Obama's Big Hollywood Problem
As the 2012 election fund-raising cycle heats up, the onetime darling is finding far less enthusiasm from the showbiz donors who tell THR what went wrong.
At this point in the previous presidential election cycle, Barack Obama was a Hollywood heartthrob. The entertainment industry's ardent Democratic activists couldn't dig deep enough into their wallets to finance his ambitious run for the Oval Office.
Today, the industry remains with the president, but the disenchantment is increasingly palpable, and even devoted Democrats are approaching his re-election campaign with all the enthusiasm of a studio contractually obligated to finance a dubious sequel.
Obama certainly is raising major money in Hollywood -- $2.53 million during the first six months of 2011, with two more events scheduled for Sept. 26. As Andy Spahn, one of Obama's chief showbiz fund-raisers, points out, "We've sold out every event." Doing so, however, has required deft organization and more than a little arm-twisting. Another Obama fund-raiser described the process as "tough, tough, tough." Four years ago, candidate Obama's mere presence guaranteed a turn-away crowd.
But that was before Obama took office and started to compromise on issues important to industry activists.
Sure, such reliable Hollywood Democrats as George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell, Steven Spielberg and Peter Chernin each have donated $35,800, the maximum allowable by law, to the Obama Victory Fund.
But others have yet to loosen their purse strings, and many believe the industry has turned on Obama.
Producer Lawrence Bender -- one of Obama's earliest Hollywood supporters --admits that "there are a lot of people who are disappointed. His ratings are down. He's having a really hard time right now." Bender says he's particularly disappointed by the president's recent delay of new clean air regulations. "Obviously, that's a huge letdown," he says, "but overall, I'm still going to support him."
Norman Lear, liberal Hollywood's reigning eminence grise, says he still backs Obama but will not give money to his campaign. "I want Obama to get re-elected and I will help him," he tells The Hollywood Reporter, "but I will do it the way I like to do it and not the D.C. way."
Lear says he plans to invest the money in one of his own political groups, like the People for the American Way, instead of writing a check to Obama's re-election committee. "I don't mean this to sound arrogant," says Lear, who gave $33,100 to Obama in 2008. "I just think I can do a better job of getting the message out."
Since Bill Clinton's first run for the White House, Hollywood has become one of the Democrats' most important sources of campaign financing. In 2008, the industry contributed nearly $40 million to Democratic candidates. At this point in that race four years ago, industry activists were splitting their donations among five candidates, but the lion's share went to Obama and Hillary Clinton. (Each had collected about $1.8 million from entertainment donors during the first six months of 2007.)
In September 2007, the hottest ticket in town was Oprah Winfrey's garden party for Obama that raised $3 million. When the talk show maven opened her palatial Montecito estate for an Obama fund-raiser featuring entertainment by Stevie Wonder, all of Hollywood seemed delighted to make the 90-minute trek from Los Angeles.
This time around, the incumbent's handlers are relying on a series of carefully staged events with ticket prices scaled to make sure they sell out. The first Obama event on Sept. 26, at the House of Blues on Sunset, has ticket prices starting at $250; at the second, at Olive & Fig on Melrose Place, heavy hitters will have to pony up $35,800 to attend.
Spahn and other firm Obama loyalists also are relying on a couple of other facts when gauging how deep a pocket the president ultimately may find in Hollywood. If there's anything high-level Hollywood understands, it's leverage, and for big givers unhappy with the president, this is the period of maximum leverage. If Obama feels he needs them, he may yet listen -- at least a little. Many of those signing up for the current round of fund-raisers are doing so in the hopes of expressing their disappointment directly to the president.
"It's like he's morphed into another person," says one veteran entertainment executive, a passionate Democrat, who asked not to be identified because the person is thinking of sitting out this election. "He's not the idealistic guy we thought he would be. Everyone I talk to is disappointed."
Disenchanted Hollywood's list of the president's shortcomings seems to grow monthly: Environmentalism, gay rights, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama's handling of the unemployment crisis are a few of the persistent gripes. It might be a town filled with Bentleys and designer handbags, but high-level Hollywood is populated with self-made successes, and their sense of identification with the working and middle classes remains a powerful force when it comes to politics.
"He favors Wall Street instead of the everyman," says the veteran entertainment executive. "All he's doing is taking our money, and he's not doing anything we want him to do."
That sense of disappointment at being ignored goes to the heart of Hollywood's connection with Democratic officeholders. The Westside often is referred to by political pundits as the Dems' ATM, but the relationship is more like the one you'd have with a rich, affectionate but cranky Beverly Hills uncle. In the pinch, you know he's always going to be there for you and write the check -- but, before he does, you're going to have to sit and listen to his advice.
Some of the discontent may have been inevitable. Publicist and longtime Democratic activist Howard Bragman puts it this way: "Things are different this time around. Four years ago, it was a revolution. This time, it's an evolution. The sequel is never as exciting as the original."
But even the most disenchanted of the Hollywood Democrats could be pushed into Obama's fund-raising effort by the Republican nominee. "The more we see the Michele Bachmanns and the Rick Perrys, the more frightened we are," Bragman says.
When asked why he hasn't deserted Obama altogether, Lear says: "The Republicans running for president are a bunch of clowns. We may be disappointed in a lot of things that are going on in the Obama administration, but whatever we say about him, he's not a clown."
As the disenchanted executive who's sitting things out so far puts it, if Obama "is suddenly in a competitive race with Bachmann or Perry, I'll max out so fast it will make your head spin."
WHERE OBAMA HAS FAILED HOLLYWOOD: Four issues that have sapped his support among showbiz Democrats
The Environment: Hollywood is far greener than it is blue. Obama's recent decisions to allow more Arctic drilling and to put off more stringent clean air regulations were just the latest in a series of pro-development, pro-business moves. "Like so many others, I'm beginning to wonder just where the man stands," Robert Redford wrote in an August web post.
Unemployment: His Sept. 8 address to Congress notwithstanding, liberal Hollywood feels the president has been inexplicably slow to address persistent unemployment. The industry is instinctually Keynesian; it believes in stimulation.
Gay Rights: Hollywood's gay and lesbian activists still believe that Obama and his administration were slow to support abolition of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Many also feel that he's been evasive on the question of marriage equality, an issue the industry generally regards as the next great civil rights struggle.
Peace: Skepticism about American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan runs deep in Hollywood, where there's a general sentiment that Obama has been far too slow to bring American troops home from the battlefields.
OBAMA'S TOP HOLLYWOOD FUNDRAISERS: Financial "bundlers" pledge to raise money nationwide on behalf of Obama's re-election committee. Of the 244 registered bundlers, nine are Hollywood figures.
- Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Ani.: $500,000
- David Cohen, Comcast: $500,000
- Andy Spahn, DreamWorks: $500,000
- Ken Soloman, Tennis Channel: $200,000
- Clarence Avant, Interior Music: $100,000
- Ari Emanuel, WME: $50,000
- Jamie and Michael Lynton, Sony Pictures: $100,000
- Kelly Meyer, activist and wife of Universal's Ron Meyer: $50,000
- Colleen Bell, writer: $50,000