After Hollywood’s #MeToo Reckoning, a Fear It Was Only Short-Lived

Harvey Weinstein’s second sex crimes trial began Monday in Los Angeles. “She Said,” about the journalistic investigation that took him down and helped ignite the #MeToo movement, arrives in theaters on Nov. 18. “The Woman King” opened to strong ticket sales last month, with Viola Davis saying she thought about the man who sexually assaulted her to power her visceral performance as the leader of an all-female group of African warriors.

The convergence is a reminder of just how earthshaking #MeToo was for Hollywood.

It helped touch off a broader reckoning in the entertainment industry around diversity, equity and inclusion on both sides of the camera — who gets to make movies, who gets to be the subject of them. Activists say that studios and sets have been permanently changed for the better. Zero tolerance for workplace sexual harassment and discrimination is real.

In recent months, however, Hollywood’s business culture has started to regress in subtle ways.

New problems — widespread cost-cutting as the box office continues to struggle, coming union contract negotiations that producers worry will result in a filming shutdown — have become a higher priority. Fearing blowback, media companies that were vocal about #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have been quieter on more recent political debates over cultural issues.

Diversity, equity and inclusion executives say they are exhausted by an old-boy network that is continuously trying to reconstitute itself: Women who were hired for big jobs and held up as triumphant examples of a new era have been pushed aside, while some of the men who were sidelined by misconduct accusations are working again.

If asked to speak on the record about their continued dedication to change, Hollywood executives refuse or scramble in terror toward the “we remain staunchly committed” talking points written by publicists. But what they say privately is a different story. Some revert to sexist and racist language. Certainly, much of the fervor is gone.

This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen industry leaders — including top studio executives, agents, activists, marketers and producers — who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the current state of the entertainment business. They varied in age, race, ethnicity and gender.

“For three years, we hired nothing but women and people of color,” said a senior film executive, who like many leaders in the industry is a white male. He added that he did not think some of them were able to do the jobs they got.

In hushed conversations over lunch at Toscana Brentwood and cocktails at the San Vicente Inn, some powerful producers and agents have started to question the commercial viability of inclusion-minded films and shows.

They point to terrible ticket sales for films like “Bros,” the first gay rom-com from a major studio, and “Easter Sunday,” a comedy positioned as a watershed moment for Filipino representation. “Ms. Marvel,” a critically adored Disney+ series about a teenage Muslim superhero, was lightly viewed, according to Nielsen’s measurements.

“There was an overcorrection,” one studio head said.

At another major studio, a top production executive pointed to the implosion of Time’s Up, the anti-harassment organization founded by influential Hollywood women, as a turning point. “For a while, we all lived in complete fear,” he said. “That fear remains, but it has lessened. There is more room for gray and more benefit of the doubt and a bit of cringing about the rush-to-judgment that went on at the height of #MeToo.”

Is this a pendulum swing back to the bad old days?

“Amazing progress has been made that is not going away, and that should not be discounted or overlooked,” said Amy Baer, a producer, former studio executive and the board president of Women in Film, an advocacy organization. “But there is fatigue. It is hard to maintain momentum.”

Entertainment companies are not backing off the tough sexual harassment policies that have been introduced in recent years, in part because board members are worried they will face shareholder lawsuits. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently recommitted to its diversification campaign. Despite years of aggressive efforts to invite women and people of color to become members, the academy is currently 66 percent male and 81 percent white.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable in the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

Studios remain focused on inclusive casting, most notably Disney, which has a live-action “Little Mermaid” movie on the way with a Black actress playing the title role, and a “Snow White” movie in production with a Latina lead.

The moment is nonetheless unnerving, said Sarah Ann Masse, an actress who appears in “She Said” — which is based on a book by The New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey — and who serves on two sexual harassment prevention committees for SAG-AFTRA, the omnipotent actors union. In 2017, Ms. Masse accused Mr. Weinstein of sexually assaulting her in 2008. He has denied wrongdoing.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that a system that is unequal and oftentimes oppressive — yes, still, very much so — is going to change overnight,” Ms. Masse said. “At the same time, I find it incredibly frustrating. People at the top of the food chain, in particular, seem to have gotten distracted by new concerns.”

