The election of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris was already one for the history books, even before they were set to take office after the attempted coup on Jan. 6 orchestrated by their predecessor, Donald J. Trump. Biden and Harris received 81 million votes, more than any previous presidential ticket, and the California senator will be the first woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the White House. Now that Stacey Abrams’ heroic voter registration work in Georgia has delivered the Senate to the Democrats, Biden and Harris stand a chance of actually being able to govern for the next two years, something the country so desperately needs — as last week’s domestic terrorist attacks on Capitol Hill demonstrated.
They will be contending with historic and emergent problems: first and foremost, how to rescue the country from the coronavirus, and Trump’s incompetent and deadly response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 380,000 people in the United States. They will also have to contend with — and try to mend — a brutally divided country, one in which more than 74 million Americans voted for Trump, with many establishment Republicans enabling his efforts to upend the election. The racial reckoning of the late spring and summer put vital issues like police brutality and racism at the top of voters’ minds. Biden and Harris need to bolster the economy and save the small businesses that have been decimated during the pandemic. These are extraordinary times, and the pair will face an urgent first 100 days.
Biden and Harris ran an understated campaign. But now the stakes are life and death — literally. Their supporters in Hollywood are yearning for change and traumatized by the hatred, chaos and suffering precipitated by the Trump era. “Our next president has to clean up the mess from the past four years,” says director Lee Daniels, who lists the myriad issues that need to be addressed: “the pandemic, our economy, criminal justice, the Dreamers, care for the kids still at our borders, protections for LGBTQ, signing the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill into law, climate control, calming the hate, affordable health care …
“I could go on and on, but you got my point,” Daniels says. “Biden and Harris certainly have their hands full. I pray for them and the country every single day.”
Hollywood has traditionally enjoyed a cozy relationship with Democratic presidents. The last two — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — invited big movie stars to state dinners and rubbed shoulders with them in public and in private. But the Biden White House’s relationship with the entertainment community will undoubtedly be a shift, with much less glitz and glamour due to the perilous times and the ways in which the administration might enlist the industry to help reel the nation back from the apocalypse.
Tina Tchen, the president and CEO of Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation, who held several jobs in Obama’s White House, compares the disastrous state of the country Biden and Harris are inheriting with what the 2009 Obama administration faced: the Great Recession. “This pandemic and this crisis is multiples of what we experienced in ’09,” Tchen says. “And ’09 was bad.”
Many in Hollywood are hopeful that the new administration will be able to draw much needed attention to some vital issues.
Michael Lombardo, the president of global television at Entertainment One, has known Biden for years, and supported his 2020 candidacy when few in the industry did. Under Trump, Lombardo says, “it’s been an assault every day on that critical foundation for who we are as a people.” But he thinks Biden could be the antidote for that. “I think his morality, humanity and authenticity are rare,” Lombardo says. “After four years of what we’ve seen in Washington, all of those qualities are what we desperately need right now.”
Even though the work to be done is significant, Hollywood is rooting for Biden’s success — and applauding the expulsion of Trump from the White House. “The inauguration of Joe Biden restores my sense of hope for a better 2021,” Barbra Streisand tells Variety. “He and his team will work to halt the pandemic and rebuild the economy. He will also restore a sense of decency and dignity to the White House.”
Biden won’t be alone in the fight. Chrisette Hudlin, who along with Reginald Hudlin, her husband, are the Hollywood power couple who count Vice President-elect Harris as a best friend, tells Variety: “Kamala broke a glass ceiling by making history, not just now but several times in her career. We’ve seen powerful women like this in movies and TV shows, but Kamala is the real-life thing.”
In prior generations, stars and filmmakers could be counted on to help unite the country after tragedy, whether by making movies that celebrated workers during the Great Depression or fundraising in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the mood of the country has dramatically altered. There are few singular figures — not an Oprah Winfrey or even a Tom Hanks — who can speak to both Republicans and Democrats, a result of the bitter partisan divide that exists.
Those in the Biden White House will need to walk a fine line. If they deploy Hollywood in overt ways, they will be criticized for being out of touch. But on the 2020 trail, the campaign seemed to thread the needle perfectly. There was plenty of star wattage at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, which was hosted by Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross, Eva Longoria and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (not to mention virtual fundraisers with the casts of “Hamilton” and “The Avengers”). But these partnerships with movie stars didn’t become a predominant narrative, as was the case in 2016, when Clinton surrogates such as Katy Perry or Lena Dunham may have alienated some swing-state voters.
