be a cross between comedy and a talk show. However, if unproven allegations and accusations, for which the artist offers denials and refutations, are the standard for cancellation, then what are we to make of the fact that Verma was accused of catcalling and harassing a woman when she was auditioning for a TV show? As Allen did, Verma denies the allegations, saying that he could “very confidently verify” that the incident never took place at all. But Verma remains on the payroll.
Sex: a warning from history
Does Amazon have different standards for international artists and companies than it does for American ones? If so, this is the worst kind of cultural imperialism. American leftists have a bad habit of granting a cultural exception to the sort of mistreatment of women globally that they would not stand for in the US. If an accusation is enough to bring an artist down in America, why is it allowable internationally? Is that which is intolerable for American women in entertainment acceptable for female entertainers in other countries?
The case of Mexican production company Televisa is quite a different matter from those unproven, deniable allegations against Allen and Verma. These ones have been proved accurate. In fact, the company has a documented history of harassment.
How we warp our moral code for genius
From Televisa, Amazon bought an untitled political thriller series dealing with Mexican political and drug cartel intrigue. But Televisa has a long track record of bad behaviour against actresses, going back to the first complaints in 2015, which included on air groping and rape. While Televisa fired the director who was accused of rape, the network was also alleged to have paid bribes to secure rights to host the World Cup, though the execs have denied it.
Is this the kind of corporate practice that Amazon wants to associate with? A company accused of bribery, rape, and harassment surely has no place in the Amazon family.
Why are the standards to which Amazon is holding Allen so at odds with those they seem to apply to their international acquisitions? It very much looks like Amazon and Salke are more concerned with virtue signalling to Hollywood #MeToo and #TimesUp activists than upholding a moral standard.
If unproven allegations against Allen, or his opinions on the use of allegations against third parties, are reason to breach his contract, then surely Amazon must hold their international collaborators to the same standards. If they don’t, it’s simply hypocrisy, hastily applied, and conveniently meted out for public approval.