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 …"
"Like no one else was in the room," finishes a delighted Sarandos as they sit at their huge dining-room table. Many of the eclectic pieces in their newly remodeled home come from the L.A. showroom of White House decorator Michael Smith. Finally living together after 2½ years of marriage, the two act like newlyweds, ending each other's sentences, laughing at each other's jokes.
"We connected on everything …" says Sarandos.
"Politics, movies …" Avant responds.
"… religion, race. We talked about all the stuff you're not supposed to talk about at a dinner party," Sarandos says. "I had just seen Medicine for Melancholy, and there was a line in the movie that stuck in my head about an interracial couple who said, 'How can two people get along if they see almost everything through different lenses, almost every interaction?' So I asked her what she thought of that."
Avant, relaxed in a colorful long silk patio dress with her arms bare -- when she dresses up, she usually wears Oscar de la Renta -- says she remembers replying: " 'Black people have been studying white people for a long time. We understand the psychology of race and that we are not actually that different.' What gets overlooked is that the things we have in common so far outnumber our differences. Everybody wants to focus on the 10 things we don't have in common instead of the 90 things we do."
Adds Sarandos, "We found we had an incredible mutual respect for one another, and when we didn't agree, we both had points of view that fascinated the other."
Strangely, Netflix was something they didn't initially have in common. "I didn't know what he did," says Avant, "and when I talked about how I loved all the old Miramax films, I told him how I loved going to my local Blockbuster, standing in the foreign film section and choosing movies at random. His face kind of dropped, and he said: 'Blockbuster? Really?' "
Sarandos told Avant he worked for Netflix. "And I said: 'Oh, that thing that you send through the mail? I don't have that,' " she recalls. "He said, 'We're going to go into streaming,' and I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.' When we started getting serious, I cut up my Blockbuster card and gave it to him for Valentine's Day. He still carries it in his wallet."
Sarandos, with his unique acquisitions position at Netflix, the world's largest film licensee, straddles the worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. At a time when the Internet's potential bedazzles the entertainment industry as much as Internet piracy bedevils it, he is amassing the power of any network or studio chief. Despite the recent news of Netflix's first posted quarterly loss in seven years, the company expects to add 7 million streaming subscribers in 2012. It already has 26.5 million. Sarandos' pay went from $2.4 million in 2010 to $4.9 million in 2011. He not only is on a tear with big-ticket orders for original series (he ponied up $100 million for two seasons of David Fincher's House of Cards without even seeing a pilot) and bringing back old ones (Arrested Development) but has helped smooth ruffled feathers with studio heads after the SOPA debacle. And with Avant's support, he has become a committed political donor. He gave $30,000 to the DNC in May 2011 and maxed out with $2,500 in donations to Obama's primary and general election campaigns.
It's a long way from suburban Phoenix -- Goldwater country -- where Sarandos grew up in a middle-class family of Democrats. His first experience with politics was an unsuccessful run for a spot as a Gary Hart convention delegate in 1984.
Avant, by contrast, was raised in Beverly Hills surrounded by entertainment and political elites. Her father, former Motown chairman Clarence Avant, was one of the first black entertainment executives to take an active role in electoral politics. He was an early supporter of L.A.'s first black mayor, Tom Bradley, and in 1973 made a critical $26,000 personal contribution -- a huge sum at the time -- to the candidate's first successful campaign. He also was a loyal Hillary Clinton backer in 2008. When his daughter -- who majored in broadcasting at Cal State Northridge and went to work after college managing her dad's music catalog -- famously broke ranks with him to become one of Hollywood's earliest and most fervent Obama supporters, he told her: "You're a grown woman; you can make your own decision. But once you get on board with someone, stick with them. Don't flip-flop."
