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James Franco Sued By Former Students For Alleged Sexual Exploitation And Fraud

Oct 3, 2019
Originally published on October 4, 2019 10:03 am

Updated at 12:19 a.m. ET Friday

Actor James Franco has been named in a lawsuit that alleges he and two other men ran an acting school that sexually exploited female students. The complaint was filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court. The plaintiffs are two former students of the now-closed school, which was called Studio 4.

Franco was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for his performance in 127 Hours; he won a Golden Globe for The Disaster Artist. He also taught acting at the collegiate level, in addition to teaching at Studio 4.

In response to a request from NPR, James Franco's attorney, Michael Plonsker, issued this statement denying the allegations:

"This is not the first time that these claims have been made and they have already been debunked. We have not had an opportunity to review the ill-informed Complaint in depth since it was leaked to the press before it was filed and our client has yet to even be served. James will not only fully defend himself, but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit."

When he opened Studio 4 in 2014, Sarah Tither-Kaplan was one of its first students. Franco taught a class called Sex Scenes. According to the complaint, students had to audition for the class — and pay an extra $750 for it — but Tither-Kaplan says she was thrilled to be selected.

"I really respected him as an actor, and the fact that I was selected based off of an audition meant to me that I was valued for my talent," Tither-Kaplan says.

She assumed the Sex Scenes class would teach her how to "maneuver in sex scenes professionally as an actor," but it "did not do that at all."

"In fact, I didn't know anything about nudity riders, the detail required in them, the right to counsel with the director about nude scenes, the custom to choreograph nude scenes ahead of time to negotiate them with the cast and the director — I knew none of that throughout that class," Tither-Kaplan says.

In 2016, Franco made a docuseries based on his Sex Scenes class that he posted on his Facebook page. The videos have since been taken down, but one is still available on Vimeo. It's described as the first class in which students talk about the scenarios they came up with when they auditioned.

As the class progressed, Tither-Kaplan says, students were encouraged to take risks with their bodies. She says she wanted to be a team player, so she went along.

"I wanted to do my best, and I wanted to make friends there, and I wanted to have it really mean something for me," she says. "So I did what seemed to be the thing that they wanted in this class, and that was get naked and do sex scenes and not complain and, you know, push the envelope. And ... I felt encouraged when I just went for it."

And she says she was rewarded for it.

"After I did the Sex Scenes master class, and did the nude scene, and the sex scene in my short film, I started working with them very regularly," Tither-Kaplan says. "And not a lot of other students got that chance."

Former student Toni Gaal is the other plaintiff named in the complaint.

"Most of the work that was offered for us had nudity requirements — for women specifically," Gaal says.

The two named plaintiffs seek to represent a class of more than 100 former female students at Studio 4. Their complaint alleges that Studio 4 set out to "create a steady stream of young women to objectify and exploit." The complaint also contends that the school was "designed to circumvent California's 'pay for play' regulations," which prohibit making actors pay for auditions.

Gaal says that this wasn't the only problem with auditions: "We were consistently auditioning for projects that had nudity, and we had to upload our self-tapes at home, so they were consistently getting footage of this sensitive nature of work."

The allegations against Franco first surfaced on Twitter, and then in the Los Angeles Times, in January 2018.

At the Golden Globe Awards that month, Franco was seen wearing a Time's Up pin. At least three women, including Tither-Kaplan, took to Twitter to complain that his support of the cause was disingenuous.

Appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert a day later, Franco denied the accusations.

In my life, I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I've done. I have to do that to maintain my well-being. I do it whenever I know that there's something wrong or needs to be changed. I make it a point to do it. The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn't have a voice for so long, so I don't want to shut them down in any way. I think it's a good thing and I support it.

The following day, the Los Angeles Times published a story in which Tither-Kaplan and four other former students of Franco made allegations against him — allegations that are similar to those in the complaint. But the Times also reported that more than a dozen of Franco's former students at Studio 4 said they had "a positive experience" there.

In addition to Franco, two other defendants and their production company, Rabbit Bandini, are named in the complaint.

In a statement released at the time of the 2018 accusations, Vince Jolivette — the co-owner of Rabbit Bandini, which ran Studio 4 — said that "the school was always run professionally," that "instructors were excellent, [and] student feedback was positive."

