My experience working for Harvey and Bob Weinstein
A few years ago I read an interesting New York Times article about Jeff Bezos, Amazon and the culture of working at the tech giant. What struck me most wasn’t the stories of 80–100 hour work weeks, employees pitted against one another, abusive supervisors and people crying at their desks. I had seen similar things (and much worse) in my time as a development exec at Miramax from 1996–2002 working for Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
No — the thing that really jumped out at me were the comments.
One common theme seemed to echo through a lot of them; The claims made about Amazon’s culture couldn’t possibly be true, because logic would dictate people that smart and capable would surely have enough self respect and worth to just walk away if they were indeed subjected to the kinds of abuse that people were alleging.
I would love to think that were true.
However, for anyone who ever worked for Harvey or Bob Weinstein the sentiments expressed in that article were all too familiar. Smart driven people who want to prove themselves will often seek out the most challenging, even abusive, experiences to prove to themselves and others they have what it takes to be the best like some corporate version of Naked and Afraid. However, Naked and Afraid only lasts 28 days and its physical and mental tests are nothing that sleep and a few good meals can’t quickly cure. For many of us, the recovery from working with the brothers was a slower and more painful process.
“Smart driven people who want to prove themselves will often seek out the most challenging even abusive experiences to prove to themselves and others they are tough enough and smart enough to be the best.”
I never intended to work in film. I was a kid from a single mother home that grew up on food stamps and welfare. I made a promise to get as far away from rural Delaware as possible and make something of myself in New York. I finished a stint in the Marines and moved to Manhattan to work at Valiant Comics as a writer and editor. I have loved comics my whole life and while I was a horrible writer, I found I did have a knack for story. I was really good at helping other people find ways to express themselves.
I would have stayed in comics, but the speculator crash in the mid 1990's crushed those dreams. I found myself without a job until a friend got me a gig at a temp agency. I did a number of different things, but one of my longest temp jobs was at Miramax in the exhibitor relations department. I would spend most of my days calling theaters to find out if we could send them more Supercop Frisbees, or to make sure they were attaching Miramax trailers to whatever big film was coming out that weekend.
It wasn’t a glamorous job. In fact, it was pretty bad. I got an ear infection from my headset and the office was an old warehouse that was cold as hell. The Miramax offices were actually split between a lot of different buildings. Our building handled the un-sexy stuff. The real magic happened over in 375 Greenwich Street — where the development and production execs were. It was only two blocks away — it might as well as been on the other side of the moon. I would look for excuses to take interoffice mail over to the executive floor, but never got past the receptionist. The work was hard, but I was insulated from all of the real craziness. I was happy to even be in the film industry, but still I wanted to be over “there” working on amazing films and collaborating with talented people. I wanted to tell stories.
I got closer when a full time assistant job opened up for the head of Business and Legal Affairs, a lawyer named John Logigian. John was, and remains to this day, one of the best bosses I ever had. He was smart and savvy and still managed to strike a work/life balance I never saw anyone else achieve. He was one of the few people I ever saw who never let the stress get to him. None of it seemed to faze him. I learned so much about the business and how deals were made. I still use things he taught me almost every day — about business, about people and most importantly about being a father.
John left after a year and I had spent a great deal of time after work reading scripts and writing analysis of them. I was lucky enough to get a junior development job working on the Dimension side of the company making genre films. As a kid who grew up watching Universal monster movies on the couch with his grandmother, it was a dream come true.
And that is one thing that all the stories I’m reading about working for the Weinsteins just don’t seem get. The general narrative is that the brothers were indicative of Hollywood hubris and excess — that Harvey (and to a lesser extent Bob) somehow represented the film industry.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even in those days at the height of their power, even with all the awards and fame and influence, Harvey and Bob never saw themselves as Hollywood. They were always two kids from Queens fighting and besting a system that didn’t think they were good enough to let in. And that “chip on the shoulder” attitude permeated all the way down the chain, through people like me and all the way to the interns.
Many of the film execs in LA where most of the industry happens were hip and fashionable. Many went to fancy schools or came from privileged backgrounds and drove nice cars. None of that mattered when you worked for Harvey and Bob in New York. You could be a middle school drop out as long as you were smart, could do the work and keep up. Sure there were Harvard grads, but there was just as likely someone who never graduated college. In fact, people who came to work from other film companies often flamed out. The culture was just too difficult for them to wrap their heads around — unless you came up in it. Many, if not most, of the execs were former assistants who had toughed it out and earned a chance to do something more. It was an insanely incestuous meritocracy.
Even the offices reflected this scrappiness. The floors were nice but not nearly as opulent as you might think. My first office was incredibly small, maybe four by five feet. One of the senior execs on the Miramax side had a freight elevator in his. Even Harvey and Bob had offices that were smaller than many bedrooms. Still, the opportunities were amazing if you worked hard.
“In two years I went from talking to projectionists about trailers in Des Moines to working with Jay-Z. There was no other place that could have happened.”
In two years I went from talking to projectionists about trailers in Des Moines to working with Jay-Z. There was no other place that could have happened.
Those times could be really good. The sheer breadth of talent we worked with was a once in a lifetime experience. I grew up on Hip-Hop and I got to make a movie with Jay-Z and Damon Dash. I loved comics and got to be the point person for our deal with Marvel. Beyond that I had long talks about craft with Guillermo Del Toro and Scott Derrickson. I met Aaliyah and Stan Lee…on the same day! I spent long days in a room with Charles Stone laughing and working on the script for Paid In Full.
