In January, The Atlantic published an investigation into several allegations of sexual misconduct against the filmmaker Bryan Singer, who’s directed many blockbusters in his long career, including the recent box-office sensation Bohemian Rhapsody. The news reverberated throughout Hollywood. But one producer who seemed untroubled was Avi Lerner. As the CEO of Millennium Films, Lerner was responsible for high-budget shlock such as the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels, and an upcoming remake of Red Sonja, which had just hired Singer for a reported $10 million. This week, Deadline reported that the film was being moved to the “back burner” and taken off Millennium’s development slate.
Singer has dismissed The Atlantic’s story as a “homophobic smear piece,” calling the accusations “bogus.” Lerner backed him up in a January 24 statement, saying, “I know the difference between agenda-driven fake news and reality, and I am very comfortable with this decision. In America people are innocent until proven otherwise.” Less than three weeks later, things have changed: On Monday, Deadline reported that Red Sonja is being taken out of active development by its studio, which had been planning to start production in Europe later this year. Perhaps Singer’s reputation in Hollywood has now become too toxic even for Millennium Films. (Lerner was not immediately available for comment.)
For years, rumors had swirled in the industry about alleged sexual misconduct by Singer (fueled by several lawsuits, many of them dismissed for various reasons) and about his on-set behavior, with reports of clashes with other actors and persistent lateness. According to The Hollywood Reporter, before Singer was approved by Fox to direct Bohemian Rhapsody, the studio head Stacey Snider warned him not to break the law and to show up to work every day—an extraordinary demand to make of a person in charge of a $55 million project. But according to Fox, Singer failed to comply, and the studio fired him before production was complete. (Directors Guild rules mandate that Singer retain the director credit.)
Why would anyone be in line for a $10 million paycheck after such an experience? Lerner’s initial defense was that the movie Singer got fired from was still a commercial hit. “The over $800 million Bohemian Rhapsody has grossed, making it the highest-grossing drama in film history, is testament to his remarkable vision and acumen,” Lerner said in a statement. It’s worth noting that while Singer has directed many hits, he’s also overseen financial disappointments: 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer was a notorious bomb, losing a reported $140 million for its studio, while his Superman Returns performed worse than expected, failing to produce a sequel and burdened by a staggering $200 million-plus budget.
Singer certainly doesn’t deserve sole credit for Bohemian Rhapsody’s success; the high grosses are at least partly thanks to the enduring popularity of the band Queen, one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. On the other hand, Red Sonja, a reboot of a Brigitte Nielsen–starring action drama that made $6.9 million in 1985, is a much more marginal property. Lerner and Millennium Films had not even secured financing for the project yet, and the company was looking to attract investors this month at the European Film Market, an annual gathering of movie-business operatives attached to the Berlin Film Festival. At the best of times, a Red Sonja revival might not be the hottest title at EFM; with Singer’s name attached, arguably no sage investor would jump on board.
Hence the apparent step back. Singer hasn’t been officially removed from the movie, but without any funding, cast announcements, or immediate plans to begin filming, the project essentially doesn’t exist. Lerner, for his part, has only somewhat backtracked on his original statement in defense of Singer, telling Deadline that his comments “came out the wrong way,” and that “I think victims should be heard and this allegation should be taken very, very seriously … I just don’t agree to judge by Twitter. I want [the accused] to be judged by the court.”
Lerner has his own experience with high-profile misconduct allegations. The actor Terry Crews told a Senate panel last year that Lerner had threatened to fire him from the fourth Expendables movie if Crews didn’t drop a sexual-harassment case against the Hollywood agent Adam Venit. (Lerner told The Hollywood Reporter that he was simply asking for “some kind of peace.”) In 2017, Lerner was sued by a former employee who alleged sexual harassment by the CEO and other top-level employees, gender discrimination, and the fostering of a hostile work environment. (Lerner called the suit “all lies” and “a joke.”) “Abusers protect abusers,” Crews told senators, recounting Lerner’s alleged intervention on behalf of Venit. But despite Lerner’s initial efforts to defend Singer, the shelving of Red Sonja suggests that the director’s reputation could finally be a meaningful roadblock for his career in Hollywood.
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