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Roy Price, ousted from Amazon over sexual harassment claims, is ready to talk

As published by Los Angeles Times
By Stacy Perman
November 23, 2020

Three years ago, Roy Price, then head of Amazon Studios, was at the Four Seasons resort in Santa Barbara when his phone rang.

It was Oct. 12, 2017, and he had arrived for Campfire — the super-secret, invite-only gathering of influential artists, celebrities, writers and thinkers that Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos hosted each fall.

Price occupied one of Hollywood’s plummier perches. Holding sway over a $7-billion content budget, he led Amazon Studios’ rocket ride from modest video-on-demand service to major industry player with such acclaimed programming as “Transparent,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the Oscar-winning movie “Manchester by the Sea.”

By all appearances, Price was on an upswing. Then, Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s senior vice president, called.

That afternoon, Isa Hackett, executive producer of one of Amazon’s most popular series, “The Man in the High Castle,” had gone public with claims that Price had made lewd comments and unwanted sexual advances toward her two years earlier.

On the call, Blackburn told Price that he would be placed on unpaid leave. The next day, his fiancée called off their wedding. Four days later, Amazon announced that Price was stepping down.

His exit drew tremendous attention, coming just weeks after the New York Times and the New Yorker had published blockbuster revelations about decades of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Other claims about Price’s behavior — including allegations that he’d made vulgar comments and propositioned women at work functions — materialized in news reports after his departure.

In the wake of his ouster, Price decamped to Asia in a self-imposed exile. After nearly three years of grappling with the implosion of his career at Amazon, Price is talking publicly for the first time. He denied claims of sexually harassing Hackett and chalks up the episode to a failed attempt at humor — a mistake, he says, that was conflated with abuse and cast as predation. Price referred to some of the other claims against him as neither “instructive or characteristic” of him or his career.

Sporting a Sanskrit tattoo on his left arm that says, “The truth will prevail,” inked while in India, Price is by turns apologetic, circumspect, opaque and defensive.

“Look, I don’t want to appear to be trying to elicit anyone’s sympathy,” he said. But at the same time, Price believes the #MeToo wrecking ball that brought down Weinstein, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, comedian Louis C.K., “Today” co-host Matt Lauer and others has hit him with disproportionate force.

”I just didn’t believe that, like, a false, vicious, totally contrary-to-fact narrative like that could be articulated, that it could actually be accepted and impact your reputation and all of your friends and family,” Price said. “It just seemed like such a bizarre set of circumstances out of some Russian novel.”

For Hackett, the situation was no less bizarre. She stands by her earlier statements.

“I wasn’t laughing when he asked me in graphic detail about my sexual history with men, when he lauded his genitals or when he told me I would love having sex with him in explicit detail,” she said. “This all came after I’d immediately rejected the idea of having an affair with him. It felt like badgering.”

The #MeToo movement has encouraged women to openly discuss and seek redress for decades of sexual harassment and misconduct. Many powerful men have lost jobs when their behavior came to light in the wake of these discussions. But Price’s case raises key questions: Should he face the same career consequences as those accused of sexual assault? Can someone banished from his industry ever really reckon with what happened? And should he get a shot at a second chance?

Price’s unraveling began in August 2017, when the tech news website the Information reported that Amazon had investigated claims that Price had made “unwanted sexual remarks” to Hackett during Comic-Con International: San Diego in July 2015, but published few details.

Two months later, the Hollywood Reporter provided a fuller account, in which Hackett alleged that Price relentlessly propositioned her as they shared a ride with Michael Paull, then an Amazon executive, currently president of Disney Streaming Services, to a party.

Paull did not respond to requests for comment.

Although Hackett pushed back, telling Price that she was a lesbian married to a woman with whom she had children, Price continued. “You will love my dick,” he told her, according to the trade publication. Once at the party, as she was talking with a group of other executives, Hackett asserted that Price shouted, “Anal sex!” in her ear, the report stated.

Hackett, who confirmed the account in an interview with The Times, recounted the incident to other Amazon executives. Amazon retained an outside firm, Public Interest Investigations Inc., to conduct an inquiry not long afterward.

