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Will ICM Exposé Be Hollywood's Wakeup Call Over Bad Behavior?

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Scott Rudin, Ellen DeGeneres (Photo illustration by TheWrap; Getty Images)

Will ICM Exposé Be Hollywood’s Wakeup Call Over Bad Behavior?

After a searing L.A. Times exposé of sexual harassment and bad behavior at Hollywood talent agency ICM Partners on Wednesday, industry insiders wondered if this would be a bellwether moment to dislodge an entrenched culture of bullying and harassment in the entertainment industry. 

The answer is not at all clear. “I don’t think it will change much,” a top agent who declined to be identified told TheWrap. “All that ‘outrageous’ or ‘toxic’ behavior is a byproduct of previous generations that are inevitably aging out.” 

Veteran agent Robb Rothman, a partner in the Beverly Hills boutique agency Rothman Brecher Erich Livingston, agreed. “Talent agencies were notorious for that [kind of behavior],” he said. “It’s been toned down in recent years… Anything that gets people held to account for bad behavior is a good thing.”

In interviews with a half-dozen industry insiders, none express shock at the Los Angeles Times’ account of extreme workplace behavior such as a partner berating a female agent until she cried, or agents making derogatory comments to their assistants, or executives asking Black support staffers to pose as agent-trainees, or an agent making unwanted advances on an actress client. 

Indeed, one veteran producer — a supporter of the #MeToo movement — told TheWrap that the article did not “make the case of institutional harassment and bullying,” at least based on the accusations detailed in the piece.  Other talent reps reflected a “whatever” attitude to the article’s revelations. 

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This blasé reaction likely reflects just how common bad behavior is the entertainment industry as well as how ICM addressed the cases of misconduct at the time — often with disciplinary measures taken to the agents and executives involved. 

Still, no one denied that with the shifts brought about by the #MeToo reckoning and the Black Lives Matter movement, behavior that was once accommodated if not accepted is now under a microscope. The demands for reform at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the shakeup of Ellen DeGeneres’ senior producing team last fall following accusations of workplace misconduct, the recent THR exposé of famously abusive producer Scott Rudin, a Wrap investigation into toxic workplace culture at Dick Clark Productions are all signs of shifting attitudes toward what’s acceptable in workplace culture. 

“I do think that the media and journalists can be important allies in change in Hollywood,” Abigail Severance, Dean of the School of Film/Video at CalArts, told TheWrap. “The coverage the HFPA got this year, the criticism of their culture, I think that shows us that change can happen when the conversation is out in public. And I think that’s where Time’s Up and #MeToo, particularly Time’s Up, are trying to put a really strong collective voice around problems like this. But I think America’s having a reckoning with itself — I’m not too surprised that ICM would be a part of that.”

Abusive behavior coming from the top of Hollywood’s totem pole is not a rarity, the insiders agreed. It’s a world where low-paid assistants and mailroom staffers are required to absorb the emotional (and in the case of producer Rudin, physical) blows from their bosses without having much protection. Indeed, yelling at assistants is standard fare at many, if not most, talent agencies and management companies.

The behavior detailed at ICM went well beyond yelling, to be sure. A film finance executive outside the company alleged that partner Steve Alexander exposed himself to her in car back in 2016. Three sources confirmed he was placed on leave after the alleged incident. Alexander denied the allegations. The Times detailed a review of an HR complaint in which one former assistant said agent Mitch Blackman threatened to break her ankles if she divulged a conversation they had. 

In all, the Times interviewed 30 former and current employees who made accusations of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct, particularly involving female employees and people of color. According to the individuals who spoke to the Times, ICM has tolerated what one former assistant called an “insane” environment in which some employees were harassed or bullied.

Representatives for ICM did not return requests for comment, though a rep did tell the Times that ICM “does not tolerate harassment, bullying or other inappropriate conduct. HR investigates all reports received and addresses each with appropriate disciplinary measures up to and including dismissal.”

“That kind of behavior or attitude is instilled in Hollywood,” Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public relations firm, told TheWrap. “I don’t think behavior in a culture like this will change overnight. At the core, the companies and leaders need to be aware of behavior and be clear that they don’t condone this. If there are no clear boundaries, it’s easy to go over that line. If those boundaries are set and people can lose jobs, then behavior will quickly change.”  

Even after THR Rudin article detailed accusations of intense physical and mental abuse of staffers, many insiders who spoke to TheWrap said that the EGOT-winning producer was not finished in Hollywood. Instead, they said that it would all depend on whether a workplace toxicity and anti-bullying movement that intensified last summer around DeGeneres’ daytime talk show, as well as around abuse allegations leveled towards Joss Whedon earlier this year, would gain more momentum.

“At what point do two stories like DeGeneres and Rudin’s reach a critical mass where it becomes an anti-bullying movement?” Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, told TheWrap at the time. “In Hollywood, for decades there has been an acceptance of hazing rituals, the idea that if you work for people of monstrous temperament, that proves that you are strong enough to survive the killer culture of Hollywood. That needs to go.”

Diane Haithman contributed to this report.

Beatrice Verhoeven

Beatrice Verhoeven

Film Editor

Umberto Gonzalez