- Bob Ellis, a former music manager who has ties to Hollywood stars, worked as a marketing consultant for MoviePass starting in April, eight current or former MoviePass employees told Business Insider.
- Multiple sources told Business Insider that Ellis would touch female employees at events – placing a hand on the small of their backs, giving massages, and kissing cheeks – and had called or texted women outside working hours, causing some on staff to feel uncomfortable.
- Four formal complaints were sent about Ellis to human resources, according to a source who viewed the complaints.
- After MoviePass executives threatened to quit if Ellis was not dealt with, CEO Mitch Lowe told the company in June that a consultant had been removed, whom eight sources said the staff presumed to be Ellis.
- But Ellis has continued to appear at business-related MoviePass events as recently as December, including a trip in which a pivotal leadership change was decided.
- Ellis’ continued presence at MoviePass has shaken the trust of some members of the company’s management and is one more sign of dysfunction at the movie-ticket-subscription startup.
It was supposed to be a crowning moment for MoviePass: the premiere for the movie “Gotti” in New York City in June, the first major release for its distribution company, MoviePass Ventures.
But among the stars walking the red carpet – like the movie’s lead, John Travolta – was Bob Ellis, a former music manager with ties to big names in Hollywood. Ellis had been “consulting” for the buzzy movie-ticket-subscription app, and some female employees had been trying to avoid him for months.
Ellis, 72, had come onto the MoviePass scene in April. He was a personal friend of Ted Farnsworth, the CEO of MoviePass’ parent company, Helios and Matheson Analytics, and joined the company as a marketing consultant after attending a party MoviePass hosted with iHeartRadio at Coachella.
But eight current or former MoviePass employees, who asked to remain anonymous because of nondisclosure agreements, told Business Insider that Ellis had a reputation among some in the company for inappropriate behavior toward female employees. Several sources accused Ellis of touching female employees at events – placing a hand on the small of their backs, giving massages, and kissing cheeks – in a way some felt was inappropriate and said he occasionally had called or texted women outside working hours, causing some on the staff to feel uncomfortable.
Four formal complaints were sent to human resources about how Ellis acted toward women, according to a source who viewed the complaints. (Business Insider has reviewed a copy of one of the complaints.)
The situation came to a head immediately following the “Gotti” premiere on June 14, when Ellis approached a female employee who several sources said he’d made feel uncomfortable in the past. According to multiple sources present at the premiere, Ellis told this employee not to worry about his behavior at the event but then continued to attempt to engage her in conversation throughout the night.
The morning after the premiere, three MoviePass executives threatened to quit unless Ellis was dealt with, according to five sources with knowledge of the incident.
- Getty / Dave Kotinsky / Stringer
At the next Monday all-hands meeting, MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe told the company that the contractor who had approached the female employee at the “Gotti” premiere had been let go, according to five sources who were on the call. Though Ellis was not mentioned by name on the call, eight sources said it was widely understood by the staff after the call that Lowe had been talking about Ellis.
Despite this, sources said Ellis has kept popping up at MoviePass business functions as recently as December, including a pivotal retreat in which a major leadership change at MoviePass was decided. Ellis’ continued presence has unnerved and frustrated some staff members, especially women who work at MoviePass, according to five sources.
Fifteen MoviePass staffers have quit or been fired since Ellis started consulting, seven of whom were women, according to a source with knowledge of the staffing at the company. While that looks, at first glance, like an even gender split of departures, women make up a much smaller percentage of the company than men. Currently women make up only 20 of about 62 on staff. Women made up about 35% of the company when Ellis started but have accounted for about 47% of departures.
Multiple sources viewed such numbers as a sign of the distrust some female staffers had toward management.
Business Insider contacted Ellis numerous times via phone, text, email, and social media to comment for this story but did not get a response.
The situation with Ellis isn’t the only sign of dysfunction at MoviePass.
