When Hollywood descends on D.C. for the presidential inauguration in a couple of weeks, much attention will be paid to the fetes, and who was where with whom.
But another question will inevitably hang over the heads of the glitterati: What’s next?
The entertainment industry poured record amounts of money into Barack Obama’s campaign. Stars and execs manned get-out-the-vote phone banks, walked precincts, produced Web videos and stumped on the trail. Others capitalized on the unprecedented interest in the campaign to promote their pet causes.
So it would make sense that the new president would try to tap into this high-profile activism, to drive celebrities toward taking part in the administration’s agenda, just as they did his candidacy.
While something of the sort may materialize, it’s absurd to think it would be high on the list of the new president’s priorities, what with the risk that he’d look like he’s coddling Hollywood elites.
Nor does it seem to be in his nature. As Jeffrey Katzenberg recently told the Washington Examiner, “I think he appreciates Hollywood, but he’d not enamored with it. I don’t think it’s like the Clinton years. He’s a very different man.”
Instead, a handful of groups are trying to keep the industry’s election-year activism going in the era of Obama, certain that such activism can flourish with a much more responsive White House to issues like the environment, health care, gay rights and stem cell research. Underlying the efforts is the idea that the industry should be viewed as more than an ATM for candidates and causes, particularly by the Democratic Party.
Several nonpartisan, nonprofits emerged in the 2008 cycle tied to the idea of fusing entertainment with politics and causes — among them the Artists and Athletes Alliance, which has a star-studded advisory board that includes honorary co-chairs Kelsey Grammer and Jason Alexander — with the intent of helping notables navigate the corridors of Washington power.
Another org, Causecast, features online vids and celebs to help connect individuals and brands to social issues. Meaningful Media, based in Culver City, Calif., is an all-purpose resource for activists and creative types.
Sarah Ingersoll, the latter org’s director of development and strategy, says the industry’s activism has been largely ad hoc. “It’s just never been done in any kind of strategic way,” she says.
Others are building businesses. Jamie McGurk and Victoria Hopper have their socially oriented consulting firm, SeaChange Communications, which co-sponsored a week of panels and film screenings at the Democratic National Convention.
One of the most unusual events at the Democratic convention in Denver was the Manifest Hope gallery, a makeshift space displaying images of the candidate from artists around the country, including co-founder Shepard Fairey, responsible for the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster. Not only did it draw plenty of media attention, but it hosted the week’s hippest party, lasting into the early morning hours, and drawing streetwise activists, button-downed politicos and stars.
The inauguration will see Manifest Hope: DC, an even larger space (and the site of an even larger party). But the idea also is to channel interest toward specific issues, with an online contest asking artists to submit works zeroing in on the green economy, health care and workers’ rights.
Yosi Sergant, whose Evolutionary Media Group is producing the gallery, notes that they have operated outside the direction of the Obama team. Just as grassroots and online activism was a hallmark of the Obama campaign, he says creative types also can’t depend on taking cues from the new White House.
“We need to be our own compelling force,” he says.
“We need to harness the energy ourselves and keep going.”
That may be easier said than done.
Trevor Neilson, president of the Global Philanthropy Group, who helped create Bono’s humanitarian org, says such efforts will prove more difficult without a singular figure around whom to rally.
“Without an iconic leader, it is very hard to develop a distinct brand and a distinct call to action. Barack Obama is a force unlike any we have seen in American politics and international politics.”
He adds, “People are excited to harness the energy of the campaign, but they are worried that time will go by and energy will be lost.”
To keep stars engaged, one suggestion has been that Obama create a network of celebrity surrogates, akin to the U.N. program of global ambassadors. For instance, Shakira, one of Neilson’s clients who endorsed Obama during the campaign, has pressed for early-childhood development programs, and could be involved in the new president’s proposed $10 billion initiative to fund early education.
Such an effort would require a degree of vetting of potential surrogates, as the campaign did when stars went on the trail in official capacities. The transition team, however, hasn’t really gotten to the point of putting anything like it in place.
Neilson has talked to transition officials, but so far no decisions have been made.
“I think the Obama administration is going to be much more deliberate and careful in how they select surrogates,” he says.
There’s also another reality to contend with: Obama is bound to take positions that diverge from those of his avid supporters.
As Hollywood-based political consultant Donna Bojarsky says, “While there is tremendous excitement, sometimes it becomes more challenging and more nuanced when your team comes to power and is setting the agenda.”
Already, Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration has drawn sharp criticism from progressives, as well as Fairey, who says the choice was “symbolically a slap in the face to many people.” He considered backing out of plans to do a new portrait of Obama for the inauguration, but ultimately decided not to.
“I’m sure I will ultimately disagree with Obama about many things, but I think I will agree with him on more,” he wrote on his website.
It’s easy to forget that as much as Bill Clinton embraced showbiz, by his second term there was plenty of criticism from Hollywood’s political class. One of the most powerful Hollywood political groups of the ’80s and ’90s, the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus, disbanded in 1997 in part over concerns over the influence of money in politics, including the Clinton administration.
In other words, Hollywood got tired of being treated like an ATM.
There’s little doubt that the new generation of activists won’t stay silent this time around, either.
“We’ll be at the table whether they like it or not,” Sergant says. Artists “will protest Obama just like they would protest anyone else. My job is not to make sure that we support an Obama administration. My job is to make sure we stay engaged.”