Stars Speak Out on Trump, but Hollywood Executives Have Reasons to Stay Quiet

Donald Trump Sheryl Sandberg Jeff Bezos
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Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech was a rallying cry for other Hollywood figures to speak out in the era of Donald Trump — and there’s little doubt that many will follow.

But as the creative class looks for new ways to resist, showbiz’s executive suites are searching for crafty means to steer clear of criticism.

Studio chiefs and media moguls largely backed Hillary Clinton, but now they are finding value in keeping their words measured and mouths shut.

The tone is definitely different.

During the primary, the Walt Disney Co. found itself a target during a presidential debate, fueled by Trump’s attacks on the company for replacing Disney World workers with those who held H1-B guest worker visas. Now CEO Bob Iger has taken a spot on Trump’s “strategic and policy forum” — a bipartisan body that includes a few others who also backed Trump’s opponent.

Last summer, AT&T’s Republican chief lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, endorsed Clinton and warned that Trump would send the nation down a “very dark path.” He retired the month before AT&T and Time Warner reached a massive merger agreement — and very quickly Trump promised at a campaign stop that he’d block the deal — saying it would be “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” It didn’t help that Time Warner owned CNN, his frequent punching bag.

Since the election, though, there’s been a renewed mood on Wall Street that, Trump’s statements not withstanding, Republican control could actually mean a much more favorable climate for mega mergers. Asked at a December conference about Trump’s threats to “open up” libel laws, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said that what was “worrying me more” were the Democrats and their platform plank to overturn Citizens United — something that would alter the First Amendment in the “guise of campaign finance reform.”

Unmentioned were some of Trump’s not-so-veiled threats to go after companies like Amazon, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, who  also owns the Washington Post, which had delivered some unflattering coverage. Bewkes has since argued that his remarks were taken out of context, but his target of the Democrats was fortuitous timing: The next day he and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson were appearing before a Republican-controlled Senate hearing on the merger. It couldn’t hurt.

The entertainment industry is certainly not alone in hoping against hope to get in Trump’s good graces. Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, once vowed to boycott Trump properties and TV shows unless he apologized for his incendiary comments and dropped out of the presidential race. After he became president-elect, Shapiro has changed his tone, and has written about the “silver lining” of a Trump presidency. He cites the notion that the new administration will be good for business — rolling back regulation and lowering the corporate tax rate.

Studios, too, could reap benefits. As MPAA chairman Chris Dodd, himself a Clinton supporter, recently told Variety, a lowering of the corporate rate actually could convince Hollywood to shoot more movies in the United States.

The trouble is that as much as Trump may hold business-friendly policy promise, there’s also the Trump on Twitter. CEOs and their desire not to cross the president-elect are motivated by bottom-line possibilities but also fear. Trump may respond to say, an unflattering “Saturday Night Live” skit, and connect the dots into an attack on NBC’s corporate parent Comcast. “I think everyone has the same feeling…you don’t want to be on the end of one of those tweets,” says one studio executive.

Another lays out a scenario in which studios start to shy away from projects that take on Trump, for fear that they may become the target of his 140-character missives. “I suspect people will be more cautious, more aware of what they say,” says the exec.

The last time a Republican was in the White House, there were plenty of movies that gave an unflattering portrait of George W. Bush. He never really paid much attention to showbiz. Trump obviously does. And given that he’s already shown an affinity for slamming Boeing, General Motors and Toyota in his 140-character missives, how long until some of Hollywood’s corporate names end up in his crosshairs?