In the late 1990s, during the swollen stages of the dot-com bubble, Marc Collins-Rector founded Digital Entertainment Network. A sort of proto-Netflix, it would broadcast original serials on the Internet. One of them, called Chad’s World, was written and produced by Collins-Rector, and followed a young man as he moved in with his brother and brother’s boyfriend.
His associates might have observed that the dynamic of the show was reminiscent of Collins-Rector’s own circumstances, as he shared a house with his partner Chad Shackley and a 17-year-old former child actor, Brock Pierce. They might or might not have known that Collins-Rector was a pedophile sexual predator who preyed on his youthful recruits. Digital Entertainment Network eventually collapsed, taking with it tens of thousands of dollars from investors such as The Usual Suspects and X-Men director Bryan Singer.
This is just one of the awful episodes detailed in the 2014 documentary An Open Secret. Powerful yet restrained, it explores the underbelly of the child performer industry, where, it alleges, young boys and girls are commonly abused by agents, executives, and other insiders. These abusers are often well-connected. For example, Brian Peck, who was convicted in 2003 of raping a young Nickelodeon performer, worked with veteran Nickelodeon executive Dan Schneider and Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen, and did commentary for a DVD release with Usual Suspects and X-Men director Bryan Singer.
Despite critical acclaim and an Oscar-nominated director— Amy Berg—An Open Secret received “zero Hollywood offers to distribute the film.” It did not help when former child actor Michael Egan, who appeared in the film, dropped his case against Masters of the Universe director Gary Goddard, Singer, and two Hollywood executives after his lawyers accepted the weakness of his case and he was convicted on an unrelated charge of fraud. Egan was discredited as a witness, though Goddard would go on to be accused of sexual abuse by eight of his former students. Goddard’s last project had been the musical Broadway 4D, co-directed with Singer, who faced a separate accusation of rape in the same month.
Amid the furor of the “Me Too” campaign, adult victims of sexual abuse have received more attention than child victims. Kevin Spacey, who the actor Gabriel Byrne claims held up the filming of The Usual Suspects due to his inappropriate behavior, was found to have exploited underage boys. Still, most of the attention has focused on harassers with adult female victims. When Asia Argento, who revealed her abuse at the grubby hands of Harvey Weinstein in a groundbreaking New Yorker article in 2017, stood onstage at Cannes Film Festival and roared to an enthusiastic ovation that Weinstein would “never be welcome here again” and that men would be “held accountable for their conduct against women,” she made no mention of boys and girls who had endured abuse. (Ironically, Argento would herself be accused of plying a 17-year-old actor with alcohol and assaulting him. Her case is being investigated by Los Angeles police.)
The formation of this narrative is unsurprising. Adult victims have larger platforms and far more security when they speak for themselves. “It takes that inner strength to come forward,” said Paul Espinosa, commanding officer at the LA Police Department Juvenile Division in an interview with Sky News. “With children that inner strength is not the same as with adults.” Still, as people debate the merits and flaws of the “revolution” that “Me Too” is held to represent, I think an argument can be made that it is insufficiently radical, that it has failed to strike through the guts of show business and hit its rotten core.
Making children famous, as I have previously written, is a bad idea. The bizarre environments of the film and music industries warp their minds and expose them to predators. Parents, desperate to help their children realize their dreams (or just exploit them for financial gain), allow strangers access to them on a level that would be acknowledged as absurd and sinister in other situations. In An Open Secret, for example, it’s revealed that one abusive agent took child actors to his house for sleepovers and screening parties. As the children mature, they are often exposed to alcohol, drugs, and sex. Elijah Wood, himself a former child actor, said after watching An Open Secret that there are “a lot of vipers in this industry” and credited his mother with protecting him from “bizarre…paths of temptation.”
The film industry is strangely forgiving of child abusers. I am one of many who think Roman Polanski is a child rapist and a cinematic genius but his friends and collaborators have always gone further by behaving as if his talents mitigate his appalling crime. Victor Salva was convicted of molesting a child actor, filming the molestation, and possessing child pornography, but went on to direct several films, one of which included “tasteless, cursory allusions” to a character’s abuse. Brian Peck continued to work in Hollywood after his conviction. He was hired as a vocal coach on Anger Management at the alleged insistence of Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen.
Such abusers are able to operate in industries where sexualizing children is disturbingly common. Media figures have, for example, been accused of eroticizing the young cast of the show Stranger Things. Thirteen-year-old actress Millie Bobbie Brown was included by W magazine among the stars who were proving “Why TV is Sexier than Ever,” while 13-year-old Finn Wolfhard had to wade through leering comments on social media. At home, of course, perverts are free to sexualize child performers. The former child star of Matilda, Mara Wilson, spoke of her disgust at finding herself featured on “a foot fetish site that catalogued scenes in movies where children’s feet could be seen.” This should prompt some reflection from former Nickelodeon executive Dan Schneider, who, as reported in The Outline after his unexplained firing in 2018, posted pictures of his young stars’ feet and solicited pictures of feet from fans.
Critics of “Me Too” often accuse the movement of abandoning due process in favor of trial by social media. There is something to this. Especially where famous people are concerned, making false accusations of abuse can be a good means of acquiring attention or money, and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can spawn a kind of febrile mob mentality. Where children are concerned, it is especially important that the courts, and not anonymous rumormongers, determine guilt and innocence. Yet rumors flourish when institutions are closed, corrupt, and unaccountable. Decades of abuse and impenetrable institutional silence have fostered a desire for a full and verifiable reform of organizational attitudes towards child performers and adult abusers. Hollywood, which thrives on telling other people’s stories, has to be more open about its own.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland who has written for The American Conservative, Quillette, the Spectator USA, and other publications. His website can be found here.