What Will It Take to Stop Woody Allen’s Career? ‘Allen v. Farrow’ Isn’t Enough
By any estimation, the Woody Allen business looks like it’s in terrible shape. The 85-year-old filmmaker was further ostracized by the industry when “Allen v. Farrow,” the four-part HBO series from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, resurrected sexual assault allegations leveled against him by his daughter Dylan Farrow. Now, as the finale of “Allen v. Farrow” reverberates, some may assume that Allen has no path forward to keep making movies.
He does, of course. Pushback won’t faze him — he’s got a decade of it under his belt — nor will box-office ignominy, as his career has more of that than success. What about an entertainment industry that’s actively hostile toward financing the small, specific, not-inexpensive dramas that he makes? That’s irrelevant: While he’s intractable about the movies he makes, Allen appears to be infinitely flexible when it comes to financing and — perhaps more than any major filmmaker working today — doesn’t care about what happens to his films after he’s made them.
As “Allen v. Farrow” points out, Allen’s pariah status in the U.S. bears similarities to convicted rapist Roman Polanski, whose “An Officer and a Spy” won France’s Cesare Award for Best Film almost exactly a year ago. Like Allen’s latest film, “Rifkin’s Festival,” it has yet to secure U.S. distribution. With #MeToo pushback expanding across Europe, disgraced artists who once found sympathetic crowds abroad now look more vulnerable.
However, because Allen was never convicted of a crime — and even the “Allen v. Farrow” allegations allow the filmmaker’s defenders to their line of defense — there is more leeway for the support system that enables him, and allows him to maintain the resources he needs to make movies, albeit outside of the U.S. As Diane Keaton said in the 2014 Golden Globes tribute sampled in the docuseries: “It’s safe to say that Woody Allen is an anomaly.”
The current spate of Allen backlash has come in fits and starts, beginning with Ronan Farrow’s tweet criticizing the Golden Globes for airing an Allen tribute in 2014. That was followed by a piece by Farrow in The Hollywood Reporter on May 11, 2016, which overshadowed the premiere of Allen’s “Cafe Society” as the opening selection of the Cannes Film Festival. The #MeToo movement followed a year later with Harvey Weinstein’s downfall.
Still, for Allen, the impact wasn’t immediate apparent. In September 2017, Amazon Studios announced that it would distribute his next film, “Wonder Wheel,” as part of a multi-film deal. The next month, the world changed. The New York Times ran its Weinstein expose, followed by Farrow’s own reporting in The New Yorker; meanwhile, then-Amazon Studios president Roy Price was suspended over allegations of sexual misconduct and Amazon canceled the red carpet for the “Wonder Wheel” premiere at the New York Film Festival.
When “A Rainy Day in New York” came around in 2018, stars Timothee Chalamet and Elle Fanning distanced themselves from the project and Amazon dropped its U.S. distribution. The movie grossed about $22 million worldwide. (In the U.S., it fizzled theatrically but briefly topped VOD charts.)
By then, Allen had completed his 49th feature, “Rifkin’s Festival” — a self-referential comedy starring Wallace Shawn as neurotic film professor who accompanies his publicist wife (Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastián Film Festival. The movie offers no sense of a fallen auteur: Shot by world-class DP Vittorio Storaro, it turns on black-and-white homages to classic cinema that form the professor’s outrageous dreams, from “Breathless” to “The Seventh Seal,” the latter of which includes a cameo by Christoph Waltz. The “Breathless” bit is quite funny, but the schtick gets old and the romcom setup is tiring from the start. In a bizarro universe in which Allen’s scandals never happened, it would still rank as an underwhelming shrug from a filmmaker who never bothers to reflect on his failures.
Six months after it premiered at the very festival where it takes place, “Rifkin’s Festival” has yet to secure U.S. distribution. The movie did come out in Spain, where it grossed $1.3 million to date; Italian distributor Vision said it still planned to release the movie when theaters reopen. Signature Entertainment, the U.K.-based company that brought “Rainy Day” to North American theaters and VOD, did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would take on the new movie. The dwindling forces that allowed “Rainy Day” to find its way to the American market have dissipated for now, while even European markets historically sympathetic to his situation pull back.
Though “Allen v. Farrow” singles out longtime Allen publicist Leslee Dart as one of the forces responsible for managing blowback, Dart left 42 West, the company she co-founded, last year. She maintains a position at parent company Dolphin, but no longer represents Allen, who has no American publicist — nor much need for one, since the market for his movies in the U.S. barely exists. (Hyperactive’s Caroline Turner continues to represent him overseas.) Requests for comment from 42 West were forwarded to Allen’s sister and longtime producer Letty Aronson, who hasn’t responded to media inquiries beyond the joint statement from Allen’s camp lambasting “Allen v. Farrow” weeks ago.
His infrastructure looks frail, but Allen’s success or failure doesn’t depend on industry savvy. Much of his career has been defined by commercial uncertainty, and outright failure, but he’s had no shortage of people willing to give him money and leave him alone. “All he requires is a lot of freedom,” said one executive with a history of working with Allen. “He never expects a picture to be a success, so he never gets angry and is always surprised when a picture is successful. That’s rare.”