In August, Warner Bros. Discovery shelved “Batgirl,” a nearly finished movie starring a Latina actress, featuring a transgender actress in a supporting role, written by a woman, produced by women and directed by two Muslim men. Warner Bros. Discovery never publicly explained its decision, but signaled that it found “Batgirl” to be creatively lacking.

Dan Lin, a producer whose credits include “Aladdin” (2019) and “The Lego Movie,” was among those who inferred something else.

“It’s no longer about optics,” Mr. Lin said. “A recession is coming, budgets are tightening and I’m really worried that diversity is going to be the first thing that goes.”

Last week, Warner Bros. Television, as part of wider cost cutting, shut down “new voices” programs for emerging writers and directors, prompting a fiery reaction from the Directors Guild of America. “The D.G.A. will not stand idly by while WB/Discovery seeks to roll back decades of advancement for women and directors of color,” the guild said in a statement.

Within a day, Warner Bros. Discovery had scrambled to clarify that, while the “new voices” programs would indeed end, it had planned all along to expand talent pipeline programs in its diversity, equity and inclusion department.

“The resolve is still there to have more women and people of color in writers’ rooms and directing and up on the screen” Mr. Lin said. “The problem is that there is so little training and support. Those things cost money.” To help, Mr. Lin recently started a nonprofit accelerator called Rideback Rise that focuses on budding minority filmmakers and writers.

There is no longer across-the-board banishment for men who have been accused of misconduct. Johnny Depp is directing a film, having largely won a court case in which his former spouse, the actress Amber Heard, accused him of sexual and domestic violence. John Lasseter, the animation titan at Disney and Pixar, was toppled in 2018 by allegations about his behavior and unwanted hugging and apologized for “missteps” that made some staff members feel “disrespected or uncomfortable.” He is now making big-budget films for Apple TV+. James Franco’s acting career imploded in 2018 amid sexual misconduct allegations. Four years later, after a $2.2 million settlement in which he admitted no wrongdoing, he has at least three movies lined up.

Studios have also started to take more risks with content — backing scripts, for instance, that would have been radioactive in 2018, at the height of #MeToo, or in 2020, when Black Lives Matter was at the forefront of the culture.

Examples include “Blonde,” the Netflix drama about Marilyn Monroe that has been derided by critics as exploitative and misogynistic. (It features an aborted fetus that talks.) Paramount Pictures is working on a live-action musical comedy about slave trade reparations; it comes from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the politically incorrect creative forces behind “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon.”

Two ride-along reality shows that glorified the police, “Cops” and “Live PD,” and were canceled in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in police custody have both been reconstituted. “Cops” was picked up by Fox Nation, a streaming service from Fox News, and “On Patrol: Live,” a thinly disguised copy of “Live PD,” debuted over the summer on Reelz, a cable network.

At the same time, some movies and shows that overtly showcase diversity and inclusion have either struggled in the marketplace or failed to get off the runway. The takeaway, at least to some agents and studio executives: We tried — these “woke” projects don’t work.

Of course, most of what Hollywood makes struggles to get noticed, and almost never for a single reason; nobody looks at poor ticket sales for a Brad Pitt movie and concludes that no one wants to see older white men onscreen. But entertainment is a reactive business — chase whatever worked over the weekend — and there is a risk that “go woke, go broke” jokes could calcify into conventional Hollywood wisdom.

“When the real question should be whether comedies generally can succeed at the box office, my concern is that the question is becoming ‘can a Filipino comedy work’ or ‘can a gay comedy work,’” said Mr. Lin, who produced “Easter Sunday,” which starred Jo Koy and collected $13 million in theaters before stalling out. “If you are a woman or a minority, you still do not get repeated chances.”