Kevin Tsujihara and the Weinsteins That Bind
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Warner Bros. executive shows that not all Weinsteins look the same.
By Nick Fouriezos
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
Quiet and courteous. Those were the first two adjectives The New York Times used in 2014 to describe Kevin Tsujihara, the Japanese American executive who had risen to CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment the previous year. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with this humble son of egg distributors in the San Francisco Bay Area, absent the flash, the histrionics, the showboating that so often defined executives in this land of hedonistic pleasure and artistry.
Tsujihara was thriving, though, landing $450 million in financing for 75 new movies, the holy grail of a new Harry Potter franchise and two notable battles with a film studio titan. Yet his professional demise — which came to fruition with the 54-year-old’s resignation from Warner Bros. on Monday after leading the company to its most profitable year ever in 2017 — was already in writing as well. The film studio titan he jousted with? None other than the brash and vulgar Harvey Weinstein, who it turns out had more in common with Tsujihara than expected. And that half a billion in financing? It came from Brett Ratner, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least six women, and his business partner James Packer, the Australian billionaire who acted as a sexual fixer the night of Tsujihara’s career-ending sin.
Tsujihara was at the Hotel Bel-Air when Packer texted an aspiring 21-year-old British actress named Charlotte Kirk, telling her to meet the media executive at the hotel for “the opportunity of a lifetime.” Hundreds of texts in the years since show that Kirk believed Tsujihara had promised her roles for sex and fought for her fledgling acting career, as the Hollywood Reporter reported exclusively earlier this month. In one text to Packer, she said she felt “used as the icing on the cake for your finance deal with Warner Bros,” adding, “it’s gross what you all did to me!!!” In another to Tsujihara, she was even more blunt: “When we were in that motel having sex u said u would help me and when u just ignore me like you’re doing now it makes me feel used. Are u going to help me like u said u would?”
The newcomer was eager to show off his risk-taking ways despite his reputation for a quiet demeanor.
At the heart of Tsujihara’s fall is his exploitation of Kirk, now 26, who could face the double humiliation of not getting the promised opportunities, but with her success — she is slated for her biggest role yet as Nicole Brown in the upcoming O.J. Simpson biopic Nicole and O.J. — potentially undermined. Yet in the complicated world of workplace sex and power dynamics, there are both similarities and differences between Tsujihara and the Weinstein case that sparked the #MeToo movement.
“The similarities are males with great amounts of power who can open doors for women,” says Rebecca Heiss, a doctor, public speaker and survivor of sexual assault. “The difference … is that the power dynamic was different. In the case of Weinstein, you’re seeing rape, serious power differences, where here, when you’re looking at the texts we’re allowed to see, there seems to be an agreed-upon exchange.” Of course, Tsujihara appears not to have come through on his end of the bargain. And when Kirk sensed that, she used her own form of power to pressure him, Heiss says.
In interviews, Tsujihara described himself as a regular guy and a family man, often mentioning his wife, Sandy, and their two children, who are in their late teens. Growing up in Petaluma, California, as a third-generation immigrant, he became a fan of the San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors and at one point dreamed of playing pro basketball, according to Variety. He was entrepreneurial like his father, who started Empire Egg Company, which distributed eggs across Silicon Valley. Shortly after graduating from the University of Southern California and earning his MBA at Stanford University, Tsujihara launched the tax prep site QuickTax Inc.
That was before joining Warner Bros. in 1994, then as a special project director mostly devoted to wrangling the company’s acquisition of Six Flags theme parks. Tsujihara quickly worked out a niche in online content that led him to being named the president of the home entertainment unit (it oversaw home video, online distribution and video games) in 2005.
It was a time of coming storms: Netflix and Amazon hadn’t yet started streaming content, and Hulu was only known as a term used in a popular Chinese proverb (as a holder of precious things). Tsujihara was ready for the moment, regardless. Half a year into the job, Warner Bros. heeded his advice and made a licensing deal with BitTorrent, a notorious piracy site that had been nibbling profits from major film studios, an effort to mitigate the site’s damage by working with it instead. He pioneered efforts to get Warner Bros. content on alternative platforms, such as iTunes and Xbox, and eventually led negotiations with Netflix. He followed up by making Warner Bros. the first studio to implement an on-demand video service, which was called UltraViolet, in 2013.
After being credited with helping save the Hobbit franchise from the maws of financial mismanagement, Tsujihara became one of three contenders openly competing to replace former Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer in September 2010. The company-sanctioned “bake-off” ended up lasting more than two years and bruised egos as Tsujihara went from the dark-horse digital guru to the first Asian American to run a Hollywood studio. For a company that prided itself on stability — Tsujihara was only the fifth CEO in Warner Bros.’ 96-year history — the newcomer was eager to show off his risk-taking ways despite his reputation for a quiet demeanor.
“If we’ve learned anything from our friends in Silicon Valley, it’s that they haven’t been afraid to put out products and innovate from them vs. waiting for the perfect solution. As an industry, we tend to be perfect,” Tsujihara told Variety shortly after taking over the post in March 2013.
Perhaps that mentality led Tsujihara to play fast while mixing his professional and romantic life six months later. After a brief investigation following the Hollywood Reporter investigation in March, Tsujihara was pushed out, ending his unlikely rise — and serving as a #MeToo era reminder: Weinsteins come in all stripes.
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