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Why Netflix had to shut down 'House of Cards' production

Netflix had no choice but to suspend production Tuesday on season 6 of “House of Cards.” For all the millions of dollars involved in such a far-reaching decision, I will be surprised if it ever resumes with Kevin Spacey.

Given the allegations against Spacey and the cultural change in thinking on male sexual misconduct, there was no way the Oscar-winning actor could have been allowed back on the soundstages outside Baltimore without some clarity on what he did or didn’t do — as well as some guarantees that workers would be protected from any predatory or abusive behavior. This is one Hollywood story that looks as if it might be as much about morality as it is about money.

Spacey’s power as an executive producer and star on “House of Cards” was enormous. During a walking tour of the soundstages in 2012 before the start of production on season 1, show runner Beau Willimon told me the series likely could not have been done without Spacey. His production company, Trigger Street Productions, was one of the producing partners with Media Rights Capital, which means the “EP” title was far more than an honorific given to placate a star’s ego. If Spacey didn’t like something or someone involved in the production, every effort was made to change it.

You don’t let someone with that kind of power in the workplace return after accusations are leveled against him that he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old boy. Even Fox News and the Weinstein Co. understood that alleged predators had to be separated from more possible victims — and, in those two cases, it involved firing the founders of groundbreaking, iconic media firms, Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein.

Actor Anthony Rapp told BuzzFeed that Spacey assaulted him in 1986 when Rapp was 14 years old and appearing in a Broadway play. The teen said he came to Spacey’s hotel room with other actors for a party and found himself alone with the older man, According to Rapp, Spacey picked him up, placed him on a bed and lay on top of him.

Spacey’s actions have been described as “sexual misconduct” and “inappropriate sexual behavior,” but what he allegedly did defines assault to me. We should call it what it is.

No statement of contrition can make such charges go away, but Spacey’s Twitter responses only made things worse. He said he didn’t remember doing what Rapp said he did. But if he did do it, the actions were the result of his being drunk — as if that’s an excuse.

And then, he decided to come out as a gay man, possibly linking what he did to Rapp with being homosexual in the minds of some.

He was pilloried on social media, and with good reason.

Netflix and Media Rights Capital declined to comment beyond their statement Tuesday announcing the suspension of production. But it is not hard to see the dangerous space in which they now find themselves.

They are two weeks into a production schedule that would have extended well into 2018 even if they had not shut down Tuesday. Contracts totaling millions of dollars for everything from actors to catering are already signed. Who eats all that financial loss if production never resumes? Even the best insurance won’t cover all of it. And I wonder what kind of insurance covers a star’s likability rating and reputation being shredded by a 30-year-old allegation.

A special Emmy Spacey was set to receive next month has been withdrawn by the International TV Academy, which issued a statement saying the action was being taken “in light of recent events.” Spacey’s online acting video was dropped Tuesday by MasterClass as well.

For the record, Willimon issued a statement saying he had never seen Spacey engage in any kind of sexually inappropriate behavior during the four seasons he ran production on the show. David M. O’Ferrall, business agent for the union that represents studio mechanics and broadcast technicians who work on show, told me Tuesday that he had no reports of such behavior by Spacey from any of his members.

Netflix and Media Rights Capital are surely hitting the pause button on production, hoping the scandal that envelopes Spacey will go away or at least quiet down. But it won’t unless Spacey and the two companies in business with him come up with something better than he has offered so far.

They are faced with a cultural tidal wave washing over Hollywood — a sea change away from the male privilege and the oppression of patriarchy symbolized by the casting couch. The days when artists like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen could continue making films despite shocking allegations against them are gone.

Patriarchy doesn’t go away overnight. But as the swift banishment of Weinstein and the forced resignations of executives like Ray Price at Amazon Studios suggest, sexual predators are not just being driven out of the workplace these days. They are being driven out of the Hollywood community altogether. You don’t let Spacey back on the set of “House of Cards” without being called a hypocrite with lower moral standards than Fox News or the Weinstein Co.

And to those who would say Ailes and Weinstein were serial offenders, while there is currently only one accusation against Spacey, I say one violation of another person is more than enough. How many assaults does it take before you are removed from the power to do it again?

Netflix and Media Rights Capital know the mood of Hollywood and the tenor of the country better than I do. They make tens of millions of dollars betting on productions that speak to where they think the audience is. That is why we are seeing trial balloons about a spinoff.

They are looking at the possibility of extricating the production legally from Spacey and his company by going the spinoff route and leaving him behind with all his baggage.

Beverly Hill lawyers are burning the midnight oil trying to figure out the most cost-effective way to deal with the contractual costs and the cast and crew who are holding their breaths on sound stages in Harford County.

Netflix and Media Rights Capital are hoping this suspension — costly as it is in its own right — will give them time to find a way out.

If they do, I am guessing it won’t include Spacey.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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