“‘I’m Sorry’ Is Not Enough”: Inside The Union Trial Of An Alleged Sexual Harasser

Women in the animation industry watched their colleagues overlook male artists’ sexual harassment allegations before. After #MeToo, they made sure it wouldn't happen again.

Cheyenne Curtis was nervous before the Animation Guild meeting. She and 10 other women had spent months pursuing formal disciplinary action against onetime Nickelodeon golden boy Chris Savino, and on May 29, they would finally get their answer.

In April, 11 artists and animation professionals read statements at a hearing saying the Loud House creator had leveraged his stature in the industry to sexually harass women for nearly 14 years. Five of the women said he had harassed them directly; six said they had witnessed the effect he had on their friends, or on the animation industry as a whole. Nickelodeon had fired Savino in October, in the heat of #MeToo. For years, these women watched other men in the industry bounce back after allegations of sexual harassment or even sexual assault. They didn’t want Savino’s firing and the allegations to be forgotten.

Their months of work could have been erased at the general membership meeting on May 29. “At the end of the meeting, the president asked, ‘Does anybody want to lower his sentence or dissolve it?’” Curtis, 31, told BuzzFeed News. The guild proposed a one-year union suspension for 46-year-old Savino; a $4,000 fine; community service; mandatory counseling; and a letter to all signatory studios explaining that Savino had been suspended. In total, 93 members signed an affidavit calling for guild charges.

Standing outside the guild’s offices in Burbank, California, Ashlyn Anstee, a 29-year-old storyboard artist, said that when the guild’s president asked the packed meeting room whether any member wanted to lower or eliminate Savino’s sentence, “There was laughter. And then there was a long pause.” Curtis said some people booed. The punishments for Savino stood.

And with that, studios “can’t hide behind the fact that ‘we didn’t know what was going on’ anymore,” said Anstee, whose best friend, Curtis, had kept her interactions with Savino secret from her for years. The oldest allegation of sexual harassment made at the guild hearing was by BoJack Horseman director Anne Walker Farrell, 35, who said in her statement that Savino tried to convince her to send photos of her breasts and pressured her to engage in explicit conversations about her sex life from 2004 to 2005, when she was in her early twenties and just starting out in the industry.

Curtis testified that Savino offered her mentorship when she was just starting her career in 2012, and then kissed her in a car without her consent. “Chris kissed me even though he knew he had power over me with his career and his age. I felt, and still feel, that his true intent was never to help my career, but to help himself to me,” she said in her statement. Joanna Leitch, 33, testified that Savino talked at length about busty nurses and their colleague’s breasts in his darkened office in 2014 as she felt compelled to be polite to him out of concern for her career. The most recent allegation made at the hearing was from 2017.

Taken together, the 11 statements, Anstee said, showed a pattern of behavior. The last speaker, Jessie Greenberg, 28, a Cartoon Network employee who works with interns and art students, said Savino’s actions had even rippled outside animation itself to young people thinking about their careers: “These potential guild members are now scared to enter this industry because of a man that formerly inspired them,” she said in her statement.

Savino did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

“We were hearing the words ‘witch hunt.’”

In the lead-up to the hearing, “we were hearing the words ‘witch hunt,’” said Megan Nicole Dong, the 32-year-old artist who wrote the affidavit seeking charges against Savino. In fact, Dong said, rather than vigilante justice, she and the others wanted official justice through an official hearing at a central governing body of the industry. They got what they wanted. And they think their story can serve as an example to other unions.

The revelations about Savino began with a cryptic post on Facebook. In the days after the New York Times first revealed film producer Harvey Weinstein to be an alleged serial sexual harasser on Oct. 5, 2017, Curtis joined a just-formed group for women in animation. “I don’t know what came over me,” she told BuzzFeed News. “My hands just started typing.”

What she wrote was vague — she had never told anyone but her therapist the details before. She described a powerful showrunner and his dimly lit office; she said he had offered her mentorship when she was starting her career in her early twenties and then pressed her for a sexual relationship. It wasn’t much information, but it was enough that some other women in the group recognized the unnamed man. Stacy Renfroe, 43, a recording studio manager at Cartoon Network, said she read Curtis’s post and told her, “I know exactly who you’re talking about.” She would testify at the hearing that years earlier, she herself felt obligated to listen to stories about Savino’s sexual fantasies and porn preferences because she had just started a new career in animation.

