The White House is asking Hollywood to rally ’round the flag in a style reminiscent of the early days of World War II.

Network heads and studio chiefs heard that message Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with emissaries from the Bush administration in Beverly Hills, and committed themselves to new initiatives in support of the war on terrorism.

These initiatives would stress efforts to enhance the perception of America around the world, to “get out the message” on the fight against terrorism and to mobilize existing resources, such as satellites and cable, to foster better global understanding.

The possibility of fostering short films that would present information about anthrax or other terrorist scenarios was also discussed at the meeting.

A spokesman for the White House emphasized that the meeting represented an initial step leading toward formation of an “arts and entertainment task force” that would link the White House and the entertainment community. “We need to tap into the creativity and energy of this community,” said one White House official who asked not to be quoted by name.

The White House has been quietly stepping up its contacts with Hollywood on several fronts. There have been screenings of studio films, “celebrity encounters” with the likes of Mel Gibson and sessions devoted to Hispanic TV and film.

While endorsing White House objectives, some of those attending the meeting, speaking off the record, said they found it somewhat unfocused. “They’re talking about setting up committees, but we’re ready to get into action,” said one executive. “This is show business. We get things faster. We’re way ahead of them.”

Attendees roster

Among those attending the meeting were Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Original Programming; Colin Callender, president of HBO Films; Sally Field; Leslie Moonves, president and CEO, CBS Television; Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime; Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. TV; Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences; and Craig Haffner, CEO of Greystone.

Among the principal organizers of the session were attorney Bruce Ramer, and writer-director Lionel Chetwynd, both of whom have been active in the Republican cause. However, both emphasized that the session was entirely nonpartisan.

Representing the Bush administration were Chris Henick, deputy assistant to the president, and Adam Goldman, associate director, office of public liaison.

The White House emissaries were careful to avoid suggestions that any form of propaganda films would be fostered by the new task force or that any effort was being made to influence the point of view of filmmakers.

“The key point is that people, important people, are stepping forward wanting to help, and we want to channel those energies,” said one official. “This is about marshaling resources.”

No head of the task force has as yet been named, he said, but that is under active discussion. Meanwhile, Henick and Goldman emerged as the White House point men on this initiative.

More meetings

The next step, Ramer suggested, was to schedule further meetings in smaller groups and to settle on specific initiatives. This course of action stirred impatience among some of those attending. “I wanted them to be more specific about how we can help,” said one executive who attended the meeting.

Another executive said the session reminded him of the government’s out-reach to Hollywood at the start of World War II.

In 1941 when war broke out, industry executives also were summoned to emergency meetings. Night shooting was summarily canceled and studio officials were warned to be on alert for “foreign agents” in their midst, with extra guards promptly stationed at studio gates.

Stars as well as below-the-line employees lined up at enlistment stations and filmmakers such as Frank Capra applied for suitable wartime jobs.

Theater business was down by as much as 50% as air-raid sirens sounded on both coasts during the first week after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Within weeks, however, movie attendance was booming again with escapist fare as and array of movies carrying “positive” war messages were readied for production along the lines of “This is the Army.”

On the other hand, RKO’s “Call Out the Marines” was canceled because a few jokes were directed at the armed services. Documentaries along the lines of “Why We Fight” were mobilized (it was made by Capra for the Army Signal Corps).

Within a month of Pearl Harbor, “Wake Island” and “Torpedo Boat” were greenlit, tunes about the armed services were thrown into musicals like “Holiday Inn,” and the titles for several completed films were changed to resonate the war theme. Hence “Message From Main Street” became “Main Street on the March” and “Midnight Angel” became “Pacific Blackout.”

Those attending Wednesday’s meeting don’t expect a scenario that parallels 1941, however.