Gilbert Rozon allegations leave Just For Laughs at mercy of government, private sponsors

The allegations of harassment and sexual assault facing Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon put Montreal's legendary international comedy festival in a vulnerable position, experts say.

Damage to JFL brand may already be done, says marketing professor

Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon resigned Wednesday following allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. (Radio-Canada)

The allegations of harassment and sexual assault facing Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon have Montreal's legendary international comedy festival facing an uncertain future, experts say.

A number of women are accusing Rozon of misconduct spanning three decades, according to French-language newspaper Le Devoir and radio station 98.5 FM. The allegations have not been verified by CBC/Radio-Canada and have not been proven in court.

Since the allegations emerged Monday night, Rozon has stepped down as chair of the Just For Laughs Group, as head of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations and as vice-president of Montreal's Metropolitan Board of Trade.

On Thursday, the French-language broadcaster TVA pulled the Gala Just for Laughs from its lineup. Marketing and advertising experts interviewed by Radio-Canada say it's more than likely that government and private sponsors will also be reconsidering their relationship with the comedy festival that Rozon founded in 1983 and led for more than 30 years. 

Business as usual, JFL Group vows

In a news release issued Thursday, the Just For Laughs Group underlined its formal intention to pursue all ongoing and future projects, both in Quebec and internationally.

In Quebec, the Just for Laughs Group includes 20 separate companies, 110 employees and 4,400 contractors.

Just for Laughs also announced the imminent appointment of an independent board of directors, to be chaired by Guylaine Lalonde, the current president and CEO of the company.

"I'm happy to see that they've taken steps to keep this event moving forward," said Just For Laughs co-founder and former executive Andy Nulman, who ran the English division of the comedy festival for about 30 years.
The co-founder of Just for Laughs, Andy Nulman, said the organization will overcome the challenges created by the allegations against Gilbert Rozon. 'It's a very, very strong, experienced team, so I think it's in good hands right now,' he said. (Youtube)

Nulman said the allegations against Rozon left him "shocked and surprised" — and concerned, at first, about the future of the organization.

"I don't think there's anybody who for one moment did not … say,'Hey, what's going to happen with the event?' I don't think I was alone in that regard."

But Nulman told CBC News the leadership at Just For Laughs is solid and will overcome this week's challenges.

"The management there has decades of experience. These are the people that have chosen to run it, and it's a very, very strong, experienced team, so I think it's in good hands right now," Nulman said. "It's really in the best hands that it could be in this stage in the game."

The organization is larger than just one man, he said.

"The actions of any one person do not necessarily equal the actions of an organization in its entirety. Just For Laughs is a greater entity. There's the festival in English, Juste pour rire in French, the artist management side, the television production side. It is a many-tentacle organization," Nulman said.

"There is really not a better group who understands the past, the present and can really push for the future like the team that they've put in place there."

But Renaud Legoux, marketing professor at HEC Montréal, believes the damage to the JFL brand may already been done.

"We're going to want to know if there are people inside the Just for Laughs organization who knew about some problematic behavior," he says. "It can leave a stain and drag the entire organization into a crisis … There will be collateral damage, it's clear."

Government, private sponsorships

Legoux said the impacts will be felt first and foremost with Just for Laughs partners, such as artists, private sponsors, and the festival's various government sponsors.

However, Quebec Tourism Minister Julie Boulet expressed caution, noting that "Just for Laughs and all its productions are important engines of tourism."

Boulet also asserted the importance of distinguishing "between the individual and the company."

However, government funding for the flagship Montreal festival is by no means guaranteed, she said.

"Depending on how things play out and how the organization emerges from this, we will see how the government contributes," Boulet said.

Sponsors will also have to decide if they continue their association with the company, says advertiser Stéphane Mailhiot.

"The challenge for Just For Laughs will be finding sponsors this year because we're in the middle of a media storm," he said.

That concern will only worsen if the allegations against Rozon are substantiated, Mailhiot said.

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Olivier Bourque