When the documentary An Open Secret tried to lift the lid on child abuse in Hollywood, it billed itself as “the film Hollywood doesn’t want you to see”. The marketing tagline did not exaggerate.
The film died upon release in 2015. There was no theatrical release to speak of, no television deal, no video on demand distribution.
“We got zero Hollywood offers to distribute the film. Not even one. Literally no offers for any price whatsoever,” said Gabe Hoffman, a Florida-based hedge fund manager who financed the film.
It did not seem to matter that it was directed by an Oscar-nominated director, Amy Berg, or that it uncovered damning evidence of the sexual abuse of teenage boys by figures in the film industry.
“There was nowhere to see it,” said Lorien Haynes, the film’s writer. “I don’t think it impacted at all. Nobody saw it. We released a film that didn’t [seem to] exist.”
Now, two years later, multiple “open secrets” of predatory behaviour are detonating across Hollywood and the documentary that blew the whistle is getting millions of viewers — but still no distribution deal.
Hoffman released the film for free on the video-sharing website Vimeo this month after reports about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults set off a chain-reaction, with James Toback, Tyler Grasham and Kevin Spacey among those accused of harassment and worse.
Corey Feldman, a former child actor who says he was the victim of a paedophile ring, has raised more than $170,000 (Dh624,376) through crowdfunding for a purported $10 million biopic about the abuse.
Hoffman said he had intended to end the free online viewings of An Open Secret on Tuesday, but extended the window until Sunday because of public interest, with more than 3 million viewings on various social media platforms since October 12.
“We knew a Harvey Weinstein moment was coming and when it would, that we’d release it for free,” said Hoffman. He hoped the documentary would yet make its way on to television. “We’d love to be on Amazon and Netflix. We’re always ready to talk.”
The documentary’s initial vanishing into the void and belated re-emergence underlines how Hollywood long ducked evidence of abuse. An Open Secret had the elements to make a splash.
Berg, the director, had earned an Oscar nomination for her film Deliver Us from Evil, about sex abuse in the Catholic church.
Her team obtained evidence of a paedophile ring in Hollywood — managers, agents, publicists and directors — that preyed on young boys and teenagers seeking entry to the industry.
Some hosted lavish parties where men allegedly plied the boys with alcohol and drugs and traded them for sex. Others spent years grooming victims, and winning the confidence of their families, before starting sexual assaults.
A handful were caught and served relatively brief jail sentences before returning to the industry. Brian Peck, an actor and acting coach who worked for Nickelodeon and the X-Men franchise, was convicted of two counts of lewd acts with a child. He is now working in the industry again.
The documentary features interviews with Evan Henzi, who was 11 years old when his manager, Martin Weiss, started assaulting him. Weiss pleaded no contest in 2012 to two counts of child molestation, and was sentenced to a year in jail and five years’ probation. He was freed immediately due to time served.
“I shared my story in An Open Secret so other victims who have been molested for years just like me can heal,” Henzi, 24, said this week.
“When the film was released, I witnessed a lot of support by people who actually saw the film. What I did not witness was support from film festivals or Hollywood at large to promote the film. I do believe, though, that both some of the filmmakers of An Open Secret and the Hollywood establishment are responsible for this.”
Internal disputes disrupted the film’s launch. Hoffman took Berg to arbitration, alleging she did not fulfil her end of the deal. She denied that. There were other rows behind the scenes over the script, crediting and edits.
Berg declined to be interviewed, saying she would let the film speak for itself.
Hoffman downplayed any suggestion that the filmmakers had shot themselves in the foot and blamed Hollywood for its distribution travails — for instance initially rating the film R, before relenting and classifying it PG-13. “Hollywood clearly blocked the film. The higher-ups didn’t like how it portrayed the industry.”
Hoffman also claimed festivals in Los Angeles, London and Toronto promised to give the well-reviewed film prominent screenings, only to rescind the invitations without proper explanation. The Guardian could not immediately verify this account.
Haynes, who wrote the script, said mid-ranking television executives seemed eager to buy the film, only to be overruled. “At the top of the food chain is where we got the ‘no’. It did feel that people were scared to run it. It is complete anathema to release a film about corruption in Hollywood in Hollywood.”
She acknowledged another factor: a harrowing film about child abuse was a tough sell. “You’re expecting a lot of an audience to sit through that.”
For two years An Open Secret existed in film purgatory, available only in pirated online versions, few people aware that here was evidence of abuse, collusion and cover-up in the heart of Tinseltown.
Weinstein does not feature in the documentary — he allegedly preferred women, not young boys — but the accusations against him unleashed a gale which put An Open Secret in the headlines as a “must watch” documentary that explains Hollywood’s complicity.
Weinstein has apologised for his past behaviour, but denies many of the harassment claims and “unequivocally denied” allegations of non-consensual sex.
Spacey apologised this week after he was accused of making an unwanted sexual advance toward the Star Trek actor Anthony Rapp, who says he was 14 years old at the time of the alleged incident in 1986. Spacey, star of the Netflix show House of Cards and former artistic director of London’s Old Vic, said he did not remember the “encounter” but if he had done what Rapp described in an article published by BuzzFeed, it “would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behaviour”.
Meanwhile, Toback, a veteran director, faces allegations from more than 30 women of sexual harassment and trying to trade roles for sex. He has denied the accusations, saying he hired people only on merit. Grasham, a veteran agent, is accused of harassing and assaulting multiple young men. His employer, the Agency for the Performing Arts, fired him after the claims went public. One alleged victim has filed a complaint with the Los Angeles police department. Grasham has not addressed the claims in any public statement yet and could not be reached for comment.
The cascade of allegations have all served to give Open Secret the kind of limelight its backers believe it deserved in the first place.
“The dangers and threats that follow speaking out are very real. I’ve seen them first-hand. But I believe we’ve turned a corner,” said Katelyn Howes, one of the producers. “I hope this continues to push these abuses of power into the spotlight, making it safer for so many people, especially children, who aren’t in the position to talk about their experiences yet.”
Henzi, the former child actor who shared his story of abuse, echoed that. “I do believe that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein have completely opened up the door to having a grand conversation about different experiences of sexual assault by people in the entertainment industry, and that will be really beneficial for a lot of people. It is about time.”