- Benny and Rafi Fine stepped back from FBE last June after a video of Benny in blackface resurfaced.
- 26 ex-FBE employees and contractors said the issues historically went deeper, alleging they or others experienced racism.
- An FBE representative said leadership “had no direct knowledge” of many of the incidents alleged in this story.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Until last June, YouTube power duo Rafi and Benny Fine were at the top of their game. The brothers had parlayed a childhood hobby of making radio shows and sketches into a content giant they called Fine Brothers Entertainment.
Founded in 2007, FBE, best known for its “react” videos, catered to digital platforms like YouTube. There, it posted viral clips from a diverse network of creators to 30 million subscribers, and in June 2020 it was bringing in 300 million views a month. It also teamed up with mammoth media conglomerates including Nickelodeon, 20th Century Fox, and Universal.
But over the last seven months, the once formidable empire has navigated rough terrain.
In a grainy 2009 video that resurfaced last June, Benny Fine appeared in blackface as part of a “Degrassi” parody by Shane Dawson. Coming amid a nationwide reckoning over racism and police brutality, spurred by protests over the police killing of George Floyd, the brothers faced an avalanche of criticism from fans and staff. In the two weeks that followed, some of the company’s longest-standing stars left the company.
But according to former members of Los Angeles-based company, the blackface video merely skimmed the surface. Insider spoke with 26 former employees and contractors about their experiences working at FBE between 2012 and June 2020, most before the company’s public statements, and some after. They alleged instances of racism and discrimination — some from upper management — and said the behavior had fostered a toxic atmosphere.
The Fine brothers, former employees said, were talented creatives, but micromanaged everything from pitch meetings to the thumbnails on videos, seemingly reluctant to relinquish control over what they’d built. The management that was brought in appeared to act as “yes men,” according to these employees. Some said the dynamic perpetuated implicit biases.
Neither Rafi nor Benny Fine responded to requests for comment on the allegations in this article. An FBE spokesperson said on the brothers’ behalf that they “shared their feelings during multiple full-time staff meetings” and “apologized about their regret for lots of content they produced during their early careers.”
The company first responded to allegations in this article with a letter to Insider from the law firm Lavely & Singer. The letter said FBE was “a different company” than it was before 2018, when Marc Hustvedt, the current chief executive, was hired. The letter also called the former employees who made the allegations “questionable and biased sources.” The sources were “disgruntled” former employees and contractors, the letter said, “some of whom were terminated for poor performance and clearly still harbor animosity and resentment against the Company.”
To Insider’s knowledge, FBE and its lawyers had not been provided the names of the sources when their letter was sent, and they failed to provide context or answers for most of the allegations and questions.
An FBE spokesperson later sent a statement saying, in part, that many of the allegations were incidents that the current leadership team had no direct knowledge of, and were thus “difficult or impossible to verify.”
“While we hope these were not purposeful and intentional discriminatory acts, they clearly had a negative impact on the people who shared their stories with you, and impact is more important than intention,” the statement read.
They added the leadership team was “open to listening to any instances of purposeful and intentional discriminatory acts and using that information to learn and improve our workplace.”
Some of the employees spoke on the condition of anonymity for this story because they feared repercussions from the company.
Some former employees of color said they experienced or saw racism at FBE
After the blackface video resurfaced, the Fine brothers tweeted an apology that was shared to the FBE Instagram account. In the statement, they said they’d made “terrible errors of judgment,” and they attempted to distance themselves from the clip, pledging to increase diversity at the company and donate to the NAACP.
But for Kennedy Zimet, one of more than 200 “reactors” — contracted cast members of React videos filmed reacting to videos, foods, experiences, and games — the apology was not enough. She told Insider she felt disgusted when she saw the blackface video and quit after eight and a half years working with FBE.
FBE would do everything right on the surface, Zimet told Insider, making videos about Black Lives Matter last year and hiring reactors who were people of color. But behind the scenes, she said, she received racially charged death threats and harassment from viewers and had to handle them on her own despite asking management for help.
Zimet said she and several other Black reactors took part in a Black Lives Matter video at the request of the company to bring attention to the social movement at the end of May 2020. She said that when she sent an email to the general casting assistant about her safety concerns over sharing her experiences as a Black woman publicly, she was ignored.
FBE management discussed what happened in a leaked Zoom call on June 17, saying Zimet’s concerns about her security were overlooked because of “fragmented” workflows as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t know exactly who was supposed to do it,” said the vice president of growth and platforms, Donna Lewis, who confirmed that she and other leadership personnel had seen the email. “But of the three people who have been typically responding to talent, somebody dropped the ball.”
She added that “unfortunately some people will face negativity on the internet because the internet is the internet.”
