Can The Weinstein Co. Be Saved? The Women Putting Their Money On It

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images.
Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler of Killer Films.

Women in Hollywood say that Harvey Weinstein terrorised them behind closed doors for years. Now behind closed doors, women are at the negotiating table, hoping to take control of his legacy. Bids for the Weinstein Company’s assets were due yesterday, according to individuals familiar with the proceedings. And as the rumours whirl, all eyes are resting on two women-led efforts that would symbolise a kind of poetic justice. While gossip sites are eager to speculate on the financial back and forth, the sale offers a chance to ask a deeper question: After the founder, leader, or name behind an institution is disgraced by harassment and assault charges, how do you right the wrongs and move forward?

In the case of the Weinstein Company, the buzzed about bids — one from former Obama administration official Maria Contreras-Sweet, and another from female-led Killer Content — are vying to solve that problem, and they've come up with two options: The first would replace the primary leadership structure with a group that's majority women and keep the company intact; the second would take the institution apart and try to save the “good parts” by digging in to determine what has merit. Each bid represents an entirely different path forward for disenfranchised people who are given sudden access to power: Do you keep the structure as is and step in to run it yourself — or do you attempt to dismantle it and turn it into something new?

Certainly there are those who have argued that it has to be neither; that the crimes of the Weinstein Company are too big to ever be repurposed into anything good. As ground zero for the #MeToo movement, the company is the most egregious violator of women in the news and a symbol for all that is wrong for women in Hollywood. “My perspective is there are so many women out there trying to start companies, raising money, trying to make movies,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, who has been public about her frustration with women’s uphill climb in the film industry. “I don't understand why people feel like they need to let the assets of this shithole redeem anything. Why not start a new women’s studio? The ashes of this place, I wouldn’t touch.”

Even as a business, Weinstein’s film company faces a rocky future that includes multiple lawsuits that amount to hundreds of millions of dollars — one of them even alleges the enabling, covering up, and intimidation of victims was so bad and widespread that the company itself is guilty of racketeering. Not to mention, reports of the company’s financial troubles continue to multiply.

But as gratifying as a burn it all down approach would be, it is not entirely realistic. And that's because the Weinstein Company was more than just a business — it was a cultural force that still contains incredibly valuable assets in its catalogue and in development: from popular TV shows like Project Runway to library films such as The Artist, Django Unchained, and The King’s Speech. It also has a number of important cultural projects in the works like an adaptation of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s jubilant, pro-immigrant musical In the Heights — though the creators have asked for the rights to be released back to them.

And so here we are.

While none of the bidders themselves could speak on the record because of ongoing negotiations, documents provided to Refinery29 paint a fuller picture of their distinct visions.

PHOTO: SHAWN THEW/EPA/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK.
Former Obama official Maria Contreras-Sweet.

The first comes from Contreras-Sweet, former administrator of the Small Business Association under President Obama. She is backed by a number of prominent investors and who wants to keep the company intact and stave off bankruptcy by putting a group of women in charge. A source familiar with the talks described it to us with this frame: “Rather than dissolving this company, it’s a movie studio that’s going to make money, but with women in leadership roles… It could really change the industry over a long term basis.”

This bid is represented by a widely-circulated cover letter that touts Contreras-Sweet’s experience "as a longtime advocate for gender and racial equality.” And while it may not divulge the details of what’s being knuckled out in negotiations, the animating idea is clear: same company, same staff, with Contreras-Sweet herself as executive chairwoman, handling day to day operations — and a majority-female board. In the meantime, a fund would be committed to settling and paying out lawsuits. Famed attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented several Weinstein accusers, has reportedly given her blessing. For those who feel sympathy for lower-level employees at the now-tainted company, the idea of saving their jobs has a significant pull.

The second, more radical option is led by Killer Content, a media company that develops and produces content for a variety of platforms, including film and TV. Producers Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler founded Killer Films, its studio arm, back in 1995; the pair is responsible for critically-acclaimed, female-driven, indie films like Boys Don’t Cry, Far From Heaven, Still Alice, and Carol — in other words, prestige work reminiscent of what Weinstein’s Miramax was in its glory days. Also under the Killer Content umbrella is a wing called Killer Impact, which is committed to social justice. This piece of the company partners with nonprofits, using them to consult on the messaging for films and then making them a partner in the dividends. Recent partners include the anti-harassment group Hollaback! and the Oakland-based teen health organisation Youth Tech and Health.

Killer Content’s offer is more complex and compelling for those of us who are trying to wrap our brains around the broader task ahead beyond Hollywood. Dubbed “Project Level Forward,” the plan was assembled by a team of media executives, philanthropists, lawyers, and other investors—with the partnership of The New York Women’s Foundation.

Project Level Forward would acquire the assets of the company and restructure them so that Weinstein Company as it’s known would no longer exist — which likely means many employees likely lose their jobs. Profits would go into two directions: one, back into making message-consistent media supporting underrepresented voices. The other part, NYWF’s Ana Oliveira says, will be distributed by her foundation with the goal of “levelling the playing field” in industries from Hollywood on down to tourism and dining, wherever the grantmaking opportunity arise. Ideally, the more tainted the library property ends up being, the more charitable direction for its profits. “The concept that we are working on is taking a situation where we have toxic actors, a toxic culture, toxic practices, and transforming that — it’s like a metamorphosis,” Oliveira says.

If all goes as planned for Killer Films, rape and harassment survivors, and nonprofits that represent survivors would be profit participants in the company. And presumably, it would itself try to be a beacon — with structures in place to minimise harassment. Earlier this fall, before Killer’s bid was announced, its CEO Adrienne Becker proposed several structural solutions in the Huffington Post, including making all job descriptions explicit and publicly available, publicly disclosing all harassment payouts, and providing training for top execs that goes beyond harassment to focus on power imbalance.

But their model isn’t just about doing good. It plays into the public’s reluctance to boycott something as wide as Harvey Weinstein’s catalog. If every time you stream The Artist or watch Project Runway you can be comfortable that the profits are being directed to a worthy cause, it could allay squeamishness. American consumers are eager to have their cake and eat it too, after all.

Many women, online and in conversation, have been fantasising about specific variations of one of these two scenarios, which are satisfying on a gut level: taking men out and putting women in. Profits being redirected to survivors. Dismantling bad companies and giving the money to good causes. A system of real accountability, not just punishment of a few. Both options have their merits; yet from a feminist standpoint, the transformation model represented by Killer Content seems more satisfying. Of course, even a workplace that aims to be a world apart can have its problems if it isn’t a complete island. Recent allegations of harassment by Jeffrey Tambor on the set of Transparent — a show that modelled itself as different and inclusive — have been sobering. Equally sobering was a recent op-ed about the pervasiveness of harassment in Sweden, a country with a robust safety net and institutionalised gender equality. Even in places that set themselves up as gender utopia, the power dynamics of Hollywood are hard to escape.

This moment, with its torrent of accusations and resignations, places us in uncharted territory, watching the downfall of dozens of high-profile names — many of which were all but synonymous with the places where they worked. Perhaps because of how huge it feels, the public conversation keeps trending downward towards a discourse about micro-behaviours (“Is hugging okay?” “Can you date your boss?”) rather than the bigger questions about how to ensure that workplaces are actually safe.

But if these two bids are indicative of a larger stirring, it’s clear that many women are already rolling up their sleeves. As the Weinstein Company sits on the auction block, bidders are declaring themselves ready not just to ponder the problem, but to take a stab at solving it. Whether or not they can ride off into the sunset with the goods this time, the momentum is in place for women to rewrite the Hollywood ending.