Cinefamily Resignations Rock L.A. Film Community
On Tuesday evening, Cinefamily co-founder and executive director Hadrian Belove and board vice president Shadie Elnashai resigned, one day after an anonymous email alleging widespread sexual misconduct at the beloved nonprofit cinematheque began circulating in L.A.’s tight-knit film community.
Both Belove and Elnashai were accused of separate incidents of sexual misconduct in the email. The scandal escalated rapidly on social media, as numerous former employees and members of the Cinefamily orbit took to Twitter and Facebook to share their sadness—and lack of surprise.
There was absolutely a pattern of mistreatment that was the norm, especially—but not limited to—females.— J. No (@MsJennyNixon) August 23, 2017
The email (the contents of which have now been widely shared on Facebook and Twitter) accused Elnashai of sexual assault, and Cinefamily leadership of burying the allegations. It also referenced a 2014 sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Belove by a female former Cinefamily employee. The lawsuit was settled out of court. Belove told LAist on Tuesday morning that the accusations were untrue, and "related to an ongoing campaign of harassment and extortion.” He added that the email was "a mixture of half truths and outright lies, filled with a lot of things that aren't true and aren't verifiable.”
The former employees we spoke with said they were saddened but unsurprised by the accusations against Belove.
Cinefamily, which opened its doors at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax in 2007, is known for its innovative, often idiosyncratic programming and the sense of community it fosters.
"It was the first place I'd ever felt like I belonged, which is almost everyone's story there," one former employee told LAist. In interviews with more than a half-dozen former employees, Cinefamily was described as a place lacking in boundaries, and clear-cut lines between work and play—particularly when the workplace was a venue where many employees often hung out off the clock.
“Everybody was partying really hard. Everything was blurry. But it’s like, wait a minute, in retrospect, this was my job,” one female former employee recalled.
The atmosphere was described as “seductive” and “hugely chaotic,” with little oversight, and a loose, freewheeling ethos where regular rules—for better or worse—seemingly did not apply. Many former employees described a workplace where they felt deeply taken advantage of, with conditions that several characterized as “emotionally abusive."
“It’s such a specific environment and culture that was created there,” a female former employee who worked at Cinefamily for the better part of five years told LAist. “We used to joke the whole time that it was like a cult, but the thing is it really was.” Another longtime former employee joked that after leaving Cinefamily, he felt like he understood what life must have been like for former Scientologists Leah Remini and Paul Haggis.
“There’s no boundaries, there’s no guidelines. Job definitions are unclear and nobody knows their role. Even if you have a title, that doesn’t mean you’re not doing a million other things,” Mario Munoz, a former event producer at Cinefamily, told LAist. “You’re talked down to and punished when you don’t know what you’re doing even though you’re never told what you should do.”
“There was nobody to talk to about Hadrian and his behavior, ever,” Munoz said.
At some point during the past year ADP, an outside human resources firm, was brought on at Cinefamily, but for most of the nonprofit’s decade-long existence, there was no HR department in place.
“Pretty much everyone you speak to will tell you the same thing—there was never an HR department,” a female former employee said. “There was never anyone safe I could go to to speak about any of my issues. Most of them involving Hadrian.” Former employees said they felt like they had little avenue to lodge complaints, and feared retribution for doing so.
Belove confirmed to LAist on Tuesday that Cinefamily had received one complaint about Elnashai in 2016 that was lodged by a third-party who had witnessed “a single incident of what he perceived to be unwanted touching.” Belove said that he believed they had dealt with it “very aggressively and very openly,” including booking a professional sexual harassment training seminar for the staff.
Belove said that he was unable to comment on the 2014 lawsuit due to the nature of the settlement. “I’m literally not allowed to talk to about it, that’s part of how you settle things,” he said. "All I can say is that a court filing is not a statement of fact. It's just a series of allegations, and a settlement is not a confession.”
