Following a nearly eight-month U.S. Department of Labor investigation, Miramax Films has agreed to pay 136 employees more than $80,000 in unpaid overtime.
“We have recently undertaken a major review of our employee classifications,” wrote Nancy Ashbrooke, vice president of human resources at Miramax, in a letter obtained by The Transom. Copies of the letter, which went out in early March to the affected staff and ex-staff, further stated: “[T]his has resulted in the reclassification of employees in certain categories, and attendant changes in the manner in which affected employees … are paid for regular and overtime work.” The letter adds that the new policy is effective as of the first payroll period of 1998. All the letters were accompanied by the checks, which sources said ranged from $50 to $2,000.
The Labor Department probe, which began in July 1997 and was handled by the agency’s Wage and Hour Division, was an effort to assess pay owed and to compensate Miramax employees for extra hours worked. Labor Department spokesman Randy Wilson would not disclose how the situation at the studio came to the Federal agency’s attention, but a source suggested that anonymous phone calls from disgruntled employees had been the tip-off.
Mr. Wilson said the Labor Department recommended that Miramax make the payments, and that the studio was cooperative throughout the investigation. Neither of its co-chairmen, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, had a comment, but a statement released by the company emphasized that “there was no formal proceeding or actions taken by the [Labor Department] at any time. The actions Miramax has recently taken were as a result of the management review which we voluntarily conducted.”
Still, sources in the studio complained that the Labor Department’s estimate of $80,332 is far too low for the pay employees are owed. Several people interviewed described working 60- to 80-hour weeks.
“Clearly, the people that ended up in that list [of 136] were entitled to overtime,” said Mr. Wilson. He noted that “except for some people who are in exempt categories, workers in general are entitled to one and a half times their regular rate of pay for hours worked over 40 in one week.” Common exemptions to this rule, Mr. Wilson said, include “teachers, certain kinds of salespeople, the advertising industry and people in supervisory and management positions.… We can’t make blanket statements about who’s exempt and who isn’t.”
There are other exceptions to the law, too. For example, professionals whose work involves artistic tasks that require, in the language of the courts, consistent exercise of judgment, are not entitled to overtime pay. One could certainly argue that a job at Miramax fits that description.
Artsy though the studio may be, it’s no haven for slackers. One film executive interviewed by The Transom described a “meat grinder” atmosphere at Miramax’s TriBeCa offices. To which another film executive replied, “That’s the movie industry.”
The vindictiveness of the business could explain, in part, why no current or former employees of the studio were willing to speak for the record. But Miramax-which enjoys enormous clout in the New York and Hollywood film arenas-is a good job if you can get it, and no one interviewed wanted to jeopardize his or her employment status.
However, it seems that the situation might get worse before it gets better. About three dozen employees are apparently refusing to cash their remuneration checks in protest. Some of them, grumbling that they may yet sue Miramax, have contacted lawyers. One attorney said to have been retained by several employees is John J. Tormey III. (Mr. Tormey did not return phone calls.)
“We’re not saying that we have this malicious intent with Miramax,” said one ex-employee, who is the self-described leader of the protest against the film company. “We all agreed to work for our salaries. [And] it’s a great learning place, no doubt. But if it turns out that, legally, they owe us money, then we don’t feel bad about saying ‘Go ahead and write us a check.’” The employee added that the number of people affected was greater than the 136 people the Labor Department had asked Miramax to compensate. To which Miramax spokesman Andrew Stengel replied, “We will be meeting with people and responding to questions that they may have.”
As a result of these perceived oversights on the part of the company, former and current employees are encouraging the Labor Department to reopen its investigation of the film studio.
According to the same ex-employee, the portion of the Nancy Ashbrooke letter that most irked its recipients was the following: “We are happy to inform you that management has decided to pay you the additional amounts shown below as compensation for estimated overtime work.”
“How did they get these estimates?” asked the former employee, who said he communicates daily with the three dozen other check-holding protesters. “From time cards that were filed by either employees or supervisors? Well, I know … that I never did a time card. They were done, possibly, by a supervisor, but I know that my direct supervisor never filled out a time card.… The average employee leaves the building after the average executive does. So how would any supervisor, or any manager, actually know the correct amount of hours?”
Mr. Wilson neither confirmed nor denied that Miramax submitted time cards to the Labor Department, but said that the studio had some method of keeping track of hours.
What no one can dispute is that since this ruckus erupted, quality of work life at the studio has improved in at least one respect: Managers at the studio have apparently been sending staff members home early. In other words, no more 10 o’clock nights at Miramax.
The Party Crasher
Not rating an invitation to Dani Janssen’s exclusive Oscar party may be tough on the egos of Los Angeles’ social swells. But there is one thing even more humiliating: getting thrown out of the soirée by a furious Ms. Janssen as the likes of Jack Nicholson and Diane Lane watch.
That’s what happened in the wee hours of March 24 as Ms. Janssen discovered her first crasher in the five years since she resuscitated the annual home-cooked, media-free Oscar bash that she used to throw with her late husband, David Janssen, star of The Fugitive .
