Volatile and Vengeful: How Scott Rudin Wielded Power in Show Business

Scott Rudin has long been one of the most celebrated and powerful producers in Hollywood and, especially, on Broadway — an EGOT who won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and 17 Tony Awards while developing a reputation as one of the vilest bosses in the industry.

Respected for his taste and talent — with films like “The Social Network” and “No Country for Old Men” and shows including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Book of Mormon” — he is also known within the entertainment world for terrorizing underlings, hurling staplers, cellphones, mugs and other improvised projectiles in moments of rage.

But the abuse of assistants is just a small part of the way he has wielded his power.

He has a reputation for being vengeful: After a dispute with an agent over airfare, he allegedly pressured some of the agent’s clients to leave him. He is litigious: He sued an insurance company seeking an enormous payout after he blamed the closing of a musical on the pregnancy of a star, Audra McDonald. And he can be callous: When Rita Wilson, who was starring in one of his plays, told him that she had breast cancer, she said, he lamented that she would need to take time off during Tony voting season.

“He’s like a mafia boss,” said the playwright Adam Rapp, whose play “The Sound Inside” was unceremoniously dumped by Mr. Rudin when Mr. Rapp refused to part with the agent with whom Mr. Rudin was feuding. “If he breaks his leg, other people suffer.”

Now, though, the 62-year-old producer is facing a reckoning. An article this month in The Hollywood Reporter detailing his long history of bullying assistants prompted an outcry, leading Mr. Rudin to announce that he would step back from “active participation” in his projects on Broadway, in Hollywood, and in London’s West End. And, in written responses to questions for this article, he said he was “profoundly sorry” for his behavior and revealed that he is resigning from the Broadway League, which is the trade association of producers and theater owners.

I know apologizing is not, by any means, enough,’’ he said. “In stepping back, I intend to work on my issues and do so fully aware that many will feel that this is too little and too late.”

For decades Mr. Rudin had largely escaped consequences for his behavior. Established and emerging artists flocked to him, in part because of his appetite for artistically ambitious (and often award-winning) work. But he also benefited from his reputation for ruthlessness: Many of those harmed by his wrath have been afraid of retaliation if they speak out.

The current backlash against his behavior — on Thursday he was denounced at a march for change on Broadway — has left Mr. Rudin an immobilized impresario just as Broadway is preparing to put tickets back on sale following a lengthy pandemic shutdown. Mr. Rudin, who had been set to play a key role in theater’s post-Covid comeback as one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s advisers on reopening, finds himself sidelined.

Even some of his biggest backers say he needs to change.

“He’s had a bad temper,” said the billionaire David Geffen, who alongside his fellow mogul Barry Diller has been co-producing Mr. Rudin’s recent Broadway shows, “and he clearly needs to do anger management or something like that.”

The New York Times interviewed dozens of actors, writers, agents, producers, investors and office assistants who have worked with Mr. Rudin, examined financial records of his stage shows and reviewed court papers from his many legal disputes. What emerged confirmed much of what was detailed by The Hollywood Reporter and provided a fuller picture of how he used and abused power, not only in his offices, but also as he alternately cultivated and castigated colleagues at all levels of the entertainment industry.

“There’s always, with Scott, two sides to the coin, depending on what he wants,” said Robert Fox, a British producer who collaborated with Mr. Rudin for a decade until, as happens with many of Mr. Rudin’s relationships, the two had a contentious falling out. “He can treat people impeccably well, or disgracefully badly, and there’s not much in between.”

After Mr. Rudin’s decades of dominance, his comeuppance — if that’s what it is — arrives as the entertainment industry is contemplating a post-pandemic future that many hope will look different from the past.

‘It’s crazy that so many in the industry know about it.’

The Rudin employee handbook, distributed to new staffers, outlines strict rules of conduct. “Rude, offensive or outrageous behavior” is verboten. Co-workers must treat one another with “patience, respect and consideration.” Be courteous and helpful. Don’t send angry or rude emails.

But employees swiftly learned that there was one person to whom those rules did not apply: the boss.

Mistakes, real and imagined, sent Mr. Rudin into a rage — an incorrect font (he insists on Garamond), a misspelled name, an unwiped conference table.

