Obama's $500,000 Power Couple
This story originally appeared in the May 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
Billionaire mogul Haim Saban threw open his arms as he arrived to meet first lady Michelle Obama at the Beverly Hills home of Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and his wife of 2½ years, Nicole Avant, the newly returned U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.
"I'm here!" Saban announced to all within earshot of the no-press-allowed crowd of 135 -- a who's who of Hollywood political power players, including Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steve Bing, Harvey Weinstein and Mike and Irena Medavoy; Sarandos' boss, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; and Quincy Jones, Avant's godfather.
He's the man everyone in Hollywood wants a meeting with. She's a former music executive and actress and was a critical member of the L.A. campaign team that in 2008 brought in $21 million for Barack Obama, only $1.9 million shy of what the president's hometown, Chicago, raised. Now working together, Sarandos and Avant are among Los Angeles' most high-profile and talked-about power couples, a pair who bridge the worlds of technology, entertainment and politics like no one else in town.
Saban's entrance ended what he describes as a two-year "hiatus" from the Democratic fund-raising scene. The man who parlayed Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into a multibillion-dollar international empire has been one of the Democrats' largest Hollywood donors (from 2001 to 2003, hoping to put a Democrat in the White House, he gave the DNC $10.5 million). Now, on this Jan. 31 evening, less than two weeks after Obama sided with Silicon Valley -- and against the studios -- on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Saban was back in the fold.
"I want to start by thanking my dear friend, Ambassador Avant -- love, love saying that," the first lady remarked under twinkling white lights in the trees outside Sarandos and Avant's 1923 Monterey Colonial home, purchased for $5.41 million in December 2010 from fashion designer Max Azria. "She is a pretty phenomenal woman … so steadfast. And Ted, what a smart man. You all have a beautiful family. You all have been just such terrific friends. I can't thank you enough for your steadfast support and love."
Says Irena Medavoy of Sarandos and Avant, who until December had a long-distance marriage because of her ambassadorship: "Everyone comes out for them. You're talking about two people who really switch on the lights. It's just so fantastic to have her back and to see them working together."
Adds environmental activist Kelly Meyer, wife of Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer, when asked about Avant's fund-raising style: "I didn't realize until just now that she's pitched me before. She doesn't make it seem that way. She's really good at it. She makes it feel very inclusive, like, 'Let's all do this together, and it will be fun!' "
Before the night was done, Avant, 44, and Sarandos, 47, would raise nearly $700,000 for the president's re-election bid. This put the couple on the list of the Obama campaign's top-tier "bundlers," those who fund-raise more than $500,000. In 2008, Avant was one of only four Los Angeles bundlers to raise more than $500,000 for Obama (the others were Katzenberg; David Geffen, who appears to be sitting out this presidential cycle; and Charles Rivkin, the former CEO of Wildbrain Entertainment who is now ambassador to France). This time around, with six months to go before the election, the list of Los Angeles bundlers is already at more than a dozen. One of the most hotly anticipated events this season is the nearly sold-out $40,000-a-plate dinner on May 10 co-hosted by Katzenberg and George Clooney at the actor's Studio City home, which is projected to raise $4 million to $5 million, making it among the largest one-night presidential fund-raisers in history.
It's no secret that Hollywood's early love affair with Obama did not turn out as many had expected or hoped. In addition to SOPA, Obama's perceived compromises on the economy, environment and civil liberties have deflated enthusiasm. "You know," Matt Damon told Elle, "a one-term president with some balls who actually got stuff done would have been, in the long run of the country, much better." But Hollywood's long season of discontent seems to be ending thanks in part to Sarandos and Avant. And it's none too soon. Hollywood is to Democrats what Wall Street is to Republicans -- a deep well of cash that must be tapped if Obama wants to win in November.
Which is why many have been perplexed by the White House's on-again-off-again embrace of Hollywood celebrities. Unlike Bill and Hillary Clinton, Obama never seems quite at ease with West Coast glitz; his advisers seem conflicted over whether a close association with Hollywood makes sense with the populist tone they hope to strike.
For Saban, it took a one-on-one session with the president to turn the tide. "I will tell you that we had a very good meeting," says Saban of his Oval Office visit. "I relayed my concerns. In my mind, the president was very classy. He didn't ask me for anything. We just talked about policy, the economy and what's going on around the world. Basically, because of that meeting, I thought to myself that it was time to get active again."
And what better place to show his support than at the home of Avant and Sarandos? "My wife, Cheryl, and I socialize with Ted and Nicole," says Saban. "They are lovely, down-to-earth people. They're also truly a power couple. He has a significant power base in Hollywood, and she is very close to the White House."
In 2008, Sarandos was a Hillary Clinton supporter when his friend Lawrence Bender invited him to an Obama fund-raiser at the Music Center. Avant was one of the co-hosts. After the event, Bender asked her to join a small group at Ago restaurant to celebrate her success.
"I walked in to sit next to Lawrence," says Avant on a recent afternoon at home with Sarandos, "and he said, 'Oh, you know what, babe, why don't I put you in between me and my friend Ted?' There were about 10 other people at the table, and we spoke …"