—REACT (@FBE) June 11, 2020
Reactors, who are often aspiring actors or influencers, are usually paid for spending time in the FBE studio. But Zimet said the Black creators encouraged to take part in the BLM video — to describe instances in their life where they felt unsafe or looked down on as a Black person — weren’t initially going to be paid. The company backtracked on that decision after receiving backlash on social media from several reactors and employees, yet it took months for reactors to receive their paychecks, four Black reactors in the video told Insider.
Hustvedt, the CEO who joined the company in July 2018, told Insider in an email in August that the holdup in payments was the result of a switch to a new payroll service provider in May.
FBE reactors were ranked in a ‘tier system’
On June 11, Zimet posted a video about her decision to stop working with FBE. It was widely shared by other former reactors and FBE staff. After the video circulated, 11 of Zimet’s fellow reactors quit in solidarity, including Shar Jossell and Faith Lavon.
Former employees then started publicly talking about a “tier system” they’d heard about that ranked reactors. The system, two former employees said, dictated how often the reactors should appear in videos. The highest tier was prioritized, and the lowest tier was relegated to fewer appearances, these employees said.
FBE’s former head of casting and talent development between April 2019 and April 2020, Steven Causey, was laid off during the pandemic. He told Insider that a tiered system was used while he was at the company, and said that the lists for each tier came from Rafi Fine. While he was at the company, it seemed to him that there were “more white people at the top,” he said. According to Causey, an episode couldn’t go forward unless it included 33% top-tier cast members, which meant most episodes ended up being, as he perceived, predominantly white.
“It was noticeable, but I don’t think it was intentional,” he said. “I feel like it might’ve started as unconscious bias, but after a time enough people brought it up that it should have been addressed.”
In an email response to questions from Insider about the tiers, Hustvedt said “race was not a factor in that system.”
FBE’s lawyers denied there were more white people in the top-tier and said that, looking over a period of several years, 58.4% of its top-tier talent have been people of color. A company representative did not provide more information about how the statistic was calculated. They added that many reactors in the remaining 41.6% “also identify as members of various under-represented groups, e.g., LGBTQ+, religious minorities, people with disabilities, etc.”
Two people said they thought that FBE staff would cast people of color in a way that felt exploitative. “They profit from the idea that they’re diverse without valuing it authentically,” one former researcher said. “They try to capitalize and commercialize on it as much as they can.”
She said she sat at a desk near a producer’s office and could sometimes hear him “shouting about casting.”
“Like ‘Get me a Black, get me an Asian, get me three boys and two girls,” she said. “That is how they thought about diversity.”
An FBE spokesperson said the company “continues to evolve its processes from a top-down process to a more inclusive creative process to make sure staff from different departments were able to contribute thoughts on content ideas and edits.
“It also allowed many staff members to highlight possible prejudices and insensitivities and led to an ongoing and active dialogue about the kind of content that was being created,” they said, adding that the Fine brothers “have always endeavored to feature a majority of underrepresented voices in FBE’s content.”
Brooklin Fenton, a former reactor turned employee, said she was told at times that having a reactor with lighter skin on the left of the thumbnail, where viewers would tend to see them first, “appeals to the fans.”
Six sources told Insider they were sometimes told to put a person with a lighter skin tone on the left, and several other former employees said publicly on Twitter that this had happened to them. The thumbnails were also a point of discussion in a public Q&A on the FBE Discord server on June 13, after reactors left the company, where a current employee, Stephen Miller, answered fans’ questions.
FBE’s lawyers said the company denies that race was considered in thumbnail decisions and the tier system. They provided 88 examples showing people of color appearing both on the left and on the right sides of thumbnails.
Insider conducted a review of 1,092 thumbnails that included faces of reactors in the playlists on the React YouTube channel between 2011 and the end of 2020, omitting celebrities, YouTuber guests, now-deleted videos, and thumbnails where faces were obscured or not the core focus. 58% of the faces counted were white, and 42% were people of color. 12% of thumbnails contained faces of Black individuals. 31% of the thumbnails showed two white reactors and 19.5% contained two people of color. 0.3% showed two Black reactors.
There were 434 thumbnails that included one reactor who was a person of color and one white reactor. In 238 of them (55%), the white reactor was on the left side of the thumbnail.
Some former employees said they experienced racial slurs and jokes
Following Kennedy Zimet’s video, other former staff members and reactors — predominantly people of color — publicly shared their stories of working at FBE.
Jonathan Rosario-Price, who identifies as Mexican American, stopped working with FBE last summer after nearly six years as a reactor. He told Insider that he reported harassment he experienced from another reactor — who was white and had a larger profile than he did — to management. He said this reactor made derogatory remarks to him about Mexicans and “justified slavery by concluding that the unemployment was really low” during a party at the reactor’s house. The party was not a company event, but staff were present.