Mr. Rudin routinely screamed and swore: “Why are you so stupid?” “You’re a hopeless idiot.” “A clown car is running this office.” “You’re a pathetic loser.”

Former employees said he threw things at walls, at windows, at the ground, and, occasionally, toward subordinates.

In 2018 he sent a glass bowl airborne, shattering it against a conference room wall, according to several people who were there; another time he smashed a computer on an employee’s hand, several ex-employees said. A former assistant, Jonathan Bogush, said he saw Mr. Rudin hurl a plateful of chicken salad into another assistant’s face when he worked there in 2003.

Sometimes frightened assistants hid in the kitchen or a closet to escape his wrath.

Some assistants kept spare phones to replace those that got destroyed when thrown by Mr. Rudin. There were also extra laptops — to replace those he broke — and his contact list was backed up to a master computer nicknamed the Dragon.

His behavior prompted outrage after it was described earlier this month in The Hollywood Reporter. It had also been described, to less effect, in multiple other accounts over the years.

Mr. Rudin offered both an apology and a bit of pushback to the stories being told about him as a boss. “While I believe some of the stories that have been made public recently are not accurate, I am aware of how inappropriate certain of my behaviors have been and the effects of those behaviors on other people,” he said. “I am not proud of these actions.”

In the fall of 2018, Mr. Rudin’s employees gathered for harassment prevention training. The producer had a simple but revealing question for the trainer.

“He said, ‘You can get up in their face, right?’” said Caroline Rugo, then working as the office manager’s assistant, reading from notes she said she took at the meeting. “‘And you can yell, right, just as long as you don’t make physical contact?’” (Mr. Rudin disputed that description, saying, “I asked for a series of specific definitions of harassment for the much younger people on the staff.”)

At Mr. Rudin’s prepandemic Times Square offices — which he moved out of last summer — he often holed up in a conference room. Two assistants described a sign on the door: “Turn around. Do not come in. There is nothing here for you.”

For some, this was Tinsel Town boot camp, a place to gain irreplaceable insight into the entertainment world. Many former assistants have risen in the Hollywood ranks, and credit Scott Rudin Productions with versing them in the ways of the industry. They laud Mr. Rudin’s perfectionism, his acumen, instincts — “a golden gut,” said one — and his relentless work ethic. Some former assistants defended him, saying that employees were always warned that the job was high stress, and suggesting that he was becoming a fall guy for widespread bad behavior in show business.

But more than two dozen ex-employees shared memories of colleagues being excoriated: An intern receptionist was fired for moving too slowly to alert maintenance about a flickering ceiling light. A publicist sat quaking as Mr. Rudin punched the wall. An employee was fired for falling asleep while working late. Another was kicked out of a car on a highway after mispronouncing a name (the vehicle first pulled to the shoulder). An office manager was taken away by ambulance after having a panic attack.

Mr. Rudin was especially hard on female assistants, according to nearly a dozen former employees, chastising and firing them with greater frequency. Ms. Rugo said Mr. Rudin was more likely to chat with male interns, and more likely to demand that female interns clean the conference room.

Many wondered how artists who consider themselves politically enlightened could be so eager to work with Mr. Rudin, knowing how badly he treated his employees.

“People are acting like the industry is changing, but the fact that someone like Scott is still in power makes me doubtful of that,” said Josh Arnon, 25, who worked at Mr. Rudin’s office from October 2018 to August 2019. “It’s crazy that so many in the industry know about it and nothing has changed.”

‘He’s a very volatile man. Very, very volatile.’

Over a decades-long career, Mr. Rudin built a reputation as a tastemaker admired for his skill at harnessing the talent and the money to present adventurous work too risky for most other commercial producers, often to critical acclaim. Actors, writers, directors and designers have happily worked with him again and again, saying he can be charming, insightful and supportive.

In Hollywood, as the industry gravitated toward franchises and reboots, he moved toward indie fare; among his most notable recent films have been “Lady Bird,” “Isle of Dogs” and “Uncut Gems.” On Broadway, he has been the most prolific producer: Over the last 15 years, he has been a lead producer on 36 shows, mostly starry productions of serious plays, but also the megahit “Book of Mormon,” which has grossed a whopping $659 million on Broadway over its decade-long run.

