Wary Hollywood studios revive the morality clause
IT WAS, the studio executives must have conceded, a costly mistake.
Kevin Spacey was lined up to star in the sixth and final season of House of
Cards, Netflix’s blockbuster political drama but when Anthony Rapp accused Spacey in October of making a frightening sexual advance towards him in 1986, when he was 14, Netflix knew they could not go ahead. Spacey was dropped from House of
Cards and a forthcoming Gore Vidal film, shot for Netflix over the summer, was canned. Because he did not have a “morality clause” in his contract, however, Spacey was paid for both, costing Netflix $39million (£28million).
Since Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace in September, precipitated by claims of rape – which he denies – from the actress Rose McGowan, the floodgates have opened and a roll call of Hollywood studio executives and actors have suddenly found themselves out of work, their projects on hold.
The financial damage inflicted on the industry is so great that many studios are now beginning to insist on “morality clauses” – contractual agreements that mean a person could be dismissed without pay if they misbehave.
“If I’m a studio, I want the biggest, broadest morality clause I can get,” said Ed McPherson, founder of law firm McPherson Rane and a specialist in entertainment law.
“But as an artist, I’m worried – what infraction falls into this? It’s easy to say it applies in a Weinstein scenario. But some clauses mention the behaviour that would ‘shock, insult or offend the community or public morals’. What does that mean?”
Morality clauses were first used in 1921, when the backlash against Paramount after the arrest of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on rape and murder charges drove Universal Studios, one of Paramount’s competitors, to insert clauses insisting on good behaviour in their contracts. Any breach would permit Universal to terminate the agreement with five days’ notice.
In the early Forties, stars such as Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland and Jean Harlow were tightly controlled by the studios which “owned” them, with many of the women being forced to have abortions if they fell pregnant. But the end of the “studio system” in the late Forties changed that and morality clauses were no longer common.
Now, the turmoil in Hollywood has forced studios to consider insisting on such clauses for all their contracts.
David Fink, a partner in Los Angeles law firm Kelley Drye, said Hollywood executives were seeking to minimise financial risk in the “Me Too” climate. Fox is one of many studios The Holly
wood Reporter says is trying to insert broad morality clauses into its deals.
The clause states Fox can end any contract “if the talent engages in conduct that results in adverse publicity or notoriety or risks bringing the talent into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule.”
Paramount Studios is reviewing codes of conducts, while smaller distributors are looking into legal clauses that would enable them to pull out of a project if a key individual – whether during or before the term of the contract – committed or is charged with an act considered under state or federal laws to be a felony, or crime of “moral turpitude”.
Their use divides opinion. Some see it as an insurance policy. Others believe it is too broad.
Mr Fink said the studios were wise to include the clauses. “Studios don’t want their project to be held hostage by somebody who did something wrong. Anybody in Hollywood right now is wise to be paying more attention to their conduct.”
Judy Garland was among the first to have morality clauses; Rose McGowan who accused Weinstein of rape; Kevin Spacey has been paid for projects he was dropped from