Biden could be more inclined to tap Hollywood’s “soft power” while steering clear of any ostentatious displays of wealth or celebrity. Look for Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden to sit on “The View’s” couch or read “mean tweets” with Jimmy Kimmel, something that Trump has avoided in favor of ridiculous call-ins or sit-downs with Fox News hosts. The Biden camp will likely see this kind of pop culture outreach as an opportunity to humanize the president and his wife, while also allowing them to push pet projects involving veterans or education. At the same time, the White House may be more selective in, say, attending glitzy premieres or vacationing on the Vineyard with Carly Simon and Ted Danson, as Bill Clinton and Obama were wont to do. Like a good lunch bucket populist, Biden keeps his summer home in Delaware’s tiny coastal town of Rehoboth Beach.
Many Beltway experts and insiders believe there will be a place for the entertainment industry to help push forward Biden and Harris’ agenda. “Times have changed, and the definition and importance of celebrities has evolved over the past four years, and they are better at raising awareness of underrepresented people,” says Matthew Hiltzik, the former Miramax executive who runs the New York consulting firm Hiltzik Strategies (and represented a pre-White House Ivanka Trump). “It’s a real opportunity.”
Biden and Harris were already planning a scaled-down inauguration due to the coronavirus. But after the insurrection last week, which led to multiple deaths, they’ll be sworn in on Jan. 20 in what’s expected to be a smaller ceremony. Lady Gaga will perform the national anthem, as Variety exclusively reported, and Jennifer Lopez is also set to sing. That night, there will be a primetime TV special, “Celebrating America,” hosted by Hanks with performances from Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, Bon Jovi and Ant Clemons. The administration could similarly enlist celebrities to help get the word out about the rollout of the COVID vaccines, which has been hampered by Trump spending all his remaining time in office spreading conspiracy theories about nonexistent voter fraud rather than instituting federal vaccination guidelines.
“There’s a level of competence that’s been lost in government,” says Broderick Johnson, the co-CEO of Alcon Entertainment. “It can’t be underestimated how impactful that is. Fundamentally, it’s problematic to put people in charge of agencies that don’t believe in the mission of the agency.”
Obama and Clinton were so telegenic they might have been television stars — and Trump literally was one. But Biden has his own direct line to Hollywood. In 2016, at the end of his second term as vice president, he received a standing ovation at the 88th Academy Awards, where he appeared onstage, asked viewers to help end sexual assault on campus and introduced Lady Gaga’s performance of the nominated song “Til It Happens to You.” Reginald Hudlin, who produced that telecast, remembers getting the request from Biden and how it ended up being a “great moment in the show.”
It was a unique pairing of Hollywood with an administration project, Hudlin continues. “I spoke to President-elect Biden the night of his election victory speech, and he remembered the specific statistics of how successful that initiative was.”
Chris Dodd, the retired Connecticut senator and former chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, says that when it comes to the entertainment industry, Biden will look out for the blue-collar crew who make up the backbone of the 2.1 million workers in film and TV. “A lot of those jobs are middle-income jobs,” says Dodd, who has been friends with Biden for 40 years. “The overwhelming work in the industry is behind the camera. Joe understands that. He’ll be an ally for the industry.”
Jim Gianopulos, the chairman of Paramount Pictures, recalls a conversation he had with Biden about how films are made. “He expressed his love of movies,” Gianopulos says, “and mentioned that when he watched the credits at the end he was impressed by the range of jobs and the many people it took to achieve the result on the screen.”
During the 2020 campaign, the list of bundlers — those who raised more than $100,000 — for the Biden-Harris ticket included many studio chiefs, among them Gianopulos, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chief Donna Langley, Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman, Netflix head of original films Scott Stuber and former Quibi honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. Biden has formed relationships with many of these executives because of his decades-long work on Capitol Hill helping studios distribute their movies in China and fighting piracy.
There even have been rumors that Katzenberg or Walt Disney Co. executive chairman Bob Iger could receive an ambassadorship, although insiders insist that Katzenberg isn’t interested, nor was he ever asked. A representative for Iger declined to comment.
Walt Disney Studios chief creative officer Alan Horn, who along with his wife, Cindy, have been devoted backers of Democratic candidates and causes, says: “It’s no secret that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have garnered wide support in Hollywood, and personally, my support comes from their positions on issues I care about, such as climate change. They are well aware of the backing they have in the entertainment industry, and I think that affection is mutual, so without a doubt the relationship will be a much better one than the past few years.”