The company has been in disarray since it was taken over by Helios and Matheson in August 2017. In the past few months, MoviePass has gone through erratic product changes in an attempt to bring its cash burn under control and avoid having its parent company’s stock delisted from the Nasdaq, which could happen any day if it does not raise the price over $1 a share. It is now trading at under $0.02.
And the chaos around MoviePass’ product and finances has been mirrored inside the company.
MoviePass’ two-person human-resources department was fired in November, Lowe has passed day-to-day operations to another executive, and on Friday, issues with payroll caused some staff members to spend the whole workday worrying whether they would ever get paid.
When asked to respond to the allegations against Ellis and the specifics of this story, MoviePass said the following to Business Insider in a statement:
“MoviePass strongly protects the rights of all our employees, maintains an open door policy for employees to voice any concerns, and does not tolerate harassment of any kind. It is MoviePass’ practice to regularly remind our employees of the resources and avenues available to them – including a hotline, which at employees’ discretion can be anonymous and gender-neutral, as well as the availability of members of human resources and management – should they seek to report any issues. HMNY and MoviePass are both committed to fostering a workplace environment where all employees feel comfortable and take appropriate steps to address any issues reported by our employees.”
Claims of inappropriate touching, crude language, and late-night texts
Bob Ellis was better known by the name Bob Ellis Silberstein in the late 1970s. He was a personal manager for musicians such as Meat Loaf, Billy Preston, the band Rufus, and Chaka Khan.
In 1971, Ellis married the legendary singer Diana Ross, and they raised three children together. One of them was Tracee Ellis Ross, who is best known for starring in the ABC series “Black-ish” and has been an outspoken supporter of both the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Ellis Ross was not available to comment for this story.
Since Ellis and Ross divorced in 1977, he has stayed out of the limelight, occasionally showing up in Tracee Ellis Ross’ Instagram. The first time many MoviePass employees met Ellis was at the Coachella party, where they were told by Farnsworth that Ellis would be helping out the marketing department as a consultant, according to a source present at the meeting.
Ellis got MoviePass to be a sponsor at the 2018 Greenwich Film Festival, but other than that, eight MoviePass sources were unclear what he did for the company outside partying with Farnsworth. On LinkedIn, Ellis lists himself as a “partner” at Helios and Matheson Analytics and at MoviePass.
What was certain was that Ellis was suddenly a fixture at events that MoviePass held or was a part of.
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Seven current or former employees of MoviePass told Business Insider they had either personally experienced or heard a firsthand account of Ellis touching female staff members at events in ways described as inappropriate, such as placing his hand on the small of their backs, kissing them on the cheek, or massaging their shoulders. Multiple sources claimed they either experienced this behavior from Ellis or directly witnessed it.
And on at least two occasions, Ellis took female employees’ hands and said, “I want to show you off,” before leading them to the red carpet without letting go of their hands, according to several sources with firsthand knowledge.
Besides Ellis’ behavior at events, he would occasionally contact some female employees during nonworking hours, through either calls or texts, and would sometimes get upset when his messages were not returned, according to several sources who said they received such messages from him.
Ellis would also use crude, profane language and mention use of drugs such as cocaine or Xanax, according to three sources who said they heard such comments.
On more than one occasion, women were in tears at the office following an encounter with Ellis, either in person or over the phone, according to two sources who said they witnessed the emotional staff members.
Four formal complaints were made to human resources about Ellis, according to a source who viewed the complaints. And recommendations were brought up the chain of command that Ellis should be fired, seven sources said. These sources also said that some staff members openly speculated that Ellis’ friendship with Farnsworth was protecting him.
“Bob is a really close friend of Ted’s, and this was a source of internal tension for many months,” one source close to the calls for Ellis’ termination said.
‘My horns are down’
But the “Gotti” premiere was the final straw.
Five sources told Business Insider that Ellis approached a female employee that night whom he had made uncomfortable in the past and assured her not to worry about being bothered by him. “My horns are down,” he said. He then continued to try to talk to her throughout the night. After this got back to the head of human resources, three executives told Lowe they would quit if action were not taken immediately about Ellis, those same sources said.
