On July 15, 2014, Academy Award-nominated documentary maker Amy Berg was pleading with the Toronto International Film Festival to reverse its decision to reject her latest film, which concerned allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the movie industry.
In an email to TIFF CEO Piers Handling, she pressed the urgency of the subject matter, writing she was informed of Bryan Singer “sitting in mediation with four underage boys he drugged and raped, and trying to pay Mike Egan and the rest of them millions of dollars to shut up and go away.”
At the time, Singer, the director of blockbuster films such as X-Men and The Usual Suspects, was in the headlines as he faced a pair of civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse against minors.
Months prior, news had broken that Berg was developing An Open Secret, shining a light on what it would characterize as the pervasiveness of pedophilia in Hollywood. Upon hearing of Berg’s film, TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers called her to ensure she would be submitting it for consideration for that September’s festival. Two of Berg’s three previous features had screened at the festival (the other premiered at Tribeca), including her 2006 debut, Deliver Us from Evil, an exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic Church that would go on to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 79th Academy Awards, losing to An Inconvenient Truth. (The two films she has made since An Open Secret have played at Sundance and TIFF, respectively.)
But upon viewing An Open Secret, Powers and other programmers at TIFF decided to decline the film a slot at their 39th annual festival, telling Berg that the media had already “covered different aspects of this terrain”:
Sorry to keep you hanging. Lots of decisions to be made in short span of time. Unfortunately, I regret to say we’re going to pass on AN OPEN SECRET. I wanted to give the film every chance, so I took time to share it with [artistic director] Cameron Bailey and my colleague Dorota Lech for their takes. We all admire the film’s effort to raise the prominence of this story. What’s challenging is that news media has covered different aspects of this terrain. In the fierce competition over TIFF’s limited slots, we’re being pulled more strongly in other directions.
I’m sorry to convey that disappointing news. We’re proud of our track record showing your films and always take an interest in what you’re doing. I deeply appreciate you giving us an early look and wish you the best.
The following day, Berg sent a response to Powers and Handling, urging the head of TIFF to reconsider. In the email, she attempted to highlight what she saw as the moral imperative of showing her work, by bringing up Singer being in mediation with underage boys he had allegedly raped.
None of the allegations against Singer have been proven in a court of law, and he has adamantly denied any wrongdoing. He has also never been charged with or convicted of any crime.
“I spent 2.5 years on this film and was not excited about what I found but also was extremely saddened that the industry I am a part of was hiding this secret. I am proud of this film and put blood, sweat, and tears into it. Yes, the issue has gotten some coverage but not what my film is about,” she wrote.
Sidestepping Berg’s explosive statement, Handling fired a quick email back the same day saying he’d be “happy to take a look at” her film.
Two days later, he would back up his programmers’ decision to decline the movie:
I just finished watching your film. Thank you for submitting it to Toronto. We have nothing but respect for your work and have been honoured to show your earlier films. I am not seeing the same number of documentaries as Thom these days but even lacking that context I must admit that I agree with him on his call.
The subject is unquestionably an important one. Sexual abuse has been rampant in Hollywood since Arbuckle and Chaplin. Your film must just be the tip of the iceberg. I also want to assure you that no pressure is being applied from anyone to not show this film – and if it was it would probably nudge us in the opposite direction as natural contrarians.
I know this decision is disappointing to you. Please realise that it was made with the 3 senior programmers all having seen the film. Thank you for bringing the film to my attention. We all wish you the best in terms of its future.
Film festivals have discretion to program or not program a film for any reason, and there is no indication that TIFF acted improperly when it turned down An Open Secret in 2014. (The two suits against Singer were withdrawn later that summer.)
But more recently, looking back at their experience with TIFF through the lens of #MeToo, the film’s producers and director have begun to wonder whether the festival might have inadvertently played a role in upholding Hollywood’s culture of silence around sexual assault in its own midst.
Subsequent to its rejection by TIFF — one of the largest and most influential film festivals in the world, which routinely helps shape the cinematic landscape for the coming year — An Open Secret failed to find distribution and had difficulty reaching audiences.
