For a long time now, rumours of systemic sexual abuse have surrounded Hollywood. Beneath the glamour and glitz of Tinseltown, a sinister culture of sexual predation was said to have thrived. Given the revelations of last year, it seems that these stories were more than mere rumour. Things had reached their tipping point, enough was enough, and actors and actresses began to speak out against influential industry figures who they alleged had sexually abused them for years.
In this ongoing moment of transparency, attention must be brought to the film industry’s other open secret: the systemic sexual abuse of minors. Bryan Singer, the well-known director of The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns, and several X-Men films, is emblematic of Hollywood’s problem of minor abuse, having remained a prominent filmmaker despite his involvement in several such controversies.
In early December last year, a lawsuit was filed against Singer which alleged that he had sexually assaulted a teenage boy more than a decade ago. In the lawsuit, plaintiff Cesar Sanchez-Guzman claimed that he met Singer for the first time at a yacht party in 2003, where the director offered to give him a tour of the boat. The lawsuit alleges that while showing Sanchez-Guzman the master bedroom, Singer closed the door behind them and demanded sex from him. When he refused, Singer forced him onto the bed and sexually assaulted him. Sanchez-Guzman was 17 at the time of the alleged incident. The lawsuit went further, accusing Singer of using his Hollywood influence to make sure that the teen stayed quiet: ‘Later, Bryan Singer approached Cesar and told him that he was a producer in Hollywood and that he could help Cesar get into acting as long as Cesar never said anything about the incident . . . He then told Cesar that no one would believe him if he ever reported the incident and that he could hire people who are capable of ruining someone’s reputation’.
The Sanchez-Guzman lawsuit is only the most recent item in a sizeable list of sexual misconduct allegations that have been laid against Singer—a list that begins in 1997, when a suit was filed by several young male actors who accused him of ordering them to strip naked for a shower scene while shooting his film Apt Pupil. That suit was dismissed for insufficient evidence, and it would be 17 more years before any further allegations were brought against him. In April 2014, a highly graphic lawsuit was filed against Singer, accusing the director of drugging and sexually assaulting former child actor Michael Egan in the late 1990s, after meeting him at parties hosted by Marc Collins-Rector and Chad Shackley. Historians of the dot-com bubble might recognise Collins-Rector and Shackley as two-thirds of the team that founded Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), a California-based multimedia company that aimed to deliver original video content over the internet much in the same way that Netflix does today. The pair, who met on an online bulletin board when Shackley was just 15, set up DEN in 1998 together with Brock Pierce, who was then only 17 and coming off a successful career as a child actor (incidentally, Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary An Open Secret claims that Pierce was first introduced to Collins-Rector and Shackley by none other than Bryan Singer). All three lived together in a multimillion-dollar Spanish-Colonial mansion in Encino, Los Angeles, which they took to calling the ‘M&C Estate’, for Marc and Chad.
Collins-Rector was the chief creative force behind DEN. He spelt out his vision for the company in a fiery 38-page manifesto written in 1998: ‘[t]he boob tube zombie television is dead . . . Global entertainment will be delivered over the internet . . . Digital Entertainment Network will create the last network’. And for a brief while after its inception, DEN seemed like it might do just that; its potentially ground-breaking fusion of Hollywood and Silicon Valley drawing major investment from key players in the entertainment, tech, and finance industries. In March 1998, work began on DEN’s flagship programme, Chad’s World. Filmed at the M&C Estate, co-written by Collins-Rector, produced by Pierce, and loosely based on Shackley’s life, Chad’s World followed the eponymous Chad, a questioning teenage boy who leaves his home in repressive suburban Michigan to live in Los Angeles with a wealthy, older gay couple. When the show debuted on den.net in June 1998, many critics couldn’t even download it—perhaps a blessing for all involved. Chad’s World was the first signal that maybe things weren’t right’, DEN’s former chief marketing officer Edward Winter told Radar Online in 2008. ‘It was definitely, um [sic], ahead of its time’. Another industry observer interviewed by Radar said that he ‘thought it was some sick fantasy of theirs’. DEN’s hiring policies also raised eyebrows. A former supervisor at the company told the L.A. Times in 2000 that Collins-Rector directed him to hire certain underqualified teenagers: ‘He would come to me with ultimatums on who I should hire . . . Young hip kids were his thing’. Some workers were compelled to do things well outside their job descriptions: one young employee who also spoke to the Times said he was told that ‘if he valued his job’ he would travel with Collins-Rector, Shackley, and Pierce on holiday to a tropical resort in the spring of 1999.
