In July 2018, a new big-screen version of West Side Story was confirmed as the next film for Steven Spielberg. In September that year came the first cast announcement: Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort would play the lead role of Tony, the Jets street gang member who sets tragedy in motion when he falls for Maria, sister of the leader of Puerto Rican rival gang the Sharks.
With an iconic property such as West Side Story, previously made into a 1961 film that won ten Oscars, including Best Picture, and Spielberg at the helm, Disney’s 20th Century Studios wasn’t relying much on cast for the marketing sell. But to the extent that the film had a star, it was Elgort.
Filming took place over the summer of 2019 and Disney dated West Side Story for Christmas 2020, positioning it nicely for the multi-generation family outings that occur over the holiday season. But next came a significant curveball.
In June 2020, Elgort was accused on Twitter by a woman of sexually assaulting her in 2014, when she was 17 and he was 20. Elgort responded with a statement that he and the accuser had a “brief, legal and entirely consensual relationship”. What was Disney to do?
When sex-abuse accusations were made against Kevin Spacey in October 2017, just two months before his latest film All The Money In The World was set for release, Ridley Scott, with the backing of Sony’s TriStar Pictures, opted to reshoot all his scenes in the film – which were significant but contained – replacing him with Christopher Plummer.
But the single accusation against Elgort hardly merited such a drastic step and, in any case, his role is so significant it made replacing him wholly unviable. Similarly, Disney has opted not to replace Armie Hammer in Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile, after accusations landed that have derailed the actor’s career earlier this year: lurid claims of bizarre sexual fantasies, based on Instagram screenshots of messages purportedly from the actor. His major role in the $90m-budget Hercule Poirot whodunit and interactions with a wide range of busy actors made reshooting with another actor “virtually impossible”, according to a report in Variety.
Similarly, it has not been possible to replace Spacey in the Netflix film Gore, in which he plays literary icon Gore Vidal. Netflix faced a particular headache with this film, since the drama reportedly involves Vidal making unwelcome advances towards a younger man. The film has been shelved, with no streaming date yet announced.
“When an actor behaves in such a way that a film is not able to be released, that has an enormous effect, not just on that actor, but on everyone else involved in the film.” Those are the words of a leading UK casting director, one of several leading industry figures who agreed to speak to THE FACE on the condition of anonymity.
Death On The Nile was originally set for release in October 2020 and while Covid also played a role in the film’s delay, it’s easy to imagine that the Hammer situation was a significant factor in its postponement all the way to February 2022. Meanwhile, Hammer’s co-star Emma Mackey has long been deprived of a vital career break – the chance to bounce from hit show Sex Education into a high-profile big-studio film.
“I think it is hugely unfair,” offers our casting director, who goes on to make a case for financial penalties for bad behaviour. “Actors at a certain level are paid an enormous amount of money, not just for their acting talent, but also for their ability to help get the film seen and help in its release,” she says. “If that actor then behaves so badly that the film is either not able to be released, or certainly that actor can’t fulfil their press and publicity obligations, then surely there ought to be some clause that means that part of that enormous fee is not paid to them.”
In fact, this is already happening. In November, Spacey lost an arbitration case with House Of Cards producer MRC. He must now pay $31m for breach of contract, compensating the company for having to cut season six from 13 to eight episodes when it wrote the actor out of the show. So far, no criminal charges have been filed against Spacey.
Sex scandals involving Hollywood stars are not new. The acting career of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle effectively capsized after actress Virginia Rappe died at a boozy party he hosted in San Francisco in September 1921, in defiance of the Prohibition laws then in effect in the US. Admittedly, that was an extreme case: law enforcement had to intervene in the case of a dead body. After three trials, Arbuckle was finally acquitted of murder, but he was forced to return to the live vaudeville circuit, before reinventing himself as a director under the name William Goodrich.
But in the wake of the MeToo movement and in the age of digital communication, we are now in a different place. There is much more likely to be a digital trace of problematic or abusive behaviour, victims are more emboldened to speak truth to power and social media creates a platform for audiences to enact a cancellation.
“Social media has changed everything,” says an executive producer who has worked on major, Oscar-winning films and also has experience in film distribution. This executive has no advice to Disney about how to navigate a situation like Death On The Nile. “Suddenly your biggest publicity hit has become toxic and no amount of compensation is going to make up for that,” he says.
In an ideal world, studios and streamers would be able to anticipate and thus avoid problems, but this executive raises the case of actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a fake hate crime and then had to be removed from the final two episodes of TV show Empire’s fifth season. As he says, “How can you write something into a contract that could possibly imagine that kind of eventuality?”
Had the feedback loop of platforms such as Twitter existed at the time that Mel Gibson committed some of his more problematic behaviours, it’s likely that he would have experienced even bigger pushbacks in his career than have actually occurred. Similarly, in the past, Johnny Depp might have better survived the fallout of his failed libel suit against The Sun newspaper. Instead, he was dropped from the Fantastic Beasts franchise and replaced in his role by actor Mads Mikkelsen. The stakeholders of that film series are also contending with social media unrest over JK Rowling’s stance on trans rights.
