The Taliban better brace themselves. Forget the 5,000-pound "bunker busters," the 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutters" and even those dastardly cluster bombs that the US Air Force has been raining down on their frontlines. If some in Hollywood get their way, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden's followers may soon face bombardment with plastic videocassettes featuring Spielberg's latest patriotic musing.
"Why not ask some of our very best filmmakers to do a three-minute piece on the theme 'My Country 'Tis of Thee‚' and then compile them together on video and airdrop them over areas hostile to us?" suggests Bryce Zabel, screenwriter and now chair and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. That was just "one idea of about twenty" that Zabel says he brought to what some are calling the Beverly Hills Summit. The November 11 powwow at the cushy Beverly Peninsula Hotel brought together almost four dozen of the Hollywood power elite with President Bush's top adviser and strategist, Karl Rove. Their mission: to explore how the entertainment industry can assist the Administration's war on terrorism.
The meeting was co-hosted by two stalwarts of Liberal Hollywood: Sherry Lansing, chair of the Paramount Pictures film division, and Jonathan Dolgen, head of Viacom's entertainment group, and it drew the chiefs of all the major networks and studios as well as representatives of the directors' and actors' unions. Not much concrete came out of the closed-door conclave, except a flurry of articles and promises by both sides to continue talking. But everyone, including Jack Valenti, the legendary chair of the Motion Picture Association of America, made a point of stressing that film and TV "content were not on the table" and that nobody even remotely suggested that Hollywood start cranking out crass pro-war propaganda. "We are already propaganda experts," laughs producer Lynda Obst, who did not attend the meeting. "We are the veritable American Dream Machine. We hardly need any instruction from Karl Rove in this area."
Rove stresses that he had no intention of giving marching orders to Hollywood. "The industry will decide what it will do and when it will do it," he said as he emerged from the Sunday morning meeting. Instead Rove briefed the Hollywood executives on a seven-point message that the White House would like to stress: that the war is against terrorism, not Islam; that Americans must be called to national service; that Americans should support the troops; that this is a global war that needs a global response; that this is a war against evil; that American children have to be reassured; and that instead of propaganda, the war effort needs a narrative that should be told, said a straight-faced Rove, with accuracy and honesty.
Reaction to the new and sudden flirtation between Hollywood and the Bush White House runs the gamut in Tinseltown. On the enthusiastic side, Zabel says he came away from the meeting with a very "clear idea" of the seven themes Rove outlined to the group. "What we are excited about is neither propaganda nor censorship," says Zabel. "The word I like is advocacy. We are willing to volunteer to become advocates for the American message." On the more negative end of the spectrum, one prominent actor-director, requesting anonymity so that he might "continue having lunch in this town," called the meeting "little more than a jerk-off session."
Those who cover Hollywood as a profession had a more measured, if equally jaded, response. "This was the usual boring Washington-Hollywood dumb show," says John Powers, film critic for NPR's Fresh Air. He adds, "They pretend they are going to do something important, knowing full well nothing will ever come of it." Or at least, what will come of it has little to do with the stated public agenda. "These two communities mirror each other more than they like to admit, and frankly, they envy each other," says Peter Rainer, who covers Hollywood for New York magazine. "They are both very powerful and they lament missing any attempt to be at each other's table."
Republicans can only dream of the cash squeezed out of Hollywood by rival Democrats every election cycle. And Hollywood, for its part, would no doubt like to cease being the conservatives' preferred whipping boy for all that ails America. "Like Vietnam gave Nixon cover for going to China, maybe September 11 gives Dubya the opening to make peace with Hollywood," says one LA-based talent agent. And Hollywood may just be ripe for such entreaties–in part because of demographics, in part because of the reworked psychopolitical mood in the post-9/11 era. "You have a whole generation of ex-SDS lefties in power in this town all of a sudden feeling patriotic for the first time in their lives," says producer Obst, a high-profile advocate of liberal causes. "They all want to do something, but they're not sure what."
