Jeffrey Katzenberg's Secret Call to Hillary Clinton: Hollywood's 2016 Support Assured
This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Several months ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg reached out to Hillary Clinton to assure her that if she runs for president in 2016, he will support her.
Katzenberg is one of Hollywood's premier political kingmakers and one of the Democratic Party's top national fundraisers, so the call had to be a welcome one. For Clinton, who failed to secure his support for her unsuccessful run at the Democratic nomination in 2008, it also was crucial.
Eight years ago, the bitter struggle between Clinton loyalists and Barack Obama disciples riveted Hollywood. It divided families, neighbors, business partners and friends. Nicole Avant, later President Obama's ambassador to the Bahamas, split with her father, music executive Clarence; her brother
Alex; and her godfather, Quincy Jones, all of whom went with Clinton (as did her future husband, Netflix's Ted Sarandos). Next-door neighbors Irena and Mike Medavoy (Obama) and Haim and Cheryl Saban (Clinton) found themselves on opposite sides of the fence. Clinton supporter Rob Reiner broke with his "second father," Norman Lear, an early Obama fan.
Even the DreamWorks troika split apart, with David Geffen and Katzenberg — a once-close supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton — siding with Obama, and Steven Spielberg straddling the fence, raising money for both.
This time, of course, is different. For most Democrats (and not just in Hollywood), Hillary 2016 is the only viable prospect in an increasingly contentious political climate where both parties likely benefit from the strongest brand name it can put forth. And Clinton, who has not yet announced whether she will run in 2016, will need Hollywood's deep pockets to help her amass the kind of war chest necessary to survive the Republican Party onslaught, where names from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are being floated as contenders.
In other words, Hollywood and Hillary need each other.
Katzenberg already is conveying the message both publicly and privately that he's committed to her. "She did an amazing job as secretary of state," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "She has really shown herself to be a great statesman. The four years of seasoning has really made her the best-qualified candidate out there today, and I'm happy to support her."
Katzenberg, according to a source close to him, was "favorably impressed" by Clinton during her phone call with him. As one of the biggest financial backers of the super PAC Priorities USA Action, which raised a war chest of $79 million and supported Obama in 2012, the DreamWorks Animation CEO is crucial not only for his money but also for his ability to mobilize others.
"The center of power in the Democratic Party in terms of money really has moved to Katzenberg," says one top national Democratic strategist. "The most important person you should get is Jeffrey. He should be her No. 1 priority."
A close No. 2? Geffen. His brutal 2007 assessment of the Clintons to Maureen Dowd in The New York Times now is infamous; in Dowd's column, he called Hillary "incredibly polarizing" and cited the "ease" with which they lie. Fast-forward, however, to July, when the now-reclusive mogul told Fortune that he would "absolutely" support Clinton for president. (Geffen did not respond to THR's request for further comment.)
Top music manager Irving Azoff (a self-described "Hillary loyalist from the start") sees a Hollywood pragmatism at work. "A lot of people in Hollywood are not 100 percent thrilled with Obama and think we need a more centrist Democrat," he says. "The Clinton brand of the Democratic Party has been the most successful in what? Fifty years? Why wouldn't people return to that?"
And they are. In droves. Clues to the will-she-or-won't-she question might begin to be revealed Oct. 30, when Hillary is scheduled to attend a luncheon fundraiser at billionaire Haim Saban's Beverly Hills home for Virginia gubernatorial candidate and longtime Clinton loyalist Terry McAuliffe. Tickets to the event cost $15,000 a person or $25,000 a couple. Later that evening, Clinton is expected to headline a gala at the Beverly Wilshire hotel for Oceana, a key cause for Ted Danson, a longtime supporter.
She'll be back in early November to be honored by the Mexican American Leadership Initiative at a USC gathering. Meanwhile, on Nov. 11 in New York, Clinton will be honored by Malaria No More, a group co-founded by media mogul and longtime Clinton supporter Peter Chernin.
For now, the town's Democratic fundraisers are not taking meetings with any other presidential hopeful as they wait for Clinton's decision, says UTA managing director Jay Sures, another early Obama supporter. "Hollywood in general likes to place their money on the winner," says Sures, "and when there is a clear-cut leader, people will think twice about making donations to candidates they don't think have a shot."
And in this reconciliation, both sides potentially will end up winning.
In 2012, Hollywood donated $6.5 million directly to Obama's re-election campaign, plus millions more to Democratic Party committees and super PACs. "There's going to be so much money amassed against her, she's going to have to take the funds wherever she can get them," says longtime Clinton friend and Designing Women producer Harry Thomason. That's inescapable, he adds, even though getting cash from the entertainment industry sometimes can be a mixed blessing. In Clinton's case, opponents could actually exploit the attacks of those who had previously turned on her — notably Geffen. "It's sort of a two-for-one," Thomason says. "You get to punish the candidate and you get to punish Hollywood."
