Perhaps you’ve seen the tit-for-tat war of words between Warner Bros and Justice League star Ray Fisher, wondering what the devil all that was about.
It’s a spat between a Hollywood movie studio and one of its promising young stars, the kind of thing you expect would be happening behind the scenes with some frequency – but what makes this one extraordinary is how it’s all playing out in public.
That’s partly thanks to the age of social media, when stars know they can talk directly to the fans without having their sentiments being filtered through publicity departments and media outlets.
And it’s also partly thanks to shifting social dynamics of 2020, a time in which powerful institutions and people are increasingly being called out by individuals, making them answerable to the masses in ways that were previously unavailable.
It’s the same movement that’s brought Ellen DeGeneres to her knees this year.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. First, let’s go through what the Ray Fisher/Warner Bros brouhaha is actually about.
THE FIRST PUNCH
Ray Fisher had predominantly worked in theatre when he landed the high profile role of Cyborg/Victor Stone, a DC superhero. He was part of the ensemble cast of Justice League, which included Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller.
Justice League director Zack Snyder had left the production midway through after a family tragedy and Warner Bros, the studio which owns the rights to DC Comics, installed Buffy creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon to finish the film.
When promoting the film in 2017, Fisher praised Whedon’s work on Justice League, and how he stepped in after Snyder’s exit.
In June, Fisher posted a tweet with video of himself talking about Whedon in a complimentary manner. Accompanying the video were the words, “I forcefully retract every bit of this statement”.
He followed that up a few days later with an incendiary social media post, in which he accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional and completely unacceptable” behaviour on set during the production.
Fisher also said Whedon was enabled by two former Warner Bros. and DC executives, Jon Berg and Geoff Johns.
Berg denied the claims while Whedon and Johns have made no comment.
A few weeks after those posts, during a fan convention online panel, Fisher went further: “Obviously I put out some pretty strong words and some strong comments about Joss Whedon, and every single one of those words, every single one of those comments, is true.
“It’s taken me two and a half years to get all the information I need to be able to build something that’s strong enough so people can’t dismiss it.”
While Fisher has not mentioned any specific incidents during the production, he said he was lining things up so that other people who worked on Justice League could confidently speak about their experiences without fear of retribution.
In August, Fisher tweeted that Johns made “thinly veiled threats to my career” during Justice League reshoots.
In mid-August, it seemed things were moving forward, with Fisher tweeting that Warner Media had launched an investigation into the allegations he made.
He thanked them for “making strides to ensure a safer workplace for all”.
The goodwill didn’t last long. This week, Fisher was back on social media, but this time he put another name forward, the President of DC Films, Walter Hamada.
He tweeted: “So you can better understand how deep this goes. After speaking out about Justice League, I received a phone call from the President of DC Films wherein he attempted to throw Joss Whedon and Jon Berg under the bus in hopes that I would relent on Geoff Johns. I will not.”
This is where it the drama escalated. The same day, Warner Bros fought back.
It released a statement to media in which it said that Fisher’s claim about Hamada was “false”.
Warner Bros. refuted that Hamada attempted to “throw” Whedon and Berg under the bus and that Fisher had refused to co-operate with a third-party investigator hired to look into his allegations.
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THE PLOT THICKENS
After the Warner statement, Fisher was active again on social media, tweeting a screenshot of an email he claimed to have sent to his representatives and to the American actors’ union, Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
In the email, he wrote, “Just got off the line with the investigator. Had to end the interview early before going into detail with him. He’s definitely been put on the case by Warner Bros. Pictures and not Warner Media. His findings will go directly and solely to Warner Bros. Pictures legal.
“He also had another person on the line as a witness which we weren’t made aware of. I told him I needed to have a rep on the line as security for myself.”
That’s when one of Fisher’s prominent co-stars threw their support behind him.
Momoa, who played Aquaman in Justice League and in his solo superhero film, posted an Instagram story with Fisher’s image along with the caption “IStandWithRayFisher”.
It’s a pretty gutsy move for Momoa who is expected to reprise his Aquaman role in a sequel and is currently involved in promoting another Warner Bros movie, Dune.
Fisher was also in negotiations to bring Cyborg back to the screen in the upcoming Flash movie.
A NEW RECKONING
The Fisher/Warner Bros. drama is playing out against a backdrop of demands for more accountability in the entertainment industry.
It’s a business that has been dogged since its inception by power structures in which those in charge have all the power and control and everyone is victim to their whims.
Fisher said in July, “I find myself in a place where I don’t have to justify the way in which I’m handling it. Whatever happens to me with respect to my career or whatever that is, I could not care less.”
The most glaring types of systemic abuse manifested in the sexual assaults committed by people such as the now imprisoned Harvey Weinstein, who, at best, destroyed the careers of women who didn’t “submit”.
Fisher has not elaborated on his claims and there is no suggestion Whedon’s behaviour was of the same kind as Weinstein’s.
But after the exposure of MeToo, there is a change sweeping through the old power structures of the industry, with some of those who have felt exploited feeling empowered enough to speak up and speak out.
In July, American TV network CBS fired Peter Lenkov, the showrunner of several lucrative TV franchises.
Lenkov, according to extensive reporting by Maureen Ryan for Vanity Fair, was accused of toxic behaviour as the boss of shows including the reboots of Hawaii Five-O, MacGyver and Magnum P.I.
Those who made the accusations against Lenkov – publicly, privately and anonymously – ranged from writers, crew and actors, including MacGyver star Lucas Till, who said Lenkov had bullied him, screamed abuse at him and body-shamed him.
“There’s no way to de-escalate it.
“I’ve never been on a show with such extreme turnover. We can’t get people to stay. It’s a toxic environment, and it starts from the head down.”
An upcoming streaming series featuring a diverse cast of young characters also found itself in a tough spot earlier this month.
The same day the trailer was released, a writer took to social media and accused the white showrunner of the series of “going full Karen” and that she and two other writers from culturally diverse backgrounds quit due to “racist exploitation and abuse”.
We have chosen not to name the series or the writer because the allegations have not been tested, but it is another example of how social media is being used as a public forum to expose alleged abuses of power that in the past would have been ignored or covered up.
Or in cases of alleged pay inequity, as black actor Jeremy Tardy accused studio Lionsgate of doing this past weekend when he revealed he would not be returning for the fourth and final season of Dear White People.
In the case of Ray Fisher and Warner Bros, it’s not clear exactly what happened.
But, if nothing else, with the increasing threat of public exposure and shaming, 140 characters at a time, what is clear is that it’s not business as usual in Hollywood.
That may encourage the powers-that-be to think twice.
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