Elections magnify film politics amidst a closely contested presidential race

By Scott Collins, Ben Fritz and Rebecca Keegan

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

The people running Hollywood studios tend to support Democrats. DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, for example, hosted a fundraiser at George Clooney's house in May that raised nearly $15 million for Obama's re-election effort. But the entertainment industry also includes some prominent right-leaning voices, including Eastwood, "The View" co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and TV tough guys Chuck Norris and Tom Selleck.

There's no doubt that the entertainment industry can help attract attention for a presidential candidate. But others say that, despite all the sound and fury, Hollywood's role in any election is probably tangential at best.

Marty Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor who once worked for former Democratic White House contender Walter Mondale, called the SEALs film a "brilliant" ploy by Weinstein, who's as well-known for his marketing prowess as for his tendency to meddle in last-minute creative decisions.

If not for the controversy, "people wouldn't be talking about it," Kaplan said of "SEAL Team Six." "But as for any impact on the voter? The chances are pretty slim."

That's especially true given the competition: Any would-be Hollywood Svengali has to compete with the realities of the massive political war chests of 2012. This election cycle will see an estimated $3 billion in local TV ads alone, according to Kantar Media — plenty to counter the influence of TV and film celebrities.

What's more, an entertainment figure can quickly turn into a liability, even an embarrassment. Romney, who personally picked Eastwood to deliver the RNC speech, discovered that the hard way when his debate with an empty chair was mocked by TV comedians.

And Donald Trump, among Obama's highest-profile critics, became the butt of jokes when he offered $5 million to charity if the president would hand over his passport and college records. "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" drew passionate applause from its studio audience with a computer-generated skit that appeared to show the real-estate icon and "Celebrity Apprentice" boss being hurled through a high-rise window to the street below.

Some experts say that the benefits of free exposure from celebrities are still worth the risks. When Bruce Springsteen went to Ohio — a key swing state — to endorse Obama recently, scores of stories resulted online and on TV. That amounted to free advertising for the president's campaign.

"Free media is still huge," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. "Free media is viewed as more legitimate by average voters than are campaign ads. Obama appearing on Leno, 'The View' and MTV does more for voters viewing these shows than any ads that might run during those shows. Recent news accounts of Romney's improving poll numbers do much more to help his campaign than any ads that crow about campaign momentum.

"Paid media is important to establish candidate legitimacy, but campaign ads become noise at a certain point," McCall added. "Ads keep a candidate's name in the voters' short-term memory, but free media in news shows or interview shows can provide dimensions to candidates that ads just can't."

All of which may be true. But it says something about the current partisan divide that America's most famous director thinks it's too risky to release a movie about America's most famous president during a presidential campaign.

"After the election is over," Spielberg said, "it'll be nice to start to share 'Lincoln' with the public."

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