Hollywood's D.C. Spin Doctor on Why Politicians Matter for Oscar, 'Noah's' Success and His 'Madam Secretary' Role
Michael Feldman, founding partner/managing director of communications consulting firm The Glover Park Group (and Mr. Savannah Guthrie), opens up about what the studios don't understand about Washington and why more political movies are getting made
This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Michael Feldman's cluttered Washington office looks like a Hollywood executive's crash pad, complete with power ties and white shirts draped over a hat rack and movie posters lining the walls. It's actually the base from which Feldman, founding partner of the 150-employee, four-office communications consulting firm The Glover Park Group, has carved out a unique niche giving studios and filmmakers marketing advice for topical and controversial movies and TV shows. He has worked behind the scenes promoting such hot-button projects as Noah, Captain Phillips, An Inconvenient Truth, Fahrenheit 9/11 and the new CBS political drama Madam Secretary. And increasingly, Feldman helps lend gravitas to (and deflect controversies from) such films as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty during Oscar campaigns. After serving as Vice President Al Gore's traveling chief of staff, Feldman, 45, now uses his political savvy to help Hollywood clients shape messaging via issues-based media and influential journalists. "Studios are very savvy about understanding not just D.C. but also elite media and columnists," says Feldman, a Philadelphia native and Tufts graduate. "They've come to realize that mainstream news organizations use films as a hook to talk about things that are wider or bigger." Feldman, married in March to NBC's Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie (who gave birth in August to daughter Vale), splits his time between Washington and New York. He sat down with THR to explain his role in how Hollywood is perceived in Washington and around the world.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006), starring Feldman's old boss Gore, was among the first movies Feldman worked on.
How did you decide to carve out the niche as Hollywood's PR guy in D.C.?
It really all began with An Inconvenient Truth. We were working with Al Gore at the time on a bunch of things related to his environmental advocacy and his slideshow about global warming. We were experimenting with ideas of how to get it off of his laptop and out into the public domain when Laurie David, Lawrence Bender and others came up with the idea of making a film.
How did you help with the campaign for the movie?
A documentary about a former vice president giving a slideshow about a complicated scientific phenomenon doesn't exactly scream "box-office success." But it was embraced early by some nonentertainment columnists who made it a must-see, important film [that grossed $50 million worldwide]. That and a savvy marketing campaign [by Paramount] helped produce a media-driven conversation that was almost impossible to ignore.
Feldman keeps two "challenge coins" given to him by the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center.
What role do you play in cultivating that desire to see a film?
What we do is help studios think about what the broader conversation is going to be. Who's going to care about a film like The Hurt Locker or Captain Phillips? What kind of conversation is going to happen about the work apart from the usual cinematic one?
What do you bring to the table that studios wouldn't normally think of?
We have relationships with administration officials, members of Congress, columnists or reporters who don't usually cover entertainment who can have a real impact on the public dialogue. Hollywood is making a lot more movies that are connected in some way to events that people in politics care about. It's very tempting for them to weigh in on a movie. That can take the conversation about a film to a whole new level.
How can studios successfully manage that larger conversation around a film?
Noah is a great example of a film where the "controversy" could have overwhelmed it. But instead, Paramount did a remarkable job helping manage that conversation and keeping the film approachable to general audiences. Instead of rejecting it, people went to see it, and the strength of the film led to really strong performance at the box office.
Feldman briefed former boss Gore on Marine Two, the vice president's helicopter.
The perception is that Zero Dark Thirty was hijacked by Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress as a pawn in the torture debate. What happened?
Sometimes a film taps into an issue that is red-hot, and that throws off stray voltage. This was a film that had an immediate impact on a conversation that was ongoing, timely and politically charged. Lots of people weighed in on that film, and I think that is a testament to the power of the movie.
What do studios not understand about D.C.?
Studios need to anticipate the conversation around their films to fully take advantage of it. We can tell them who the loudest voices in the conversation are likely to be. [Education documentary] Waiting for Superman is a good example. People are really passionate about educational reform. They're actual stakeholders. You go into the film knowing the teachers' unions are going to care a lot about this, and education-reform audiences are going to care a lot about this, and parents are going to care a lot about this. But then you start peeling it away, and you say, "OK, who are the most influential people in those groups, and who should we think about maybe showing the film to? Who would be a really important voice to have out there early to write something about it or to say something about it?" This gets to the difference between publicity and the kind of work that we do.
More political movies are getting made these days. Why?
Not just political movies but films that have a connection to an issue, an idea or that are inspired by and based on actual events are being made because moviegoers are fascinated by them.
A souvenir from a 2010 trip to Jamaica. "We took our whole company there for our annual holiday party," says Feldman.
What's an example of a journalist helping a film?
David Remnick and Richard Cohen wrote columns about An Inconvenient Truth that helped set the table for positive reviews, audience acceptance and critical acclaim. The nonentertainment media is playing a much bigger role in how films are positioned and then ultimately accepted by critics and moviegoers. An important column about a film or using the film as a hook to talk about a larger issue can frame that film in an appealing light for those who are hearing about it for the first time. Also, talking about a film in the context of larger issues can have a disproportionate impact on awards consideration.
What are the dangers filmmakers face when putting a partisan spin on a project?
Moviegoers want to see something that is legitimate and real. When I say real, I don't mean necessarily based on truth but real and coming from someplace genuine. When the broad public gets a sense that a filmmaker has an agenda that they're bringing to the work, well, nobody wants to feel manipulated.
How many movies do you work on at a time?
We traditionally work on a few major releases a year [he won't reveal projects due to confidentiality agreements]. Sometimes that work starts shortly before a film is released, but increasingly, studios and even filmmakers are bringing us in very early in the process. Sometimes even before the script is complete. We are also increasingly involved in awards campaigns because of the prominent role that the broader issues around a film play into critical acclaim and awards consideration. Some of our film projects last well over a year in total.
Feldman with U2's The Edge, whom he has known for more than 20 years, at a 2009 wedding of mutual friends in Dublin.
You're a new dad, working in both New York City and D.C. How are you managing the commute?
I have a very complicated formula, which my assistant has had to struggle with, because it has to do with the time of day, the time of year, the destination in Manhattan and the weather. If no other factors are in play, door to door, the fastest way is the Delta Shuttle to the Marine Air Terminal in New York and then here, to Reagan [airport].
Feldman keeps a clipping on his door of a current picture next to a shot of him at a summer camp in the early 1980s.
How are you and Savannah able to balance home life and work?
I'm lucky the timing of my daughter's birth and the nature of my work are letting me spend a lot of time with her right now. I took a week off and then worked from home right up until Labor Day. It's been an incredible time for us, and I'm so glad we have been able to spend time alone and as a new family.