This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When the credits roll Nov. 20 on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom at the Kennedy Center, they could end not only the biopic’s second Washington screening but also a practice some believe has made Barack Obama a pawn in the Academy Awards race.
Ever since Steven Spielberg showed Lincoln at the White House in 2012, the president has been bombarded with pitches from awards contenders carrying lofty social messages. With some in Hollywood grumbling that Weinstein Co. films like Mandela have received attention because Harvey Weinstein is an Obama fundraiser, sources tell THR that White House officials are planning to scale back the number of “official” screenings. “After Mandela, that’s it,” says a person familiar with the plan, citing a reluctance to involve Obama in Oscar politics.
The White House has had a two-track film policy. In most cases, studios simply are asked to provide prints, via the MPAA, so the first family can view movies privately. Filmmakers also are allowed to request that the president host an official screening in the East Wing theater. The latter showings, which have been granted to 42, The Help and the doc Bully, often are accompanied by Obama remarks and a filmmaker discussion that can help add gravitas to a film competing for attention.
For the Nov. 7 Mandela screening, guests included Weinstein and wife Georgina Chapman, stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, Mandela’s daughters and Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. The second Kennedy Center screening will include remarks by former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell.
Recently, 12 Years a Slave filmmakers privately have questioned why Obama has not officially screened their film, a seemingly odd omission for an acclaimed drama steeped in U.S. history. Distributor Fox Searchlight’s hopes were raised when the White House requested a print, which some thought foretold an “official” screening.
Searchlight is downplaying an Oval Office snub. “We were requested to send a print to the White House, and we did,” says executive vp marketing Michelle Hooper. Director Steve McQueen declined comment. “If you look at the films they do invite for the big event screenings, it’s obvious you can buy your way into the White House,” scoffs another exec on Slave. “We were not big donors to Obama. Do we wish they would have us? Of course. But it’s not that important.”
True, even Weinstein’s Silver Linings Playbook received a boost when director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper were invited to the White House to discuss mental health with Joe Biden. But Weinstein doesn’t always get his way. His Lee Daniels’ The Butler failed to get an official screening. Much, however, was made of the fact that Obama told interviewers that the film brought “a tear to my eye.”