“Watching the known predators lose power and examining the way that we got here is important,” Berg said in an email interview with CANADALAND late last year. “I searched my soul to find the answer as to why this couldn’t happen in 2014, when the industry knew it was happening for decades, and realize that we needed to get mad enough to speak up.”
Last December, as the #MeToo movement rippled through Hollywood, Twentieth Century Fox halted production on the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after director Singer disappeared due to “a personal health matter.” Three days later, the studio fired him from the film (though he will retain his director credit). Soon after, it was reported that Singer was being sued for allegedly sexually assaulting a 17-year-old back in 2003 — a claim that, through his lawyer, he has “categorically” denied.
Reached for comment on this story, Singer’s lawyer, Andrew Brettler, wrote in an email to CANADALAND that it appears “you intend to write a reckless, false, and defamatory smear-piece about Mr. Singer based on uncorroborated and unproven allegations from years, if not decades, ago. To the extent you do so, you will expose yourself, Canadaland, and its editorial staff to significant liability for defamation and other causes of action.” (The complete message is appended at bottom.)
He added that if the focus of the story concerned TIFF’s rejection of An Open Secret, “you must also include context for that decision.”
What’s in An Open Secret?
Berg’s fourth feature is a harrowing portrayal of how alleged and convicted pedophiles in Hollywood have exploited the dreams of child actors in order to sexually abuse them. In it, Berg allows several (mostly young) men — the ones willing to speak on the record and in front of the camera — to tell horrific stories about sexual abuse they say they endured as children and teenagers.
“The film I made was about the system of covering up and protecting sexual predators from children on movie sets,” Berg wrote in an email to CANADALAND. “The film shows the systemic issues around this and how managers, unions, coaches, producers, and directors use their power to exploit children. The response in the industry was appalling.”
Evan Henzi, one of the subjects of the film, was molested for years by his manager beginning when he was 12. In the documentary, it shows how he performed a sting operation to catch his sexual abuser admitting his crimes on audio tape.
“The only difference between us and the rest of the animals in the animal kingdom is we socialize it. Y’know, look at the way animals do it. They don’t care — about anything. They don’t care about age … Y’know, if they feel like it, they go for it,” says his former manager, Martin Weiss, in the recording, rationalizing his molestation of Henzi as a child.
Weiss would be charged with multiple counts of lewd acts against a child, two counts of continuous child sexual abuse, and three counts of sodomy with a child under 16. He’d be found guilty of two counts of sexual abuse and spend six months in a county jail.
In the movie, another manager of child actors — co-founder of the SAG Young Performers Committee Michael Harrah — appears to acknowledge in a phone conversation with a former client that he had attempted to have him sleep in his bed when the client was underage. In a sit-down interview in the movie, Harrah also talks openly about how he used to have some of his young clients living at his home.
“Where I’ve had the opportunity to talk to someone about it, I’ve said, ‘Look, this is not a terrible thing unless you think it is. It’s just something that happens to you in your life,’” he says in the interview, trying to downplay the effects that sexual abuse has on children later in life.
An Open Secret also documents convicted pedophile Brian Peck, who pled guilty to a lewd act against a child and oral copulation of a person under 16 after a Nickelodeon star filed charges. Even after serving time in prison for sexually abusing a child, Peck — bizarrely — was able to continue working in the industry, on the sets of shows like the Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.
“There are people who don’t want this out,” says Anne Henry, founder of non-profit BizParentz, in An Open Secret. Her group advocates for tougher laws to protect children in California and contributed significant research to Berg’s documentary. “The studios work to make sure this isn’t very public.”
Why was An Open Secret denied the limelight at TIFF?
“Amy was very, very confident we were going to get into Toronto, and she was sort of encouraged to believe that we would for months, until a couple months before [the festival] they told us no,” says Matthew Valentinas.
An entertainment lawyer and literary agent based in Boston, Valentinas — alongside his college friend, hedge fund manager Gabe Hoffman — was a producer of An Open Secret. After being contacted by CANADALAND, Valentinas provided the emails between Berg, Handling, and Powers, without Berg’s knowledge, saying he didn’t want to ruin her relationship with TIFF: “It’s better if [we’re the] assholes here.”
