Democrats in Hollywood

Does the town love Hillary or Obama?

Steven Spielberg 

Fight Club: As usual, there’s some heavy jousting among Democratic hopefuls for bragging rights and access to Hollywood dough. The fact that the powerful triumvirate of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg are hosting an upcoming fund-raiser for Barack Obama has generated a ton of ink for the candidate. Much of it was in the vein of, “Is Hollywood turning its liberal back on Hillary?”It was and is well-known in Hollywood that while Geffen and Katzenberg have committed to Obama, Spielberg has not yet promised himself to anyone. It was and is also well-known that Spielberg will host a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton this spring, in addition to the Obama event this month. So, it seemed odd to read in a Robert Novak column over the weekend that Spielberg, “previously listed as a probable supporter” of Obama, would now host a Clinton fund-raiser. This was presented as news, though Novak didn’t make it clear who had “listed” Spielberg as an Obama supporter. Without quite saying so, Novak conveyed the idea that now only Geffen and Katzenberg are hosting the Obama fund-raiser, and that Bill Clinton had prevailed upon Spielberg to back away from Obama and toward Hillary. The Novak column is too silly to merit discussion—except, perhaps, about how it illuminates the real state of affairs in deep-pocketed Hollywood. If Spielberg had abandoned the upcoming Obama event, that would be news. But he hasn’t. Many expect him to commit to Hillary in the future. But one veteran Hollywood Democratic operative said skeptically, “There is no one on earth that would know that from Steven who would talk to Bob Novak.”The suspicion among some in the Obama faction is that this story came from the Clinton camp, eager to put a stop to the “Hillary Hemorrhages Hollywood Support” stories. In a recent visit to town, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe conveyed the notion that folks should pick sides now. Most aren’t. In fact, McAuliffe’s admonishment prompted Norman Lear, who, like many, is contributing to multiple candidates, to ask a Los Angeles Times reporter, “What’s Hillary going to do? Jail me?”We’ll never know if McAuliffe was behind the column; we know that Novak is loath to reveal sources. But he really needs some better ones. He offered a couple of ludicrous explanations for liberal Hollywood’s supposed defection from Hillary. One: that “the gay community”—read: David Geffen—“is seeking revenge against President Clinton’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy restricting open homosexuality in military service.” That’s funny, considering Geffen’s continued support for Clinton long after that policy was adopted a few minutes after his inauguration. The gossip passed around by those who follow Hollywood and politics holds that Geffen fell out with Bill Clinton much later over the then-president’s refusal to pardon Leonard Peltier and over Clinton’s subsequent allusion to Geffen’s thwarted lobbying effort to demonstrate that he didn’t dole out pardons as favors to certain friends. Novak mentions another theory behind Hillary’s supposed weakness with liberals—and bear in mind that she’s so weak that Ron Burkle, Haim Saban, Steve Bing, and, of course, Spielberg are backing her. The entertainment industry, he wrote, “still harbors resentment about Clinton-Gore administration criticism of the material that is presented to children.” In a community that is concerned first and foremost about the Iraq war, that is too laughable to address. Having raised these ideas, Novak dismisses them and reveals the real reason for Hillary’s faltering popularity: She’s too conservative. To coin a phrase: Duh. “The whispered worry is that Clinton as the presidential nominee would be a loser in a year when all the stars seem aligned for a Republican defeat,” says Novak. That was whispered by David Geffen a couple of years ago in New York. Here’s what he said about Hillary in a room full of people: “She can’t win, and she’s an incredibly polarizing figure.” Subtle, huh? With code-cracking skills like that, it’s no wonder Novak was the very first one to identify Valerie Plame in print. (link)

Monday, Feb. 12, 2007

Please stop: Maybe we’re too sensitive, but New Line is getting on our nerves with its efforts to draw attention to The Number 23, which opens on Feb. 23 (of course). That’s the one with the poster featuring Jim Carrey looking like Charles Manson after a rough night with a Sharpie.

Every day, New Line is firing off e-mails to folks like us about real-life incidents that involve the mystical number 23. Some of them are as dumb as the 23 enigma itself. “Virginia Man Climbs 63 Tibetan Peaks in 23 Days.” (Sixty-three peaks? Are they setting up the sequel here?)

