Gossip Cabals

Four actresses relayed their suspicion that, after rejecting [Harvey] Weinstein’s advances and complaining about him, he had them removed from projects or persuaded others to remove them. A number of Farrow’s sources said Weinstein had referred to his success in planting stories in the media about individuals who had crossed him. … He told them that complying with his demands would help their careers, repeatedly mentioning Paltrow (without the actress’s knowledge) as someone he claimed to have had sex with. … these activities were enabled by employees, associates, and agents who set up these meetings, and lawyers and publicists who suppressed complaints with payments and threats. (more)

Ashley Judd … refused, and says he got revenge by seeking to damage her career. Director Peter Jackson has come forward to say he removed her from a casting list “as a direct result” of what he now thinks was “false information” provided by Weinstein. … Like with Ashley Judd, Peter Jackson said Weinstein warned him off casting [Mira Sorvino]. … Heather Graham … alleges he implied she had to sleep with him to get a film role, telling her that his wife would have been fine with it. … He insisted on listening to [Louisette Geiss] pitch in his hot tub, then asked her to watch him masturbate, she says – and told her he could green-light her script if she did so. … Daryl Hannah … suffered physical repercussions as her flights were cancelled and she was left stranded after she turned him down on one occasion, she adds. … Rosanna Arquette … says she rejected Weinstein’s advances and that she believes her acting career suffered as a result. (more)

What power exactly did Harvey Weinstein possess, to let him harass and rape with impunity for decades? He was an actor’s agent, who negotiated deals between actors and studios, but many agents do that. If one agent makes unreasonable demands, why not switch to another? How hard can it be anyway to evaluate an actor and suggest which projects they might be well suited for?

Well, okay, maybe it takes years to acquire good judgement, and some agents have much better judgment than others. Even so, if many agents are capable of evaluating and matching actors, how can one agent gain so much power over an actor who could easily switch to other agents?

Okay, yes, also, an actor-agent relation might develop slowly over a long time, and as with quitting a on marriage or a family, someone might put up with modest abuse before calling it quits. But Weinstein seems to have had far more power than most partners who increase in value over time.

Some say that wannabe actors are far more irrational and desperate than are most people in most relations. So they’ll do almost anything for a tiny increase of a chance for acting success. Maybe, but I want to explore other explanations, before I’m willing to conclude that.

One scenario is that corrupt agents offer to overestimate an actor’s suitability if they accept agent demands. But if the agent reneged on their promise, how would an actor enforce it? This strategy could result in studios giving them a try, seeing they are subpar, and then realizing that they are getting lower quality advice from that agent, reducing demand for that agent. And if there’s a limit to how much they could plausibly exaggerate quality, an agent could only plausibly use this strategy on the few best actors, as the rest will be rejected in any case.

Another scenario is that corrupt agents threaten to underestimate an actor’s suitability if they reject agent demands. Here enforcement is more reliably handled by the agent. If most actors give in to the threat, then most threats need not be carried out, and so the quality of signals sent to studios will be much less degraded. If the threat is carried out, studios will likely reject, and so not see that they got a bad signal. Also, this threat can be given to all types of actors, good and bad. So underestimation threats seems more effective overall than overestimation promises.

However, if an actor could easily switch to dozens of other agents, even this underestimation threat seems weak. I doubt such a threat would have moved me much when I was working with a book agent. But what if someone like Weinstein could credibly threaten, “If I give the word, you’ll never get another job in this town/industry again?”

This threat might be credible if the major acting powers formed a cabal where they agreed to believe their negative evaluations of others. Then Weinstein could tell other powers, like director Peter Jackson, that you are difficult, and none of them would audition you. If Jackson defied Weinstein and auditioned you anyway, then Weinstein could tell the other powers that Jackson is difficult. So an equilibrium could be formed where all the powers take each others’ strong negative evaluations of others at face value, for fear that otherwise they will become a target. And they could collectively benefit from this equilibrium, as they can each now make stronger credible threats to outsiders.

This sort of equilibrium seems to me very common part of human behavior. For example, academic elites in an area tend to all treat each other’s claims with respect, and endorse any of their dismissals of outsiders. In a social media mob pile on, where a big mob all says person X is bad, someone who speaks up saying X isn’t so bad should reasonably fear the mob would turn on them. And the set of top bosses in a firm typically shares an inclination to jointly reject any lower level person who challenges any one of those bosses. (“We can criticize each other privately, but we are unified in rejecting public criticism by outsiders.”)

In this sort of equilibrium, elites will in public usually say “We are the best people in this area, as proved by the fact that we all say we are best. If we all say someone else is bad, you can take that to the bank.” Sometimes they will say “George used to be good, but we all now agree that George has turned bad.” And in private each elite can say to wannabes, “Unless you do everything I demand, I’ll tell the other elites you are bad, and you’ll be out of this area for good.”

We economists tend to worry about firms colluding on prices, to keep them high, or colluding on entry, where I won’t enter your area if you don’t enter mine. But I suspect that gossip collusion like this is a far bigger problem. It happens not just in business, but in politics, arts, religion, sports, academia, journalism, law, etc.

While it would be hard, I could imagine attempts to more strong regulate and discourage this sort of behavior. But the striking thing is, we hardly even try.

Added 26Sep: Oops, seems Weinstein was a producer, not an agent. But producers serve a related role of evaluating and matching actors. A big part of the demand for him as a producer would be his ability to do those well.

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