“I think you can read between the lines that they changed their mind,” says Valentinas about TIFF’s decision, although he also makes clear the film was never given an official invite. Nevertheless, the producers were feeling confident enough that Valentinas says the team behind the film had been planning their trip to Toronto since April and readying their PR strategy.
“They might not even know that they’re being complicit, but it’s inherent in the industry,” says Valentinas in a phone interview. “This type of behaviour is more tolerated, people are risk-averse, and how can you say a subject got too much news attention? I mean, that to me, felt like a lie.”
“Of course I was let down. Obviously, I really wanted it to have the international stage,” explains Berg. “But, I am a filmmaker, a storyteller. There is no expectation that once you play a festival, you will automatically get in the next time you submit.”
“It’s the policy of TIFF to not comment on films that don’t play at the festival,” Powers says in an email response to questions about the rejection of An Open Secret.
But in the same email, Powers does point out that, shortly after that year’s TIFF, he championed Berg’s film by making it the centrepiece at DOC NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the U.S., of which he is the artistic director.
“I went to great lengths to hold a spot for its world premiere when the production company was making moves to pull out of New York,” he writes. “Ultimately, we prevailed in screening the film at DOC NYC, where it was reviewed by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets.”
Valentinas describes the DOC NYC story differently, saying they had to make last-minute edits due to new developments in the story; they “were grateful for Thom’s patience, and he was very helpful and supportive during this time.”
“I can say that in my 12 years at TIFF I’ve never felt dissuaded from playing a film over pressure from outside forces — whether it’s Hollywood, politicians, corporations, or other powerful interests,” Powers also says in his email. “It’s a misconjecture to imagine that’s ever been a factor in my TIFF selection process.”
“Look, Thom Powers fought his tail off to get the film programmed as the Centerpiece Screening at DOC NYC,” says Berg. “He’s been a strong advocate for women in film, especially in the documentary field, so it would be unfair to target him. We all have fed into the Hollywood system and as a community stayed silent in some ways, so the reforms that will come from the awakening are refreshing.”
TIFF ultimately selected 21 feature-length documentaries for its 2014 edition, fewer than it had programmed in the previous four festivals or the four after that. Of the 25 individuals who directed or co-directed those 21 documentaries, only 16 per cent were women. (Among the films was Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, celebrating 25 years since its TIFF premiere.) Since last year, TIFF, which receives over $1.5 million in public funding, has campaigned to increase the presence of women in all parts of the film industry, even holding a rally to that effect during its 2018 festival.
CANADALAND also reached out to TIFF CEO Handling to ask why he declined An Open Secret, in light of Berg’s explosive claims in her email. Handling, who will be leaving the organization following the festival’s 2018 edition, which runs through this Sunday, deferred questions to a spokesperson.
The spokesperson repeated Powers on the festival’s policy that they don’t comment on the rejection of any film. “Our programming decisions are focused on the quality of the film — and the decisions made for or against showing any work of art are considered thoughtfully and independent of external influence.”
In a Globe and Mail piece scrutinizing the direction of TIFF, published toward the end of last year’s festival, the authors pointed out how TIFF had become oversized in the last several years after building the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which transformed the organization into a year-round cultural institution with new financial pressures.
“Is it an arts-focused forum for esoteric, global cinema or a market-based organization that serves the business needs of the movie-making industry?” asked journalists Barry Hertz and Molly Hayes.
“I’ve been covering TIFF since 1982, and Hollywood has always been first,” says Jim Slotek, a recently retired Toronto Sun film critic and founder of Toronto-based film review website Original Cin. (He’s also sitting on the FIPRESCI jury at this year’s festival.)
He says “there are a lot of identifiable audiences” that go to movies at TIFF. “But the one that obviously means the most and has the most money is the Hollywood-oriented one.”
“It certainly felt like the film festivals were lacking courage,” says Valentinas, surmising that TIFF was “probably fearing” there would be industry repercussions if they showed An Open Secret.