Others are in more questionable taste. “Man Convicted After Girlfriend’s Fatal 23-Story Fall.” If you were a relative of Rachel Kozlusky, an attractive Pennsylvania woman who, fortunately for New Line, was just 23 years old when she fell just the right number of stories (a tragedy clearly freighted with cosmic meaning), would it not offend you to see this event exploited to market a creepy movie?

How about this one from Monday: “23 Pilgrims Killed in Saudi Arabia.” If you bother to look, the report in question reads that “at least” 23 were killed. Another stroke of luck for New Line! If the story had confirmed just one more dead, that would have ruined everything. (link)

Friday, Feb. 9, 2007

The Los Angeles Times gives voice Thursday to murmurs that the giant, tacky billboards for Norbit may not be helping Eddie Murphy’s Oscar chances. The ads—which show a scrawny Eddie beneath Eddie as a fat woman—have also upset some black activists who have issues with the tired fat-black-lady stereotype, particularly during Black History Month. But the picture is apparently tracking well. And Stacey Snider—now running DreamWorks—says academy voters can differentiate between Murphy in this—pardon us—broad comedy and his turn in Dreamgirls.

Murphy hasn’t run much of an Oscar campaign. He doesn’t want to do a lot with the press (hoping to avoid any queries about the tranny hooker). He’s such a pain that he’s even balking at singing his nominated song at the Oscar ceremony. But in our brief, unscientific survey, no academy voter said that the Norbit ads would have an effect. The Times found only one unidentified consultant who hedged on the question. (An on-the-record voter said the campaign was “irrelevant.”) So, it’s hard to make a case that the billboards are doing any harm.

To us, the Norbit kerfuffle is indeed irrelevant. In our minds, he already won for Bowfinger.

There have been a couple of reports that GE may be pondering a sale of NBC Universal. We caught up with some Universal brass at a lovely party Wednesday night for the Oscar-nominated Mexican amigos—writer-directors Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. (A few notes on that: Cuarón was sick in London, so only two amigos were there. Babel director Iñárritu made up for it by serenading the crowd lustily. And isn’t it nice that these friends could get three different film companies to team up and throw a bash? Now, that’s creative control!)

One Universal executive at the soirée said he believes the potential for a sale is real despite the fact that GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt has a genuine affection for the entertainment business. Another top dog at Universal says he sees no signs that such plans are afoot, but conceded, “I don’t know, really, why they keep us.”

GE would hardly be the first big corporation to find that a foray into Hollywood is a costly proposition. There was Transamerica, Coca-Cola, and even Sony, who had to write down more than $2 billion before the rest of its business went so much to hell that the entertainment assets started to look good. Most of these companies came to the same conclusion: Entertainment has been a business of vagaries even without the prospect of a terrifying digital revolution. And the industry attracts a ludicrous amount of attention, and attention means headaches. Years ago, a Hollywood player explained Coca-Cola’s exit from the business by saying, “When you make the margins they do selling sugar and water, the entertainment business isn’t worth it.”

GE may well be feeling it. Problems with NBC’s primetime schedule have attracted plenty of press coverage. The Universal film studio has been going through its struggles, too, and those probably would have drawn more media scrutiny if the warfare between Paramount and DreamWorks weren’t sucking up so much ink. When Stacey Snider departed as Universal’s chairman, she left some stinkers behind, notably Miami Vice. There was also a dearth of product in the pipeline as she was distracted by an unsuccessful renegotiation of her deal. The studio’s big summer release, Evan Almighty, is said to be significantly over budget and on track to be the most expensive comedy ever made. It will need to be very commercial to justify the cost.

Certainly, GE keeps its eye on the numbers. And it isn’t going to act precipitously. By now, Universal has been through so many ownership changes that no one should be too distracted by the possibility of change. (link)

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007

Fight Club: Monday’s New York Times marked the latest salvo in the increasingly public quarrel between the DreamWorks gang and Paramount chief Brad Grey. A Business page article by Laura M. Holson seemed to suggest a declaration of war.

By now, the friction has become quite public. The story is complete with episodes that read like literary devices, so inconsequential and yet so freighted with meaning. Even before the Times article, the story of how Grey hung up on DreamWorks Chief Executive Stacey Snider had been aired. (Snider had called to complain that a press release—issued without consultation—made her appear to be an equal of lesser executives at Paramount. The hang-up was followed by a call of protest from DreamWorks principal David Geffen to Grey.)

