Time Warner Boss May Not Be Happy with Russell Simmons Film
AT&T announced on Friday, April 24, that John Stankey had been promoted to CEO, succeeding Randall Stephenson in the role as of July 1.
AT&T is the media giant that includes Time Warner and HBO, where the new HBO Max is scheduled to kick off on May 27 with a controversial documentary about music icon Russell Simmons.
The fledgling HBO Max franchise has shied away from commenting about why it would not include Simmons or the more than two dozen witnesses he provided and those who have come forward on their own to refute allegations made by three women featured in the documentary.
However, as Stankey takes over, some insiders believe the film could be in jeopardy.
One person at HBO said, “Stankey certainly doesn’t welcome or need controversy right out of the gate and he doesn’t want another ‘Leaving Neverland’ situation.”
The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works for the parent HBO and isn’t authorized to speak for HBO Max, said Stankey “barely survived” “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary HBO aired in 2019 about allegations made by two men who said the late Michael Jackson sexually assaulted them when they were children.
That documentary eventually led to former CEO Richard Plepler stepping down amid a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by Jackson’s estate.
Shareholders of HBO and its parent company were livid that Plepler and Stankey had put their investments in a precarious position by not bowing to immense pressure and the powerful Jackson estate to back out of the film.
Because the Simmons’ documentary feature three women — including the film’s lead, Drew Dixon — whose allegations against Simmons have mostly been disproven by a yearslong investigation by the Black Press, the insider said, it’s possible Stankey could be wary of another protracted, multimillion-dollar court battle — particularly for a fledgling network.
Further, Stankey is said to have already stated hesitation about the film because the influential Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV stepped away from it just before it screened at Sundance in January.
“Bottom line,” a source told Vanity Fair when Stankey was elevated to head CNN in 2018, “what everybody wants to know is: how’s [Stankey] gonna react when there’s a scandal? How’s he gonna react when somebody screws up? Hopefully, it’ll be a while before we have to find out.”
Those at HBO Max might soon find out.
In a letter first reported by the Hollywood Reporter that was sent to Stankey dated Feb. 25, 2019, an unnamed person criticized the wisdom of the Time Warner acquisition and took aim at managers, including then-Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara and Plepler.
The nine-page document which redacted the shareholder’s name demanded an inspection of AT&T corporate records.
Tucked inside the missive was the outrage at HBO and Plepler’s green-lighting of “Leaving Neverland.” Shareholders argued that the nine-figure lawsuit that followed put all of their investments in danger. Plepler exited HBO three days later, The Hollywood Reporter noted.
Notably, the letter also put Stankey on notice for what shareholders said was his “hands-off approach” on some of the decisions it dubbed foolish and detrimental to stakeholders.
Currently, HBO Max is still planning to air the documentary despite minimal public backing.
The network has repeatedly declined to answer questions about the film, including why Oprah Winfrey abruptly walked away from the documentary that features three women — Sheri Sher, Drew Dixon and Sil Lai Abrams.
When Winfrey backed out, she said she wasn’t comfortable with the film and that it needed work.
“There were too many inconsistencies in Drew Dixon’s story,” Winfrey stated.
In a letter this week to Stephenson, a representative for Simmons took the network to task for excluding Simmons’ side of the story. Simmons has never been charged with any crime and has passed nine prosecution-level lie detector tests about his innocence.
“When is it ever right to have a one-sided conversation, one where if you defend yourself against accusations by offering ‘your truth,’ you are accused of shaming rather than having a difference in recollection and, or, understanding of events? One where in the case of late if you don’t’ fully agree or own ‘your truth,’ as long as the truth agrees with them, you are OK; if it does not, then you are entirely against and wrongly vilified,” the letter stated.
“[Simmons] has already issued countless detailed denials of false accusations against him including pages of sworn witness testimony from family members, clergy, journalists and friends, who were present at every stage, covered in the documentary you now own.
“These denials have been validated by his passing nine prosecution-grade lie detector tests, seven of them from the president of the California Polygraph Association.
“He has provided sworn statements and pointed out fatal flaws and inconsistencies in written accounts, some published in the very books authored by the subjects of your documentary.
“Other reputable media organizations have taken the opportunity to review and have acted responsibly by not publishing these stories. The social change from today’s activism is more important to the world his daughters will inherit than any narrative from false accusations of events from nearly 40 years ago.”
Neither Stankey nor Stephenson could be reached for comment.