Although Price acknowledged that while in the car, “I think she got uncomfortable,” he said he didn’t realize the conversation’s effect on Hackett until later. “We took a selfie and everything seemed cool,” he said.

According to Price, he had met Hackett for the first time that evening. He called the atmosphere “jokey as we went from one party to another. I spoke, in a self-deprecating way, about my prospective dating process and prospects.”

Price said he made a crack that the two should date, saying, “‘At least it would create some publicity for the show.’”

However, he stressed, “I did not say, ‘You’ll love my dick,’ nor did I make any kind of proposition whatsoever, lewd or otherwise.

“We did have a show at the time in development called ‘I Love Dick,’” he said. “And there was some joking at the time about the title.”

In retrospect, Price acknowledged that his remarks were a mistake.

“If someone is, you know, discomforted and put out and feels that you pushed the boundaries with your humor, then that’s on you and that’s your mistake, and I’m sorry for that, and I take responsibility for that,” Price said.

At the same time, he said he feels that his behavior has been unjustly lumped in with the more egregious misconduct that the #MeToo movement has unmasked.

“You know, it’s truly absurd … to compare, ‘Oh, you made a joke once that wasn’t well received, and on the other hand, this other person is like a convicted rapist. Those things are the same.’ They’re not the same, obviously.”

He notes that he was investigated over the incident two years before, and adds that he was never asked during the investigation about the phrase, “You’ll love my dick,” saying that the accusation never came up.

“If any of those things were true 100%, I would have been fired for sure, because there’s a zero tolerance policy at Amazon,” he said.

After the investigation, Price said he was instructed not to reach out to or apologize to Hackett and to minimize meetings with her and to not attend any of her show’s events.

Price asserted that the investigation “was not determined to be sexual harassment.” Amazon would not confirm the findings of its investigation.

A spokesman for Amazon declined to comment and referred to a statement the company issued in 2017 when the claims were made public.

“We take seriously any questions about the conduct of our employees. We expect people to set high standards for themselves; we encourage people to raise any concerns and we make it a priority to investigate and address them,” the company said then.

The results of the 2015 investigation, which concluded two years before the story in the Information ran, were not released. Christine Farrell, an investigator with the firm Amazon retained, declined to comment, citing confidentiality agreements with clients.

Many who knew and worked with Price have declined to go on the record because they either signed nondisclosure agreements with Amazon or still do business with the studio. They said that although they found the behavior attributed to him inappropriate, they were troubled by his treatment.

They questioned the timing of his exit, two years after he was investigated, noting that there were internal and external pressures at the time at Amazon over strategy. Some also wondered whether the punishment fit the crime.

“It haunts me. It was so unfair,” said a former Amazon executive, who declined to be identified because the person remains under a nondisclosure agreement. “I’m convinced Roy thought he was a telling a joke. That’s not an excuse for what he said; it was idiotic and inappropriate and horrible. But in his mind, he thought he was joking with her.”

Hackett is not confused about Price or what happened between them.

The daughter of the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose novel her Amazon series was based on, Hackett has seen her relationship with the studio continue and widen since that evening at Comic-Con. She produced the anthology series “Electric Dreams,” based on her father’s short stories, and last year signed a first-look deal with the studio.

Although not eager to revisit the incident with Price, Hackett elaborated on what she says occurred.

Hackett said she remembered thinking that Price’s behavior was “reckless,” and “I wondered if this was reflecting a culture within the leadership of the studio.”

Hackett also rebutted Price’s assertion that he was talking about the show “I Love Dick,” saying: “The incident took place more than a year before the release of the referenced show. There was no mention whatsoever of the project.”

She said the incident took a toll on her professionally and privately.

“The stress and anxiety created by all of this was very significant for me and for my family. It also pulled me away from the work I love during a key time on two shows and, regrettably, it revealed my life as a gay person within the context of Roy’s inappropriate, sexually graphic language,” she said.

Baby-faced with a spiky swirl of silver-white hair, Price, 53, grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of Frank Price, who ran Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and actress Katherine Crawford. His grandfather was Roy Huggins, who created such classic TV series as “The Fugitive” and “The Rockford Files.”