The DreamWorks movie Dreamgirls has become a flash point in the conflict. There was Grey’s decision to speak at the New York and Los Angeles premieres in defiance of the DreamWorkers’ wishes. It’s hard to remember whether someone reported how Grey allegedly booted the film’s producer, Larry Mark, out of his chair at the Dreamgirls table at one awards-season event. Certainly the story of Grey’s table-bouncing at the Golden Globes (first Dreamgirls, then Babel) has been covered as proof of the most feckless credit-grabbing.

All these reports were fruit borne by the grapevine. But now Spielberg and his colleagues have gone public. “I have some bargaining power,” Spielberg told the Times in a faux-naive understatement. Though he could have walked away from DreamWorks when the company was sold to Paramount, he said, he chose to stick it out. But Spielberg made it clear at the time that DreamWorks had to have some autonomy. “So I take exception when the press is contacted by our friends and partners at Paramount, who refer to every DreamWorks picture as a Paramount picture. It is not the case.”

It is useful to remember that DreamWorks began its life as the Jeffrey Katzenberg reclamation project. After Katzenberg was painfully ejected from his job as chairman of the Disney studio, his friends Geffen and Spielberg formed, reluctantly, a partnership that gave Katzenberg a home. Since then, DreamWorks has achieved many successes but has also faced a series of frustrations, from its abortive attempt to set up a physical studio, to the demise of its music and television operations, to the necessity of finding a buyer.

When a movie-hungry Paramount turned out to be the successful suitor, the conventional wisdom had it that DreamWorks would try to eat its mate. The widely imagined scenario was that Geffen—that maestro of behind-the-scenes manipulation—would find a way to install Katzenberg atop Viacom (which owns Paramount) in the job then occupied by Tom Freston. Katzenberg would then put Snider in Grey’s job running Paramount. And finally Geffen and Spielberg would be off the hook, having found Katzenberg a new perch.

That plan—if it ever existed—was certainly ambitious. But so great is the admiration of Geffen’s chess-plotting skill that some in the industry wondered whether Geffen had not advocated Grey for the Paramount job in the first place (which he did) with the knowledge that Grey would fail, setting up the denouement.

Such talk had to make Grey a little nervous. Especially, perhaps, since meaningful success has eluded him at Paramount. His hiring of former Fox television executive Gail Berman instantly proved to be a fiasco, and it dragged on painfully. Since his arrival, Grey hasn’t had a significant hit. World Trade Center—the first uncontested green light of his regime—wasn’t deemed Oscar-worthy or even Globe-worthy, despite an expensive effort to position it to advantage. (Babel, from the studio’s Vantage label, has proved to be a tenacious competitor.)

Grey’s most notable success has been buying DreamWorks. And it seems likely that DreamWorks will continue to provide the best bragging opportunities in the year ahead. It has Will Ferrell, hot off Talladega Nights, in Blades of Glory. (It’s about Olympic ice skaters … oh, who cares? It makes a fortune, right?) And DreamWorks apparently is convinced it has a hit in its big summer release, Transformers, despite the fact that it’s about giant robots and that it’s directed by Michael Bay. (Spielberg has supposedly sanded off enough Bay-ishness to make the movie work.)

Paramount, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to have a big summer movie of its own. And even if the studio is coughing up half the budget of Transformers, DreamWorks has made it clear that in no way will Paramount—specifically, Grey—deserve credit for it.

Grey seems to be counting on the idea that he bought DreamWorks, and by God, he gets to take a bow—or maybe many bows. That puts DreamWorks in a peculiar position. To the degree that it succeeds, Grey stands to benefit. The only possible recourse is to proclaim, as publicly as possible, that its movies are its movies and trust that the brass in New York notices.

That would be Sumner Redstone and his new chief of Viacom, Philippe Dauman. Dauman is not well-known in Hollywood, and the town seems to be split on what to think of him. Some figure he has ice water in his veins and cares only about the bottom line. (Whether Grey gets credit, in that analysis, for DreamWorks’ revenue is not quite clear.) Others think that Grey has been successfully seducing Dauman, who may enjoy finding himself on a corporate jet with Grey’s friend Brad Pitt, as has occurred.

And what of Redstone? He recently told the Los Angeles Times that the DreamWorkers “are entitled to a lot of autonomy” and they’re getting it. Is the old man wondering what Grey is bringing to the party, or is the DreamWorks crew starting to annoy him? Redstone, a lion in winter, bared his fangs in recent memory, as Tom Cruise can attest. He’s richer even than Geffen, and maybe he fancies himself to be almost as smart. Perhaps at this point he doesn’t think Geffen should direct his personnel decisions.

