With less than two weeks to go, if there is one phrase that defines how Hollywood’s top Democrats are viewing the election it’s “cautious optimism.”
As in, don’t get too fooled again, don’t let anything to chance, certainly don’t make predictions. “I’d say I’ve got a cautious optimism going into these last few weeks, a good feeling, but no illusions about what the other side may do,” a top executive with long links to Hollywood political circles says.
The shadow of 2016 hangs over the final stretch, even as Democratic challenger Joe Biden maintains a larger lead and circumstances are different than they were back then. For one, as we head into tonight’s final debate between the candidates, Donald Trump is defending the past four years in office, particularly his COVID-19 response, the more than 220,000 Americans dead from the virus, and he has shown little sign of staying on a disciplined message in the closing days of the campaign.
For another, there is not the complacency that greeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign which, after a successful convention and debate appearances, seemed set on the idea that the best way to beat the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host was to disqualify him. In the final days of her race, she barnstormed across swing states, and appeared at a star-studded rally in Philadelphia that gave an appearance that she had it in the bag.
“I’ve learned in business and politics that there is no sure thing, so, yes, the numbers look good for Biden, very good, but anything can happen up until Election Day,” one prominent producer and deep pocket donor to the Democrats told Deadline.
This year, the entertainment industry has focused a bit on bread-and-butter organizing, as opposed to flashy campaign appearances, in part because the COVID-19 epidemic has limited campaign schedules. Biden’s campaign has arranged weekly Zoom calls with up to 50 showrunners, actors and actresses and other creative types in an effort to coordinate activities, which have included Instagram Live chats and Zoom calls. Some industry figures, like Cher, are hitting the trail for Biden in the closing weeks of the race.
“If it were a big movie, I’d say the tracking looks good and pre-sales are encouraging, but you never know what happens on opening day,” Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Motion Pictures Group, said via email.
“I feel that nobody can take anything for granted at this point,” said UTA co-president Jay Sures. While emphasizing the importance of voting no matter who wins, he was direct in his appraisal of the former VP: “I think he is going to do a great job if elected, I really do.”
“I think nothing is done until it’s done, and it is essential to not get ahead of ourselves,” said Chris Silbermann, CEO of ICM Partners. “If 2016 taught us anything about how people actually vote, it is that nobody knows anything and it could still go either way.”
Like most Hollywood A-listers, interviewed on and off the record, Silbermann is circumspect about reading too much into the polls, and noted, “If people don’t show up to vote and think the race is in the bag, that’s a problem.”
“Look at what has happened in the past four years: Who would have thought elected officials would have backed this type of behavior and hypocrisy” of this Senate Supreme Court confirmation process.
That reaction is typical of the vigilant but modest Hollywood GOP crowd. “As a Republican, I am cautiously optimistic that Biden will win,” stated a well-connected industry Westsider. “Supreme narcissism is just not my cup of tea, but I also am not enthusiastically in favor of Biden,” she added.
On the other hand, there are some industry veterans of past POTUS races who are very enthusiastic of their support of poll-leading Biden and his path to victory. “I’m immensely confident Biden and [running mate Kamala] Harris will win and they will do it definitively,” says one showrunner how has long backed the Dems with a checkbook. “Georgia and Iowa will go blue, maybe Ohio. Nationally, it’ll tighten up a little, but not by much.”
Looking down ballot, one studio boss predicts not only a clear Biden win but the Democrats snaring both chambers of Congress. “Senate flips to Dems and the party grows majority in the House,” he asserts, citing surprisingly tight races in once GOP strongholds like Arizona.
Still, Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures, agrees that the “general sense is a sense of cautious optimism.” The cautious part, he said, is what the aftermath of the election will look like “and what other measures might be taken to disrupt the process.”
He said that he thinks this is different from 2016 in that “people have had four years of the Trump Administration to make their judgments about it. I think at the time, there was a sense among some Trump supporters that they wanted something new, and they found out what the difference was.”
His encouragement also comes from Biden’s lead, which has been consistent nationally but “also in the key states that will determine this election.”
Biden has managed to draw heavily on entertainment industry support, particularly after securing the Democratic nomination. During the primary, he trailed Harris and Pete Buttigieg when it came to entertainment industry contributions, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
But he’s so far raised more than $10.7 million from entertainment industry sources, compared to almost $850,000 for Trump, according to CRP.
Overall, showbiz money going to all Democrats in federal races is far outpacing that of Republicans. Entertainment sources have shelled out more than $52 million to Democratic candidates and campaigns, compared to almost $8 million for Republicans. That is a breakdown of 86%-13%, the most lopsided total in favor of Democrats since CRP began collecting records in 1990.
Gianopulos hosted Biden at his and his wife Ann’s home in September 2019. “From the beginning I thought he was the ideal candidate to go the distance. There were great candidates, but I felt like it was Joe’s time. He had the unifying aspect of his experience.”
Rothman, who with his wife Jessica Harper hosted Biden at an event in July 2019, said, that what he worries about most is voter suppression. He’s been working with a group called Knock for Democracy which “has managed to make calling voters fun.”
“In Hollywood, we pay a lot of attention to ’stakes,’’ Rothman said. “The stakes in this story are biblical, and people are engaged accordingly.”
Silbermann is concerned about the “disaster scenario” of an Electoral College fight, and sees the need for an election where there is an “overwhelming repudiation of Trump and Trumpism.”
More than anything, he’s directing energies for encouraging people to vote — and to do so now. ICM also is giving employees Election Day off as a paid holiday, encouraging them to not only vote but also provide support at polling places.
Silbermann said that he thinks people in the industry are very engaged, the difference being that there hasn’t been an in-person fundraising circuit. “I would not mistake a lack of in person social interaction for a lack of enthusiasm.”
“I am not going to get optimistic yet. I’m going to be realistic. No matter how you look at it, it’s a dog fight.”
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