Immediate comparisons of the rare and unusual visit were made to the ping-pong diplomacy that preceded President Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972, while others feared that their visit would be used for propoganda purposes.
In fact, it didn't take long after the delegation, organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, landed late last week at Iman Khomeini Airport to great press attention overseas and in Tehran, before Iranian prexy Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s arts advisor Javad Shamghadri called on them apologize to the Iranians "for their 30 years of insults and slanders.”
He cited films such as Zack Snyder’s “300” and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which features a scene of Mickey Rourke’s aging character ripping up an Iranian flag.
Shamghadri, who has previously blasted “300” for being "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture,” told Iranian news agency ISNA that “the Iranian people have been repeatedly unjustly attacked by Hollywood. We will believe Obama’s policy of change when we see change in Hollywood, too.”
The delegation, organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, includes the org's president Sid Ganis, actresses Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, writer-director Frank Pierson, writer-director Phil Robinson, producer Bill Horberg, Tom Pollock and director James Longley, as well as Ellen Harrington, the Acad's director of exhibitions and special events.
Acad officials insist the trip for cultural and educational purposes only, which is no wonder given Ahmedinejad’s statements about Israel and the byzantine nature of Iran's government.
The trip was organized by the Academy's International Outreach initiative, and was not sponsored by the state department. The group was invited and is being hosted by Iran's House of Cinema, with an itinerary that includes meetings with Iranian filmmakers, students and others there. No meetings are scheduled with government officials.
Academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger said that while they were aware of Shamghadri'a comments, there "has been no negative reaction or fallout on the trip itself." Ganis said in a statement that they have been "very warmly received."
Unger said that they did inform the state Department of the trip, and they "were supportive of the way it was structured," but the Academy held no planning meetings with U.S. officials, wanting "to keep this non governmental and non political."
In fact, Reza Aslan, founder of BoomGen Studios and senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy, said that the important part about the trip is that it was "playing to Iran's sense of cultural pride."
"It is a real shame that [Shamghadri's] comments are getting the headlines, because those kinds of comments are par for the course," he said. "It is a non-event. This is the same government that expressly allowed these filmmakers to come in the first place….This is Iranian diplomacy. This is how it works. You shake hands with your right hand and shake a finger with your left."
He added that there was "no question" that Ahmedinejad would use the trip for propaganda purposes, but "a politician is a politician, whether they are wearing a suit or a turban."
Rather, he said, the significant aspect of the trip that it was of filmmakers, not a sports team, noting the visits of soccer players, wrestlers and even a badmitton team to Iran in the past.
In a country that is "fiercely proud of its film industry," he said, "what is happening here is a recognition that the sort of universal language of cinema might have the power to bring" the two cultures together.
While attention has focused on the celebrities on the trip, he said that it was just if not more important that Ganis was there as president of the Academy.
"This is a real coup, a real positive thing for those of us who want to bring closer ties toward Iran."
Andrew F. Cooper, a visiting professor at USC who as a visiting is teaching a course on so-called "celebrity diplomacy," said the timing of the trip couldn't be ignored, with worries over Iran's nuclear program and the Obama adminstration suggesting a different level of engagement with the country.
The Hollywood delegation's trip "really is signalling that the U.S. wants a different relationship, and it is using a potent weapon that the United States has."
Bening told reporters on Sunday that she hopes "that we can be a bridge to open a dialogue between the two countries."
Cinema has been a reliable litmus test for political relations between Iran and the West.
Iranian cinema flourished under the moderate presidency of Mohammed Khatami during the years 1997 to 2005.
Khatami, who was originally elected by a landslide under the mandate of reforming the conservative clerical rule in the country, encouraged cultural exchange between Iran and Western countries as a way to melt the diplomatic impasse.
The subsequent election of Ahmedinejad has seen the Iranian film biz enter a challenging period, with many of the country’s film execs complaining of a lack of funding, support and excessive governmental interference in terms of issuing film permits for production and exhibition.
Hollywood execs aren’t the only Westerners to feel the wrath of the Iranian authorities.
In 2007, Iranian authorities protested the Cannes Film Festival’s decision to award the jury prize to Marjane Satrapi’s animated pic “Persepolis,” which offered a wry, satirical take on the oppressive life under the rule of the mullahs in the wake of the 1979 revolution.
"Islamophobia in Western drama started in France, and producing and highlighting the anti-Iranian film 'Persepolis' in Cannes falls in line with Islamophobia," said Mehdi Kalhor, another cultural adviser to Iranian prexy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the time.
Also planned on the visit: seminars on filmmaking, acting, directing, producing and marketing, meetings with film students in Tehran and Eshahan and a visit to an Iranian film set. Each of the Academy members will introduce a film screening from his or her career. The delegation is scheduled to visit Shiraz and Eshahan before returning to the U.S. on March 8.
—Ali Jaafar contributed to this report.