Rosario-Price said he felt “powerless” while the reactor was making jokes because nobody else at the party stood up for him. He said he reported the incident to Hustvedt, the CEO, on a phone call, and he dismissed it as “bar-room talk.” Hustvedt also said on the call he couldn’t “publicly out someone as racist,” Rosario-Price said.
“You’re ignoring people of color,” Rosario-Price said of his experience. “To not do everything you can to rectify that as a person in power to make it safe for other people is disgusting. There’s no other word for it.”
Neither FBE nor its lawyers responded to requests for comment on what Rosario-Price reported.
Past accusations of casual racism went all the way up to management, several people said. At an after-work party around Halloween 2018, one former producer said, the brothers showed an old video in which they played racist caricatures, including a drug dealer named “Cuban Pete.”
“What that showed me was there was a lack of sensitivity, a lack of understanding to how that might be perceived,” the producer said.
An FBE spokesperson said the video in question was “a commercial parody they made at 11 and 13 years old” that “made a small reference to ‘Cuban Pete,’ a character and song sung by Jim Carrey in the movie ‘The Mask.'”
It was released around the time the video was made, they said, and “was in the cultural zeitgeist at that time.”
One employee said it felt as if the white men in the room were ‘egging each other on’
Two former staff members told Insider that in one meeting, at the end of 2018 and during Hustvedt’s tenure, a creative director, Derek Baynham, who left the company in September 2020, said that it didn’t matter which Asian person they used in the thumbnail for a video about South Korea because “no one can tell them apart.” (Baynham did not respond to requests for comment.)
“I have a lot of patience as a person of color,” said a former gaming producer who was in the meeting and identifies as Asian. “I’ve experienced racism. I have a tolerance for it to a certain degree if I know this person just doesn’t know any better. These people know better.”
He said it felt as if the white men in the room were “egging each other on” making more jokes about Asian people, “while everyone else was just quiet and just uncomfortably silent.” He said he reported the incident to HR. Three weeks later, he said, the company told him that his role was being eliminated, saying “we don’t think gaming is working for us.”
In December 2020, FBE posted a video of teens reacting to Corpse Husband, a popular gaming streamer.
Two former production assistants told Insider they were reprimanded by HR for discussing the favoritism they felt was apparent at the company in the private messaging system during their time there, and said they were told “white privilege doesn’t exist.” Two other sources corroborated their accounts.
“We can state unequivocally that any complaint taken to HR was investigated and sometimes resulted in suspensions, terminations, and/or company-wide policy changes,” an FBE spokesperson said. “Any complaints made by or about staff or talent/reactors to HR were taken seriously. Every time. No exceptions.”
They added that “no one has ever been fired for reporting a problem to HR.”
People said micromanagement fostered a toxic workplace
Several people told Insider that the working environment at FBE felt “toxic” and was perpetuated by the management the Fines would hire, who in turn would micromanage the staff.
One former producer, who was friends with the Fine brothers before she worked for FBE, told Insider that she believed the alleged toxic culture came from the top and trickled down. During her time at the company, from 2015 to 2017, “there were more men in leadership positions and almost everyone in leadership positions were white people,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone, the founders included, were sitting in a room being, like, ‘How can we actively make the workplace less diverse, full of more men?'” she said. But, she added, the consequences of their shortcomings were stark. Her experience at FBE was “one of the darkest times that I’ve pretty much ever had in my life,” she said.
Julie Montoya, who worked at the company for five years, until 2018, and another former producer used to manage FBE’s community team, known as the C-team. They both identify as people of color and said the Fines overlooked them for promotions and jobs they were more than qualified for, while white men who had less experience were hired above them. At the time Montoya and this producer were working at FBE, they said, most of their managers were white.
Montoya said she was stressed “all the time” because she used to receive frequent emails from the brothers “listing all the things I did wrong and bashing me.”
Some former white employees and reactors who spoke with Insider also said white employees had been prioritized.
A former reactor, Ethan James, who left in June, before the company released its statements, said that when he worked there that people of color — “editors, producers, anything” — were not “getting any opportunities to succeed.”
The view of one former researcher was that the company was blind to many of its cultural issues because everyone there considered themselves to be “woke.”
“They thought they were liberal, so they thought they were blameless,” the person said.
An FBE spokesperson said the current FBE upper leadership team consists of two men and seven women.
“Four of the leadership team are people of color,” the spokesperson said. “This is a result of diversity and inclusive initiatives that were discussed and announced to staff members in late 2019 and resulted in active recruiting and hiring efforts by March of 2020.”
