It’s Time to Go ON THE RECORD

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on May 29th, 2020.

Sundance 2020 Premiere – author photo

Was the 2020 Sundance Film Festival really only four months ago? It feels like a lifetime and another reality ago. Sundance was the last major film festival to happen before COVID-19 brought events and mass gatherings to a halt, but thankfully they are continuing online. In fact, I’m proud to say that Seed&Spark, an early stage investment that I made years ago, is pioneering ways to help make this happen, ensuring that the festival experience will continue during these unprecedented times. That being said, there is nothing like the energy and anticipation of an opening night premiere, and four months later, there’s one in particular from Sundance 2020 that I can’t stop thinking about: On the Record.

On the Record is the latest documentary film from critically acclaimed filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, the duo behind The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground (full disclosure: I was an Executive Producer of The Hunting Ground). Both of those films were searing indictments of the epidemic of sexual assault in the US military and across US college campuses respectively, and notably, they were both released before the #MeToo movement swept across the globe, premiering at Sundance in 2012 and 2015 respectively. It could be argued that these films helped to lay the groundwork and added muscle to the movement. And now there is On The Record, which in my opinion is their best film yet. More importantly, these films are helping to ensure that issues of sexual assault, harassment, and violence are staying front and center, even when the headlines are being dominated by COVID-19. We have certainly learned a lot of things during this pandemic, including the importance of storytelling to create empathy and action. Now more than ever, telling the stories of survivors of all kinds remains critically important.

The woman at the center of this documentary is Drew Dixon, a former music executive at Def Jam Recordings and Arista Records. She became one of the first women of color to allege sexual assault at the hands of a very prominent black man in the #MeToo era, and On the Record details her experience. The alleged perpetrator is Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, with further professional retaliation by LA Reid. Dixon is joined in the documentary by several more women, all alleging sexual assault, harassment, and even rape at the hands of Russell Simmons. Their stories are ones of workplace behavior, and the film offers a deep and painful look into how careers can be derailed and destroyed.

While watching the film, what hit me the hardest was how much talent was and continues to be wasted, not to mention how much potential goes unrealized, because of the unspeakable behavior of powerful men. This film looks at this issue within the music industry. Dixon is deeply credible, in fact, beyond credible, and any accusations that she may not be leave me baffled. On the Record goes to great lengths to share just how talented she was in telling her story of moving up the ranks in a challenging industry practically devoid of female representation. I could not help but draw parallels to the financial services industry I worked in for over a decade. This film, much like Untouchable, offers a very painful study on this type of behavior, and in so doing, I hope it sheds light on how to stop it.

The stories of all of the brave women in this film were heart-wrenching to watch, but On the Record goes further by delving deeper into the reasons why up until recently the voices of the #MeToo movement were not fully representative of the spectrum of survivors. In particular, it examines the systemic discriminations that far too often silence women of color, and looks at the cultural pressures from within their own communities to stay silent. In interviews, Dixon has spoken candidly about the social norms within African American communities that favor protecting their men at all costs, even at the expense of the women who may have been victims of those men. Where On the Record shines is how it addresses these issues with sensitive insight and informative critiques, all while ensuring that a powerful man is finally held accountable for his actions.

On the Record has already weathered a turbulent road to release. Just weeks before its scheduled premiere at Sundance, Oprah Winfrey pulled out of the project as lead producer. She took Apple TV with her as the film’s distributor, meaning On the Record debuted under a cloud of controversy and uncertainty. I was in the audience for the premiere, and believe me when I say that the atmosphere was electric. When the credits rolled, the film was given an extended standing ovation, one that was well earned in my opinion. The question and answer period following the film was equally emotionally charged, and it remains one of the most memorable experiences in my ten years of Sundance screenings. The filmmakers, both white filmmakers, were challenged as to their place to tell this story, and I believe it was Dixon who passionately responded with respect to the sensitivity and responsiveness of both Amy and Kirby.

Also on stage responding to questions was the legendary Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw, whose articulation of intersectionality, a key concept of this film, was so powerful and needed. Dr. Crenshaw actually coined the term ‘intersectionality’ over 30 years ago, and today is considered one of the foremost experts in critical race theory. Her presence brought so much to an already incredible night. The next morning, the rave reviews flooded in, and shortly after Sundance concluded, On the Record secured distribution through HBO Max. There are many reasons why I’m proud to be a board member of the Sundance Institute, but their commitment to standing behind important films like On the Record, especially in the face of such highly publicized defections, is top of my list.

