Coming to a theater near you (but not soon): #MeToo, the movie

September 25, 2018
Category: Business & Work

Quarterly earnings conference calls are typically dry financial fare, but in early May, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson had a different kind of announcement: The Times is going into TV and film production.

The company saw benefits both in enhancing the Times' reputation and reaching new audiences after agreeing to an independent Showtime documentary series about the paper, Thompson said. Next up was conversion of "The Daily" podcast to "The Weekly," a half-hour show for FX and Hulu. And the piece de resistance, he continued, would be "a planned feature film on the Times' coverage of the Harvey Weinstein story."

Checking on progress four months later, I encountered the proverbial brick wall. Sam Dolnick, the Times' executive in charge, was not available for an interview. Nor were reporters Jody Kantor or Megan Twohey. Anonymous Content and Annapurna, the Times'  A-list production partners, did not return calls.

From my rudimentary understanding of show biz practice, a curtain of silence is not unusual as a planned production moves from rights purchase to development.

Kantor and Twohey had spoken freely about how they did their work in a series of interviews before they went on book leave this spring, so there is the outline of a potent story-behind-the-story on the record. Also, a small but tantalizing ethics question lingers over the project: If you are the producer of a movie about yourself, as the Times will be, can the result be free of a self-serving flavor?

Putting together an investigative report, confirming what had long been rumored about Weinstein's predatory ways, will provide a strong storyline.  And the impact — triggering the sweeping #MeToo movement — earned Kantor and Twohey the Pulitzer Prize for public service, shared with The New Yorker's Ronan Farrow.

In addition, the scenario has a critical element in common with other successful newspaper procedurals: daunting pushback from the target of the investigation. For "All the President's Men," that was the Nixon administration; for "Spotlight," the Catholic Church; for "The Post" (about publishing the Pentagon Papers), the Nixon administration again.

Reporting on Weinstein, Twohey said in a speech she and Kantor gave to the newsroom the day the Pulitzer was announced, provided an unexpected lesson in "how to confront a bully," in the context of reporting "firmly, fairly and, most of all, on the record."

Kantor added that Weinstein was "a first-class threatener, an ardent believer in his own influence." Both thanked top editors and publisher Arthur Sulzberger  for standing firm as Weinstein deployed a platoon of advisers and lawyers hoping the Times would back off the story.

I was surprised to learn that the piece came together over a relatively short four-month span. The Times had warmed to the subject in early 2017 as other reporters covered the big settlements Bill O'Reilly had paid his accusers and a pattern of harassment in Silicon Valley's tech industry.

Next, editors decided, it was worth looking at longstanding rumors of Weinstein's predatory behavior.  "I did a little poking around," Kantor said in a later interview, and found enough substance to proceed. She was paired with Twohey, both of them experienced investigative reporters, 20 years into their careers.

Kantor was virtually a Times lifer, joining the arts and entertainment staff in 2003 and working her way up to covering the Obamas in the 2008 campaign. Her major investigative projects included a scathing piece on working conditions at Amazon.

Twohey, a Midwesterner, followed a different path, with early stops at the Chicago Tribune and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, both well-known for strong investigative projects. She then moved on to Reuters, where her stories included a stunning exposé of an underground network in which adoptive parents could abandon unwanted children from abroad — a Pulitzer finalist.

Kantor has covered gender in the workplace issues previously. Twohey, on the Times' campaign team, had covered Donald Trump's boasts about groping and other allegations of sexual harassment.

Neither had any show biz connections, Kantor recalled in an interview, leading to practical reporting problems like, "How do you get Angelina Jolie's phone number?"

After the story broke in October 2017 and gathered steam in the months following, the two were subject of a cover story in Variety.  An even more revealing picture of what it was like to be swept up in such an explosive story came in an NPR "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross.

Kantor and Twohey talked to Gross about the stages of gaining trust from women Weinstein had targeted, from well-known actresses to office assistants. Their reporting revealed a paper trail of non-disclosure agreements and memos. And they gradually pieced together the network of enablers who delivered Weinstein's targets for his trysts.

I have known investigative pairings that matched a documents-oriented digger with a graceful writer or a bulldog "indicter" with a more patient "explainer."  There may have been a set of complementary skills in the Kantor-Twohey collaboration, but in an interview with The Cut, Kantor zeroed in on a different point:

"One of the saving graces of this process has been the partnership with Megan, because this was a responsibility that we each needed to share with another person. We barely knew each other when we teamed up on this story. Not only were we in constant communication with each other and not only did we compare notes, check judgment, and plot strategy on those matters great and small, but the weight of this reporting is such that you just need somebody to share it with. A lot of the stories we heard are incredibly disturbing, and you don't want to carry those alone."

The two women are both mothers of young daughters;. in fact, Twohey was just returning from maternity leave. In their Pulitzer speech to the Times' newsroom, they framed the story-of-the-story as one they might someday tell their daughters.

"One day we were working on an incredibly tough story," Kantor said, "and then just a few days later, we started to see change happening all over the world."

The dramatic impact of the piece was not readily apparent to the writers even as it was coming together.  The two worried that Weinstein — unlike O'Reilly or Bill Cosby — was not widely enough known except to movie industry insiders and film enthusiasts for the story to get much traction.

But the first piece spawned many sequels about the extent of Weinstein's and other powerful men's abusive behavior. Something else turned the investigation into a full-fledged movement, Twohey told a gathering at Northwestern University in May: “There was this bubbling rage that was ready to be unleashed."

Though the lead time for movies can stretch to several years, the producers will probably need to strike a balance between meticulous craft and timeliness.  These events are not 15 years in the past as were those of "Spotlight," but recent and still unfolding, even this week.

And since The New York Times' journalism and practices are always under a microscope, it will be courting criticism if the film on which it serves as a co-producer tweaks details and timelines, even if only a little.

In practice, the producers may opt, as in "Spotlight," for able actors who are not marquee names, the better to reflect the teamwork of reporters and editors. 

In any case, it won't be a stretch to cast Kantor and Twohey as heroes, and come up with the latest in a series of movies showcasing journalists at their best.