Harvey Weinstein to take a leave of absence amid sexual harassment claims, threatens lawsuit over report

Harvey Weinstein, the pioneering independent film executive, will take a leave of absence from his namesake studio after a news report detailed decades of sexual harassment accusations against him.

The article, published by the New York Times on Thursday, said that Weinstein has over the years reached at least eight legal settlements with women over alleged harassment.

The allegations were levied by actresses including Ashley Judd as well as former employees of Weinstein Co. and the executive’s previous company, Miramax.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Weinstein, 65, reiterated some comments he made to the New York Times, apologizing for behavior “with colleagues in the past [that] has caused a lot of pain” and said he would take a leave to deal with his issues “head on.”

“I so respect all women and regret what happened. I hope that my actions will speak louder than words,” said Weinstein, who also misquoted a lyric by rapper Jay-Z about needing to be a better person and added that he has already changed his behavior. “Trust me, this isn’t an overnight process. I’ve been trying to do this for 10 years, and this is a wake-up call. I cannot be more remorseful about the people I hurt and I plan to do right by all of them.”

Weinstein, a brash powerhouse in the indie film world who co-founded Miramax in 1979, is known for producing, alongside brother Bob, critical and commercial hits including Academy Award-winning “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago.” The brothers sold Miramax to Walt Disney Co. in 1993. They left Miramax 12 years later and went on to found their namesake company.

The claims against the famously sharp-elbowed Weinstein follow several recent controversies involving high-powered men in entertainment and media. Among those accused of sexual misconduct include comedian Bill Cosby, former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. Each denied wrongdoing.

Several women allegedly harassed by Weinstein described to the New York Times incidents in which the executive is claimed to have sought massages — or given unsolicited ones. These women, described as Hollywood hopefuls, told the newspaper that Weinstein was naked during some of the encounters. The report also cited a settlement with actress Rose McGowan over an incident in a hotel room.

“This is a crisis,” said Debra Katz, a partner at law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP, whose focus includes sexual harassment cases. “These are very serious allegations of abuse of power.”

Although Weinstein expressed contrition for his behavior, his lawyer, Charles Harder, issued a statement threatening legal action against the New York Times, whose article about Weinstein, he said, was “saturated with false and defamatory statements.”

“It relies on mostly hearsay accounts and a faulty report, apparently stolen from an employee personnel file, which has been debunked by 9 different eyewitnesses,” Harder said in a statement. “We sent the Times the facts and evidence, but they ignored it and rushed to publish. We are preparing the lawsuit now. All proceeds will be donated to women’s organizations.”

Even before the New York Times published the article, both the newspaper and Weinstein were girding for a legal fight. On Wednesday, the New York Times’ deputy general counsel, David McCraw, wrote a letter to Harder, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, that defended its impending story.

“Any notion that we have dealt unfairly with Mr. Weinstein is simply false, and you can be sure that any article we do will meet our customary standards for accuracy and fairness,” McCraw wrote to Harder.

In a statement, Lisa Bloom, another attorney representing Weinstein, said that he had asked her to perform a “comprehensive review of his company’s policies and practices regarding women in the workplace.” Bloom is well-known for representing women in high-profile sexual harassment cases, including model Janice Dickinson in a matter against Cosby. Weinstein Co. is developing a television project based on Bloom’s book “Suspicion Nation.”

Weinstein’s alleged behavior has long been discussed in Hollywood circles, and some industry observers couched his claimed conduct as an “open secret” in interviews Thursday.

“He's gotten away with it for decades,” said Katz, the attorney. “This is a really sickening abuse of power. Whenever he's been called to account for it, Weinstein has paid for the problems to go away, but the company hasn't addressed the problems.”

It remains unclear what Weinstein’s future at his company will be. Weinstein Co.’s board is set to meet by the end of the week to discuss the matter, according to reports, and some activists have called for the company to sever ties with him.

“There needs to be some kind of accountability,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet, a women’s group that called on Weinstein Co. to fire the executive. “Taking a leave of absence is totally insufficient. A lot of people thought the ‘casting couch’ was a thing of the past, but this proves that it is still very much alive today.”

A representative of Judd, who starred in the films “Kiss the Girls” and “High Crimes,” did not respond to a request for comment; McGowan declined to comment.

But McGowan, best known for starring in “Scream,” the 1996 horror film released by Miramax’s Dimension Films label, took to Twitter to urge women to “fight on.”

“And to the men out there, stand up,” she wrote. “We need you as allies.”

Beyond McGowan, social media reaction was swift, with numerous people condemning Weinstein’s alleged harrassment. Some also pointed out Weinstein has long been viewed as a Democratic Party power broker, an outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter and a defender of liberal causes.

The controversy prompted some soul searching in Hollywood over its longstanding struggles with sexual harassment. Lena Dunham, the creator and star of “Girls,” wrote on Twitter that the entertainment industry, long known for spotlighting scandals such as those involving the Catholic Church, should train its spotlight on what it has “condoned” within the business.

With Weinstein’s impending leave of absence, his company finds itself in uncharted territory.

Since founding the company in 2005, the Weinstein brothers have had an up-and-down run that has included soaring successes such as the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” and “Django Unchained,” but also a slew of box-office disappointments that have tarnished the luster of their prestigious brand.

Last year, Weinstein Co. released just six movies in cinemas, not including the Dimension label, down from a high of 14 releases in 2014. Recent flops have included the Matthew McConaughey drama “Gold” and the Alicia Vikander period piece “Tulip Fever.”

The company has increasingly focused on television production to diversify its entertainment portfolio. “TV at this point of my career is more lucrative and a lot easier to do,” Weinstein told the Los Angeles Times last year. “When you're making movies, you're walking the high wire."

Weinstein Co. does have one awards season contender in the drama “Wind River,” which came out in August and stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. The company is scheduled to host a screening and Q-and-A with the film’s stars on Sunday at a theater in Santa Monica.

Weinstein is known for a shrewd ability to secure Oscars for his films, waging intense awards campaigns to promote his projects and sometimes discrediting other companies’ offerings.

But he has long been notorious in Hollywood for his short temper and for harshly dressing down employees and colleagues. Peter Biskind’s 2004 nonfiction book “Down and Dirty Pictures,” which covered the rise of indie film, delved into Weinstein’s volatile personality in detail. Among the incidents described were those involving physical altercations, shouting matches and others in which he reduced actors and filmmakers to tears.

In his statement, Weinstein said that he has been trying to become a better person. "My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons," he said.

daniel.miller@latimes.com | Twitter: @DanielNMiller

david.ng@latimes.com | Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com | Twitter: ​​@RFaughnder

Times staff writers Meg James and Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

2:16 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

1:43 p.m.: This article was updated with tweets from actress Rose McGowan.

12:54 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Harvey Weinstein’s attorney, David Harder, and with more reaction.

This article was originally published at 12 p.m.

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