A Heartlander’s Hollywood Night

_MG_4513 adj E Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has a gracious presence, with striking looks and a thin-frame. So it’s no surprise that he’s generating some of the biggest buzz as a 2012 GOP presidential contender.

He’s also, as a social and economic conservative, not the person you’d expect to be among the headliners at an event at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he was being honored for his support of the creative community. By his own admission, he’s far from a media-bred figure, having grown up in a small town with just one TV channel and no movie theater within 60 miles. Moreover, when he won his Senate seat in 2004, his supporters made a big deal out of the fact that his opponent, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, raised so much money from the entertainment industry. As is often the case in heartland races, Hollywood was a liability.

As he accepted the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors American Spirit Award on Sunday night, it was hard to imagine Thune as combative, certainly a contrast to all of the bombast coming off the week of the passage of healthcare reform. But it also was hard to imagine Thune bashing Hollywood, as other middle-of-the-country conservatives have been prone to do.

Instead, Thune tried to identify.

“The same people that are in the business of transportation and haul your equipment to the next set, or the people who cater the food that your industry eat, are the same people who haul things to Wal-Mart in Sioux Falls, are the same people that I worked with when I was a short order cook in my hometown growing up,” he said. “They are all people who want a better future for their children and grandchildren. and if we don’t have the kinds of policies in place that will encourage and enable that, provide the right incentives, it is going to be hard for us going forward.”

Moreover, he said that when it came to the rank-and-file of the biz, the problem isn’t too little Hollywood influence in D.C., but too little. He called on more in the creative community to be “willing to roll up their sleeves, get into the arena and make sure your voice is heard in Washington DC.”

“I encourage you to get in the arena, and stay in the arena,” he said to the group.

The Caucus annually hands out the honors to one Republican and one Democrat, as well as to one entertainment figure. So the other honorees were Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif..), who, because of family illness, sent in taped comments, and Debbie Allen, who spoke mainly of her show biz career but thanked President George W. Bush for appointing her to his arts commission. But for Republicans at each year event, there is always a sort of fish-out-of-water sensibility, knowing full well that Democrats dominate fund-raising and much of the political activity in town.

Before the event, however, Thune told me that Republicans should no longer “cede” this ground to the other party, and he sees as an opening an appeal to the creative community’s industry-centric concerns, highlighting limited regulation and enhancing entrepreneurship. While that may seem obvious, it’s actually not, given that it’s more likely than not that in the many Democratic fund-raisers taking place in Los Angeles these next few weeks, the talk will be of healthcare or financial reform but not runaway production. (Major media moguls being the exception to this).

The differences between the parties were highlighted in Waxman’s comments, who also was honored for his support of the creative community but with a slightly different take.

The Caucus — made up of many veterans of the biz — has for years been highlighting the plight of the independent producer, shut out by media consolidation, and that fact was not lost on Waxman, who said that he had major concerns over the pending union of Comcast with NBC Universal. Unlike Thune, he is bullish about the FCC’s proposed net neutrality regulations, which he said will be “critically important as concentrated media ownership increasingly locks creative artists out of the media marketplace.” And he had one more nugget to share: President Obama last week signed an extension of federal tax incentives for film and TV productions in the U.S.

It was refreshing, in a way, to hear politicos talk about Hollywood’s issues in Hollywood. I have no doubt that it’ll be the loftier concerns that consume most of lawmakers’ time as the swing through L.A. the rest of the year, but my bet is that as the industry faces ever greater uncertainty, Hollywood the business won’t get such short shrift.

Photo by Steve Cohn: Dennis Doty, John Thune, Debbie Allen, Chuck Fries.

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