President Obama's visit to Hollywood to raise money this week comes as studio chiefs threaten to withhold support in the fallout over the White House response to anti-piracy bills in Congress. In my latest column for the print version of Variety, moguls are finding out that all of show biz doesn't fall in line when it comes to the industry's own self-interest.
When President Obama treks to Los Angeles — again — on Feb. 15, he'll be looking to convey the sense of a winner: Improved poll numbers and a brightening economy, as well as the bandwagon effect of a smattering of stars coming out in support. The Foo Fighters will be playing for him, and Will Ferrell is among the co-hosts of a high-dollar event at a posh Beverly Hills estate.
But even as the campaign tries to reignite enthusiasm of the last election cycle, there remains some dismay among the highest echelons of studio and media executives over the way the White House responded in mid-January to a pair of anti-piracy bills in Congress, stopped in their tracks after the administration criticized parts of the legislation amid an Internet-fueled e-mail storm of protest that flooded Capitol Hill to oppose the measures.
In the immediate aftermath, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd and some studio chiefs suggested that the industry wouldn't be as willing to step up to the plate and serve as a favorite campaign ATM if politicians weren't onboard to back Hollywood anti-piracy initiatives. In the days after the Internet blackout, Fox's Jim Gianopulos said, "I have been a very early and ardent supporter of the president, but I couldn't say at this time that I am very enthusiastic about providing support. If you went to Detroit and said, 'I think the Japanese build better cars,' I don't think you would feel a wellspring of support if, as a candidate for office, you went there for fund-raisers the next week."
As headline-making and attention grabbing as the Stop Online Piracy Act fracas was, what it has yet to do, and is unlikely to do, is realign the way that Hollywood has traditionally stepped up to the plate in the political process: There are the motivations at the corporate level, and there are those of the broader creative community. The former is generally more mindful of the industry's self-interest; the latter has a host of concerns and causes on which they will choose one candidate or the other.
This is not to say that studio anger isn't real: One Obama fundraiser said that became clear when he sent out queries to some in the upper studio ranks, and the response was an immediate no.
What particularly irked studio chiefs was that the administration appeared to buy in to the idea that the legislation as written would pose a threat to free speech, a prospect that the Hollywood lobbies have long argued is a fiction advanced by the Googles of the world to stir up grassroots opposition.
But in the days that followed the SOPA lather, high-ranking studio execs were especially irritated when Obama's reelection campaign sent out an e-mail trumpeting the White House's position, noting that the administration had taken a stand that they "will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet." "Folks spoke out on this issue — and President Obama listened," James Kvaal, national policy director for the campaign, wrote to supporters. Included was a link to a campaign petition gathering names to "stand with the president for a free and open Internet."
One high-level media executive who did not want to be named said that it was like salt in the wound, something that will not be easily glossed over in the months ahead.
But in the days that followed, it became immediately clear that if moguls were going to abandon Obama, they were going to be sitting it out rather than switching over to a Republican candidate friendlier to their concerns. All the 2012 contenders from the right came out against SOPA. (It also will take GOP front-runner Mitt Romney quite a while to catch up as concerns showbiz donations: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama has raised $1.2 million from biz sources to Romney's $152,900.)
Other influential figures, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, quickly made it clear that they were not backing away from Obama's campaign. And few if any star names, the ones who can really draw attention from the broader public, were willing to publicly express their dismay at either the White House or the way that the whole debate played out. On Jan. 18, the day of the Internet blackout, Obama was rasing money at the home of Spike Lee. As was noted at the event, Lee has been a critic of the president, but it hasn't been over SOPA.