The complaint alleges that the acting school purposefully sought out "young, naïve women between the ages of 17-24" because they would not understand how the film industry functions. Plaintiff Tither-Kaplan says she hopes her lawsuit will shine a light on what she describes as an abuse of power.

"They knew who they were asking to do the improvised sex and nude scenes," Tither-Kaplan says. "They knew what level we were at in our careers. And I think that's by design, because it sort of protects them from any real repercussions because they can just write us off as nobodies."

The women are seeking unspecified damages. They also want an apology and the destruction of any videos Franco and his partners still have from their time in the class.

NPR's Nina Gregory contributed to this report and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Award-winning actor James Franco has been named in a lawsuit alleging he and two other men ran an acting school that sexually exploited female students. The complaint was filed yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court. The plaintiffs are two former students of the now-shuttered school called Studio 4. In a statement, Franco's lawyer calls it a scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: James Franco was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "127 Hours." He won the Golden Globe for that film as well as for "The Disaster Artist." When he opened Studio 4 in 2014, Sarah Tither-Kaplan was one of its first students. She says Franco taught a class called Sex Scenes. She says you had to audition for the class and pay an extra $750 for it. But she was thrilled to be selected.

SARAH TITHER-KAPLAN: I really respected him as an actor, and the fact that I was selected based off of an audition meant to me that I was valued for my talent.

BLAIR: She assumed she would learn how to maneuver sex scenes professionally as an actor.

TITHER-KAPLAN: But the class did not do that at all. In fact, I didn't know anything about nudity riders, the detail required in them, the right to counsel with the director about nude scenes, the custom to choreograph nude scenes ahead of time to negotiate them with the cast and the director. I knew none of that throughout that class.

BLAIR: In 2016, Franco made videos of his Sex Scenes class that he posted on his Facebook page. The videos have since been taken down, but there is one on Vimeo. It's described as the first class session in which students talk about the scenarios they came up with when they auditioned. Franco gives them feedback.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES FRANCO: Let's cross some lines. You know what I mean? And then see how you deal with it - either you like it or you don't.

BLAIR: As the class progressed, Sarah Tither-Kaplan says students were encouraged to take risks with their bodies. She says she wanted to be a team player, so she went along.

TITHER-KAPLAN: I wanted to do my best. And I wanted to make friends there. And I wanted to, you know, have it really mean something for me. So I did what seemed to be the thing that they wanted in this class, and that was get naked and do sex scenes and not complain and, you know, push the envelope. And I felt encouraged when I just went for it.

BLAIR: And she says she was rewarded for it.

TITHER-KAPLAN: After I did the Sex Scenes master class and did the nude scene and the sex scene in my short film, I started working with them very regularly. And not a lot of other students got that chance.

BLAIR: The complaint alleges that Studio 4 promised students, who were paying tuition, they would get to audition for Franco and his company's film projects. Former student Toni Gaal is the other plaintiff who filed the suit.

TONI GAAL: Most of the work that was offered for us had nudity requirements.

BLAIR: The complaint also contends the school was designed to circumvent California's pay-for-play regulations, which prohibits making actors pay for auditions. Toni Gaal says that wasn't the only problem.

GAAL: And we were consistently auditioning for projects that had nudity. And we had to upload our self-tapes at home. So there was - they were consistently getting footage of, you know, this sensitive nature of work.

BLAIR: Some of the allegations against James Franco were reported in January 2018 by the Los Angeles Times. Sarah Tither-Kaplan and four other women, all former students of Franco's, made allegations similar to those pleaded in the complaint. But the Times also noted that more than a dozen of Franco's former students at Studio 4 said they had positive experiences there. The complaint alleges that the acting school purposefully sought out, quote, "young, naive women between the ages of 17 and 24" because they would not understand how the film industry functioned. Plaintiff Sarah Tither-Kaplan says she hopes her lawsuit will shine a light on what she describes as an abuse of power.

TITHER-KAPLAN: They knew who they were asking to do the improvised sex and nude scenes. They knew who was in their classes. And I think that's by design because it sort of protects them from any kind of real repercussions because they can just write us off as, you know, nobodies.

BLAIR: The women are seeking unspecified damages. They also want an apology and the destruction of any videos Franco and his partners still have from their time in the class. In response to the lawsuit, James Franco's lawyer issued a statement that reads - this is not the first time that these claims have been made, and they have already been debunked. The statement continues - James will not only fully defend himself but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.