Hollywood has been focusing on a number of contests in recent weeks, from the Golden Globes to the upcoming Academy Awards. But the town is also paying a lot of attention to another race: the 2008 presidential election. Given the industry's high profile and deep pockets, the candidates have come a-courting.
They're approaching stars like Barbra Streisand. It's not just that Streisand is rich and can write big checks. She also has stunning powers when it comes to drawing crowds of donors. And with federal restrictions limiting individual contributions, that's what matters to contenders for the Democratic nomination.
Streisand hasn't committed to a candidate — yet. She's writing checks to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and maybe a few others. And she isn't the only one who's spreading the wealth around. Hollywood's big liberal community is tasting change, says Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant who works with actor Richard Dreyfuss, among others.
Bojarsky says the selection of Nancy Pelosi, a woman from California, for Speaker of the House and the return of Congress has gotten Democrats energized. "I think people are very engaged, and I think it's all for the good."
Democrats aren't the only ones trolling for Hollywood money. The community leans to the left, but GOP contenders have high-profile supporters, too. Television mogul Jerry Perenchio, for example, has been raising funds for John McCain. Perenchio and other Hollywood Republican donors declined to be interviewed.
The Democrats aren't so reticent. Certainly there seems to be many more of them and they have a much more visible fundraising infrastructure in Hollywood than the Republicans. But Bojarsky points out that there is a downside.
"One thing that people, I think, are concerned about is whether this will be a nonstop, constant ATM, (an) inexhaustible fundraising Disneyland," Bojarsky says.
The danger is especially great because California is likely to move up its primary. P>
"That means not only do you have the California financial pressure of being the ATM to the rest of the country, but you're now gonna have California raising money to spend in California," says Margery Tabankin, who handles political matters for Streisand and other big Hollywood names.
"You know, each candidate's gonna need, what, $20 million to be competitive in a primary in California? It's an insane amount of money."
Those who want to avail themselves of Hollywood's vast wealth have to do more than just show up. Tabankin says that Hollywood liberals are a tough audience.
"It's one of people's least-favorite venues because you have to really deliver. It's a really critical town," she says.
John Edwards found that out when he went for the presidential nomination in 2004. He met with powerful executives and agents, and some complained that his answers weren't substantive. They said he conveyed a sense of entitlement to their money. He has since recovered and holds a place in Hollywood's top tier of potential nominees this time.
According to Tabankin, an early falter is not unusual. She says that learning how to get support from Hollywood is a process of trial and error.
"The first time out, I think they all go through this, where they try to... figure out how to do this, how to talk to all these people who they're trying to get support from," she says.
Andy Spahn, another veteran political consultant, agrees. "Each opportunity may be your last to make a positive impression."
At the moment, Spahn is helping mega-moguls David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg organize a splashy fundraiser later this month for Barack Obama. He won't be specific but he says some candidates have already stumbled.
"I've seen candidates in this cycle who were not prepared to speak with the necessary detail on Iraq, for example," he says.
That didn't happen to Obama, of course. Winning the support of Geffen and Katzenberg is a big triumph for him but he is far from having liberal Hollywood sewn up. Andy Spahn may be organizing the fund-raiser for Obama, but he says that Hillary Clinton has deep connections.
"No one has the depth of relationships here that Hilary Clinton does," he says. "She has long-term, deep friendships here in this community, and I think she certainly starts with the significant advantage over the rest of the field here."
In fact, Steven Spielberg — who is co-host of the event for Obama — will sponsor another event for Clinton this spring and is expected to commit to her before long. His business partner, David Geffen, once a devoted Clinton ally, has denounced her as a divisive and unelectable candidate.
In the last presidential election, Hollywood movers and shakers raised millions in political money. Those dollars went to the candidate campaigns, the Democratic National Committee and the groups known as 527 committees, nonprofit organizations that have been exempt from contribution limits in the past.
For example, in 2004, Hollywood money helped finance the activities of Americans Coming Together (ACT), a 527 dedicated to mobilizing Democratic voters. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, donors from the movie industry also sent about $1.3 million to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and not quite $350,000 to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, before he dropped out of the primaries.
Those deep pockets included the political action committees associated with big corporations such as Time Warner and Sony Pictures. They also included Hollywood moguls like Steven Bing, head of Shangri-La Entertainment, who single-handedly contributed more than $8 million to 527 committees in 2004.
When Hollywood donors gave $25,000 each at Kerry fundraisers — as hundreds did in 2004 — that money went to the Democratic National Committee, not to the candidate. The maximum individual donation allowed was $2,000 to a candidate and $25,000 to a party.
Even with those limits, several fundraising events managed to take in large hauls three years ago. A Disney Hall concert collected $5 million, and a Beverly Hills fundraising dinner held at an investment banker's home netted more than $4 million.
That dinner drew big names — Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Aniston, Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, Ted Danson, Daryl Hannah, Oliver Stone, former presidential candidate Jerry Brown, and more.
While Hollywood's politics are largely perceived as liberal — a perception supported by campaign donations — there are some big names in the movie biz who count themselves as GOP supporters.
Besides the movie star currently most famous for his GOP affiliation, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tinseltown's Republicans include Bruce Willis, Dennis Miller, Mel Gibson, Chuck Norris, Ben Stein, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and James Woods.
Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times