He has had a knack for bridging the worlds of theater and film, luring movie stars to Broadway and finding film jobs for stage actors, directors and writers. His productions have starred a who’s who of entertainment, including Denzel Washington, Larry David, Chris Rock, Michelle Williams and Laurie Metcalf.

But he has also racked up a long list of people who have had enough.

“He’s super-bright, he’s incredibly motivated, he has really good taste, and he can be incredibly good company,” said Mr. Fox, who co-produced films (“The Hours”) and plays (“Skylight”) with Mr. Rudin. “But he’s also very controlling — and became more so as the years wore on — and I don’t believe anyone could put their hand up and say they weren’t aware that he treated his staff really badly.”

“He’s a very volatile man,” Mr. Fox added. “Very, very volatile.”

Mr. Rudin expresses that volatility not only verbally, but also in writing — he’s known for sending vitriolic emails, and often copying others. Amanda Lundberg, chief executive of the publicity firm 42West, recalled being copied on an email in which he described another woman using a vulgar synonym for vagina. “He wanted an audience to his cruel berating,” she said.

“I feel embarrassment for the many that not only did have the power to stand up to him and walk away, but chose to gleefully and dutifully protect him instead,” she added. “Everyone knows who they are.”

A few actors and writers who worked with Mr. Rudin have begun to share stories about his bad behavior.

In 2015, Ms. Wilson learned she had breast cancer while starring in a Rudin production of Larry David’s play “Fish in the Dark.” When she told Mr. Rudin the news, she said, he complained that she would need time off during Tony voting season and asked to see her medical records, while Anna Shapiro, the director, grew upset about having to find a replacement.

A few days later, just before the curtains rose, Ms. Wilson received a call from her agent, saying her surgeon needed to call the insurance adjuster immediately, per Mr. Rudin’s demands. The memory still pains her.

“I felt like he was trying to find a way to fire me legally,” Ms. Wilson said. “He is the kind of person who makes someone feel worthless, unvaluable and replaceable.”

Ms. Shapiro said she had been trying to be helpful and had immediately apologized when it became clear that she had unintentionally upset Ms. Wilson; Rick Miramontez, a spokesman for Mr. Rudin, said that Mr. Rudin’s recollection was that Ms. Wilson had wanted to open the show and then leave, but that he and the director had not wanted her to delay treatment.

‘She just got whipsawed, and it was wrong.’

It was early 2019, and “West Side Story” still didn’t have its Maria or its Anita.

The production scheduled an audition in New York — not unusual, except that the show’s Belgian director and choreographer were both in Europe.

Mr. Rudin demanded that the agent they both used, Mark Subias, pick up their airfare, and when the agent refused, Mr. Rudin began to threaten — to fire the director, to cancel the production, to damage the agent’s career, according to five people told of the incident. (Mr. Subias declined to comment.)

In the end, Mr. Rudin stuck with the show, which opened to sharply divided reviews and packed houses.

But Mr. Rudin said he wouldn’t work with Mr. Subias’s clients, and then dropped planned projects with some of them.

Among those affected, according to several people familiar with the incident: the playwright Sarah Ruhl. Mr. Rudin had planned to bring her next play, “Becky Nurse of Salem,” to Broadway, with Sam Gold as the director and Kathy Bates as the star. Mr. Rudin reportedly told Ms. Ruhl to drop her agent; when she refused, he dropped her play.

Ms. Bates and Mr. Gold both left the project, and instead of going to Broadway the play wound up at Berkeley Repertory Theater in California; its next stop is supposed to be at one of Lincoln Center Theater’s Off Broadway venues in 2022. Both theaters are prestigious, but they are less visible and pay less well than Broadway. (Ms. Ruhl declined to comment.)

“It was so sad that Sarah Ruhl became the victim of this battle,” said Susie Medak, the managing director of Berkeley Rep, who confirmed the change to the show’s team. “There are so few women presented on Broadway, and here was an opportunity to have a Broadway show that was so lovely, and had such a starring role for this actress, and to have that fall apart over this totally unnecessary battle between these two guys was a truly unfortunate episode. She just got whipsawed, and it was wrong.”

Also affected: Mr. Rapp, the playwright. Mr. Rudin had pledged to bring his play, “The Sound Inside,” to Broadway, he said. When Mr. Rapp refused to drop Mr. Subias as his agent, Mr. Rudin dropped the production, he added. The producer Jeffrey Richards stepped in to present it on Broadway last season, and now it is a Tony nominee for best play.

