Sharing stories about the bad behavior of powerful men in Hollywood has long been a perverse practice in the film industry, according to film director Niki Caro.

“This industry lives vicariously on people behaving badly,” said Caro, the New Zealand–born director best known for her critically acclaimed film The Whale Rider, speaking to an audience of 200 SAG-AFTRA members at a Nov. 14 panel discussion of sexual harassment in Hollywood.

“I think a big part of the problem is that this industry is clinging desperately to a very old-fashioned paradigm whereby men are powerful and women are beautiful,” Caro said. “And we are so far beyond that, and yet we are held back by that.”

At the event, hosted at SAG-AFTRA's Miracle Mile headquarters and billed as a dialogue about creating a safer working environment for women in film, the union's president, Gabrielle Carteris, called the recent barrage of sexual harassment and abuse revelations a “Hollywood epidemic.”

“This is an opportunity for us to now step forward and use our voices and to be empowered,” Carteris said.

The discussion was moderated by attorney and women's rights advocate Gloria Allred, who earlier that day had filed the first sexual assault lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood producer accused of sexual misconduct and abuse by dozens of women. Allred is representing an actress in the lawsuit, identified only as Jane Doe, who alleges that Weinstein raped her last year at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.

“What should someone do if she or he has been harassed?” Allred said to the audience. “I would suggest keep a log, keep a journal, include witnesses' names.”

When Allred asked for a show of hands of who in the audience had endured sexual advances in securing a job in film, most of the women in the audience raised their hands.

“We knew who the bad guy on set was. If they’re not brought to heel quickly they learn they can get away with it.” —assistant director and producer Liz Tan

Panelist Lisa Vidal spoke frankly about sexual abuse. Vidal, an actress best known for her roles in TV series Third Watch and ER, said she has contended with it since the start of her career. She said she was 13 years old when a photographer her mother hired to take her headshots groped her in a dressing room.

Assistant director and producer Liz Tan offered insight into the underlying power imbalance on a film set that makes a Weinstein situation possible.

“I had heard these stories, but also I experienced those environments for years,” said Tan, whose film credits include The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. “I had learned I didn’t have the power to push back.”

A USC Annenberg study released in January, “Inclusion in the Director's Chair,” found there were nearly 24 male directors for every female director in Hollywood. And 100 percent of studio heads are men (94 percent of whom are white), according to a 2015 study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center at UCLA. The same study found that film studio senior management was 83 percent male and 92 percent white. In the 100 domestic top-grossing films of 2016, a mere 29 percent of protagonists were women.

Accustomed to being the only woman director, Tan said she learned to “make space” for women cast and crew members to work safely and without incident. “We knew who the bad guy on set was,” she said, adding, “If they’re not brought to heel quickly, they learn they can get away with it.”

She added: “I’m so heartened by the fact this is being talked about, and I think that in itself is a step in the right direction.” 

Casting director Debra Zane, whose film credits include American Beauty and The Hunger Games trilogy, said the days of a director casting an actor one-on-one behind a closed door — even in a professional setting, with an assistant standing right outside the door — may be over.  “We’re living through a big change right now,” she said.

She also offered practical advice.

“You need to be prepared,” Zane said of the casting audition, “and then you need to make sure that what you're expecting is what's happening.”

Asked by Allred how she would make the Hollywood work environment safer and more welcoming for women, director Caro replied simply: “Pay parity.”

“When money’s involved,” she said, “the playing field levels real fast.”

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