In December, Oprah Winfrey announced that she would serve as an executive producer on "On the Record," an Apple documentary showing some of the 20 women who accused Russell Simmons, a dishonored music tycoon, of harassment and sexual assault, starting with a report of November 2017 in The Times.
A month later, she was out of the project, citing creative differences between her and filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.
The sudden movement caused waves in the industry and surprised the directors, who in a recent interview with The Times detailed the "horrible" consequences of Winfrey's decision and provided more context about what happened behind the scenes.
Here is a summary of Winfrey's involvement – and eventual non-involvement – in Sundance's long-awaited choice.
Apple partners with Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey signed a multi-year partnership with Apple TV +.
As part of the first Apple TV + media presentation in March, the new streaming service announced a multi-year partnership with Winfrey, whom the technology company had hired to work on two documentaries. One would be an analysis of various parts of mental health.
The other, then titled "Toxic Work", was announced as a timely analysis of harassment in the workplace.
"The Apple platform has allowed me to do what I do in a new way," Winfrey told people gathered at the Steve Jobs Theater on Apple's campus. "They are a company that has reimagined how we communicate … (they are) in a billion pockets, all of you. This represents a great opportunity to make a genuine impact."
But it wasn't until winter that specific details about "Toxic Work" – which would be renamed "On the Record" – came up.
The first subject of the document is revealed
A still from “On the Record” by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, an official selection from the documentary premiere program at the Sundance Film Festival 2020.
(Martyna Starosta / Sundance Institute)
In early December, it was announced that the documentary would premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in late January, before landing on Apple TV +.
With the news came more information about the nature of the project.
The film's log line said it would follow "a brilliant former music executive who discusses whether or not to publish his story of aggression and abuse by a notable figure in the music industry. The film is an in-depth examination of race, genre, class and intersectionality, and toll attacks affect their victims and society at large. ”
Sundance's release also revealed the name of the film's main subject: Drew Dixon.
In a bombastic 2017 interview with New York Times, Dixon claimed that Simmons raped her in his apartment in 1995. The co-founder of Def Jam Recordings served as direct supervisor for Dixon while she was executive assistant to the record company and left Def Jam shortly after the alleged rape.
Winfrey was listed as an executive producer on the film.
50 Cent and Simmons face Winfrey
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Dear OPRAH, you have been a bright light for my family and my community. Contributing so much to my life that I couldn't list a fraction of it on this blog. I gave you the gift of meditation and the innovative book "THE POWER OF NOW", we come together to say the least. That is why it is so worrying that you choose me to stand out in your recent documentation. I already admitted to being a playboy more (appropriately titled "womanizer" today) sleeping and putting myself in more compromising situations than almost any man I know. It's not 8 or 14 thousand like Warren Beatty or Wilt Chamberlain, but it's still an embarrassing number. So many that some could reinterpret or reimagine a different memory of the same experiences. Note that its producers said that this next document should focus only on handpicked women. I refused to go into the mud with any accuser, but let's acknowledge what I shared. I did and passed nine three-hour lie detector tests (made for my daughters), which these stories were broadcast on CNN, NBC, BUZZFEED, NY POST, NY MAG AND OTHERS. Now that you have reviewed the facts and must have learned what I know; that these stories are unusable and that "hurt people hurt people". Today I got a call from an old girlfriend from the early 80s, which means they are using my words / evidence against me and her COMMITMENT / (all claims are between 25 and 40 years old) It is impossible to prove what happened 40 years ago ago, but in my case there is proof of what has not happened, mainly letters signed by your own parents, brothers, roommates, band members, interns and, in the case of 2 of your 3 accusers, your own words in your books . Shocking how many people misused this important and powerful revolution for relevance and money. … In closing, I am guilty of exploring, supporting and making the soundtrack to a grossly unequal society, but I have never been violent or forced myself on anyone. I am still here to help support a necessary change in power and conscience. Let's work to uplift humanity and leave that moment and the old narrative behind
Shortly after the Sundance reveal, rapper 50 Cent took aim at Winfrey on Instagram, accusing the TV host and super producer of singling out black men like Simmons in his #MeToo activism.
"I don't understand why Oprah is chasing black men," wrote the Candy Shop hitmaker under a photo of Simmons and Winfrey smiling together. "Without Harvey Weinstein, without Epstein, just Micheal Jackson and Russell Simmons, this … is sad."
The next day, Simmons went to social media to raise his complaints with the head of Harpo Productions.
“Dear OPRAH, you have been a bright light for my family and my community. Contributing so much to my life that I couldn't list a fraction of it on this blog, ”wrote Simmons, captioning a picture of you and Winfrey talking about a book. "That is why it is so worrying that you choose me to highlight your recent documentation.
"I already admitted to being a playboy more (today appropriately called & # 39; womanizer & # 39;) sleeping and putting myself in more compromising situations than almost any man I know," he continued. "So many that some could reinterpret or reimagine a different memory from the same experiences."
Winfrey did not respond to criticism from social media.
Dick and Ziering take real notes
Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, directors of "On the Record".
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Although Simmons' collapse on Instagram did not initially concern Dick and Ziering, the filmmakers later told The Times that they received their most critical notes from producer Winfrey just days after the music mogul posted his rant.
Until that moment, the directors explained, all interactions with Winfrey and Harpo were positive and encouraging, leading to relatively insignificant requests, such as "We don't like the way this scene transits" or "Can we build this scene because we want more of this character?"
The studio's new concerns were different, suggesting that the film may not be ready for Sundance. Although surprised by the sudden reaction, the pair did not let them down.
"We felt we could approach them," said Dick. "We didn't really feel that the film needed them, because the film was already good, but as good partners, we wanted to honor the relationship and move on.
"So what we had to do was to cancel many vacation plans, but we have an excellent team and we have moved forward and made it."
Winfrey and Apple leave the document
On January 10, Winfrey announced his departure from the project – just 20 minutes after sending an email notifying Dick and Ziering of his plans. In her public statement, she cited creative differences in declaring her "respect" for the filmmakers she had left behind.
"In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to clarify the whole scope than the victims suffered and it became clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned with this creative vision," said Winfrey.
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are talented filmmakers. I have great respect for your mission, but given the filmmakers' desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, it is best to step aside. "
She also noted that she "unequivocally" believes and supports Simmons' accusers and clarified that she would continue to collaborate with Time & # 39; s Up to ensure that women's stories are seen and heard.
"We support Oprah Winfrey in maintaining that the victims' stories deserve to be heard on their own terms," Time & # 39; s Up president Tina Tchen said in a statement.
“Black women are often silenced, disbelieving or even defamed when they speak. Furthermore, for years, these women have been attacked by powerful forces around Russell Simmons – illustrating how difficult it is to speak against powerful men. And how important it is that powerful men be held responsible for their actions. "
Apple also abandoned its involvement, which depended on its deal with Winfrey.
When Winfrey walked, Dick and Ziering released their own statement, expressing their disappointment while still giving him credit for staying with "the survivors of the film".
"Revealing hard truths is never easy, and the women in our documentary are showing extraordinary strength and courage, raising their voices to fight sexual abuse in the music industry," they said. "The film is a beacon of hope for voices that were suppressed a long time ago and an inspiration for those who want to regain their personal power."
In a follow-up interview, the directors told the Times that they were …