What the Casting Couch Looks Like in the Digital Age

One of Hollywood’s most pernicious tropes hasn’t died. It has merely expanded.

Kevin Tsujihara, until this week, was the Chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. In 2017, he spoke at the ceremony in which Brett Ratner got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Eric Charbonneau / Invision for Warner Bros. / AP)

“The days of the casting couch—if they ever existed—are over.”

That was the Hollywood casting director Marvin Paige, speaking to the celebrity columnist Dick Kleiner in 1965. Kleiner had noticed that Paige’s office lacked that most metaphorically laden of furniture items—a couch—and Paige had explained its absence in decidedly optimistic terms. Paige, in his pronouncement, may have been willfully ignorant; he may have been simply naive. Either way, he was wrong. The casting couch, as a metonym for sexual exploitation in the entertainment industry, lives on because the exploitation itself lives on. Today, though, it has become broader than an object, and something more than a metaphor: It’s become digitized.

On Monday, WarnerMedia announced the departure of Kevin Tsujihara, the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, following the revelation of a years-long series of text messages the executive had exchanged with the British actor Charlotte Kirk. Their digital conversation, provided anonymously to The Hollywood Reporter, suggests that Tsujihara, who is married, had a sexual relationship with Kirk. But it suggests as well that, over the course of the affair, the executive had suggested that he could help Kirk find auditions for, and roles within, Warner projects. (Warner is responsible for Wonder Woman and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as well as 2016’s How to Be Single and 2018’s Ocean’s 8—the latter two of which featured Kirk in small roles. “Mr. Tsujihara had no direct role in the hiring of this actress,” the executive’s personal attorney told The Hollywood Reporter; “Mr. Tsujihara never promised me anything,” Kirk said in a statement.)

The text messages, however, suggest otherwise. “Yes, I spoke to our guys—i caused a bit of a stir … ,” one apparent message from Tsujihara to Kirk reads. Later: “I don’t usually call about casting about these types of roles—they’re going to get back to me … ” Kirk: “I hope it was ok.” Tsujihara: “Its fine, I just need to be careful.” Kirk: “I know how we can be carful and make this work.” Tsujihara: “Doesn’t look great—lets look for a movie role … ”

Their apparent exchanges make for an extremely specific story; however, in their rough contours, they are also extremely familiar. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed published an article announcing that Patrick Crowley, an editor at Billboard, had been fired from the magazine in response to allegations that he had used his position to sexually harass an up-and-coming artist. In this case, the alleged misconduct began when the musician Nik Thakkar got in touch with Crowley about the publication timing of an interview he’d done with Billboard; it ended with Crowley allegedly asking Thakkar to send nude pictures of himself to Crowley and another editor at the magazine. Thakkar, speaking with BuzzFeed, further claims that Crowley, who oversaw Billboard’s LGBT content, had orchestrated Thakkar’s removal from the November 2018 Billboard Pride playlist after Thakkar had refused Crowley’s request. (Crowley did not respond to BuzzFeed’s request for comment.)

The allegations suggest the logic of the casting couch at play: money and ambition and art and sex, colliding. Status, leveraged. Another of the stories’ shared elements, though, is the fact that the alleged abuses of power played out not in person, but on digital platforms: The communications between Kirk and Tsujihara were conducted at least partially, the series of photographed phone screens obtained by THR suggest, via text message. And those between Thakkar and Crowley played out over Instagram direct message. Casting couch implies a lot, but one of those things is a specifically in-person form of exploitation: closed doors, physical coercion, abuses whose effects might radiate but whose actions are limited to, essentially, a single place and a single moment. The allegations about Tsujihara and Crowley, however, contradict that frame: Here are abuses of power that allegedly played out over time, in digital spaces, unconstrained.

And here, too, is lengthy documentary evidence of the alleged misbehavior. The three-year relationship between Tsujihara and Kirk, THR’s Tatiana Siegel and Kim Masters write, “offers a window into a dark aspect of the entertainment industry, which regularly brings together attractive young women, eager if not desperate for a shot at stardom, and successful men who at times see these women as a perk of their wealth and power.” And as BuzzFeed’s Patrick Strudwick put it of the reported dialogue between the Billboard editor and the aspiring musician:

The detail of the conversation between Crowley and Thakkar, offers a rare and detailed insight into the techniques often deployed by those using power to gain sexual favours. Crowley used humour. He self-deprecated, in an attempt to provoke pity. He spoke in metaphor, he generalised and used emoji. All serve to disguise his intentions: softened, and couched in playfulness before the direct, unquestionable command: Send naked pictures.

Strudwick could say all that because, essentially, he had the receipts. He could report on the details of the allegations using, literally, text. So could Siegel and Masters, when they wrote the story of the relationship between Tsujihara and Kirk (a story that also involves the Australian billionaire James Packer and the director Brett Ratner—the latter of whom has himself been accused of sexual misconduct). It’s all there, in black and white and the cheery lime green of Apple’s text-message feature. There’s a frankness to it all that is rare to see in an industry that is so skilled at manufacturing illusions: There can be no “he-said, she-said” when all the saids are so neatly captured as text. When the casting couch goes digital, it leaves a trail.

What emerges, from all that digital evidence, is a picture of wealthy and powerful men who seem to subscribe to the regressive notion that sex is one of the spoils of their success—something they have earned, effectively, along with their hefty paychecks and lofty status. In the entertainment industry, both sex and power double, still, as currency; that blunt fact is laid bare when Charlotte Kirk, the aspiring actor, allegedly texts Kevin Tsujihara, the studio executive, “You’re very busy I know but 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.” A lot has been revealed, over the past several years, about the human failings that inform the art Hollywood puts out into the world. Here is one more: The days of the casting couch never ended. On the contrary, they are flourishing.