That part of the job was fun and rewarding and I loved it, but the other side was dark and increasingly ugly.
As a child who grew up with nothing and constantly had to prove myself to people who didn’t think I was worthy, seeing these two brothers stick it to an industry that underestimated them resonated with me. It was my own personal revenge proxy. I love Steven Spielberg. I still think Saving Private Ryan is a better film, but I still celebrated the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love just as much as anyone else because of what it represented, not only to a company where many talented people worked their asses off to make it happen, but also to me personally. I took that victory to heart and I can assure you I wasn’t alone.
The problem is you can’t be the outsider forever. At some point you have to find something to be for instead of against. Scrappiness often turns into ego. Ego turns anger. The culture was one where you had to make a choice. You could become a bully and there were a few people who chose to do so. You could be an island of calm and protection like my old boss John Logigian, but those people often moved on. You could put your head down, tie yourself to the mast and hope to not be emotionally or intellectually humiliated, or finally you could cope with the horror with humor or drink or whatever else helped you make it through the day.
Personally, I drank — a lot. It’s a cowardly but numbing coping mechanism. Many of us younger employees would work from 8 to 8, if not later, and then go out until all hours — then roll around and do it all again the next day. Days on calendar had no traditional meanings.
I will be the first to admit that I was weak at times and resorted to the same horrible tactics as others. I once admonished an assistant for not understanding the quality difference between Lipton and Knorr soup mixes — dry soup mixes! I’m grateful that he’s forgiven me, but I’m still embarrassed by it, among other things.
The abuse was brutal. There is no other way to say it. I know everyone wants to know the juicy details. I won’t go into specifics. No good will come out of it. Suffice to say that even when you weren’t in their presence, the thought of the brothers permeated every moment of working there. I used to tell friends that working for Miramax was like nervously telling people that you “fell down the stairs” when someone asked you where the bruises were from. We all lived for their trips to LA because it meant five glorious hours of air travel where there was no possible way for them to get a hold of anyone at the office.
Slowly, you start to realize that there is no level that you can get to at the company where it will stop. There is no title, no project you bring in, no work you will do where you can guarantee that you’re safe, that the stress will stop. You start to realize that the things you are really getting out of it start to become fewer and farther between. But by then you are stuck and it’s difficult to get off the ride because if you do, then you’ve basically admitted you can’t take it, that you were weak, that everything you might have secretly believed about yourself or been told about not being good enough just might be true.
The sick part is, you wanted to be in their spotlight. If you weren’t, the shadow could be cold. Your projects might languish, or another exec might be in favor. So even if you hated the experience, you needed to have face time in order to have any type of stature in the company.
If you were just being screamed at it would be bad enough, but the real emotional roller coaster was you would be a genius one day and an absolute idiot the next. There was no middle ground. It wears on you, day after day. I coped with Xanax and alcohol and a constant gallows humor. Some people rose to the occasion and could be heroic, some did not and became mini versions of the brothers.
It was very clear there was no fighting back. One time a co-worker came to me crying because a high-level exec screamed and humiliated her at a party. I called Human Resources to report it. The result? I was told to watch myself in the hallways because the exec had just taken boxing classes and wanted to make an example of me.
I understand why there are those who can’t understand how some of the horrible things alleged to have happened could have, and yet no one seemed to know. I can only say that in the six years I spent there I saw some absolutely reprehensible human behavior, but nothing that was technically illegal or rose to the level they are being accused of. That doesn’t mean it’s even remotely acceptable.
And that’s the part that really makes me mad. Rape and sexual assault allegations are serious. I feel for every victim. However, is that the bar we are setting as unacceptable? What about all the horrible things people do to each other every day that we shrug off because they aren’t crimes? I know there’s a line and smarter people than me will have to decide where that is.
Harvey and Bob, for all those who suffered nightmares for years, who don’t trust anyone anymore because of the way they were treated, who abandoned a career they loved because it became tainted I have to ask: Is it that hard to be a reasonably decent person? Is the fact you technically haven’t committed a crime enough when you describe the way you treat another human being?
“At what point is it enough to ask: Is it that hard to be even a remotely decent person? Is the fact you technically haven’t committed a crime good enough when you describe the way you treat another human being?”
There will those who will read this and say I’m weak or couldn’t take it. They are probably right. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I know I could be a little tougher. I am a person who wants everyone to like him and I handle politics very badly. But there also came a point where I had to make a decision on who I wanted to be, and the example that Harvey and Bob set wasn’t it.
I still keep in touch with many people I worked with. Even before all of this we were a very tight knit and private group. Many have left the industry entirely. Like me, they’ve become dads or moms and work all over the world doing things big and small. But the thing I think that gives me the most solace and even some hope is that to a person, almost everyone one of them despite everything, is at heart, a decent person.
And I think I speak for everyone I worked with in those days when I say to those working at Amazon or Uber or anyplace where you are working under unkind circumstances, or worse, under the illusion that at some point it pays off and becomes magical — It doesn’t. At some point you will have to decide what type of person you want to be, how you want to treat others— what you value.
I hope the value you choose is kindness.