Ms. Janssen told The Transom that she had never worried much about crashers in the past, given the strict security in the I.M. Pei-designed Century City apartment complex where she owns two adjacent penthouse apartments on the 28th floor. Indeed, she recalled that last year one Oscar winner, whom she wouldn’t identify, was turned away from the building’s front gate because his name was not on her invitation list.
The socialite knew that something was amiss, however, when her longtime butler Willie Sterling approached her around 4 A.M. to say that a woman at the party had accused him of stealing her rhinestone-handled purse. Knowing that such an allegation was “out of the question,” Ms. Janssen said that she asked Mr. Sterling, “Who is this woman? We only wear diamonds here.”
Ms. Janssen then confronted her butler’s accuser near the dessert buffet. Although the evening’s invitations are issued personally by her, Ms. Janssen does allow her guests to bring friends, many of whom she has never met before. So Ms. Janssen said that she asked the woman, “Excuse me, who are you here with?”
The woman replied: “I’m here with all these lovely men,” referring to Mr. Nicholson and, Ms. Janssen said, Warren Beatty, Garry Shandling, Billy Crystal and “Mikey D.” (Ms. Janssen’s nickname for Michael Douglas), who all left within the hour of the confrontation between the two ladies.
“I don’t think so,” said Ms. Janssen. The woman, who identified herself as Lynette Treffinger, then said that she had been invited by a couple The Transom will call, for reasons that eventually become apparent, the Smiths. Ms. Janssen then informed Ms. Treffinger that she was the one who did the inviting and asked her to leave. Instead, she said, Ms. Treffinger ran over to the seated Mr. Nicholson, draped herself around the flummoxed Oscar winner and began to whisper in his ear. (Mr. Nicholson apparently had encountered the crasher earlier in the evening, marveling at the moon on Ms. Janssen’s terrace, and had nicknamed her “the Moon Woman.”)
Ms. Janssen pursued Ms. Treffinger and grabbed her by her blouse. “You are leaving,” she said.
“You don’t know who you’re talking to, I’m a countess,” Ms. Treffinger shot back. Apparently, she was once the wife of Count Franz von Walderdorff but has since divorced him. Her family is also said to have once owned the Remington gun company.
Ms. Janssen’s reply managed to hush the 20 or so people still in her apartment: “I don’t give a fuck if you’re a princess, get out of my house.” She then removed Ms. Treffinger from Mr. Nicholson and marched her out the door of her apartment. Ms. Treffinger then apparently spent several minutes marching up and down the hallway, speaking Italian.
After initially considering legal action, Ms. Janssen said she wants an apology from the woman. She has since pieced together how Ms. Treffinger managed to crash the party, which is where the aforementioned Smiths come into play. Ms. Treffinger had been invited to another party within the building, and when she left that soirée at around 3 A.M., she took the elevator to Ms. Janssen’s 28th-floor penthouse and managed to stay out of the hostess’ sight until the rhinestone incident. Ms. Janssen’s neighbor, Ms. Smith, who asked not to be named, told The Transom that she has given the building’s security guards Ms. Treffinger’s name and a picture of her and instructed that she not be let into the Century City complex again. “I’ve terminated the friendship over this. I have to live in this building,” said Ms. Smith.
Calling from her Westwood home, Ms. Treffinger would not confirm or deny any of this information. She would only say: “This is a very big misunderstanding” and “I would say world news is far more interesting.”
To which Ms. Janssen replied, “She’s lucky I didn’t stick a poker in her.”
The Transom Also Hears
… “Dude, I like it when people don’t watch me. I get so nervous.” Foo Fighter Dave Grohl was sipping on a Rolling Rock backstage after Donatella Versace’s Versus show on March 28. The Transom had just asked the former Nirvana member what it was like to rip through “Monkey Wrench” and two other songs for a crew of journalists, department store buyers and assorted fashionistas at Roseland.
Competing for the audience’s attention was a light show on the other side of the runway, a bench full of 14 or so celebrities, including Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, Woody and Soon-Yi Previn (she in a baby-doll dress), Minnie Driver (who had memorably worn that red Halston to the Oscars), Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley, and, almost as an afterthought, a fashion show.
The closest thing to a mosh pit for the Foo Fighters’ performance was the celebrity bench. Because no one dared risk his or her reputation by sitting elsewhere in the room (and there were certainly enough seats to accommodate everyone), the celebrities jammed onto that bench like a bunch of frat boys in a telephone booth. And despite their rather intimate proximity, there was very little intra-celebrity chitchat.
Mr. Allen would have had a difficult time making small talk once the show started and the Foo Fighters began playing. That’s because the volume of the live music moved the film director and jazz musician to plug his ears with his fingers for the entire show. Post-show, Mr. Grohl, the band’s leader, seemed quite happy with this. “Wasn’t that good!” Mr. Grohl said, taking another swig of his beer. “That’s all we were talking about when we went into the van,” parked outside Roseland, which served as the Foo Fighters’ crash pad. Just a few minutes before Mr. Grohl said this, Mr. Allen had walked past the rocker, oblivious to the fact that Mr. Grohl had been one of the men offending his cochleas. Mr. Grohl noted this. “I wanted to walk up to him and say”-for effect, Mr. Grohl made like he was jiggling his index finger in the imagined ear of Mr. Allen-”Hey, man, you still with us?”