When Allen pivoted from his satirical work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s to the more acclaimed dramedies of Oscar juggernaut “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” he did so under the guidance of United Artists executive Arthur Krim, who gave Allen free rein. When Krim co-founded Orion in 1978, Allen followed and spent the prolific next decade of his career juggling more ambitious material (“Zelig,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Radio Days”) as his international reputation continued to blossom. When Orion imploded at the end of the ‘80s, Allen scored a final-cut deal with TriStar Pictures to make “Husbands and Wives.” That flopped at the box office, leaving the studio disinterested.
Woody Allen directing “Cafe Society”
So Allen pivoted again, turning to private financing for much of the ‘90s, with producer Jean Doumanian’s Sweetland Films supporting the filmmaker on well-received work ranging from “Bullets Over Broadway” to “Everyone Says I Love You.” After the partnership ended in a lawsuit, Allen careened through a series of deals with Dreamworks, Searchlight, Focus, and The Weinstein Company, before settling with Sony Pictures Classics for seven movies. Three of these won Oscars — “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Blue Jasmine,” which also became the filmmaker’s highest-grossing release.
Allen left that arrangement because Amazon Studios, which signed a TV deal with him for the much-maligned 2016 miniseries “Crisis in Six Scenes,” lured him with a lucrative offer to finance his splashy ensemble comedy “Cafe Society.” Amazon also committed to Allen’s next two projects and insiders say the studio seemed to think little of the pushback at the time. It wasn’t until “Wonder Wheel” hit the New York Film Festival the next year that the public outcry intensified. Though Allen received a standing ovation at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center — possibly the last time he would be received that way for the New York audience that had embraced him for decades — the wider response was at the other end of the spectrum.
“People were really woke by then,” one marketing executive involved in the release. “The negative publicity had cut in. The way he delivers his movies, there’s not a lot of time. Everybody was worried, but just had to ride it out.”
Allen was in post-production on “A Rainy Day in New York” when Amazon decided not to release the movie and sever its ties to the director. Amazon executives were reportedly caught off guard by the decision, which took place at the highest levels of the corporate hierarchy; the people who would have been tasked with working on the movie never even saw it. The filmmaker went on to sue the studio and win back the rights, which he sold to a set of international territories. In the meantime, Spanish production studio Mediapro signed on to finance “Rifkin’s Festival.”
Even now, Allen could garner another deep-pocketed supporter. “He wants to be with people that want to be with him,” said one executive with a history of working on several successful Allen ventures. “He can get financing from wealthy individuals that want to back him. There’s probably always someone out there who would want to back Woody.” In some cases, U.S. distributors of his work haven’t even been privy to the budgets of the movies before they’ve boarded his projects.
That point remains critical because, many insiders agree, Allen would rather stop working than work for cheap. He’s fast, but his budgets tend to have sizable price tags — both “Wonder Wheel” and “A Rainy Day in New York” cost $25 million — and not only because of their name actors, many of whom would probably done the projects for free. Allen maintains a homegrown pace, sometimes reshooting large patches of his movies until he’s satisfied, and insists on top-tier crew.
Anyone who supports Allen works on his terms. For now, he remains surrounded by the dealmakers who have guarded him for decades, including Aronson and ICM agent John Burnham. “They don’t try to hustle people,” said one source familiar with the process. “They never have.”
The only enabler necessary for Allen to keep working is someone willing to write a check, and plenty of well-heeled figures, public and private, spend their money in ethically dubious ways. “It doesn’t feel like he’s desperate to do this,” one former producer said. “He would only do it if he has total control. He won’t be hired by somebody.”
Still, Allen faces a broader cultural reckoning that makes its own decisions. Even if he does make another movie, his impact will continue to wane. The nebbishy Jewish caricature that cemented his brand years ago doesn’t exactly register with the zeitgeist. “A Rainy Day in New York” likely found some measure of success due to the profitable allure of its young star, Timothee Chalamet.
However, the obnoxious, self-obsessed characters and their ravenous sexual appetites found in many of Allen’s earlier movies don’t parse in 2021. The scandals mean respected actors are increasingly unlikely to associate themselves with his work, much less nurse a romantic obsession with it. Then there are the movies themselves, which zig-zag through half-baked ideas that read as reductive variations of formulas he exhausted long ago.
For those of us who grew up adoring much of Allen’s early versatility, the diminished returns often register as a repudiation of nostalgia. There are passionate Allen fans across the industry who still defend him, albeit in whispered tones, proclaiming the injustices committed against a major artist ostracized in the court of public opinion. People who have never read legal briefings or shown much investment in sexual assault cases now see themselves as bold truth-tellers in service of Allen’s exoneration. It’s a wonder how much better those efforts would work toward advocating for stronger artists worth the investment.
“Allen v. Farrow”
“Allen v. Farrow” lacks Allen’s perspective beyond audio clips from his recent memoir, but a more balanced take wouldn’t change the appetite for his hit-or-miss oeuvre. He’s explored combustible relationships through intellectual soul-searching, and laced bleak, Bergman-esque melodrama with intrigue, but his movies no longer make a case for their own survival.
Allen and his financiers share a general indifference to negative publicity, but the world at large seems all too eager to move on without him. It would be convenient to conclude that “Allen v. Farrow” will serve as the sour coda to Allen’s career, but there’s a lot of competition for that slot between industry attrition, shifting cultural interests, and the filmmaker’s own apparent disinterest to his fate. It has become a cliché to cite Allen’s “Annie Hall” line that he would “never join a club that would allow a person like me to be a member.” Allen was quoting Groucho Marx, but it’s not the only time the director has received more credit than he’s due.
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