Obama's $500,000 Power Couple
Ted Sarandos and Nicole Avant just made the top tier of Obama "bundlers," raising more than half a million dollars in one night. A second term for the president is just one of their goals.
But Hollywood's fund-raising landscape has changed dramatically during the past four years. Major donors like Geffen have held back; others have changed their approaches. Norman Lear, who financed a major registration campaign among young voters in 2008, is initiating independent efforts to re-elect the president rather than contributing directly to the campaign.
Super PACs, big news during the Republican primaries, are shifting things on the Democratic side, too. Bill Maher sent his million-dollar donation to the super PAC Priorities USA, headed by the president's former spokesman Bill Burton. That's the same organization used by Katzenberg, who kicked off the local presidential fund-raising campaign in April 2011 and made a $2 million contribution to the PAC in July.
Changes have occurred as well within the campaign, which is more structured locally than it was in '08. By the time Avant returned from Nassau, local fund-raising was being led by the DNC's new Southern California co-chairs, Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon and former Hillary Clinton supporter John Emerson, head of investment management company Capital Group.
And so, when there was talk that Avant -- with her own channels to the White House -- might be given a title and become a full-time liaison between Obama and Hollywood, there was a ripple of consternation among those already on the ground. It didn't help that the hard-driving Avant has been known to ruffle organizational feathers.
"The truth is, she has a very bold personality," says one member of Obama's national finance committee. "In Hollywood terms, she sees herself as the lead, not as part of the ensemble."
Her headstrong style made waves during her ambassadorship as well. The State Department's inspector general issued a report of her two-year administration shortly after Avant resigned, criticizing her for frequent absences (she paid her own way to return to L.A. to see her husband and teenage stepchildren, a son and daughter from Sarandos' first marriage) and for not taking quick charge of the embassy's fractious staff -- some of whom referred to her, she says, as "the rich bitch from Hollywood." Because Avant was a political appointee -- nearly half of Obama's top 47 bundlers were rewarded with ambassadorships -- the report caused a minor stir in the U.S. media, though Avant's popularity and achievements were noted, particularly in furthering U.S. business interests and advancing opportunities for women. In the Bahamian press and among Avant's Washington associates, the report was dismissed. In an internal personnel report, she was praised for her "enthusiastic commitment to and talent for public diplomacy."
Still, with Thanksgiving approaching last year, Avant was in Nassau laboring under what she calls "a growing weight of guilt." Sarandos' mother had died, and his father had a stroke while she was there. It hurt, she said, "not to be there with Ted when he got the call about his mother." By Christmas, she'd returned home.
Avant admits that since returning to L.A., she has found it hard to find an emotional home in the campaign, which has evolved from a freewheeling, innovative movement for change into the stratified re-election organization that inevitably surrounds an incumbent president. As far as the larger re-election campaign, she says she will remain "involved in the way I want to be involved, but I'm not grinding anymore. It's just not the same as it was four years ago."
And with plans to produce documentaries and philanthropic efforts to improve the lot of African women, a favorite cause, Avant doesn't have the time she did before. But she's hardly getting out of the campaign.
"It's going to be a long race, and we all have work to do," says Sarandos. "The beauty of not having a title or an agenda or a paycheck is that Nicole can do this on her own terms. That's what she's doing." Two weeks after hosting Michelle Obama, Avant was among those who helped sell tickets to a Feb. 15 dinner at the Holmby Hills home of The Bold and the Beautiful producers Brad and Colleen Bell. Seats went for $35,800, and it pulled in more than $3 million for the president.
The afternoon grows late as Avant and Sarandos shuffle through photos she has pulled from a box. Of her ambassador stint, he says: "It wasn't like we were there because it was this cushy, glamorous post. Nicole went through some real soul-searching about whether to accept the appointment, and my advice to her was, 'When the president of the United States asks you to do something, you say yes.' "
Their separation was hard, but there were good days, too. On inauguration night, they were with Obama and a handful of inner-circle supporters at the White House.
Recalls Avant: "Charlie [Rivkin] and I were talking to a group of people, and we were so caught up in the moment that, all of a sudden, I said, 'Where's Teddy? Where did I leave Teddy?' " Then someone looks over at me and says, 'He's talking to the president.' I turn around, and he's standing there with Barack."
It's a scene they'd like to repeat in 2013.
BRIDGING D.C., HOLLYWOOD AND SILICON VALLEY: The Netflix executive and the Obama fund-raiser's web of business allies and friends makes them a unique power couple. (Affiliation noted for each)
- Harvey Weinstein: Has a PPV deal with Netflix; discussing holding an NYC Obama fund-raiser with the couple. (Sarandos/Avant)
- Anne Sweeney: Negotiated ABC's output deal with Netflix; Sarandos considers her a mentor and friend. (Sarandos)
- Haim Saban: Signed Power Rangers licensing deal with Netflix; works with both on political fund-raising. (Sarandos/Avant)
- Eli Roth: The director is creating the upcoming werewolf series Hemlock Grove for Netflix. (Sarandos)
- Leslie Moonves: Championed Netflix's CW output deal and agreements for CBS and Showtime content. (Sarandos)
- Mike and Irena Medavoy: Worked with Avant on Obama's 2008 run; the couple's first date included a screening at their house. (Avant)
- Ryan Kavanaugh: In 2010, signed an output deal with Netflix for Relativity's movie content, bypassing pay TV. (Sarandos)
- Jim Gianopulos: Negotiated with Netflix to distribute Fox movies and TV shows; talks to Sarandos daily. (Sarandos)
- David Fincher: Sarandos has ordered two seasons of the director's House of Cards at a cost of $100 million. (Sarandos)
- Robert De Niro: Sarandos was on Tribeca Film Festival advisory board; Avant had a part in De Niro-produced Wag the Dog. (Sarandos/Avant)
- Lawrence Bender: Introduced the couple at a dinner following an Obama fund-raiser in June 2008. (Sarandos/Avant)
- Jay Hoag: Netflix board; co-founder of VC firm Technology Crossover Ventures (Facebook, Zillow). (Sarandos)
- Reed Hastings: CEO of Netflix, Sarandos' boss; a fellow Democrat, Hastings has given the max to Obama in 2012. (Sarandos)
- Rich Barton: Co-founder and executive chairman of Zillow serves on the Netflix board. He's also a friend. (Sarandos/Avant)
- Barack and Michelle Obama: Avant and Sarandos are raising $500,000-plus; visited the White House for inauguration. (Sarandos/Avant)
- Harold Ford Jr.: Avant was the top hollywood fund-raiser during the Tennesseean's bid for Senate in '06. (Avant)
- Hillary Clinton: Avant reported to the secretary of state for two years as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. (Avant)
- Quincy Jones: Avant's godfather and a longtime business associate of her father, Clarence. (Avant)
- Tony Bennett: Sarandos produced a doc on the singer; Bennett performed in their backyard for charity. (Sarandos)
- Clarence Avant: Avant's father; owns music publishing companies; early mentor of L.A. Reid. (Sarandos)