It's become a kind of cliche to refer to Hollywood as the ATM of American politics.
There's an important difference, however, between your bank's cash dispenser and the Industry: One really is a machine and the other is an intricate network of very sensitive people with egos that require a special sort of care and feeding. These days, even the most politically committed of those people seem to be grappling with fundraising fatigue.
"People remain energized by Barack Obama," said longtime Hollywood political consultant Andy Spahn. But he said there's a sense that it's early for House and Senate candidates, whose elections are still a year and a half away, to be fundraising here.
There is no doubt that the local, state and federal politicians' hunger for Hollywood money remains as strong as ever. The town is being asked to gear up for what promises to be an extremely competitive -- i.e. very expensive -- California governor's race. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was recently in town for a major fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at Haim Saban's Beverly Hills mansion, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces a tough reelection contest in Nevada, is arriving next month. Meanwhile, with Washington already in a frenzy over the 2010 congressional midterms, both parties are hoping to squeeze vital seed money for their slates out of the film and television industries. (Call it an economic stimulus for local caterers and florists.) At least a dozen politicians are expected to come through town -- especially during the April congressional break.
All these visitors with their hands out, though, are arriving in a changed landscape. While there are hardly bread lines in Brentwood, most people in the industry are worth less financially than they were a year or so ago -- some substantially less. Box-office numbers are up, but DVD sales continue to be down, hurting a lot of companies' bottom lines. There's also a great deal of concern over the Obama administration's proposal to reduce charitable tax deductions, one of the engines of Hollywood philanthropy, as well as a gnawing dissatisfaction with the president's cutbacks in funding for arts and culture.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd's recent involvement in the Countrywide mortgage and AIG bonus controversies also has had a subtle undermining effect on Hollywood's political morale. The veteran Democrat, a close friend to the popular -- OK, revered -- Sen. Edward Kennedy, has long been an industry favorite. Seeing him caught up in situations many around town find tacky at best has seemed to push down enthusiasm for candidates in general.
"I remain supportive of the candidates, but sometimes I feel like an ATM machine," said former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing. "I wish they would come out here just to get our ideas and talk to us about how we feel about the issues."
There's just too much going on right now, said publicist Howard Bragman. "We're a little hung over still from the presidential election and Prop. 8," said Bragman, who has been promoting his new book, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" "Everyone has spent a lot of money, and now they're being asked to give to campaigns that are more than a year down the road? And there's a governor's race coming up. There's a lot on our plates. And with this hinky economy, I wouldn't want to be the one asking for money right now."
The bottom line: Political Hollywood will write checks, but it never gives anybody a blank one.
Showing support for Dalai Lama
It seems nobody dislikes the Dalai Lama, except maybe the Chinese government and members of the California Legislature, which recently declined to pass a resolution in support of Tibetan rights.
Bad move, particularly if you're a lawmaker who hopes to raise money in Hollywood. A letter, written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu stating strong support for the Dalai Lama's cause, is attracting more high-voltage stars than the next "Ocean's" remake.
Among those signing the letter supporting the Lama and his Tibetan monks are: George Clooney, Samuel L. Jackson, Harrison Ford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Paul Haggis, Ashley Judd, Gillian Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Maria Bello, Richard Gere, Anne Archer and Hans Zimmer. (Thecommunity.com, which is sponsoring the effort, has the letter and a complete list of its celebrity signatories on its website.)
"The Tibetan religion and culture is really hanging on the edge of a cliff right now," said human rights activist Mary Wald, head of thecommunity.com. "They need people like the celebrities who are on this letter to speak up and say we value the Dalai Lama and this incredible culture."
Most of the high-wattage involvement started with celebrities e-mailing one another, Wald said.
By the way, you don't have to be a star to sign the letter, now endorsed by more than 4,500 people. Anyone, even California state legislators are welcome to join.