Sarandos, like so many teens from outside L.A. or New York, made TV and movies his window to the wider world. But it wasn't easy. "If you wanted to see an art house film or documentary, there was just one theater out by Arizona State University," he says. As a journalism major there, Sarandos read out-of-state newspapers, particularly for reviews and features about the people making movies. "Then I went into a video store in '83 -- literally only the second video store in the state -- and there were all these movies I had been reading about. That's when I started to learn. I met the owner and started working there part time."
Sarandos dropped out of school to oversee the owner's growing chain of rental outlets and graduated to running a national video-rental business. In 1999, he met Netflix founder Hastings, a fellow Democrat; a year later, he joined the company as chief content officer and moved to L.A.
Under Sarandos' watch, Netflix has become an increasingly important portal through which Hollywood's product can reach audiences.
"Our original-content strategy is driven by a belief that networks and cable channels will evolve to be more like web channels," says Sarandos, known for his low-key personal style. "If that turns out to be true, they will want to monetize their content themselves and be less likely to license their content to us. Look at HBO Go. I want to get good at original programming before they get good at direct-to-consumer relationships, delivery technology, device distribution, encoding and personalized user interface. … Between those two, I think I have the easier list of things to tackle."
As is often the case with digital innovators, it's unclear to many whether Netflix's impact on the distribution of Hollywood product will be constructively transformational or dislocatingly revolutionary. "Everyone was worried about how these things would interact with each other," Sarandos says, "but when any kind of entertainment technology takes hold, it always expands the pie, and people are willing to spend more time and money on entertainment if it's good. But the great proof point was YouTube. For me, that was like the 'aha moment.' It had to be click-and-watch, simple, and that's how we built the Netflix product."
Fox chief Jim Gianopulos, whose response to Obama's stand on SOPA was one of the most sharply negative among studio executives, says he considers Sarandos a close friend. "He is the one that's driving Netflix's migration to the Internet," Gianopulos says. "Ted and Netflix are a bridge to bring the tech community and the content community together. Allowing piracy to run rampant would undermine their very existence."
Says Sarandos: "We have to craft a solution that Silicon Valley and Hollywood can come together over. I always feel like the studios get a bad rap about being technophobes, but how can you say that about the guys who are making Avatar?"
Still, he tells studio execs: "Look, if Silicon Valley crafted a censorship bill, and you had no input, the first thing you'd try to do is kill it. So let's come together and figure out the answer. I think holding the president accountable for the bad drafting of SOPA is not productive. He is supportive of Hollywood on piracy; he just wasn't on SOPA, and we need to do a better job of distinguishing those things from one another."
Despite SOPA's failure, says Gianopulos, "All my closest friends want to do everything we can to make sure our president gets re-elected."
Gianopulos isn't the only one to mix politics and business with Sarandos. Last summer, Saban and Sarandos worked out a deal that made all 700-plus episodes of Saban's Power Rangers franchise available for streaming on Netflix. "They are innovative, aggressive content creators," says Saban. "I don't know anybody who doesn't want to work with Netflix."
On Feb. 21, The Weinstein Co. announced a multiyear deal to make many of its titles (including best picture Oscar winner The Artist) available exclusively on Netflix after their theatrical runs and DVD releases. Separately, Avant and Sarandos are talking with Harvey Weinstein about joining to hold a New York event for Obama. "I'd love to do something with Ted and Nicole," says Weinstein, who has bundled more than $500,000 for the president this election cycle.
When Avant returned from her Bahamas post, many assumed she would pick up where she had left off after the 2008 campaign. Four years ago, Avant was involved in every major Southern California fund-raiser, including the $9 million Barbra Streisand concert and Greystone Mansion dinner and the gathering at Oprah Winfrey's Montecito, Calif., estate.
"She broke new ground, raising money from areas of L.A. that were previously neglected," says Matthew Barzun, national finance chairman for Obama's re-election campaign. "She was a huge source of energy and a charismatic leader."
Says Avant: "I went for the people who had been overlooked. I didn't want it to be just about the entertainment industry. I sought out businesspeople, lawyers, investors, artists, philanthropists -- anyone who wanted to be involved."
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)
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