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James Franco’s former students sue, alleging sexual exploitation and fraud at his defunct school

James Franco in 2017
James Franco is being sued by former acting students.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

James Franco and two of his associates are facing a class-action lawsuit alleging that the actor’s Studio 4 acting and filmmaking school was actually a setup to provide them with a stream of young, impressionable women for sexual and financial exploitation.

The suit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court and reviewed by The Times, was brought by former students Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal. It accuses the Oscar-nominated actor — along with business partner Vince Jolivette, Rabbit Bandini Productions and the production company’s general manager, Jay Davis — of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, fraudulent business practices and intimidation, among other things.

“Studio 4 allowed Franco and his entourage to collect tuition for their own personal gain, and stockpile explicit footage of women,” the law firm Valli Kane & Vagnini, which is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement Thursday. “The school diminished a woman’s role on set to that of a sexual object who could only obtain professional opportunities through gratuitous nudity, explicit sex scenes and succumbing to sexual advances by the men in charge.”

Franco’s attorney, Michael Plonsker, responded with a statement Thursday evening declaring the “127 Hours” actor’s intent to fight back.

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“This is not the first time that these claims have been made and they have already been debunked,” Plonsker said. “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.”

An attempt to reach Jolivette‘s attorney on Thursday was not immediately successful.

Franco and Jolivette opened Studio 4 in 2014 in Los Angeles and New York. Both locations have since been shuttered. Plaintiff Tither-Kaplan was one of five women who accused Franco of sexually inappropriate behavior in a 2018 Times story.

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Franco’s attorney at the time, Michael Plonsker, disputed all of the women’s allegations in that story and directed The Times to comments the actor made on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

“Look, in my life I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I have done,” he told Colbert. “I have to do that to maintain my well being. The things that I heard that were on Twitter [allegations posted after he wore a Time’s Up pin to the Golden Globes] 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.

“If I have done something wrong,” he added, “I will fix it — I have to.”

According to the lawsuit, students who paid around $300 monthly to attend Stage 4 or participated in one of its $2,000 “Master Classes” were led to believe that they would receive audition opportunities not available to nonstudents. However, the suit claims, those opportunities were not exclusive.

Among the master classes was one called “Sex Scenes,” taught by Franco. Students had to audition for master classes and sign away all rights to audition tapes. They were “encouraged to audition nude or partially nude if a scene called for nudity,” according to the lawsuit, and were “routinely pressured to engage in simulated sexual acts that went far beyond the standards in the industry.”

To the editor: Actor James Franco allegedly used his power and position to find girlfriends, stage orgies, teach a “master class” on sex scenes, solicit nudity and have unprotected oral sex with various women.

“The school ... created, fostered and maintained a ‘boy’s club’ culture wherein female students were sent a very clear message” that if they refused advances from staff or refused to perform partially nude, they would not be considered for substantial roles, the lawsuit says.

The Time’s Up organization, which Franco supported by wearing a pin at the 2018 Golden Globes, reacted to the lawsuit Thursday, saying in a statement, “The allegations that a group of men ran a sham school and production company all to prey upon young women at the start of their careers are appalling. If these allegations are true, we hope the survivors, and all impacted by this behavior, receive some measure of justice.”

The lawsuit, which is seeking additional members to participate in its class action, asks for compensatory and punitive damages, costs and legal fees, back pay and royalties for work on Rabbit Bandini productions and tuition refunds.

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It also asks that Franco, Jolivette and Davis be made to participate in sexual harassment and sensitivity training and issue a public apology.


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