A ‘long overdue journey that we have begun as a company’
That the Fine brothers were stepping down was not announced publicly by FBE, other than in statements to Insider, and the brothers have been out of public sight since. That felt strange, many reactors said, because the brothers “pushed the notion that the company was a ‘family.'”
According to Hustvedt, the brothers’ decision to leave their positions at FBE was decided before Zimet’s video was posted. They are still joint owners of the company.
Hustvedt said FBE was working on recognizing and tackling “implicit bias” and “exclusion by familiarity” to work on “building a more diverse and inclusive workplace.”
“This is a vital and, frankly, long overdue journey that we have begun as a company,” he said.
Hustvedt also posted a statement on Twitter and Instagram on June 11, in which he outlined various initiatives the company said it would take up in the future, such as launching a diversity and inclusivity task force and setting a goal to increase the number of BIPOC employees.
A post from June 2020 on the FBE website echoed this sentiment and says “many problems stemmed from former leaders who are no longer with the company.” The company said it had not done enough to “truly tear down the old company culture and rebuild it in a new and better way” and “point blank we had/have problems with all the ‘-isms.’ It wasn’t easy to hear, but it was necessary.”
FBE has hired Women of Color Unite (WOCU), a consultancy “focusing on fair access, fair treatment and fair pay for women of color in all aspects of the entertainment and media industries.” Cheryl L. Bedford, the founder, told Insider in November 2020 that FBE was “doing the work.”
An FBE spokesperson said despite no longer being part of the day-to-day operations of the company, the Fines have “approved and supported every step of the leadership team’s efforts to making FBE a more inclusive workplace for all.”
Meanwhile, the company has rebranded its main YouTube channel from FBE to REACT.
While several people expressed hope that the company would change its culture, some said they were skeptical given their experiences with the company reacting to criticism.
One former employee, who was laid off in December 2019, told Insider she was hired as a director of programming and content strategy in an attempt to make their content more inclusive, and highlight prejudices or insensitivities in video ideas. But during her time there the Fines were not open to her suggestions, she said, and were reluctant to change their content on her recommendations.
“They hired me with hopes of change, but it didn’t happen, because when I tried to instill any change, I was wrong,” she said.
Current employees and reactors contacted by Insider wouldn’t answer questions about life inside the company. But Insider did speak with 13 people who were still at the company during Hustvedt’s tenure, between July 2018 and July 2020, and none felt there was a massive change in company culture during that time.
Hustvedt did not respond to this allegation, but an FBE spokesperson said he “evaluated the business and culture and restructured the company to bring on a new leadership team” when he joined the company in 2018.
“When he was first brought on, the leadership team the founders had brought on were four men and three women, including one person of color,” they said. “Some of the other leadership team members considered themselves as part of other underrepresented groups, and not just ‘white.'”
An FBE spokesperson said “the summer of 2020 was a wake-up call for companies and institutions across every industry, and FBE was no exception.” They said one of the immediate changes was “reduced production loads for an overworked staff” and an increase in entry-level pay from $15 an hour to $20.
“Those actions combined with an ongoing commitment to focus on diversity and inclusion at every level of the company from staffing to content creation have made us a stronger team than ever before,” they said.
FBE restructured and laid off 17 employees in January 2021
In December 2020, just before Christmas, FBE’s management team told employees the company was going to be restructuring around a new business model, and that not all of them would fit into those plans, according to six sources.
In January, 17 employees across the company were laid off, including entire teams. Many of the remaining workforce are freelancers.
Hustvedt confirmed the company had laid off staff this month, and that production had stopped at FBE’s studios in LA due to the ongoing pandemic.
“This was a very challenging year for content production, especially at the scale we were operating,” he told Insider. “And we unfortunately were not immune to the impact that the pandemic would have on our business model. We had to make some very difficult choices as we adapted our business model to this new reality.”
He said the company will no longer entirely rely on an “always-on in-house production model” and is adapting to new projects with “a unique team of talent, artists and production crew best suited for each endeavor.”
“Layoffs are always painful, and we are deeply saddened at needing to make these moves,” he said. “While we already have plans to work with many of our longtime employees on a project-by-project basis, we are, of course, painfully aware of — and deeply regretful for — the impact on the people involved.”
When Zimet stopped working with FBE, she hoped speaking out would inspire positive changes. She said when she originally posted her video, she was worried about how it would affect the people who chose to stay. But the support she received from her colleagues and past employees reassured her it was the right thing to do.
Along with the support has come criticism from internet onlookers who have called her “sensitive” and accused her of trying to “cancel” FBE.
“I didn’t take the company down,” she said. “The things that came out about them are things that they did on their own.”
Contact Insider senior reporter Lindsay Dodgson by email (email@example.com) or Twitter DM (@linzasaur).