“I think that would be pretty heavily lawyered,” says Slotek, about a documentary of this sort. “At some point, if it’s just a matter of whether or not to invite this small film, they’d probably say, ‘You know what? It’s not worth the worry.’”
A timely documentary languishes from rejections
Although Valentinas was grateful An Open Secret was screened at DOC NYC, other festivals in Los Angeles and London would also deny An Open Secret a venue, exposure and, most importantly for its producers, coveted access to distributors.
(Berg and Valentinas say that the BFI London Film Festival showed interest over conference calls, but that it got cold feet because of tabloid laws in the UK. The organization didn’t respond to CANADALAND’s request for comment.)
Having struck out with multiple festivals, An Open Secret couldn’t find a major distributor and wound up getting a limited theatrical release in just Seattle and Denver, where it would tank at the box office. The poor distribution and performance led to the documentary on Hollywood sexual abuse being shelved, remaining largely unseen by the wider public for three years.
Valentinas and Hoffman say they put “well over $1.5 million” into An Open Secret and haven’t recovered any costs. Valentinas says that while they were prepared to lose money, they didn’t foresee not selling the film and being out the entire amount.
He says he found it “frustrating” when Spotlight — about journalists uncovering sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church — won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016, despite Hollywood’s apparent unwillingness to examine the same in its own midst. (A few months earlier, the film’s enthusiastic reception at TIFF led to it being named a runner-up for the festival’s audience award.)
Despite the setbacks the producers of An Open Secret have faced, Valentinas says he and Hoffman knew there was keen interest in the film. A pirated version online reportedly amassed over 900,000 views before being shut down. After Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was exposed for being a serial sexual predator for decades, the producers decided to release the documentary for free on the video-sharing website Vimeo in “honour of the brave women who came forward.” The film went viral.
But even with that kind of public interest, interest from digital distributors didn’t follow.
“We wanted a Netflix or Amazon to step up and buy this, but it doesn’t seem that they’re going to,” Valentinas said last December.
Streaming services (whose offerings now make up an increasing part of the lineups at festivals like TIFF) have brought a new revenue source to a genre of film that has been especially hard-hit by dwindling audiences at theatres.
“This is a drop in the bucket for them money-wise, and all our profits are going to charity, if we make any.”
The documentary’s relevance today
“Now you’re going to see something very exciting here. One, is Stan Lee selling hot dogs. My buddy Gary Goddard was the guy walking alongside in the flannel shirt. And the guy eating hot dogs is you,” says director Bryan Singer to his friend Brian Peck in the commentary track they recorded together for the 2003 DVD re-release of X-Men, an excerpt of which is included in An Open Secret.
Peck, mentioned earlier, was convicted of molesting a Nickelodeon child star in 2004. Singer’s other “buddy” described in the scene was Goddard, who last November was accused by actor Anthony Edwards of molesting him when he was 14. In the following days, two other men published their own stories alleging sexual abuse by Goddard, who has denied the claims but stepped down as the head of the Goddard Group, an entertainment design firm. In late December, the Los Angeles Times reported the number of former child actors accusing Goddard of sexual misconduct had jumped to eight. And in May, another Los Angeles Times story reported on a man who committed suicide in 2014, who also accused Goddard of sexually assaulting him when he was 18.
Goddard and Singer are listed as co-directors of Broadway 4D, a New York-based musical ride project that began in 2012 but has stalled for years.
Singer has also been in the headlines over the past year. In addition to his departure from Bohemian Rhapsody and the new lawsuit alleging sexual assault, Deadline had a December exclusive on a former boyfriend of Singer’s who was 18 — the legal age of consent in California — when they began their relationship, who said he had been exploited by the director with promises of a role in an X-Men movie, as well as money and drugs. (According to Deadline, the story was corroborated through text messages and photographs, as well as verified by seven other sources.) The man was connected with Deadline by Hoffman, one of the Open Secret producers, who tells CANADALAND that the man reached out to him after seeing the movie, inspired by its message: “Be courageous. Report it. Life gets better.” In January, Deadline reported Singer had left the FX series Legion, on which he’d been credited as an executive producer.