Mr. Rudin acknowledged the rift with Mr. Subias, which he attributed to a “very, very costly situation” involving a disagreement over dates, and said: “I felt I had no choice but to stop doing business with him. We have since moved past the issue.”

Investors are frustrated. Enter the billionaires.

The lavishly nostalgic 2017 Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly!” was a can’t-miss event: a beloved Bette Midler chewing the scenery in a musical with lots of it.

Tickets sold fast — especially for the weeks when Ms. Midler was performing — and fetched eye-popping prices, topping out at $998 during a holiday week.

Investors in the show were gleeful, as huge advance sales, boffo grosses and top-tier prices suggested a monster hit. But, in the end, they made only a tiny profit, and many are now grumbling.

“I’ve invested in a bunch of Rudin shows,” said Gabby Hanna, a Cape Cod real estate agent who said she put $50,000 into “Dolly” and made only a $5,000 profit, “and after ‘Dolly’ I said I would never do it again.”

Over the last 15 years, Mr. Rudin has raised about $200 million from a variety of investors to finance his stage shows, according to a review of Securities and Exchange Commission filings for each show. But some investors have grown frustrated with his big-spending, low-return track record: Over the last five years, about three-quarters of his Broadway shows have lost money, according to a review of recoupment and closing announcements and discussions with industry leaders.

“Dolly” investors said in interviews that they had no way of really understanding why their returns were low — very little financial data was shared with them — but some said they believed Mr. Rudin had compensated Ms. Midler so generously, spent so heavily on marketing, and kept so much for himself that there was little left to share with them.

Mr. Rudin said suggestions that he spent too much on himself were “not true.”

“I have repeatedly (on nearly every show) at various points given up hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees owed to myself to keep shows running,” he said, “and I have spent on top of that millions of my own money keeping shows running.”

“Dolly” cost $16 million to put together and ran for 76 weeks, selling 811,203 tickets for a total of $128 million, according to financial filings and the Broadway League. The show’s weekly expenses were high — as much as $1.2 million — and opening night, which included a star-studded party at the New York Public Library, cost $842,000, according to documents filed with the New York state attorney general’s office.

Several “Dolly” investors said their disappointment was compounded because they had felt pressured to also put money into Mr. Rudin’s plays that spring — a revival of “The Glass Menagerie” and a new play called “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” both of which closed early after performing poorly at the box office.

Some of the investors are now closely watching litigation between Mr. Rudin and SpotCo, a marketing firm that claims in a pending lawsuit that he owes the company $6.3 million. (Mr. Rudin’s lawyer said the case had no merit when it was filed last summer.)

Recently, Mr. Rudin found a way to avoid dealing with smaller investors: He turned to a pair of billionaires, Mr. Diller and Mr. Geffen, to finance his stage shows. Mr. Diller, the chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp, was once Mr. Rudin’s boss at 20th Century Fox, while Mr. Geffen is a longtime record industry and film executive and a patron of the arts.

In interviews last week, both men said that Mr. Rudin’s behavior was a problem but held out hope that he would change.

“I don’t condone, nor am I an apologist for, actions relating to his work in his personal office,” Mr. Diller said, adding that he thought that “separate and special consideration” should be given “to his work outside of that office.”

Mr. Geffen said that Mr. Rudin has “a psychological problem that he needs to deal with if he’s going to work in the future.”

And would Mr. Geffen work with him again?

“If his behavior didn’t change it would be an easy no,” Mr. Geffen said, but, he added, “I don’t think a death sentence is called for if he gets the help he needs and his behavior changes.”

In an era of outspokenness, many artists remain silent.

Mr. Rudin has made strenuous efforts to prevent people from talking about him, not just through intimidation, but also as a prolific user of nondisclosure agreements.

Confidentiality agreements reviewed by The Times bar employees from cooperating with interviews about him, and prohibit disclosing “any aspect of any activity occurring at, in, or about any home, office, or other property owned, occupied, or used by Scott Rudin or any of his family members.” And a provision in the operating agreement for some of his shows bars investors from making “negative remarks.”

In essays this week, two artists who have worked with Mr. Rudin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Chabon, have reflected on not pushing back against what they knew about his behavior.