For the new administration, Hollywood can play a valuable role in terms of messaging, as Tchen witnessed during her tenure as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Citing the celebrity involvement in the then-first lady’s Let’s Move! campaign, as well as her appearances on “Parks and Recreation” and “NCIS,” Tchen says, “You want celebrities and creative folks to be involved because they know how to tell stories.”
“President Obama, Mrs. Obama and I believe the Biden-Harris team also understands this — you have to reach people where they’re at. They’re not all watching cable news,” Tchen continues. “They’re watching Netflix; they are watching YouTube; they are watching HGTV or ‘Ellen’ or the ‘Red Table.’ You’ve got to go where people are watching and get your message across.”
The Biden-Harris agenda also squarely converges with that of Time’s Up when it comes to caregiving, one of the nonprofit’s top priorities. A cornerstone of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which he hopes to implement in his first 100 days, involves supporting caregivers and building an infrastructure that will pay them more and bring them into the formal economy. Tchen says she first heard about the caregiving crisis from Time’s Up members who wanted to prioritize the issue. “That’s why it’s a priority for Time’s Up — it’s what keeps women out of the workplace and from succeeding in the workplace,” she says. “And I think that’s going to be a real intersection of support.”
Tanya Somanader, Crooked Media’s chief content officer and another Obama White House alum, says that Hollywood activists learned from 2016’s mistakes. With the help of organizations such as Crooked’s Vote Save America, Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight and Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, the industry shifted from gimmicky endorsements and being a cash register to promoting capacity building — helping local communities get the resources they need to help themselves. “If you’re talking about Georgia and your entire audience is in California, who cares?” Somanader says. “You just look like a celebrity who’s being unhelpful.”
Instead, working with celebrities like Ariana Grande and Kerry Washington on messaging in targeted and specific ways — as Vote Save America did — appears to have worked. “People would use their brands to make sure that information lived on their platform,” Somanader adds. “That was a real shift, and a good one.”
Of course, if Biden and Harris can set the country back on the right path, their first term could lead to a new era of economic prosperity. “By and large, and for all the right reasons, we rejected the Trump administration, its cruelties and its policies,” says veteran producer Sean Daniel. “The country is in crisis. We want our dreams returned and we are the dream factory, so we must show up for this act.”
Once people can gather in public again, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — or #nerdprom, as it’s affectionately called — could be back in full force. The annual gala has become far less starry, and practically obsolete, because no celebrities wanted to be seen dining in the same room as Trump (who refused to attend anyway).
Four years ago, the comedian Chelsea Handler led the protests at the Women’s March at the Sundance Film Festival as one of the voices of the resistance. On a recent phone call, she explains how she feels now. “I don’t think ‘excited’ is the right word,” Handler says. “I’m confident. I’m optimistic.” When asked about Harris becoming the first woman vice president, Handler says: “It means that every single little girl in the nation can wake up and see that’s a possibility.”
Harris will no doubt be offered countless appearances on talk shows, magazine covers and other viral cameos. She’s already followed former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama in appearing on the cover of Vogue. (Twitter torched the magazine for the cover image. “The selected photo is determinedly unfancy,” wrote Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times’ chief fashion critic. “Kind of messy. The lighting is unflattering.”) Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, the first “second dude,” is an entertainment lawyer, now on leave, with his own connections to the industry. As for the first family, look for the profiles of some of the seven Biden grandchildren — including Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy and Natalie, who all appeared at the Democratic National Convention — to continue to rise beyond their Instagram accounts.
CAA agent Craig Gering, who represents Chris Pine, Denis Villeneuve and many other creatives, says that for the past four years “there has not been as much traffic” between the entertainment industry and the White House “as I think we were all used to.” Gering represented both Bidens from January 2016 — “when there was no intention of his running for president,” Gering says — until April 2019, when Biden threw his hat in the ring.
The ice has started to thaw. Biden and Harris have yet to take office, but Gering — who has also represented Harris and Susan Rice — is already hearing from his Hollywood clientele, who want to help with “whatever initiatives or agendas the administration may want to highlight, promote, megaphone or what have you,” he says. “And we are standing ready to make matches.”
The industry will be waiting to see what roles it can play. “The Obama administration had an open mind about aligning with artists,” says Chrisette Hudlin. “Between Biden having been there to experience that and Kamala being a fan of the arts, if they want to expand on those relationships, they would be welcomed.”
Jazz Tangcay, Brent Lang and Clayton Davis contributed to this story.