Shortly afterward, Lowe told the staff that a Helios and Matheson contractor had been let go.
“Everyone knew he was talking about Bob,” one source who was on the all-hands call said.
In the weeks that followed, Lowe met the different teams in the company to listen to their concerns, according to four sources present at those meetings.
But Ellis wasn’t gone from MoviePass.
Ellis has continued to be present at business-related events since Lowe’s announcement, according to accounts from four MoviePass sources as well as to social-media postings viewed by Business Insider.
Ellis was on a trip to Farnsworth’s cabin in Albany, New York, in October, in which a major leadership shuffle at the company was sketched out. That trip was also attended by Khalid Itum, an executive vice president at MoviePass; Jake Petersen, a senior vice president at the company; and Adam Day, the creative director of Helios and Matheson.
Business Insider contacted Farnsworth, Itum, Petersen, and Day to comment for this story but did not get a response.
Two sources said this trip was when the decision to have Itum take over the day-to-day operations of MoviePass from Lowe, a change formally announced earlier this month, was decided. And Ellis was right there in the mix, according to pictures and videos from Instagram seen by four sources and to a Google calendar invite of the event with Ellis’ name on it viewed by Business Insider.
Ellis was also present during an outing in Miami in December that was attended by Farnsworth, Itum, Petersen, and Day.
In that instance, video of an Instagram story viewed by Business Insider showed many of them sporting red MoviePass caps while sitting on a giant float attached to a boat. When Itum was asked, during the anonymous question portion of the all-hands meeting the following week, whether MoviePass paid for the outing, his response was that “business took place on the boat,” according to two sources at the meeting.
The continued presence of Ellis at business-related functions has led to frustration among some of the staff, according to eight sources, and even factored into the decision of some to leave the company.
And some staff members don’t know where to turn for help in the company.
MoviePass’ two-person human-resources staff was fired in November. Petersen, a close friend of Itum’s, added HR to his duties. During the Monday all-hands meeting after the firing of the HR department, Itum informed female staff members that if they had something sensitive to talk about, they should reach out to Bernadette McCabe, a woman on the company’s leadership team and senior vice president of exhibitor relations and business strategy, according to a source on the call.
The new HR structure has already faced challenges. According to an email to MoviePass staff members obtained by Business Insider, an error occurred leading to the staff not getting paid Friday morning. It took until the end of the work day for staff to get paid. Petersen noted in the email that this wasn’t caused by “any funding or monetary issues.”
“The assertion that the company had an issue with payroll on Friday is false,” MoviePass said in a statement to Business Insider. “MoviePass fully met its obligations in this regard on Friday, December 14 as scheduled, and there was never any likelihood it would not.”
Trust is running low at MoviePass
Several sources said they felt the Ellis situation contributed to a general lack of trust among some staff toward management.
Farnsworth, the CEO of MoviePass’ parent company, “does not care about the employees,” a former staffer told Business Insider.
And Lowe is not seen with high esteem by all at MoviePass as well.
Business Insider reported in November that Lowe had been absent at all-hands meetings for months, with Itum running them instead. In a New York Times story in December on MoviePass, the company confirmed that Itum had taken over the day-to-day operations of the company from Lowe.
Several sources characterized Lowe as uninvolved in MoviePass and said the general feeling was that Itum was running the ship.
It appears Itum is already trying to do damage control on this story. According to two sources on an emergency all-hands call Tuesday, Itum informed MoviePass staff members of a Business Insider story coming out. He then assured the staff that going forward there would be zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, adding that along with McCabe, female employees could discuss sensitive topics with the other woman on the leadership team, Allison Mellon, the senior vice president of advertising sales and studio relations.
This is all happening while MoviePass’ parent company is facing a delisting from the Nasdaq, which could have happened as soon as this past Tuesday (though it has not yet). The company is also the subject of an investigation by the New York attorney general into whether it misled investors.