Hadrian Belove at a Cinefamily screening. (Photo courtesy of Cinefamily via Flickr)
The 2014 sexual harassment lawsuit, which was settled, alleged a pattern of sexual harassment directed at the former employee by Belove, including an incident at a private Cinefamily screening with a crowd of about 150 people, including several Cinefamily board members, where Belove allegedly announced, "Here is [name]—Isn't she beautiful and stylish? If you are lucky maybe she will give you her telephone number," according to the lawsuit. Two former employees who were present at The Empire Strikes Back screening corroborated to LAist that the incident occurred. "It was business as usual, just another silly thing said from the stage," one former employee recalled.
“I remember that moment and I remember thinking ‘That's super gross, don’t do that,’” another former employee who was in the audience at the time recalled. “I was grossed out, but sadly not surprised. That’s part of why I feel kind of disgusted with myself,” the male former employee told LAist. “I don’t know what I could have done in that moment or day but maybe I should have said something or done something.”
“The second I saw that document, I was like there is not a glimmer of a doubt in my mind that that happened,” a female former employee said of the contents of the lawsuit. “Every ounce of me knows that it’s true.”
Munoz told LAist that he recalled conversations with Belove about how the woman who filed the lawsuit “would be good for the job because she’s pretty, and she’s good at talking to rich men.”
Several former employees have also shared on social media about how they were urged to hire young, attractive women to work at the theater’s concessions stand. Matt Cornell, who served as Cinefamily's first Director of Operations from 2007 to 2008, tweeted that he was once told to hire "attractive young women" to work at the snack bar because we "could sell more popcorn.”
A female former employee whose job duties included hiring front of house and concessions staff wrote in a Facebook post that she was “specifically told by management that I needed to be hiring ‘cute, young girls I'd want to fuck.’”
The lawsuit alleges that the “inappropriate comment” at the screening was “the first in a repeated pattern and practice by Belove of sexual harassment against the plaintiff by, including but not limited to, making inappropriate comments about plaintiff's appearance and sexuality to plaintiff and to third persons, engaging in repeated unwanted and inappropriate touching of plaintiff's body, threatening plaintiff with losing her job if she did not comply with his repeated requests for private attention, obsessing over Plaintiff and overseeing and dictating her every move, telephoning and text messaging her at all hours of the night, questioning her about her private dating life and personal relationships, telling her that she was 'his person' and that he was 'jealous' of other men she spoke with.”
The woman who filed the lawsuit also alleged that in April of that year, Belove tried to "pimp her out' to a wealthy potential donor who wanted her to visit him in his hotel room.” A separate female former employee told LAist that while she and Belove were on a business trip, he suggested that a male journalist “might want to make out with her, because he goes for older women.” She was in her early 30s at the time.
The lawsuit also alleges Belove physically attacked the plaintiff a month later "when she would not give him the attention he demanded." She alleges that when she complained to Cinefamily, they responded by "telling her it was her fault, forcing her to confront her harasser, and refusing to take any actions against Belove for his inappropriate behavior.”
"It's been so difficult because we all love what the theater is capable of, so there's this added tragedy that this amazing thing that's meant to be a nonprofit for the community—to make L.A. a better place—was destroyed by some male egos, and people who think they can get away with it," one former employee told LAist.
In a statement Cinefamily released via Twitter on Tuesday, they said, "Our non-profit organization has zero tolerance for any action intended to harm or injure our staff, volunteers, or patrons. Any claims made are dealt with swiftly and directly, with respect and moral integrity."
The statement also said that Cinefamily had been coordinating with Officer Russel Hess of the Los Angeles Police Department's Wilshire Division. However, according to Jezebel, Hess is an officer at LAPD West Bureau, not Wilshire, and therefore not available at the number provided by Cinefamily.
Update [4:50 p.m.] Actress Brie Larson, a member of Cinefamily's Advisory Board, has tweeted a statement saying that she believes "the brave survivors who spoke up" and that further action must be taken to ensure that Cinefamily is "a space of safety and communion":