But many of his powerful collaborators have declined to respond to inquiries about him. Among them: actors including Mr. Washington, Ms. Metcalf and Jennifer Lawrence; the directors Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Alex Garland; the writers Aaron Sorkin and Lucas Hnath; and the former studio executive Amy Pascal, as well as the studios that Mr. Rudin has recently been working with, A24 and FX Productions.

Some of Mr. Rudin’s battles have become public through the legal system — he has been sued by Stephen Sondheim (over the rights to a musical) and the estates of Harper Lee (over the fidelity of the “Mockingbird” adaptation) and Tennessee Williams (over unpaid royalties).

He battled an insurance company over losses from a musical after attributing its closing to the unexpected pregnancy of one of its stars, Ms. McDonald, which led to lengthy wrangling over who knew what about her reproductive health. That case was settled last year. (Ms. McDonald declined to comment.)

He demanded that theaters around the country cancel productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” saying they might compete with the Broadway version. (After a backlash, he offered a face-saving compromise.)

And his pique has manifested in other ways as well. In the summer of 2017, a representative of “1984,” a play produced by Mr. Rudin, barred a Tony nominator, Jose Antonio Vargas, from watching the show. Mr. Vargas said he was already inside the theater, holding a valid ticket, when a member of the show’s staff ordered him out. (Mr. Rudin did not dispute the episode, but said he “had a very unfortunate incident with him years before” when Mr. Vargas was working as a journalist.)

‘Your actions have made it impossible for us to keep working together.’

Now Mr. Rudin’s standing is damaged and his future is in doubt. At stake are a dizzying array of prestige projects, including one of the most highly anticipated productions planned for Broadway’s first post-pandemic season: a gold-plated revival of “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster that is supposed to start previews in December.

Some collaborators are distancing themselves from him. Matt Stone, a “South Park” creator who is one of the writers of “The Book of Mormon,” said in an interview that he and the producer Anne Garefino had given Mr. Rudin an ultimatum before the producer announced his plan to step back. “I said, ‘Your actions have made it impossible for us to keep working together,’” Mr. Stone said.

Mr. Jackman and Ms. Foster have each said, in the wake of Mr. Rudin’s announcement, that they were committed to a healthy workplace at “The Music Man” and were pleased that Mr. Rudin had stepped away. (Both declined interview requests.)

Mr. Rudin, asked about the role others had played in his decision, said, “I resigned from the shows so that nobody would have to defend me or defend working with me — the decisions were mine and were based on my desire to see the shows go forward.”

Mr. Rudin had many other projects planned before his behavior started to catch up with him. He was developing Broadway revivals of “Our Town” starring Dustin Hoffman, “The Piano Lesson” starring Samuel L. Jackson, and “Death of a Salesman” starring Nathan Lane. He was also planning a dance-focused new show with the acclaimed choreographer Justin Peck; a new Adam Guettel musical; and “The Black Clown,” Michael Schachter and Davóne Tines’s musical adaptation of the Langston Hughes poem.

The fate of those projects, and of several films Mr. Rudin had planned to produce, is now unclear, and there are many unanswered questions. What will “stepping back” look like for Mr. Rudin, who is famous for micromanaging?

Mr. Rudin did not address those specifics, including about whether he would continue to benefit financially from his shows, but said that he hoped that his shows that were running before the pandemic — “The Book of Mormon,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “West Side Story” — would reopen. “Other producers will replace me on these shows, and they will have decision making responsibilities that were heretofore mine,” he said.

On Broadway, his absence could create opportunities for other producers, who have often been stymied by his propensity to lock up stories, stars, and even theater space.

“You couldn’t get a theater because you were always being played off against what he might have going in,” Mr. Fox said, “and that was really difficult for people who didn’t produce the mass of product he did.”

And then there are the rights Mr. Rudin had obtained to stage play revivals, new work and adaptations from books and films. He would sometimes secure rights “literally so other people can’t produce them, because he would only want his touch on them,” said Max Hoffman, 24, who worked for Mr. Rudin for nine months last year.

He left, he said, because he feared the job would cause him to have “a mental breakdown.”

And Mr. Rudin’s next steps? “I am doing the work to become a better person and address my issues,” he said in the statement to The Times. “Beyond that commitment, anything else would be far too early to contemplate.”

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