7:00am PT by Chris Gardner
How 5 Top Screenwriters Created $1B of "Game Changing" Political Content (for Free)
Billy Ray remembers the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, quite well.
“I was rolling on the floor and crying, and experiencing anxiety that I hadn’t felt since I was five and couldn't go to sleepaway camp,” says the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Captain Phillips and two dozen other projects. “I felt more afraid for my country after the election of Donald Trump than I felt after 9/11. The day after 9/11, I knew the country would come together. The day after Donald Trump's election, I knew the country would come apart and, of course, it has. If anything, I was being optimistic. I decided I was never again going to wake up the morning after an election thinking I could have done more.”
No matter the outcome, he won’t have that problem come Wednesday morning (or whenever the election results are decided). Ray is among a cadre of high-profile Hollywood writer-producers who have come together to form what is tantamount to a political content studio. In 2020 alone, the coalition — led by The Book of Henry's Gregg Hurwitz with legendary TV creator Marshall Herskovitz, Altered Carbon creator Laeta Kalogridis, S.W.A.T. executive producer Shawn Ryan and Ray — has collaborated on upwards of 150 commercials in addition to campaign messaging, debate prep, speeches, media op-eds and other political content.
The intent has largely been to service Democrats but the work has not been exclusive to the party. The goal? To eradicate "Trumpism" while securing victories for Democratic candidates in key territories across the U.S. The quintet has done it all without a name and without billing anyone for services rendered. Organizations they’ve worked with include the Democratic Coalition, MeidasTouch; The Lincoln Project; Republican Voters Against Trump; Voto Latino; American Bridge; Future Majority; Red, Wine & Blue; Moms Rising; Moms Rising Together; Vote Common Good; Vote Values; and many others.
It can be argued Hollywood stars and influencers are engaged at unprecedented levels this year but what this consortium of insiders offer is unique to their job descriptions. “The thread that runs through it all is storytelling,” Ray says. “One of the things that's been so remarkable is how many politicians are bad storytellers. When you deal with people who communicate for a living like politicians do, like lawmakers do, it’s stunning that they're not as good as they need to be at telling their own story, much less the story of their party or their country. Because they're very smart, they require just a little bit of coaching and recalibrating to get it. They know a good story when they hear one, and that's what we provide.”
After the 2016 election saw Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, Hurwitz and Herskovitz got to work by meeting with Democratic party leaders in D.C. to offer help “in any way,” with messaging, speech writing, etc. What they found when they arrived was nothing short of surprising. Says Herskovitz: “We realized that the Democratic party really didn't have any kind of messaging apparatus at all as a party, which was astonishing. We realized that this wasn't about speech writing, but about trying to create a way for Democrats to put a message across [that] would penetrate the culture at large. So, it became a very big enterprise for us.”
Herskovitz, a respected climate activist and veteran TV creator whose credits include thirtysomething and Nashville, says that the main strategy behind the work that they've accomplished over the past four years was to hammer home critical messages to a demographic that was slipping away: “The truth is, working people across America have left the Democratic party because they don't think the Democrats speak to them. So, our first and biggest hurdle, which is still going on right now, is reaching working people to say, ‘Democrats are here for you.’”
The group quickly gained traction in D.C., perhaps helped by the fact that “unlike other groups of political consultants, we didn't want money,” says Hurwitz. And “we didn't need credit and we didn't ask permission. That made us extremely nimble.” Hurwitz said that ahead of the midterm election, they were soon working for 30 candidates in House races in predominantly red states, and of those, 21 emerged victorious. “We can't take credit for those wins. They were great candidates, but where we helped were races that were very close,” he adds.
Around those 2018 elections, Ray attended a dinner with Hurwitz, Herskovitz and Ryan. “I listened to them talk about politics and the intersection of personality traits, which are usually predictive of voting behavior. There’s a way to communicate to Democratic candidates how to make arguments that independent voters can actually hear,” he says, before heaping praise on one of the group’s leaders. “Not to make Gregg blush, but he was the most brilliant mind on political messaging that I had ever met. I decided to just learn from him. Once I felt like I had ‘mastered the material,’ I started working with candidates on how to communicate in a way — whether the subject was health care, immigration or the economy — that would avoid the liberal landmines.”
During meetings with House candidates, when they requested donations, Ray agreed to open his wallet with one caveat. “After I met Gregg, I began to say, ‘I'll be happy to write you a check, but first I want you to sit down with me and my colleague Gregg to talk messaging.’ That’s how it began, and [soon] our careers as unpaid consultants were set,” says Ray.