The bicoastal rapprochement began to take shape in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Hollywood writers and producers volunteered in droves to participate in private "brainstorming sessions" that were convened at the Institute for Creative Technologies, an Army-funded video training research center administered by the University of Southern California [see "The Army's Dream Lab," this issue]. Those sessions, attended by John Milius, who co-wrote Apocalypse Now, and by a writer of Die Hard, among many others, tried to guess what the terrorists' next move might be. Producers, directors and writers were only too happy to have Pentagon brass hear their story lines, and were not displeased to hear one another's pitches either, says one participant in the sessions.
In mid-October a group of three dozen actors, writers and producers, led by conservatives–screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd and documentary producer Craig Haffner–put together the first formal exploratory meeting with two lower-level White House aides. Within a month, the "creatives" were pushed aside, and the November 11 meeting was reconfigured at the highest level: Bush's right-hand man, Rove, and the all-powerful business-side "suits" who run corporate Hollywood. "What Hollywood and Washington have in common is reverence and respect for the orderly making of money," says Robert Rosen, the dean of UCLA's Film and TV School. So he's not surprised that the contacts would take place at the highest level. But Rosen, like most observers, expects little direct or visible effect on Hollywood's product as a result of détente with Washington. Any comparisons to Hollywood's prolific pro-war output during World War II are simply misplaced, he argues. "During World War II there was no TV," he says. "The only way you could 'see' the war was through the movies. That's hardly the case today."
The eighteen-month minimum lead time on movies also makes them a poor carrier of urgent topicality. And that's all for the better, argues director Sydney Pollack. At a forum of Hollywood directors held a month after the attacks, he reminded the audience that the very best films about Vietnam were produced with tempered hindsight, years after the conflict had concluded. "The worst that could happen now," he said, "is everyone in Hollywood feeling a sense of obligation to do something about [September 11] that turns into some sort of agitprop."
In the meantime, Hollywood movie executives, already notoriously cautious about which films get made and which do not, are expected to do more of the same after September 11. "Nothing has really changed," says critic Rainer. "It's the usual uncertainty, the same syndrome as always, just a slightly different cast of characters." More than any political consideration, it will be, as usual, interpretation of audience desire and sensibility that will determine future film product. Says producer Obst: "The box office is God. And there shall be no false gods before it. Period."
The informal consensus in Hollywood is that the safest bet in the current atmosphere is the "family market." Certain kinds of war movies are under consideration. Supernatural thrillers that get the audience out of the uncertain material world are considered attractive. And all those yuppie-millionaire movie projects are being replaced by stories featuring gritty and courageous blue-collar heroes. (Got an NYFD script molding in your top drawer?) There are also a lot of movies shaped for export under consideration, as sales in the international market now provide the thin margin of profit for an increasing number of producers.
Indeed, Robert Greenwald, who has produced or directed more than forty TV, cable and independent feature films, says it is the recession, much more than the war or overt political entreaties, that is likely to shape the future of Hollywood production. "Economics trumps everything in this business," he says. And while 2001 is promising to be a record $8 billion year for Hollywood box-office receipts, TV, film and commercial production is in a deep and worrisome slump; industry employment is at its lowest level in four years. "Prior to September 11, we were already feeling an enormous recession in my world of cable, network and independent feature films," says Greenwald. "And since September 11, it has already gotten radically worse. Production is dominated by big multinationals and vertically integrated conglomerates, and right now they're all cutting back. Funding is drying up all around us."
There could have been no clearer indication of the economic imperative that rules Hollywood than an incident that took place just seventy-two hours before the Hollywood-Washington summit meeting. On the Thursday night before the Sunday meeting, President Bush asked for network airtime to make a major address to the nation on the unfolding war in Afghanistan. Of the four networks, only ABC ceded the President the prime-time half-hour he wanted. Even Roger Ailes, former President George H.W. Bush's campaign strategist and now head of the right-leaning Fox Network, refused to turn over the airtime to his former client's son. The decision by three of the nets not to cede the costly airtime was made by many of the same executives who came to meet with and applaud Karl Rove three days later.
Their reticence was confirmed by the overnight ratings. Calculations by Nielsen Media Research showed that only 11 percent of viewers tuned in to ABC to watch the President's speech on the progress of the war. But twice that amount watched Friends and a rerun of Will & Grace on rival NBC, and 18 percent saw Survivor on CBS. The Hollywood executives who applauded Karl Rove will surely be pondering those numbers every bit as carefully as the fine print of the talk given them by the President's adviser.