Can Anita Hill and Star Wars boss Kathleen Kennedy fix Hollywood's harassment problem?

Kathleen Kennedy (left) is spearheading the creation of an anti-harassment commission that will be led by Anita Hill (right).
Kathleen Kennedy (left) is spearheading the creation of an anti-harassment commission that will be led by Anita Hill (right).PHOTOS: REUTERS, BlOOMBERG

(NYTimes) - As a powerhouse producer for Steven Spielberg and now president of Lucasfilm, Ms Kathleen Kennedy has for decades tackled some of Hollywood's most famous monsters: gremlins, poltergeists, T. rexes and the dark side of the Force.

Now she has set her sights on perhaps the most pernicious industry villain of all: sexual misconduct and abuse. She is spearheading the creation of an anti-harassment commission, backed by more than two dozen of the entertainment industry's biggest bigwigs, that, in a stroke of marquee casting, will be led by Ms Anita Hill.

The hard part will be figuring out what comes next. As Ms Hill concedes herself, there's no blueprint for ridding an industry of sexual harassment. At least not yet.

"If there was template out there, at this point I think it would've already been discovered," Ms Hill said in a phone chat on Monday (Dec 18) with The New York Times and Ms. Kennedy.

"There's something out there, pieces out there that need to come together," Ms. Hill continued. "But I think if a model was out there, we'd know, because there's so much will and desire to end this problem."

It's too early to guess if the commission will work, but it already has a few Hollywood must-haves on its side. Backing it is a good look, and it has money.

The names Ms Kennedy enlisted bear testament to the eagerness, if not desperation, of Hollywood heavyweights to be on the right side of the sexual harassment story. Chief executives and leaders from Disney, Paramount, CBS, Netflix, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and the biggest guilds and agencies were among those who met with Ms Kennedy on Friday in Los Angeles - the day the commission was announced - and pledged money from their organisations, along with their unanimous support. As Matt Damon has discovered, there can be no gradations, at least publicly, in backing #MeToo. People get pilloried for not being all in.

Beyond the fear of bad optics (and, lest it go unmentioned, the damage that sexual harassment wreaks on victims), the financial cost of handling misconduct can be crippling. According to one educated estimate, Ridley Scott's 11th hour decision to swap out an accused abuser, Kevin Spacey, for Christopher Plummer in All The Money In The World cost upward of US$10 million. Settlements can run in the multimillions. Zero tolerance bodes well for the bottom line, especially in an industry under intense scrutiny for being too male and too white.

Ms Kennedy first proposed the commission at an Elle Women in Hollywood event in October, less than two weeks after the first story about sexual misconduct accusations against Harvey Weinstein broke in The New York Times. In a speech, she said studios, talent agencies and unions should create and fund a commission of labour specialists, lawyers, feminist thinkers and activists who would develop industrywide protections against harassment and abuse. "I reject the idea that misogyny is the true heart of this industry," she told the crowd.

Speaking by phone on Monday, she said that despite her initial prescriptive suggestions, she didn't at the time have a clear idea of what the commission might look like or how it might come about.

But with new revelations making news by the day, she had increasingly urgent conversations with fellow honchos in and out of the industry. "There was a hunger," she said, to be part of the conversations, and the solution, she said. A "very cohesive" group of women came together, she said, all wanting to set something in motion. Among them: lawyer Nina L. Shaw, whose clients have included Ava DuVernay, Lupita Nyong'o and Misty Copeland; Ms Maria Eitel, who co-chairs the Nike Foundation, and founded the nonprofit Girl Effect, which aids impoverished women and girls; and venture capitalist Freada Kapor Klein, who conducted some of the earliest surveys about sexual harassment in the 70s.

They were casting about for someone to head the commission when Ms Kapor suggested Ms Hill, "and, thank goodness, Anita said yes", Ms. Kennedy said.

Ms Hill was an obvious choice. She is a lawyer and an academic, as well as a household name, which is important in Tinseltown, and has been a figurehead in the fight against sexual harassment since 1991, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation process for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Despite Ms Hill's testimony that he had assailed her with inappropriate sexual suggestions when they worked together years before, Justice Thomas was confirmed.

Yet the sight of Ms Hill sitting by herself as a bank of white men peppered her with condescending and withering questions became a flash point for many women, both a symbol of what they were up against and an inspiration to push back.

"This has been a 26-year fight," said Ms Hill, now a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University.

She said both Washington and Hollywood were plagued by an imbalance and misuse of power. But where she saw a difference, she said, was in Hollywood's desire - at least as evidenced by the overt support for the new commission - to stamp out sexual harassment.

"We have to celebrate that we are coming together for a purpose and that people are saying at this point, 'We cannot tolerate this behaviour,'" she said. "That's our starting point from here. There will be lots of work to do."

The structure of the initiative - high-profile women backed by the industry's top brass, most of whom happened to be men - was deliberate, and borne out of earlier conversations Ms Kennedy had with men in the business. They were eager for change, she found, but reluctant to lead the charge because they didn't feel like it was their place to. (Imagine!)

"There wasn't one of them that didn't respond very proactively, but I think there's a hesitancy on the part of some men, and a thinking that this is something women need to step out in front of," Ms Kennedy said.

Ms Hill said this dovetailed with what she had been hearing as sexual harassment accusations unfolded.

"I've heard from a lot of men who say, 'I'm so embarrassed to be a man,' and, 'What do I tell my daughters?' " she said. "They want to address this problem. But they're not sure they are credible to address it on their own. And I would say we now have women who are in leadership positions that can do it. I think that men wouldn't step out on their own, but will step out in partnership with women."

The commission is in its earliest stages, but Ms Hill and Ms Kennedy said that there will be a dedicated staff to research what initiatives have worked or not across various companies, unions, college campuses and the like. There is also talk of looking into an anonymous sexual harassment reporting app, like the start-up AllVoices.

"We are going to do this as quickly and effectively as possible," Ms Hill said. "We're going to have to figure out what are the best practices and best policies, and how we think about implementation. All of those things are yet to come."