Clinton's resurgent influence recently was seen when Academy Award-winning documentary director Charles Ferguson dropped plans for a Hillary Clinton film after her friends and associates made it clear they would never speak to him because the Clintons didn't want them to. A planned NBC miniseries was canceled after protests from the GOP, though it is very likely the Clintons opposed it, too, for the possible salacious content.
To put it plainly, the romance is back on.
Of course, a few bumps could pop up along the way. There's the question of whether Joe Biden throws his hat in the ring. "There is only one other person who could be a serious candidate, and that's Vice President Biden," says one longtime senior Hollywood politico. "He has relationships in the industry, but none as deep and as long-lasting as Hillary's. I don't know anyone who dislikes him, certainly since he's been vice president. But if Hillary runs, the town is likely to be — unlike they were in the last contested primary — united around her."
And it's always possible that a candidate to the political left of Clinton could appeal to the most liberal elements of Hollywood. "Looking across the cast of characters, she's far and away the best," says Lear. "Unless Elizabeth Warren were running, and I don't think that's going to happen." He goes on to muse, "Hillary as president with Elizabeth [in her cabinet] — that would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. … I think people [in Hollywood] feel very good about Hillary. She'd be far and away my choice."
It's a radical 180 from 2007. As Hillary Clinton prepared to launch her campaign then, it seemed reasonable that she could count on Hollywood to deliver big for her. After all, no president and first lady ever had enjoyed closer ties and deeper support in the film, television and music businesses than Bill and Hillary. What the Clintons hadn't reckoned on was just how strongly Obama's personal story, message and the excitement generated by the prospect of electing the first black president would grip some of Hollywood's leading Democratic activists.
One of the first major players to abandon Hillary was Katzenberg, despite him having been a close Clinton ally when Bill was in the White House as president. An associate says it was nothing personal — he simply felt that 2008 would be a year of change, and Obama represented that. In February 2007, he banded with his former DreamWorks partners — Spielberg and Geffen — to host the industry's first big fundraiser for the then-Illinois senator. The invitation to the Beverly Hilton event brought curiosity seekers, such industry people as Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer and Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Brad Grey as well as headlines like one on the ABC News website: "Hillary's Hollywood Friends Switch Sides."
As the increasingly bitter primary campaign dragged on, even Clinton's most loyal Hollywood supporters were dismayed by her conventional, top-down-driven campaign. The operation's dysfunction was well chronicled by the media nearly from day one and accelerated the defections to Obama's technologically superior operation. Bitter disagreements between her deputies became public, and her top deputies were shuffled. Worse, Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary to that of Jesse Jackson's victories in previous campaigns angered African-Americans as a thinly veiled attempt to marginalize Obama as a black candidate with limited appeal. Hillary Clinton never recovered with black voters.
The stigma of that poorly run campaign — led by longtime Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Penn until he was forced to resign — remains a serious concern for some key supporters of Clinton. But, says the Democratic operative, "She, in their eyes, has handled herself with grace and served Obama loyally, which many of them never imagined she could do."
Adds the operative: "She ran such a crappy campaign, but they are looking not at the woman who ran this terrible campaign but the woman who ran the State Department really well. She is not the long-suffering wife of Bill Clinton, and she's not the person who ran a terrible campaign but this
loyal Obama ally who ran this really big agency competently."
Raising the quality of her ground game and adopting the social media effort Obama's handlers perfected in two general elections is key, say supporters.
"Obama raised the bar," says industry political consultant Andy Spahn. "There isn't anyone you would talk to who wouldn't say whoever runs for president needs to build on Obama's success."
Among the new-generation power brokers likely to form Hillary Clinton's Hollywood cabinet are CAA agent and former Clinton aide Michael Kives and UTA's Sures. By this time in the 2008 election, invitations to fundraisers for Clinton, Obama and a handful of other Democratic hopefuls were humming across the Internet from La Brea to the Palisades. In 2011, the town was abuzz with excitement at the possibility of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who made at least two trips to Los Angeles to raise money for his 2014 gubernatorial campaign — running for president in 2016. But all that has faded as the Waiting for Hillary game continues.
Of course, all of this depends on whether Clinton decides to make another run for the White House. It might seem like a foregone conclusion that she will, but, says the national Democratic strategist, "It's not 1,000 percent sure." On Nov. 8, 2016, Election Day, she will be 69 years old. "What I worry about is her health, the grind," says Azoff.
But few of her supporters believe she will pass up the opportunity to break through what she called, when she conceded the nomination to Obama in 2008, the "highest, hardest glass ceiling."
Says veteran Hollywood political consultant Donna Bojarsky: "She is going through her own internal decision-making process to decide what she really wants. People are hopeful she will do it. There's a readiness for it. This is a historic moment. Women, especially, want to see this in their lifetime.
"In 2008, everyone was talking about Clinton fatigue. It will have been eight years of Obama. That's a long time to get over any fatigue."
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