Savino took over as the showrunner on Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls in its final seasons; he was a director on the Disney XD series Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil. The series he created for Nickelodeon, The Loud House, has been such a ratings success for the network that a spinoff, Los Casagrandes, was announced in March, months after his widely publicized firing.

BuzzFeed News spoke with five women who said Savino used his stature in the industry to sexually harass them. They stated that Savino leveraged a power imbalance to ensure they went along with his lewd suggestions and come-ons. Four of the women who testified that he harassed them said that before October 2017, they believed they were more or less the only people he’d ever had inappropriate interactions with. Curtis had believed there were other victims, but she also believed that she was powerless to stop Savino.

When Dong, who’s an administrator of the Facebook group, saw in October that there were multiple women with stories about Savino, she got the contact information for human resources at Nickelodeon so she’d know where to send them. (She herself did not have direct negative interactions with Savino.) The actual number of women who reported incidents to Nickelodeon is unknown; industry news site Cartoon Brew reported “as many as a dozen,” but the 11 women interviewed for this article were convinced the number was much higher. Cartoon Brew wrote on Oct. 17, 2017, that Savino had been suspended. “We take allegations of misconduct very seriously, and we are committed to fostering a safe and professional workplace environment that is free of harassment or other kinds of inappropriate conduct," Nickelodeon said in a statement.

And after she read about Savino’s suspension on Twitter, Farrell started tweeting, becoming the first person to publicly accuse Savino of sexual misconduct. “I was furious that he was still doing this to other women,” Farrell told BuzzFeed News. “It was this period of 48 hours — this storm. I went from ‘Hey, here’s this event in the distant past that happened, I think I was one of the only ones, I feel kinda crappy about it’ to ‘Oh my god, we’re an army.’”

By Oct. 19, Savino had been fired from his show. The next week, he posted on Facebook that he was “deeply sorry and ashamed,” and wrote, “Although it was never my intention, I now understand that the impact of my actions and communications created an unacceptable environment.”

“Oh my god, we're an army.”

When Dong discovered language in the Animation Guild’s constitution that she believed would allow for a relatively transparent industry trial for Savino, she was cautiously optimistic. Because his alleged behavior went on for more than a decade, at multiple studios, Dong was dismissive of the apology Savino posted on Facebook after his firing. “I think ‘I’m sorry’ is not enough,” she said.

There are provisions in their guild’s bylaws allowing for a fair trial for member conduct that shows “disloyalty,” including “disloyalty to this Local, and/or disloyalty to fellow members.” Using the statements of several victims, Dong wrote up an affidavit in December; 93 members of the guild signed it. They’re allowed to discuss it publicly.

The transparency of the proceedings appears to be unprecedented in Hollywood. In the deluge of sexual harassment and assault revelations that began with Weinstein in October and quickly inundated the nation, many victims have had little formal recourse. Complaints to HR departments may lead to action — or not — but regardless, they’re shrouded in secrecy, to protect employees’ privacy and avoid defamation lawsuits. Allegations may be too old for criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit.

The Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA, and the Writers Guild of America West did not directly answer BuzzFeed News’ questions about their own internal policies regarding sexual harassment disciplinary action. While the DGA announced it was bringing charges against Weinstein in October, it never openly said they were related to sexual harassment and assault; Weinstein ultimately resigned from the guild. SAG-AFTRA said it does have an internal mechanism that could be used to discipline members for sexual harassment, but “the process is confidential.” A spokesperson for the WGAW quoted the union’s statement of principles: “WGAW is a union, not judge or jury, and cases of harassment and discrimination should be adjudicated in a court of law or through legal policies of employment.”

Four women with their own Savino stories — Curtis, Farrell, Leitch, and Renfroe — agreed to testify at the guild trial. They would be joined by six supporters who also worked in the industry: Anstee, Aminder Dhaliwal, 29, Dong, Greenberg, Sarah Marino, 31, and story artist Kennedy Tarrell, 24. An 11th woman would contact Curtis the day before the hearing, alleging that Savino harassed her; she would read a prepared statement as well.

“We were put in this awkward position where, all of a sudden, we were faced with being questioned by the person who had sexually harassed us.” 