Price blazed his own path to Hollywood after studying English at Harvard and earning a law degree from USC. In 1984, he worked as the assistant to Creative Artists Agency agent Richard Lovett, who now runs the agency. He spent five years overseeing Disney’s TV animation business before becoming a consultant with McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm.

In 2004, Price moved to Seattle, launching what became known as Amazon Video on Demand in 2008. By 2010, he had founded Amazon Studios.

Many who worked with him recalled Price as a striking figure who deftly navigated the worlds of content and data.

But it was his personal style that set Price apart among Seattle’s khaki-clad Amazonians and their jeans-wearing counterparts in Hollywood. Price sported a Black Flag tattoo and regularly wore a leather biker jacket, although he sometimes showed up in harem pants or tennis clothes.

In meetings, several who worked with him called him “eccentric,” saying he could seem detached at times, perched on his chair like a bird or preoccupied with his phone — and he giggled.

Price took risks, challenged his colleagues to think big and take chances, but he sometimes struggled in his interactions.

“He was just awkward, like he didn’t fit in,” said Bob Berney, former head of marketing and distribution at Amazon Studios. “He was probably easily misunderstood. It was hard to find out who he was. At a town hall, he’d make a joke and maybe no one got it.”

But Berney added, “He had a passion for film and TV, and he could combine data-driven Amazon with a filmmaker’s sensibility, which at Amazon is a challenge.”

In the weeks after his departure, additional allegations emerged against Price, including that he had presided over a male-dominated culture at Amazon Studios. There was also friction with high-level talent. David E. Kelley, creator of the TV series “Goliath,” told the Wall Street Journal that the company’s entertainment division was “a bit of a gong show.”

One incident was alleged to have taken place in August 2015 when Price had drinks at Soho House in New York with two other Amazon executives and one from the show “Good Girls Revolt” (later canceled). The conversation became “awkward and uncomfortable,” when Price began to talk about sex and drugs, and the group “departed quickly,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The trade magazine also reported that at a staff holiday party, Price made inappropriate remarks about Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, stars of the series “Big Little Lies,” which went to HBO.

Price declined to discuss details of the conversation at Soho House, but said, “No one left abruptly.”

He indicated that his comments at the holiday party were misunderstood. “You know, I make a lot of joking asides; they’re ironic, which turns out to be riskier than I realized in Hollywood,” he said.

Individuals present at these alleged incidents either did not respond to requests for comment, declined to go on the record or were unreachable; one executive died last year.

In a memo issued to Amazon employees three days after Price’s departure, which was reviewed by The Times, Blackburn wrote: “I want you all to know that the company is taking this situation, and the general issue of sexual harassment, very seriously. Roy’s resignation followed new information that surfaced last week, as well as other factors.”

People familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment said there were no formal complaints against Price outside of Hackett’s. Some of the published incidents, however, did play a role in Price’s departure, along with other issues, including a lack of diversity in show content and a dearth of female showrunners, the sources said.

Price took issue with this assessment, pointing out the number of female creators and the female-centric subject matter fostered under his watch, including “Fleabag” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

After his departure, Price was replaced with Jennifer Salke, part of a series of sweeping executive changes at the studio.

Earlier this year, after careening around China and India and parking himself for a time in Hong Kong, Price returned to Los Angeles. “I don’t know exactly when, but at some point I realized that I was not going to walk the Earth and sail around the Arabian Sea forever,” he said.

His time in Asia planted the seeds of his next venture, a mix of content, media and tech that he is reluctant to discuss.

“I am maintaining the Amazon tradition of not commenting on products or ventures until they are public … But I would say there are some gaps in the content market in Asia,” he said.

Price was chastened, conflicted and sorry about what happened. But had it changed him?

When asked, he paused. “That’s a good question,” he said. He wanted to think it over.

He followed up with an email that said in part, “It is impossible to lose all that I abruptly lost without changing. One thing I have gained is a depth of empathy and grounding humility, one that comes from understanding life’s unexpected reversals. I hope to not only apply this to my life moving forward, but also to my pursuit of storytelling.”

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