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Filmmakers Amy and Kirby – author photo

HBO Max is the latest entry in the streaming wars, and upon its long awaited debut on Wednesday, On the Record was being touted as one of the premium examples of original content waiting for subscribers. To sign up, please click here (no, they are not paying me, i just really want you to see this film!). I know that one of the biggest headlines surrounding HBO Max was its acquisition of Friends reruns, but HBO has a long tradition of supporting hard hitting documentary and narrative films. I for one am very grateful that they acquired the rights to On the Record, thereby ensuring that this film would be seen beyond Sundance. I have no doubt that there was a lot of pressure by many within the music industry to not give this film a home. Even more than that, I am grateful to the filmmakers and for the many brave women who so boldly came forward to share their stories. Doing so always comes at huge personal cost to survivors who speak out, and therefore we can honor their bravery by choosing to watch their stories, and by doing our best to understand and take action against this pervasive behavior.

Update: Here is a link to the trailer, a discussion guide, and organizations to support. Thanks to Jamia Wilson for calling it to my attention.

On the Record is getting rave reviews and is 100% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Full coverage below.

Breaks

DEADLINE – May 27, 2020 – “‘On The Record’ Filmmakers Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering Sign With WME” By Denise Petski **also sent as an e-mail blast**

FILM INDEPENDENT E-BLAST – May 26, 2020 – “This Week at Film Independent” by Staff

FORTUNE | BROADSHEET NEWSLETTER– May 27, 2020 – “‘On the Record’ is a reminder that the #MeToo movement is here to stay” By Kristen Bellstrom and Emma Hinchcliffe

THE GRIO – May 27, 2020 – “5 reasons to watch Russell Simmons accuser doc ‘On The Record’” By Cortney Wills

NEW YORK POST – May 27, 2020 – “HBO Max pushes ‘Legendary’ status with streaming premiere” By Eric Hegedus 

TIME– May 27, 2020 – “Which HBO Max Originals to Watch—and Which to Skip” By Judy Berman

WOMEN AND HOLLYWOOD– May 27, 2020 – “Pick of the Day: ‘On the Record’” By Melissa Silverstein

Op-Eds

Mother Jones – May 27, 2020 – “The New Russell Simmons Documentary Grapples With the Price Black Women Pay When They Accuse Their Own” By Jamilah King

NBC NEWS – May 27, 2020 – “HBO Max’s Russell Simmons film explores how white supremacy shames Black assault victims” By Candace McDuffie

The Root – May 27, 2020 – “On the Record: Russell Simmons Finally Faces the Music, But He Shouldn’t Be the Only One Listening” By Jay Connor

Interviews

Billboard– May 27, 2020 – “Why Russell Simmons’ Accusers Don’t Think the Music Biz Is Getting Better for Women” by Cathy Applefeld Olson // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

Documentary.org– May 27, 2020 – “‘On The Record’ Investigates Sexual Misconduct in the Music Industry” by Addie Morfoot // featuring Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering

IndieWire – May 27, 2020 – “‘On the Record’: For Russell Simmons’ Accusers, the Film’s Release is Met with Mixed Feelings” by Tambay Obenson // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

KPCC “Take Two” – May 27, 2020 – “Interview with Amy Ziering and Drew Dixon” by A. Martinez // featuring Drew Dixon + Amy Ziering **Interview begins at the 30:54 mark”

LA Times – May 27, 2020 – “What it’s like to come forward as a sexual assault survivor in the midst of a pandemic” by Amy Kaufman // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Kirby Dick, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher, Amy Ziering

Madame Noire – May 27, 2020 – “Celebrity Does Not Equal Virtue. Russell Simmons Rape Accuser Sil Lai Abrams Talks On The Record, Healing & More” by Veronica Wells // featuring Sil Lai Abrams

Mel Magazine – May 27, 2020 – “‘On The Record’ Explores Who The #MeToo Conversation Left Behind — Women Of Color” by Tim Grierson // featuring Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering

Ms. Magazine – May 27, 2020 – “Black Women, Hip-Hop & #MeToo: ‘On the Record’ Spotlights Music Industry” by Janell Hobson // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

Rolling Out – May 27, 2020 – “Hip-hop artist Sheri Sher details cost Black women pay to reveal sexual assault” by Tony Binns // featuring Sheri Sher

