Party line free of biz buzz

As the political bonanza of 2012 edges closer, just about every week sees a major candidate coming to Hollywood, anxious to suck up campaign cash. And more than likely, when that candidate faces the wants of savvy donors, there’s one topic unlikely to be broached.

Showbiz itself.

It’s almost become a source of pride among fundraisers in the left-leaning business that what motivates most Hollywood donors aren’t policy favors, but rather to have the pol champion their values and causes — causes that can be both popular and quixotic.

The notion that self interest is not front and center is also apparent as the Obama administration pitches the Buffett rule — the idea that the well-to-do will accept higher taxation in the name of the public good.

But the reality of Hollywood giving is more complex — and there’s actually increasing pressure on those in the creative community to be much more mindful of showbiz issues, particularly as a major piece of anti-piracy legislation works its way through Congress and the business grapples with further ways to protect its content.

“While the industry gets involved in causes that are about domestic issues — the environment, jobs, foreign policy — there has been reluctance on the part of the industry to talk about itself, to talk about its needs,” MPAA chairman Chris Dodd says, adding that when he was in the Senate, “I never felt offended when I spoke to some industry and they wanted to tell me what their point of view was. I respected that. They had every right to do so. I think we need to get the (entertainment) industry to step up and do more of that.”

Shortly after he joined the MPAA in March, Dodd told Variety that in his 30 years as a senator, which involved many treks to Los Angeles for fundraisers, he could not recall a single occasion where anyone bothered to educate him or bring up an industry issue. He stressed that he was not critical of the way that showbiz donors give — mindful of worldy causes — but is hoping that in the midst of conversations with candidates, time is taken out to talk about issues like protection of copyrighted material on the Internet.

“That has to become standard operating procedure,” he said.

Complicating this is the structure of the industry: Hollywood is heavy in independent contractors, a contrast to other company towns like Detroit, where the alignment of business interests is front and center.

By and large, showbiz fundraising is separated between the corporate level, where industry trade associations and corporate PACs generally give to both parties; and individuals on the creative side, making up a much bigger base of donors, which tends to get the lion’s share of the attention from candidates and the media.

The division between business interests and individual values is not new, but it became more pronounced in the post-Vietnam era of social activism, as industry figures organized around particular causes and the candidates.

By the 1980s, the industry even had a group that organized not around industry concerns but progressive issues, members of the Hollywood Womens Political Committee, leveraging their collective strength to press candidates on issues like abortion rights and gun control.

On the other side of the spectrum, the conservative org Friends of Abe was organized over the past few years, and has emerged as a stopping point for GOP leaders, most recently Herman Cain, who addressed the group this past week in L.A. Although it is not a fundraising org, the individual connections candidates make undoubtedly help form personal relationships down the line.

Although the Womens Political Committee disbanded in 1997, it hardly stopped the flood of candidates coming to Hollywood for campaign cash.

So far this cycle, the industry has donated more than $17 million to federal candidates and committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with more than 70% going to Democrats. The split is more equal when it comes to giving among industry political action committees. The MPAA’s giving is running about 64% to Democrats and 36% to Republicans; the Recording Industry Assn. of America is at 40% to Democrats and 60% to Republicans.

But there’s even a difference in giving at the corporate level and individual giving at the top. The Sony Pictures Entertainment PAC has given 57% to Democrats and 43% to Republicans so far this election cycle; its chairman and CEO, Michael Lynton, has given only to Democrats this cycle and is an Obama bundler. The president even held his first re-election fundraiser in Los Angeles on the Sony lot.

Jeffrey Katzenberg is among the single biggest Democratic donors this cycle. He is an Obama campaign bundler, and he has also donated $2 million to an outside finance group that is already running attack ads against Mitt Romney. His motivation, he has said, is to match the huge sums going to Republican-aligned groups, particularly from the oil billionaire Koch brothers.

“Entertainment is one of the few industries where (individual) donors give based on their personal beliefs and not their economic status or direct interest,” says political consultant Donna Bojarsky. “It is usually about their sense of good government, what they perceive is best for the country. These tend to focus on non-industry specific issues…like education, human rights, environment and foreign policy. They are among the highest-earning contributors that back higher tax rates, at odds with their own personal interest.”

Asked what Hollywood wants out of the candidates it supports, producer Norman Lear says, “All of a sudden from that question, they are not just people and citizens and human beings, they are something else. Because what does Hollywood want? Well, Hollywood has a motion picture political presence in Washington, and that is a different question. It is another industry that wants whatever consideration it wants from the Congress and in D.C.

“So this question is addressed to the individual. The individual wants whatever individual cause the individual is speaking about. He wants an end to genocide in Africa. He wants a level playing field for the races, equal opportunity, just like any person — not a star, not a celebrity, not an entertainer, but a human being. I don’t know why they can’t be considered that way.”

Lear hosted an event on Nov. 1 for the senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is already an industry favorite, as the event drew Barbra Streisand, Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito.

Like the may other out-of-state candidates who trek to Hollywood, it didn’t matter that Warren was running for senate from Massachusetts. “Everyone knows that 100 senators work for each of us,” Lear says. “Those people were there because they care about the direction this country is taking.”

From the outside, this division between corporate and individual political giving makes it no less influential. Last week, Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Assn., went on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” and complained of the “phenomenal amount of money” coming from content industries to Judiciary Committee members, who favor the antipiracy bill that many in the tech community oppose. But he also suggested that the individual motivations of Silicon Valley donors have little to do with that industry, just as in showbiz as a whole. “The tech industry really isn’t that good at fundraising, frankly, and a lot of them vote on the basis of their social issues,” he said.

As altruistic and genuine as donors’ motivations may be, what can’t be ignored are the side benefits from engagement in the process, particularly for top fundraisers. Those come in the form of access, whether to a state dinner, placement on presidential commissions or mere face time with the president. Charles Rivkin and Nicole Avant, two industry executives who were co-chairs of Obama’s Southern California finance team in 2008, are now ambassadors to France and the Bahamas, respectively, joining
many other top fundraisers who landed such prized spots.

Given the cynicism that surrounds the political process, what is misunderstood is that Hollywood’s political engagement is more sophisticated symbiosis than a kind of crass political quid pro quo.

“Call it a capital investment,” he says, “You are not investing now to see an immediate return. You are investing just in case one day (you) may need a favor. People can be virtuous, but there may be a day where that virtuousness will be rewarded again.”

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