We may be getting carried away, but here’s an idea: If the DreamWorkers can’t get directly where they want to go, what about an alliance with CBS chief Les Moonves? Many question Redstone’s wisdom in having split CBS and Viacom in the first place, and certainly no one can doubt that Moonves would be only too happy to preside over a reunited kingdom. Don’t ask us exactly how this would play out—we’re not smart enough for that. Let’s just call it a hunch. Of this much we’re quite sure: There are more machinations in this corner of the earth than are dreamt of in our simple philosophy. (link)

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

Catching up on homework: Well, we finally got around to slipping The Last King of Scotland into the DVD player. For some reason it took a while to bring ourselves to watch the bloody mayhem that must be a part of any movie about Idi Amin—and part of many films angling for Oscar.

At the beginning, there was the inevitable “inspired by true events” claim that is also mandatory for many movies angling for Oscar. After that unfolds a preposterous tale—and there are major spoilers to come—that left us wondering, exactly which true events inspired this? At a glance, the only facts in the film are that there was a deranged dictator named Idi Amin in a place called Uganda and, at one time, a hijacked Air France airliner landed there. *

The movie, based on an acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, tells the tale of a young Scottish doctor who finds himself a favorite of Idi Amin. The doctor can be rather plucky with Amin but generally ignores the growing evidence of the hideous truth. He busies himself with knocking up one of Amin’s wives and then getting her an abortion. Unfortunately the boss is wise to him and has him hung by hooks thrust into his flesh. Far more fortunately, this hanging takes place at the airport at the exact moment when some Entebbe hostages are being released. A noble colleague sacrifices himself to free the bloodied doctor, who slinks off with the Entebbe hostages. His doomed savior admonishes him to tell the world of the outrages perpetrated in Uganda.

This series of astonishing events made us curious about the truth upon which the story was based. It was late, so we were left with Wikipedia. (In the Internet age, truth is easy to come by—right?) We found that the character of the young doctor was loosely based on a fellow named Bob Astles, who was neither Scottish nor a doctor. Twice married, he was an English adventurer who worked for Amin while running a pineapple farm as well as an aviation service. He later said, “I kept my eyes shut, I said nothing about what I saw, which is what they liked.”

Astles eventually became the head of Amin’s anti-corruption squad. “Until today, what Astles did or did not do during Amin’s brutal tenure is conjecture,” the Wikipedia article concludes. “He was feared, and considered by many to be a malign influence on the dictator; others thought he was a moderating presence.”

It’s imperative for novelists to invent, of course, but why does the film industry have a compulsion to palm off stories based on “true” events that are not just miles but light-years from the truth? Not that many people will see The Last King of Scotland—although more than might be expected, thanks to Forest Whitaker’s almost assured best actor award. And how many of them will walk away thinking they’ve seen something that is more true than not?

The bottom line is that Hollywood has little respect for the truth. When he was making JFK, Oliver Stone became enraged when George Lardner, a Washington Post reporter who had covered the assassination of John Kennedy, got hold of a script and denounced the story as preposterous. It wasn’t fair, Stone said, to judge an unfinished movie by a screenplay. Pressed about whether the misrepresentations in the screenplay wouldn’t also be in the film, Stone said the movie would represent an “essential truth,” and that adherence to actual fact was less important.

And there you have the Hollywood attitude—the movie version is the one that counts. The only time we can remember that this approach was stuffed up the industry’s nose was when the 1999 film The Hurricane was attacked for misrepresenting facts about boxer Rubin Carter. That episode did not teach the industry caution. Instead, a lot of time and expense is devoted to re-creating the look and feel of a period with no regard to what actually occurred.

Many will defend the Hollywood way as an exercise of the artist’s prerogative. And obviously there are many immortal stories told in historical settings. But it would have been peculiar if Thackeray suggested that Vanity Fair was “inspired by true events” because his characters were caught up in the Napoleonic Wars.

And, if you are dealing with something as momentous as the assassination of a president, you might want to stick to facts that were dramatic enough. If you have a strong story—a fiction about a young doctor and an African dictator—why not just embrace it for what it is and lose the tenuous “true story” claim? Diddling with history, as we’ve seen, can be a dangerous business. (link)

Correction, Jan. 31, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly identified a hijacked Air France airliner as an El Al airliner. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)