Though Chad’s World and several other DEN shows failed to entice a viewership anywhere near as large as company projections, a $75 million initial public offering (IPO) was planned for October 1999. However, only days before it could be filed, a boy from New Jersey hired by Collins-Rector as a customer service employee at a previous venture served papers for a lawsuit claiming he’d been molested by the DEN chairman for three years, beginning in 1993 when he was just 13. Collins-Rector quickly paid a settlement, and his attorney fired back in the press, passing off the settlement as ‘a token payment’ to save DEN and calling the suit ‘classic IPO blackmail’. The FBI subsequently began an investigation into the charges; fearing for their company, all three founders quit their executive posts. This was only the beginning. Within months, all three of DEN’s founders were hit with similar suits accusing them of sexual abuse. Boys who had been given vague roles at the company began telling stories of sexual abuse at the hands of Collins-Rector, Shackley, and Pierce, as well as other highly-placed Hollywood figures. Their charges were largely consistent—each claimed that during parties at the M&C Estate they had been bullied and drugged into sexual compliance, and in some cases threatened with guns. One of these accusers was a 14-year-old boy identified in court documents as ‘Mike E.’—the same Mike E. (Michael Egan) behind the April 2014 suit against Bryan Singer.
As lawsuits continued to mount against DEN in early 2000, the company began to haemorrhage money. The company’s planned IPO, postponed after the first set of abuse allegations appeared, was permanently shelved. By May 2000, DEN was bankrupt. Around Hollywood, rumours flew that Collins-Rector, Shackley, and Pierce were about to be arrested on embezzlement and sexual misconduct charges. However, before any such charges could be laid, the three men disappeared, fleeing in a private jet to southern Spain, where they rented a villa in the luxurious seaside resort town of Marbella. There they stayed until May 2002, when a tip-off led Spanish police to raid the villa and arrest them. Among the items recovered from the residence were guns, machetes, jewels, and 8,000 images of child pornography. While Shackley and Pierce were released without charges shortly thereafter, Collins-Rector remained in a Spanish jail for almost two more years before being extradited to the United States, where he pled guilty to nine charges of transporting minors across state lines for sex. Receiving credit for the time he’d served in Spain, he was soon out of prison.
In the time since, Collins-Rector, Shackley, and Pierce have drifted apart. Pierce is the most traceable of the three: in the years since the DEN scandal, he has grown to prominence as an investor, founder, and advisor to numerous digital currency ventures. He is currently the director of the Bitcoin Foundation and was earlier this year named by Forbes amongst the top 20 wealthiest people in cryptocurrency, with an estimated worth of between USD 700 million and 1.1 billion. At present, he is leading an effort by several digital currency entrepreneurs to establish a city ‘where all money is virtual’ on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. The name given by Pierce to his planned crypto-paradise? ‘Puertopia’, which—in all seriousness—translates from Latin as ‘eternal boy paradise’.
The sexual abuse allegations brought against Bryan Singer in the Sanchez-Guzman suit offer an opportunity to not only unearth the X-Men director’s long history with sexual misconduct allegations but also his ties to DEN, whose story of flameout amid sexual abuse scandal is as sordid as it is little-known. But will this suit, filed at the height of what some have called ‘Hollywood’s reckoning’, be the one to spell Singer’s downfall? Only time will tell.