Rolling Stone– May 27, 2020 – “‘On the Record’ Directors Talk Sexual Assault in Music Industry, Loss of Women’s Voices” by Breanna Ehrlich // featuring Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering

The Root – May 27, 2020 – “Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Sher Go On the Record About Russell Simmons and Dismantling the Misogynoir System” by Tonja Renee Stidhum // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

Shondaland– May 27, 2020 – “’On the Record’ Allows Women in Hip Hop to Finally Have Their #MeToo Moment” By Candice Frederick // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

USA TODAY – May 27, 2020 – “He’s ‘a monster’: ‘On the Record’ gives first-hand accounts of Russell Simmons rape claims” by Patrick Ryan // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

VOX – May 27, 2020 – “‘We are correcting the erasure of black lives’: What On the Record’s subjects say about Me Too” by Alissa Wilkinson // featuring Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher

Women’s Media Center – May 26, 2020 – “New #MeToo documentary gives voice to Russell Simmons accusers” by Carla Hay // featuring Kirby Dick, Drew Dixon, Amy Ziering

Reviews

ASSOCIATED PRESS – May 27, 2020 – “Review: A powerful #MeToo chapter in ‘On the Record’ doc” By Lindsey Bahr (rating: 3 out of 4 stars)

AWARDS CIRCUIT – May 26, 2020 – “Film Review: HBO Max’s ‘On The Record’ Gives a Megaphone to the Voices Often Sidelined in the #MeToo Movement” By LV Taylor (Positive)

THE CURVY FILM CRITIC– May 27, 2020 – “HBO’s On The Record Highlights Female Injustice Among Record Industry Exec (Review)” by Carla Renata (Positive)

DEADLINE– May 27, 2020 – “‘On The Record’ Review: HBO Max Launches With Riveting Music Biz Sexual Assault Documentary That Is A Must-See In The #MeToo Era” By Pete Hammond (Positive) **also sent as an email blast**

DECIDER – May 27, 2020 – “Multiple Women Accuse Russell Simmons of Sexual Assault in ‘On the Record’ on HBO Max” By Anna Menta (Positive)

FAST COMPANY – May 27, 2020 – “The controversial ‘On the Record’ documentary deftly tackles the complexities of #MeToo and intersectionality” By KC Ifeanyi (Positive)

FILM THREAT – May 26, 2020 – “On the Record” By By Sabina Dana Plasse (Rating: 10 out of 10)

MOTHER JONES – May 27, 2020 – “The New Russell Simmons Documentary Grapples With the Price Black Women Pay When They Accuse Their Own” By Jamila King (Positive)

THE NEW YORK TIMES – May 27, 2020 – “‘On the Record’ Review: A Black Woman’s View of #MeToo” By Devika Girish (Positive)

THE PLAYLIST – May 27, 2020 – “‘On The Record’ Is A Refreshingly Intersectional & Moving #MeToo Documentary [Review]” By Marshall Shaffer (Grade: B+)

ROLLING STONE – May 27, 2020 – “‘On the Record’ Review: Doc Gives Russell Simmons’ Accusers the Spotlight” By David Fear (Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars)

TIME – May 27, 2020 – “On the Record Hints at What’s Lost When Abuse Forces Women to Leave the Work They Love” By Stephanie Zacharek (Positive)

WASHINGTON POST– May 27, 2020 – “Russell Simmons sex assault documentary is an anguishing and essential film” By Ann Hornaday (Rating: 4 out of 4 stars)

This Movie Changed Me – More on Wonder Woman

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on July 30th, 2018.

Yes, I know. I know I said that I had written my last post about Wonder Woman. And then I said it again. I’ll probably say it again at the end of this post as well, but at this point I don’t think anyone will believe me, because I’m pretty sure I will always have another Wonder Woman post to write. Cool stuff just keeps happening! For instance, recently I was invited to record a podcast for This Movie Changed Me with Lily Percy and the On Being Studiosabout last year’s Wonder Woman film.They reached out to me due to my many, MANYposts and articles over the years about not just the movie, but the character as well, and I readily accepted their invitation. The episode was released a couple of days ago, and I’m beside myself with joy for many reasons. Here’s my top five!

You can find the link to the episode HERE.

