Abigail Disney is admitting that the company culture at Level Forward, the aspirational film and theater company she co-founded, has been laden with “missteps” after former employees of color spoke out about internal dissent in the company.
Disney’s admission comes in response to an article published in The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday that describes accounts from 15 current and former employees and business partners at Level Forward. Among the complaints are claims that staff of color were minimized, were not included in key meetings in the work place and that promises of equity in the company were not met compared to white employees.
“Yeah, we f—ed up,” Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy Disney, told THR. “We’re due for this because we said things about ourselves. There’s fair criticism in there. There were missteps and miscommunications. We own the ways in which we’ve messed up. Where we’ve learned of problems, we’ve tried to course-correct.”
Disney founded Level Forward in early 2018 with Adrienne Becker in reaction to the Harvey Weinstein news with a hope of giving more opportunities to women and people of color and producing projects of an inclusive nature. The company thus far has been behind the Tony-nominated Broadway shows “Slave Play” and “Jagged Little Pill” and recently picked up the stage rights to an adaptation of “The Queen’s Gambit. They’ve also backed films such as “The Assistant,” “Rebel Hearts” and the upcoming “Holler.”
One employee, Tracie Dean Ponder, a Black employee who worked with Level Forward as a contractor between 2019 and 2020 for 11 months, says she took a reduced compensation in exchange for equity in the company but would have to work multiple years before she was fully vested. She also said that after being out of town for a period of time, her office had been taken over by two white employees.
“The most heartbreaking part is to have a company that says, ‘I’m about equity, fairness, women, women of color,'” Ponder told THR. “You feel like there’s hope, there’s a haven. You think you found this kind of oasis for women, and particularly those like myself, only to discover it’s all an illusion.”
“The contractor [Ponder] was paid for all invoiced work, and in anticipation of delivery of the project, was offered a compensation package including a meaningful equity stake,” Level Forward responded in a statement to THR. “Certain of our offices, including the one in question, are open-seating by design and designated for shared use on an as-available basis. Given everyone’s flexible schedules, no one individual had or has priority over another with respect to these work spaces.”
Other former Level Forward employees said that if they disagreed with Becker, they were not invited back into meetings or were cut out of key decision-making processes and that the company had issues adjusting as a start-up environment in its early days.
Becker also responded to THR, saying, “No one wants to have an employee or contractor walk away feeling unheard, so we are working toward an environment that’s more inclusive and collaborative… We’ve learned a lot and been much more focused on investing in our people, values, culture and one another.”
“We’re trying to do something really hard here,” Disney added to THR. “I could be on the beach eating grapes. I could worry about being called a hypocrite and a liar. I choose to do what is harder and scarier, which is to keep going forward.”
Reps for Level Forward, Disney and Becker did not immediately respond to TheWrap for a request for comment.