Another producer we spoke to reckons that social media has “absolutely changed the way we approach things”. As this Oscar winner explains: “A couple of years ago, we were looking at an actor’s social media profile and saying, ‘Wow, what a fabulous advantage this is going to be to the movie that they’ve got X million followers.’ Whereas now, we’re saying, ‘Has anyone combed their social media and made sure there’s nothing inappropriate there?’”
In the past, productions have taken steps to try to avoid casting actors who are likely to present problematic behaviour on-set, especially in the case of low-budget films where there is limited room to accommodate any delays. “Experienced producers usually have a good feel for how an actor might be in terms of behaviour,” says one award-winning filmmaker, “and also information about any potential pitfalls of an actor’s behaviour will come from the casting person.”
However, he adds, “Sometimes you take this big roll of the dice because you need the actor to finance [the project]. The actor’s behaviour may have been a problem for another production, but you keep your fingers crossed it won’t reoccur: showing up really late, not showing up at all, substance abuse, stuff like that.”
But sex scandals are a different case. “You’re really in the dark about an actor getting hit with a MeToo violation,” says this filmmaker. “Many of them happen away from the set in the context of personal relationships, so you can get caught off guard by that kind of thing.”
Our casting director agrees: “If it comes out of the blue, there is absolutely no way of guarding against it.”
Filmmaking is already a business beset by wild unpredictability, in which studios and financiers are always trying to hedge risk. Cancel culture adds another layer of volatility to the casting process – for example, if the anticipated visibility for an actor you are casting does not transpire because their other film is delayed or shelved.
“If everyone is talking about someone, like ‘They’re going to be a star, they’ve just been cast in whatever A‑list director’s film that is going to get an awards season release’ – you use that when you’re packaging your own film and trying to raise finance,” says a BAFTA-nominated producer. “But in reality we will always be thinking, ‘Who knows?’ You’ve got to wait and see what happens when the film is released.”
This producer actually benefited when an actress she wanted to cast in a film, but who was unavailable, suddenly became available after her other project fell through because of an accusation levelled against that project’s male co-star. However, silver linings like this are rare. More likely, cancel culture will spin out in negative ways for the film industry.
Studios are responding by beefing up morals clauses in actor’s contracts – at least according to one of the two executive producers who spoke to us. “I’ve seen that in film deals in the last year or two, where that’s being demanded,” he says. “That’s definitely new.” According to this executive, that would allow a studio, streamer or financier to cancel a contract with an actor, even if they have offered them a pay-or-play deal, an agreement that typically guarantees talent full pay regardless of whether or not a film proceeds.
More worrying for independent producers, in this scenario a lead actor’s breach of a morality clause could also permit a studio or financier to cancel their whole investment in a film. “The bank will be on the hook and everyone will be on the hook, and everyone will be massively screwed,” he says.
One entertainment lawyer we spoke to confirmed this executive’s assessment, adding, “Some of these clauses are now so wide ranging that the bar may simply be to cause ‘ridicule’ of any party involved with the film or ‘offend the morals of any group of the community’, a trigger that is extremely broad and vague. They also not only cover past behaviour but any actions in the future, which means there is no point at which they cannot be utilised.” He adds that banks are looking for ways to bounce any exposure back to the production or other financing parties, a move likely to “scupper the often already fragile financing structures of independent films”.
While the long delay of Death On The Nile has been tough for a blameless actor such as Mackey, ultimately it’s just a speed bump in the road. “Emma is a phenomenally talented actor,” says our BAFTA-nominated producer. “There is a lot of work out there and she will have something that comes out very soon that will further expand her career and her reputation.”
She’s right to say that – and, indeed, next year Mackey will appear as Emily Brontë in Emily, the writing-directing debut of actress Frances O’Connor, and co-starring Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Fionn Whitehead.
As our producer adds, “The industry is a roller-coaster ride of peaks and troughs, and disappointments and successes, and this [the unpredictable outcomes of cancel culture] is another one that has come to join it.”
Similarly, the Elgort situation has doubtless caused headaches for Disney, which delayed the release of West Side Story by a year, and it’s embarrassing that so far he has not participated in press for the film. However, if anything, Elgort’s absence has thrown an even bigger spotlight on his young female co-star Rachel Zegler, who beat thousands of hopefuls in an open casting call to land the role of Maria. The Best Actress Oscar push for this big-screen debutant has already begun.
For our Oscar-winning producer, the impact of cancel culture will be short-lived, because it will permanently impact behaviour for the better. “This will pass,” he says. “The stuff that’s hiding away, that will all inevitably come out over the next months or year. But if we’re looking at five years, don’t you think that people who are now at drama school are thinking about everything they’re putting on social media and about everything they might do in their private lives? Because all of it comes to bite.”
He quotes a drama school head, who recently shared her perspective with him. “She said, ‘You know, kids are thinking differently now. They really are.’ People are definitely thinking about how they will be portrayed in the future. And, to be honest, learning how to behave a bit better.”