Amy J. Berg’s An Open Secret argues that Hollywood shelters a loose network of agents, producers and executives who sexually abuse and rape young boys. The film also suggests that these predators are common knowledge in the industry, but that the presence of several highly placed executives and filmmakers in their ranks ensures that the studio system is invested in keeping their existence a secret, both to avoid scandal and to ensure that pedophiles who are very good at making money can continue to do so.
If you aren’t familiar with any of the stories Berg presents, I suspect you’ll find the material covered in An Open Secret horrific and shocking. If you are familiar, you’ll still find it horrific and shocking, but as a whole the documentary may not carry its intended weight. This is in part because Berg relies on the narratives of survivors of already-settled cases. There’s a great strength to that, no question, and the bravery and willingness of these survivors to open up on camera is affecting, but beyond these interviews, the film isn’t really providing any new information or perspective. It’s also hard to miss the fact that Berg keeps insisting on synthesis: Several cases of sexual abuse and rape were occurring at the same time in various circumstances in the late 1990s and 2000s—and Berg concludes that this is a conspiracy. As one interviewee suggests, these cases are just the tip of the iceberg, and Hollywood keeps pushing the iceberg further underwater.
Look: I bet that’s true. In fact, I believe that’s true, just as I believe that similar sexual abuse, coercion and rape affects underage girls, men and women. I’m also totally on board with the idea that all sorts of industry folks are aware of it and/or involved in covering these practices up. The film found initial release back in November, after all, but couldn’t catch a U.S. distributor. The existence and backstory of An Open Secret seems to lend enough credibility to Berg’s claims.
Yet, the film’s only real evidence for why these things are true is…because they are. These moments stand out, because other parts of the film are very tightly edited, researched and thought out. Take Berg’s extended analysis of the Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), which was a startup that created Internet-only content, most of which looked like low-budget versions of Disney Channel fare, in the late-1990s—y’know, before anybody’s Internet connection had the power for online video. DEN collapsed when its chairman, Marc Collins-Rector, came under fire for sexually abusing and raping young boys associated with the network. Berg is able to list all of the investors of the company, including several individuals who have been sued for but not convicted of sexual abuse. She also has numerous commentators describe the parties at the DEN mansion, descriptions that become increasingly distressing. Early in the film, we learn how Collins-Rector imposed a skinny-dipping policy after midnight; by the end of the film, we learn that Collins-Rector drugged and raped young boys when they couldn’t be groomed, even holding some at gunpoint.
Stories like that compose the majority of the film, but they’re linked and held together with strange framing devices. For example, the film’s bold tagline, that “Hollywood doesn’t want [us] to see this film,” is an overstep, since the film largely targets sexual predators who have already, clearly and publicly, been identified as such. While An Open Secret does insinuate that others were involved, it never really implicates them—and while there may be numerous legal and ethical reasons for that, the result is a film that seems at odds with its marketing. If this were presented as a film about the experiences of several survivors from the late 1990s and early 2000s, that could be enough; as it is, the film clutters its own throughline to blur these historical examples with the present. Berg doesn’t need to be “objective” with such repulsive subject matter, but there are times when she seems to be manipulative in ways that aren’t necessary.
It’s hard not to take a cynical stance and claim that most of the problems with An Open Secret stem from the decision to define it not as a collection of survivor stories (what it is) but an exposé—what it can’t really be, for legal or evidentiary reasons. With that said? The more inflammatory claims will draw attention to what is an important issue, and if the best way to ensure that the stories of these survivors are heard is the PR cycle for this film, then such cynicism hardly matters.
Director: AmyJ. Berg
Writers: Amy J. Berg, Billy McMillin, Lorien Haynes
Release Date: June 12, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.