Back in 2014, Singer was discussed in An Open Secret not only because of his connection to Peck but because of his connections to the now-defunct Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), a precursor to Netflix, that had well over $60 million poured into it — including by high-profile Hollywood investors like studio executive David Geffen, film producer Michael Huffington, and Singer — back in the late-‘90s heyday of the first dot-com bubble.
According to An Open Secret, the mansion where DEN shot its shows was known for having drug-fuelled parties that underage boys attended, and allegedly had a house rule that everyone around the pool area had to be naked in the evenings.
(Three co-founders of DEN, Marc Collins-Rector, Chad Shackley, and Brock Pierce fled to Europe in 2000 after three young actors filed a civil lawsuit alleging sexual abuse. Interpol arrested them in 2002, and Collins-Rector was extradited to the US, where he’d be found guilty of bringing a minor across state lines for sex. Shackley and Pierce were released without being charged shortly after their arrests. Pierce, a former child actor who appeared in The Mighty Ducks, is now a prominent bitcoin investor.)
Michael Egan, who sued Singer in 2014, had been one of the DEN child actors. One of the alleged victims in Berg’s documentary, Egan accused the director of sexually abusing him while living at the mansion. Singer denied the accusations vehemently, but withdrew from media interviews for 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. New York Magazine reported that after five other alleged victims came forward to Egan’s lawyer, a multi-million dollar settlement was reached, in which Egan was supposed to receive $100,000, but he rejected its terms.
Egan dropped his lawsuit against Singer, Goddard, and two other men after it was revealed that details from his testimony in an earlier lawsuit against DEN’s co-founders contradicted his new allegations, which prompted his lawyer to drop him as a client. With the lawsuit withdrawn, edits had to be made to An Open Secret to remove references to Egan’s allegations and the lawsuit against Singer and Goddard. Egan and his former lawyer were successfully sued for malicious prosecution by two other men accused in Egan’s lawsuit. In a letter, Egan’s former lawyer admitted to filing “untrue and provably false allegations” against the two other men accused by Egan of sexually abusing him.
In his message to CANADALAND, Singer’s lawyer, Andrew Brettler, cited several examples of Egan’s credibility being damaged, including a conviction for wire fraud in 2015.
And as “context” for TIFF’s decision to turn down An Open Secret, Brettler pointed to a 2015 Huffington Post piece that had several individuals, including two sources that went on record in the movie, questioning Egan’s credibility and account of the extent of sexual abuse that went on at the DEN mansion.
Singer’s lawyer also told CANADALAND, “Again, selectively rehashing these allegations in a one-sided, defamatory ‘article’ is not journalism. However, such conduct is actionable under both U.S. and Canadian law. Should you write and publish this reckless story, you will be proceeding at your own peril.”
It’s challenging territory to tread into, and Berg is grateful her film did, even if TIFF didn’t.
“I hope we take the time to listen to the young men who have lost their sense of power and self-esteem at the hands of predatory men in the industry,” said Berg. “It’s as big of a problem [as the treatment of women], but it hasn’t unfolded yet because the dreams of these young men died before they became Angelina Jolie, etc…. Anthony Edwards, Anthony Rapp, Corey Feldman, Todd Bridges, and a few others have spoken up, and hopefully their support will help others to get the help they need to heal.”
She thinks recent developments have been encouraging, but, she said, “there are still many known predators working with children.”
“I think Kevin Spacey really opened the door. And now Gary Goddard has opened the door,” said Valentinas about Hollywood’s child sexual abuse also getting attention as a result of the #MeToo movement.
“The industry is infested with this.”
In an email blast to TIFF supporters this past July, maxine bailey, the organization’s vice president for advancement (who spells her name in lowercase), encouraged film fans to come out for the festival’s Share Her Journey rally, to demand change in an industry that needs it.
“To put it bluntly,” she wrote, “there is a dark side to the film industry — a culture where sexual assault, gender disparity, and sexism run rampant. It’s a culture we cannot and will not accept.”