“The ones who really spearheaded it were the ones who weren’t victims,” Curtis said. Dong explained that she was trying to take on some of the burden for the rest: “I’d had my own experience when I was younger,” she said. “I felt very isolated.” Each woman who spoke saw her role as supporting the others, particularly Farrell. “My employment’s stable. I’m also a white, heterosexual cis lady. I don’t get a lot of guff,” the director said. She thought to herself, I’ve been in nerve-racking situations before. I can do this. And if I can stand up and do this without my voice shaking, then some of the other women with me who might be more scared or younger than I am can stand next to me, and we’ll hold each other up.

To call for charges, though, the union members had to submit “a sworn affidavit,” according to the guild’s constitution. Chris Allison, a storyboard artist at Warner Bros., told BuzzFeed News he had told Dong he’d help get more member signatures; he estimates he got a dozen or so people involved, and drove two of them to the signing himself. “I feel like I’ve learned so much in the last year about trials and tribulations that I don’t have to go through, and it just seems really shitty,” he said. “The bare minimum I could do, since I don’t have to deal with this, is just go to coworkers, and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to this thing? I can drive you.’”

Allison, along with around 40 other people, was kicked out of a UPS store after they arrived around 6 p.m. and tried to get their signatures notarized — there were too many people. Dong called a mobile notary public who notarized the document, one signature at a time, out of the back of her car in the parking lot of a Chuck E. Cheese’s. It took hours. The next day, dozens more people met at a public library.

After they submitted the affidavit to the guild, a trial was initially set for March. If Savino disputed the charges, then he’d have the opportunity to directly question anyone who gave testimony. The women involved at that point — all 10 of whom would have to not only see Savino but agree to answer his questions — met a few times to work on their statements. “We were put in this awkward position where, all of a sudden, we were faced with being questioned by the person who had sexually harassed us,” Farrell said. “It was unpleasant.” At one point, they split the cost of an attorney to address their concerns and help review their statements. The attorney questioned them as if she were Savino. The day before the trial, a guild representative told the women that Savino wouldn’t contest their charges, after all.

On the day of the April 7 hearing, the women met in the morning to steel themselves as a group. “When we went in, we all went in in unison,” Tarrell said. They spoke roughly in chronological order. Several of the women cried when they gave their statements, according to multiple people who were present. After a few hours of testimony, a member of the trial board said it was time for a break. As the 11 women briefly conferred, Savino said they should all keep going because he thought they had excellent momentum going. Farrell turned to him, said “shut up,” and told the trial board they could use a break. Dhaliwal said, “It was kind of this comedic moment I needed. I can’t imagine anyone else saying ‘we’re making great momentum’ at their own sexual harassment trial.”

Of the people testifying, Greenberg spoke last. “I feel it is absolutely my duty to inform you all of what I see going on at the ground floor of animation,” she said. She works with interns and students, she said, and some of them read news stories about Savino and felt afraid of the industry. Greenberg said in her statement that the guild’s disciplinary action needed to be transparent to demonstrate to aspiring artists that sexual harassment was not tolerated in the animation industry.

“There was no way he could manipulate us anymore. None of his strategies would work anymore.”

After the women finished, Savino himself made a statement. Exiting the guild membership meeting May 29, several of the women confirmed that the guild said that Savino’s closing words would be excluded from any transcript of the hearing. However, people present in the room described his statement as a half-apology during which he referenced BuzzFeed News's reporting on Ren & Stimpy creator John K's sexual abuse.

The women had discussed what to do if he offered them any kind of apology; walking out of the room did not seem proper, so Tarrell said she suggested turning away from him. When he began to speak, the 11 women turned their backs on him — and so did nearly all of the dozens of people in the audience. The artist who had contacted Curtis to speak at the trial just the day before, who asked not to be named in this story, said it sent Savino a message: “There was no way he could manipulate us anymore. None of his strategies would work anymore. … I don’t want to look at you. I don’t have to look at you, ever again.”

“He thought that his power over us was so strong,” she said.

For a long time, it was. But something has clearly shifted in the animation industry. Curtis spoke with BuzzFeed News Aug. 3, 2017, in a meeting that was at the time off the record. She spoke vaguely, saying that some young women in the industry were “the target of older men” and alluding to a powerful older man she first met when she was “just this intern.” When asked to elaborate, she flatly refused to do so. She told BuzzFeed News this spring, a #MeToo movement later, that she spent years feeling too scared and ashamed to speak up about Savino.

Now, she’s choosing to set her fear aside. “I’m tired of hiding,” she said. ●