1) Podcasts are cool. Over the last several years we have seen this medium explode in popularity, and for good reason. It has become much easier for people to produce a quality podcast, and more importantly, it’s become much easier for audiences to connect with it, meaning it’s easier than ever to access stories from an incredibly diverse set of voices. I have often thought about starting my own podcast where I interview incredible people who share my passion for advancing gender equity, and that still may happen. In the meantime, I invested in a startup company called Wait, What? that produces and creates podcasts because I thought the founders were fantastic, and so far this company is doing really well. Their first property was Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale, a podcast that focuses on how companies can grow from fledgling startups to successful enterprises, and it was the first American media program to commit upfront to a 50-50 gender balance for guests. Needless to say, I am on board with that!

2) I will talk about Wonder Woman with anyone who will listen, so to be invited to do so by a studio that I respect so much was a dream come true. On Being Studios is the production company founded by Krista Tippett in 2013 to produce and distribute Tippett’s growing network of podcasts. It began in 2001 with a monthly radio show called Speaking of Faith, but has since grown into the weekly On Being podcast that now reaches over 1.5 million listeners monthly. I discovered this podcast a couple of years ago and quickly devoured every episode. I’ve since been fortunate to get to know Krista and I feel privileged to call her a friend. To get to participate on one of her shows, talking about something that means so much to me, was truly an incredible experience.

3) This recording felt like the culmination of a journey many years in the making. In 2011, I asked my writing partner, Laura Moore, to work with me to prepare a report on the character of Wonder Woman, and specifically to look into why we still didn’t have a Wonder Woman movie, but characters like Batman, Superman, and Spider Man were already on their second incarnations. For the record, that was 2011. All three of those characters are now on their third iterations. Just saying. What began as a simple question eventually became a two year project and a 70 page report, and while I won’t go into all the details, the gist of the findings was that there was no good reason to not have a Wonder Woman movie on the big screen. We called out Hollywood on this lack of representation and demanded that Wonder Woman finally get her due. We released this report in April of 2013, and by the end of the year Gal Gadot had been cast in the role of Wonder Woman for the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, with plans for her solo film to be released shortly after. Now, far be it for me to take all the credit for getting the ball rolling on this, but I have to say that the timing is an awfully big coincidence.

4) I have written extensively about Wonder Woman both on LinkedIn and on my personal website, with some posts going back over 10 years. With the help of Laura, I have decried over and over again the lack of female superheroes to be role models for young girls, and specifically the outrageousness of the notion that we got three Spider Mans across six films before we got to see Wonder Woman. For me, it wasn’t just that I love this character and wanted to see her on the big screen. It was about how the media views women in general, and how it is possible to tell the story of a woman who is powerful, courageous, and brave, and at the same time unapologetically feminine. To tell a story where leading with love is seen as a strength and not a weakness. Where women lead by example, and where they are fully formed characters who are allowed to be both strong and vulnerable, conflicted and compassionate. It’s a narrative that has been sorely lacking in Hollywood, and it’s time for this narrative to take center stage, because if the box office and critical reception to Wonder Woman are any indication, audiences are just as hungry as I am for these types of stories. After 10 years of writing about this, I was thrilled to get to share my knowledge and passion around this subject, and to bring it to the wider On Being audience.

5) Finally, I loved doing this podcast because this movie truly did change me. I was extraordinarily lucky to get to go to the premiere in Hollywood last year, and I’m not going to lie, more than a few tears may have been shed at finally getting to see the movie I had been waiting for decades to see. Not just a Wonder Woman movie, but a truly great Wonder Woman movie that embodied so much of why this character is so special and important to me. While waiting for this film to to come to the big screen I had been working full time as a champion for gender lens investing and philanthropy, and the timing of the film marked a landmark in my own journey trying to be a super shero: being named Co-Founder of Women Moving Millions. Now, and forever more, these two events are connected and it feels like a before and an after.

This post would feel incomplete without mentioning my favorite scene in the whole movie, and one I had a chance to talk about on the podcast. The scene where Wonder Woman comes into her own as a superhero as she marched across No Man’s Land. Clearly my enthusiasm was shared by others – just listen to the cheers in this video to this truly amazing moment.

In closing, Wonder Woman proved once and for all that Hollywood is capable of producing fantastic stories about incredible women, and I will keep campaigning for more films like this until there are just as many female role models as there are male role models for all the little girls and boys out there. And if you are wondering if there will be a sequel, the answer is a big YES! It is already in the works.

And that folks, is my last post on Wonder Woman.

Until the next one…

And a big thank you to Laura for sharing my love for Wonder Woman and being with me every step of the way.

