Showbiz big in Schwarzenegger think tank

USC-based institute draws heavyweights for innovation panel

Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a new think tank at USC on Monday devoted to “post-partisanship,” and it’s clear that he intends to draw on Hollywood for his foray into academia.

The inaugural symposium of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy included a roster of policymakers and politicos, but also featured a panel devoted to innovation composed entirely of entertainment industry figures, including Schwarzenegger, Lionsgate co-chairman Rob Friedman, Imagine Entertainment chairman Brian Grazer, Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine and Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer.

The participation was significant in that moderator Ben Smith cited the growing influence of Silicon Valley not only as an economic engine but in politics. He noted that a recently released list of Obama campaign bundlers showed the tech industry outpacing Hollywood when it came to raising money.

Asked whether he was concerned about this, Meyer said, “They certainly have a lot more money than we do.”

But Meyer said “there’s a lot of advantages” for Hollywood in maintaining good relationships with Silicon Valley, as tech needs content.

“We just need to find a more symbiotic relationship,” he said.

Said Friedman, “It is symbiotic. There are just certain issues we don’t have in common, like piracy.”

Iovine said the industry shouldn’t be afraid to use its leverage in dealing with tech companies, even to the point of withholding content from sites like YouTube, in order to extract more favorable terms.

“We have to be smart about this now, not be intimidated, and build our own platforms,” Iovine said.

He pointed to his success launching Dr. Dre headphones, a venture inspired in part by the rampant piracy that was crushing the music industry. What he was able to do, he said, was to “market it though our culture, that we designed, that we built, that we control.”

While the movie business has learned lessons from the music realm, Meyer noted, a vexing problem is the changing nature of piracy. There’s also a difference in cultures that has bought the film business more time.

“People are used to getting music for nothing,” he said. “Movies are different.”

Friedman framed it this way: “Our ice cube is melting a lot slower than the music business.”

In a diversion from the topics at hand, Meyer was asked about “chatter” that plans are in the works for his retirement from U, a company he has led since 1995 through six different owners.

“I wouldn’t know what to do retiring,” said Meyer. “So no, I have no plans to retire.”

“I like what I am doing, and as long as they will have me, I can stay,” he added.

The panel inevitably focused on the role of entertainment in shaping political opinion, including on some of Schwarzenegger’s signature initiatives as governor, like climate change.

During the recession, public opinion may have tilted away from a sense of urgency on climate initiatives, but Schwarzenegger said that he held out hope that the power of movies could help draw attention, as it has in the past. He said there needs to be a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” perhaps with “different people who can jump in” and take on Al Gore’s role in making the case for action.

“The power of films and television is enormous,” Schwarzenegger said. “It is much more powerful than politicians could ever be” in convincing the public of a need to solve a problem.

He cited efforts in the 1970s to promote fitness. Despite endless studies and expert panels, it took “Saturday Night Fever” and the subsequent launch of the disco craze to get people off their feet, he noted. “All of the policy and debates couldn’t come close to the calorie counts that (disco) can burn off.”

Schwarzenegger’s institute will operate under the Sol Price School of Public Policy, with Bonnie Reiss as global director and Nancy Staudt as academic director. The former governor also will have a professorship. Schwarzenegger’s unlikely career trajectory was perhaps evident when USC president C.L. Max Nikias, delivering a glowing introduction, mistakenly said the bodybuilder-turned-thesp was once the winner of the Miss Universe contest.

Reiss indicated that the institute would cover the media’s role, as well as the impact of celebrity in drawing attention to issues and causes, as Sean Penn has done with Haiti, George Clooney with the Sudan and Brad Pitt with New Orleans.

Schwarzenegger has returned to acting with “The Expendables 2” and the upcoming “The Last Stand,” and he frequently promotes fitness on Twitter. So it was apparent through the daylong symposium that the institute will play a big role in carrying out Schwarzenegger’s legacy as governor, in particular efforts that he said required him to reach across the aisle or to challenge the status quo. He cited not just climate change but healthcare and redistricting reform.

At a morning panel, moderated by Cokie Roberts, Schwarzenegger appeared with three former governors — Tom Ridge, Bill Richardson and Charlie Crist — as well as former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and current Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona).

They all bemoaned the hyperpartisanship in Washington, and even the role that the media plays in delivering not so much what the public needs to know but what they want to know.

A bit provocatively, McCain also cited the influence of money on politics, singling out the Obama campaign and SuperPAC expenditures on negative ads over the past summer about Mitt Romney. Citing an estimate of $9 billion being spent overall this cycle, from both parties and interest groups, McCain predicted “major scandals” from all the money flowing in, and then new calls for reform.

While the institute will be dedicated to “action,” as Schwarzenegger said, perhaps the most urgent test for Washington will be the “fiscal cliff” looming, something that could send the economy into a new tailspin.