Kalogridis aligned with the group after attending a political fundraiser organized by Ray, where she met Herskovitz (she already knew Hurwitz through their children, who attend the same school). “The core of what Gregg does is two things. One is profound intellectual humility — like crazy-level intellectual humility. He can keep turning things and looking at them to examine our confirmation biases. Why does someone, left or right, feel indignant? Why do they feel outraged? Why does anyone feel, ‘I’m right, everyone else is wrong,’ including us?” says Kalogridis, also known for Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys. “We’re all, to varying degrees, encouraged especially by social media to be addicted to outrage, not problem-solving. The second is Gregg’s whole organizing principle of how we message people: We don’t lecture and we don’t condescend. We try to speak from the gut, from a place of real respect and understanding to voters who are different from each other and different from us.”
One key example that illustrates that philosophy is a spot the coalition worked on for Republican Voters Against Trump. Titled Still a Shining City on a Hill, the ad uses an iconic speech from President Ronald Reagan that is cut over footage of President Trump to show how much the party has changed during the latter’s administration. Hurwitz says the now-viral ad is indicative of what they do: “You know what I like about that commercial? It's fair. It's honest.”
Hurwitz insists they are not anti-Republican: “We need legitimate moral opposition from Republicans. Not what's been represented by Trumpublicans. There is a balance between the two parties when both are functioning, where we force each other to raise the bar. Conservative and liberal working in concert provide the strongest ability for us to all recognize our negative tendencies, our blind spots.”
Ray agrees and takes it a step further. “In a weird way, we’re trying to save the Republican party. We think it’s necessary for American politics to have a healthy and robust Republican party. We’re trying to destroy Trumpism. We’re trying to get rid of this one anomaly that has poisoned everything around it.”
The coalition is quick to give credit to their vast network of collaborators who have been key to the cause, like producers and co-founders of the Wake Up & Vote Creative Consortium Julie Hermelin and Mary Ann Marino, producer Barbara Glazer, and James and Tiffany Dugger of Eleven Films. The latter two are based in Portland and specialize in candidate ads and other politically themed content tailored for the internet.
Senior Democratic advisor David Yankovich encountered Hurwitz and the crew in 2018 as he was meeting with party insiders to organize around social media in a relevant way. Meeting them “was the moment my life changed,” Yankovich says. “They changed the game.”
Yankovich says they have created content and strategic messaging around “every single issue that is important during this national election,” and they’ve done so while navigating sticky bureaucratic infrastructure and managing long-standing rivalries. “Gregg’s talent is bringing people together who normally would never work together,” Yankovich says of a skill that has long been critical to Hollywood. “They’ve also been able to do it by removing their egos. They instantly gained trust by coming in and not trying to ram everybody else out of the way. When we look back on this election in 10 years, it will be viewed as a historic moment in our country’s history because of the influence of social media. Their personal impact is ... that valuable.”
Speaking of impact, Yankovich says it could be valued at “over $1 billion in work” on social media engagement based on current financial models.
Though each of the writers interviewed by THR pointed to Hurwitz for rallying the team and for his indefatigable energy (“Gregg is an alien,” says Herskovitz, “He has a motor six times bigger than anybody else”), the prolific novelist didn’t let the compliments go unreturned. “In this weird Jenga tower thing that we've built, if you remove one person’s work or influence, the whole thing tumbles,” says Hurwitz, a New York Times best-selling author of 21 thrillers. As for how he’s been able to manage, Hurwitz explains that he’s “been existing on a diet of coffee and bourbon for the last year.”
And it’s not over yet. The five scribes are currently helping 45 candidates and 50 incumbents, working on campaign messaging, debate prep, speech writing, op-eds, fundraising and commercial content. “The thing that's really fun lately is we're doing rapid response. A candidate will write to us and say, ‘Here’s the attack ad that just got launched and it’s completely full of lies,’” explains Hurwitz. “'Can you help me respond?’ Within five hours, there’s a press conference and we’ve given them a speech.”
Kalogridis cites rapid-response work that they’ve completed on behalf of get-out-the-vote orgs and anti-disinformation campaigns in places like Texas and Ohio. “We did targeted digital rapid response aimed at specific slices of the electorate that were, frankly, being bombarded with messages and attempts to disenfranchise them. We can do that work really quickly because we’re also backed by a ridiculous number of very generous people, editors and composers and writers and producers. These are people who are giving their time like we are, without getting paid and doing it because they love the Republic.”
No matter what happens when the ballots are counted next week — or however long that will take — they will all come out the other side as changed individuals.
“For me, it’s really been a journey,” sums up Hurwitz. “My younger proclivity would be to approach things intellectually, academically, politically, culturally, psychologically. This, for me, has really been a journey back to core values of strength, honesty and humility. I do not mean to imply that I embody them well, but I recognize now that those are the only things that matter.”
For Ray, what matters is that he won’t have such an emotional hangover on Wednesday morning. There may be tears — who knows? — but at least he won’t be tired. “All of us learned early on that if we really are working 24/7 on trying to save our democracy, you sleep better at night.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.