Walt Disney Studios, a name synonymous with family entertainment, has become embroiled in an unlikely controversy with disclosures that the writer/director of its latest film, "Powder," is a convicted child molester.
Victor Salva, a former child-care worker who impressed Hollywood filmmakers with his early cinematic work, was sentenced to three years in state prison in 1988 for molesting a 12-year-old boy who had acted in two of his films. Salva videotaped one of the encounters.
Salva, 37, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement Tuesday through his agent saying he deeply regretted his actions, adding: "I paid for my mistakes dearly."
The revelations came as the now 20-year-old victim, Nathan Winters of Concord, Calif., picketed a screening of "Powder" on Monday night in Westwood.
Winters passed out leaflets urging the public to boycott the movie and said his family and friends would continue protesting after the film debuts Friday on more than 1,500 screens nationwide.
Winters said he was "in awe" that Disney would even make a movie with Salva.
"I can't believe [Salva] is allowed to work with children again," Winters said. "He should not be allowed around children ever again."
The filmmakers maintained that there were no minors on the set and said they only learned of Salva's criminal record midway through the production. At that point, they said they confronted him and Salva readily admitted his past conviction. He was told to inform the cast and crew.
Still, production sources told The Times that once the filmmakers learned of Salva's background, they "had people watch him."
Disney officials would not comment on the controversy, but the movie's producer said he believes that Salva has paid his debt to society and should be allowed to pursue his chosen profession.
"I sympathize with the pain these people have gone through, but the man is trying to do good now," said Roger Birnbaum, head of Caravan Pictures, which made the film that is being released under Disney's Hollywood Pictures banner. "If he has something to contribute to society, and it happens to be in film, let him do that. The movie and the incident that occurred eight to 10 years ago are not related and it would be a shame if the movie was not allowed to stand on its own," Birnbaum added. "A movie is not made by one person."
Winters' mother, Rebecca, also of Concord, said Tuesday that her family only learned of Salva's connection to "Powder" when commercials began airing on TV.
"My sister happened to read the credits and it was shock city," she said. "Here's Victor making a movie for Disney!"
She said the family has contacted churches and children's agencies urging them to boycott the movie.
"Powder," Salva's first mainstream movie, stars Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum and Sean Patrick Flanery.
The movie centers on an enigmatic young man (Flanery) with startlingly white skin and extraordinary abilities who is discovered living in the cellar of a remote farmhouse and brought to live in a community that doesn't know quite what to make of him. He is befriended by the head of a school for troubled youths (Steenburgen) and a science teacher (Goldblum).
Rebecca Winters said she first met Salva in the mid-1980s when he was working at a day-care center in Concord and making low-budget movies.
"He was making a movie called 'The Goblin's Gold' and he needed somebody to help sculpt the goblin's face," she recalled.
Nathan Winters later acted in two of Salva's films, a 35-minute video called "Something in the Basement" and "Clownhouse."
"Clownhouse" was funded by Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, who has made films such as "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now." The director had been impressed with Salva's amateur films.
Asked to comment on the latest controversy involving Salva, Coppola issued a statement that read: "Victor is a talented young director."
It was during the filming of "Clownhouse," Rebecca Winters said, that she began to suspect something was wrong.
"Victor said I couldn't go to the set," she recalled. "He said Nathan couldn't work if I was there. I just had these feelings. I confronted Nathan and he admitted it to me, he said, 'I have a secret and I can't tell anyone.' "
Commercial videotapes and magazines depicting child pornography were seized at Salva's home, along with a homemade tape showing a sex act with a minor.
Salva later pleaded guilty to charges of lewd and lascivious conduct, oral copulation with a person under 14 and procuring a child for pornography. At his sentencing, prosecutors said Salva appeared to seek jobs in which he could work with children.