Also see our story on the case of TIFF’s disappearing Louis C.K. podcast and the dramatic irony of his warm welcome at last year’s festival.
Top image from the poster for An Open Secret.
Singer lawyer Andrew Brettler’s email to CANADALAND:
Based on your email below, it does appear that you intend to write a reckless, false, and defamatory smear-piece about Mr. Singer based on uncorroborated and unproven allegations from years, if not decades, ago. To the extent you do so, you will expose yourself, Canadaland, and its editorial staff to significant liability for defamation and other causes of action. The fact that in your request for comment email, you wrote that you “cannot guarantee [you] will include [our] entire response,” demonstrates that you have a preconceived agenda to write a negative, one-sided story about Mr. Singer for publication on Canadaland’s website. This stated position is evidence of constitutional malice and would support Mr. Singer’s claim for substantial damages.
If the focus of your story is, as you originally indicated, the TIFF previously rejecting An Open Secret, you must also include context for that decision. The claims by Michael Egan, one of the film’s critical on-camera sources, were discredited and debunked. After Mr. Egan’s attorneys abandoned him and a federal judge in Hawaii chastised him for being dishonest with the Court, in the face of several then-pending motions to dismiss, Mr. Egan was forced to withdraw the lawsuits he filed against Mr. Singer and others back in 2014. Subsequently, Mr. Egan was indicted on securities and wire fraud charges in an unrelated federal action. Then, in 2015, he pleaded guilty to those charges, and was sentenced to prison for two years. Mr. Egan and his former attorneys also were sued for malicious prosecution for filing the baseless lawsuits in Hawaii federal court. During his deposition in that malicious prosecution action, Mr. Egan invoked the Fifth Amendment privileged against self-incrimination more than 400 times, and refused to answer any questions about whether he fabricated his claims of abuse, which had been proven false through documentary evidence. As part of a settlement of that action, in addition to paying substantial monies to the plaintiffs, Mr. Egan’s former attorney, Jeff Herman issued a public apology stating, “Based on what I know now, I believe that I participated in making what I now know to be untrue and provably false allegations . . . .” Had I known what I learned after filing the lawsuits, I would never have filed these claims . . . .” (Incidentally, it has recently been reported that Mr. Herman himself was accused of rape in 1998.)
Further, several other individuals featured in An Open Secret have since referred to the picture as “unfair” and “dishonest.” The Huffington Post published a lengthy investigative piece examining their claims. Presumably you have already reviewed that material. Nevertheless, you appear to have accepted as fact the outrageous allegations asserted in the picture, and indeed, use those allegations as a jumping off point for writing a malicious and defamatory story about Mr. Singer. Cobbling together unsupported claims about Mr.Singer and repeating allegations from various uncorroborated media reports is not journalism, but it will subject you and your colleagues at Candaland to liability. See Goldwater v. Ginzburg, 414 F.2d 324, 337 (2d Cir. 1969) (“[r]epetition of another’s words does not release one of responsibility if the repeater knows that the words are false or inherently improbable, or there are obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of the person quoted or the accuracy of his reports”); Suzuki Motor Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 330 F.3d 1110, 1134 (9th Cir. 2003) (“the jury may nevertheless infer that the publisher was aware of the falsity if it finds that there were ‘obvious reasons to doubt’ the accuracy of the story, and that the defendant did not act reasonably in dispelling those doubts.”); Khawar v. Globe Int’l, Inc., 19 Cal. 4th 254, 276 (1998) (jury could conclude tabloid acted with constitutional malice where tabloid story repeated improbable claim and “failed to use readily available means to verify the accuracy of the claim” where “there were obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of the . . . central claim, and because that claim was an inherently defamatory accusation”). Mr. Singer, either directly, or through his representatives, already has publicly addressed each of the three topics about which you inquire. Again, selectively rehashing these allegations in a one-sided, defamatory “article” is not journalism. However, such conduct is actionable under both U.S. and Canadian law. Should you write and publish this reckless story, you will be proceeding at your own peril.
All of our client’s rights and remedies are hereby reserved.
ANDREW B. BRETTLER