Hollywood & Politics: How to Get Spielberg to Send You a Check

Issue 15 FEA Mel Levine Illustration - P 2012
Riccardo Vecchio

Issue 15 FEA Mel Levine Illustration - P 2012

Former Congressman Mel Levine shares 5 tips to lure Hollywood's big donors to your cause.

This story originally appeared in the May 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

An ex-U.S. rep and SoCal assemblyman reveals what was important to whom, and the need for a new Lew Wasserman.

Focus on Social Issues

Hollywood was the only industry I dealt with during all of my tenures in Congress that was dramatically more interested in social policy than the business issues that concerned them. It was a small slice of the industry that reminded me of their business concerns.

The issue of a woman's right to choice was something both women and men in Hollywood were concerned about. If you were not pro-choice, I don't think it would have made sense raising money from the Hollywood community. And I found incredible resonance in Hollywood on environmental concerns. That is how I met many Hollywood leaders who supported me when I was fighting off-shore and, at the time, on-shore oil drilling -- Occidental wanted to drill in Pacific Palisades. Steven Spielberg, unsolicited, sent me a substantial contribution saying thank you for wanting to keep the sky blue.

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In a way, I see that as being emblematic of my political support. Cindy and Alan Horn, president and COO of Warner Bros., never asked me anything about the industry but wanted to stay in close touch on environmental issues. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner were concerned about trying to end the Contra war in Nicaragua, which I cared very much about. I was always concerned about First Amendment rights and civil liberties, which resonated with the intellectual interests of Hollywood. None of these issues had any pocketbook importance to the Hollywood community.

Broadly speaking, Hollywood is a liberal enclave that supports candidates who share its progressive beliefs. Take Elizabeth Warren, who's running for Senate in Massachusetts. As philosophical creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she is a liberal Democrat who clearly supports the issues Hollywood cares about. All she had to do was access this close-knit community, invite them to meet her, and people have responded generously.

Be Careful How You Vote on War

When I supported the first Gulf War as a liberal Democrat already known for my anti-Vietnam War views and my fight against the Contra war, some strong supporters were angry and made it clear by picketing my office and sending "love letters." They disagreed profoundly with the U.S. using force to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein; they felt this was not worth going to war over. It was the most difficult vote I cast in Congress, and it hurt me when I ran for Senate and lost to Barbara Boxer in 1992.

Commit to Your Business Issue

If you want the piece of Hollywood that comes from its business leadership, then you have to satisfy them on piracy -- or you did until about 60 days ago. I agree with the industry that copyrighted works shouldn't be stolen and was the first author nationally of an anti-piracy bill when I was in the state legislature and continued to pursue it in Congress. For years, it was easy for members of Congress to say they supported anti-piracy. It is ironic that some members dropped like flies when thousands of e-mails came in opposing SOPA -- a fascinating test to see how committed those people were.

Kiss the Rings of Key Leaders

There was clearly one ring to kiss during my decade in Congress, and that was Lew Wasserman's. If you had Lew on your side, you were going to have a lot of other people on your side. Lew was one of the people I would seek guidance from, just because his judgment was so good. I knew Lew had his business interests, but I always felt the advice he was giving me was based on broader concerns for public policy.

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There is no Lew Wasserman today. If I were giving advice to someone running for office and wanting Hollywood support, I would tell them to find some of Hollywood's personalities and a few respected leaders (like the DreamWorks people, including Andy Spahn) who can explain your views on social policy and lead you to other people.

Reconsider Hollywood Altogether

Its support in this era can cause backlash against some politicians, especially among people on the far right. It had no serious effect on me; I came from this area. I am seeing it happening now in Massachusetts in the Senate race, where Scott Brown is attacking Warren for her Hollywood support. Now, the Republican Party has become a party of social-policy extremists. If you believe in evolution, you're suspect. If you believe in climate change, you're subversive. On core social issues, people are on different planets. So yes, Hollywood support does have consequences.

Levine is a law partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.