There's been plenty of talk about how the Democratic Party is strongly supported by Hollywood -- and MPAA boss Chris Dodd famously threatened
politicians that Hollywood might not fund their campaigns if they didn't support SOPA. So it's quite interesting to see Mother Jones' detailed analysis of Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg's strong support of President Obama's last campaign
. There's a lot of nuance in there, so this is not just a case of clear tit-for-tat political funding in exchange for political favors. The article states multiple times that Katzenberg doesn't really seem that focused on getting anything back for his efforts and money.
Katzenberg has said he wants nothing, personally or professionally, in exchange for his support of the president, and DreamWorks' DC agenda is hard to glean: The studio has no lobbyists and is not part of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
Later in the article, it notes that Chris Dodd asked Katzenberg to speak to Obama to find out his stance on SOPA in January of 2012, which was "mortifying" for Dodd, since Dreamworks is not a member of the MPAA. Katzenberg, who did support SOPA, still refused Dodd's request, but then did help to "soothe the egos" of other studio heads after Obama came out against SOPA, to make sure they kept funding him. As the article notes: "In the end, Katzenberg chose to help Obama win over his industry rather than helping his industry win over Obama."
Obama officials say they respect Katzenberg not only for his fundraising, but also because he has no specific "ask"—no ambassadorship to Switzerland, no regulatory tweak, no nights in the Lincoln Bedroom.
While that's good, the article does make clear two things: (1) even if he's not asking for anything specifically, he does have incredible clout, (2) the administration seems to want to keep wider Hollywood happy anyway, knowing that it will keep Katzenberg happy. In other words, even if Katzenberg's own motives are entirely pure, the possibility of policy pandering to him and his friends is high.
Obama takes Katzenberg's calls, and he and his political adviser, Andy Spahn, visited the White House almost 50 times between them during Obama's first term. (Not all of Spahn's visits had to do with Katzenberg.) It has also left him well positioned to advocate for his industry's and his company's interests in China's booming film market.
And, of course, lots of Democratic politicians now want to curry favor with Katzenberg and his friends, whether or not he asks for it.
Adds Paul Begala: "Every Democrat who has presidential ambitions is now going to beat a path straight for Jeffrey's door. Or they're too dumb to be president."
The end result, of course, are favorable deals even if they don't ask directly.
Yet it is hard to deny that he—along with Hollywood as a whole—has benefited from his connections. In the 2012 fiscal-cliff fight, for instance, the White House insisted Congress preserve a $430 million tax break for film studios that keep production jobs in the United States.
But, the much bigger deal, as the article explains, is how the administration, led by Joe Biden (of course), has helped clear the way for the Chinese market.
In July 2011, ahead of a trade visit to China, Vice President Joe Biden met with industry leaders who asked him to press their case. Biden, too, returned empty-handed. Seven months later, Xi Jinping, then China's leader-in-waiting, made his first official visit to America. On hand to greet him was Katzenberg, who scored a seat next to Xi at a State Department luncheon.
Later that week, Xi and Biden traveled to Los Angeles, and Katzenberg joined them for lunch with Gov. Brown. Biden spent the day pushing Xi on the film quota and profit sharing disputes. The White House wanted to bump the studios' portion from 13 percent to 27 percent, but as the negotiations intensified, Biden asked Katzenberg and Disney CEO Bob Iger what they could live with. Then Biden made Xi a new offer: 25 percent. Xi agreed, and he also said China would let in 14 more foreign-made 3-D and IMAX movies each year.
Katzenberg was simultaneously working on a $350 million deal to open Oriental DreamWorks, a new animation studio in Shanghai—and it couldn't happen without Xi's approval. That same day, at a US-China economic forum held at a downtown LA hotel, Katzenberg officially unveiled the project—and proudly announced that it now bore Xi's personal endorsement.
Having the VP of the US personally negotiate a huge deal like that for you is certainly a nice side benefit.
There's a lot more in the profile, which is really worth reading in full. It seems pretty clear that, unlike some who donate heavily, it really doesn't seem like Katzenberg is funding Obama because he wants something back directly, but rather because he believes in Obama himself. But what's most interesting to me is that, even if that's the case, the end results
are almost still the same thing. Even without specific policy desires or asks, because of the money on the line, politicians (especially those vying for that money in the future) often feel they need to heed the general desires of the industry in order to keep that money flowing. That, alone, at least gives the appearance
of corruption. Or, as Larry Lessig has called it repeatedly, "soft corruption." It's not the out and out bribery that many people think, but rather the overall set up that generally incentivizes behavior in the direction that favors the funders, even if it's at the expense of the public.
Of course, in the end what this comes down to, as always, is the issue of money and politics, and how it turns a democratic process into one in which those with more dollars have a lot more power and say. And that's still a big problem.