PS – if you have a favorite podcast, please feel free to share it in the comment section and why you love it!

Imagine Yourself a HERO

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 5th, 2018.

The Sundance Film Festival takes over the small town of Park City, Utah for 10 days every January. Yes, it is all about movies, but it is also about so much more than that. It is a full-out cultural experience. The programmers choose from thousands of feature fiction, non-fiction films, shorts, episodic, and virtual reality works to present to a global audience of industry folks and film lovers alike. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it can make a career to have a work premiere at Sundance. In many ways this festival is like winning a gold medal for storytellers.

I am lucky enough to live in Park City, and for the past 5 years I have served as a Trustee of the Sundance Institute, which is amazing because I LOVE movies. For 10 days I am ALL IN, seeing 20+ films, attending panels, meeting with filmmakers, going to parties, and much, much more. Sundance is non-stop from 8am to 12am every day and I love every second of it. What makes this festival so incredible is to not only experience the work, but to get to know the creators of that work as well. At Sundance it truly is all about the filmmakers. Year after year I have noticed that themes often reveal themselves in the films being presented, and this year was no exception. The tag line for 2018 was “the story lives in you”, and it could not have been more appropriate. The characters in so many of my favorite films this year all had these profoundly complex back stories.

In particular, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale was easily the most talked about film at the festival, but it won’t be coming soon to a theatre near you. Instead, The Tale will be coming to a television screen near you as it was picked up by HBO shortly after its Sundance premiere. Described as one of the first truly great films of the #MeToo movement, despite having been in the works for years, The Tale is not only an incredibly powerful film, it’s also incredibly timely, as it manages to tap into the current cultural zeitgeist in a way that is astonishing. I was at the premiere of this film last Saturday, and believe me, it very much earned its standing ovation. Starring Laura Dern and Isabelle Nelisse (she was 12 when filming took place), it is about a woman who “discovers the coded details she composed 40 years earlier” of “a special relationship she had with two adult coaches.” It is a film about memory, agency, the choices we make, the choices we think we make, and ultimately, the choices we don’t make. The Tale is both a stunning film and a crucial movie for our times, so please look out for it on HBO later this year. (photo with the incredible Director, Jennifer Fox)

One film that will be finding its way to cinemas in the coming year is opening night film Blindspotting (Twitter @blindspottin), which was picked up by Lionsgate last week. Featuring searing performances by leads Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, this is a movie for your must see list. (photo with these incredible actors below)“Exploding with energy, style, and raw emotion, this film unravels today’s intersection of race and class with urgent and poetic justice.” There were many films about this intersection, including MonsterMonsters and Men (@monstersmenfilm), Burden and others, and never before in my experience at the festival have there been so many complex male characters that challenge beliefs around what it means to be a ‘real man’. There was a rap sequence in the film that blew my mind and for good reason. Lead actor Daveed Diggs was one of the original cast members of Hamilton.

Other highlights for me included Puzzle, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, Monster, from Executive Producer John Legend, and Heart Beats Loud, which had probably the most epic title song ever. On the documentary front, the best of the best included Won’t You Be My Neighborfrom Focus Features, 306 Hollywood, award winner On Her Shoulders, and Generation Wealth by the magnificent Lauren Greenfield (@lgreen66) and Studio 54.

Onto the Virtual Reality. Sundance has been programming VR pieces for the past few years, and may have been one of the first major film festivals to do so. This year the number of submissions in this category exploded. “The New Frontier section champions filmmakers and artists who explain, experiment with, and explode traditional storytelling.” I was transported to the Amazon to spend time with the first woman shaman in Awavena, dove in to the animated world of a teenage Puerto Rican girl in Battlescar, and was trained as an astronaut in Space Explorers: A New Dawn. While all of these films were incredible, Hero(@iNKStories) was transformational. Please find a video I filmed right after experiencing this piece below.

Stories matter. One of my favorite quotes is by Harold Goddard. “The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” The Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization whose mission is to support independent storytellers, helping them to tell the stories they want, no, strike that, NEED to tell. Yes, of course, the hope is that the end product is sold, but it is clear that what might matter more is that the end product is seen, is heard, and is experienced.

Please support independent film and artists. Take some time on the Sundance website and watch the short videos on the artists behind the work. Their stories are as amazing as the stories they tell.

Here are the winners.

To find great films and where to watch them, here.