By Kevin Bogardus - 10/16/13 10:00 AM EDT
The influence industry has gone Hollywood.
Trade associations, unions and advocacy groups say one of the best ways to get the attention of lawmakers is to reserve them a seat at the local multiplex.
They’re increasingly staging private screenings of hot films and inviting lawmakers to hobnob with the stars. The hope is that the glitz and glamour of the events will get lawmakers to take a closer look at policy problems that are portrayed on-screen.
Trevor Neilson, who has advised celebrities on the ways of Washington as partner and president of Global Philanthropy Group, said the events can pay big political dividends.
“The huge part of the battle for an industry group is just getting people to pay attention,” Neilson said. “I can see more and more groups doing this. We are a celebrity-obsessed culture.”
Movie screenings have long been a mainstay for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the chief lobby group for film studios. The MPAA has a state-of-the-art screening room that has hosted Washington power players for decades.
Now other trade groups are looking to capture the movie magic.
One new lobbying push is centered on “Captain Phillips,” a film starring Tom Hanks that recreates the dramatic Navy SEAL rescue of the seaman who was held hostage by Somali pirates.
The real-life Capt. Richard Phillips is trying his hand at lobbying, helping officials from the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MMP) shed light on the merchant marine’s problems.
Phillips said the movie has grabbed people’s attention, presenting the union with a big opportunity.
“It opens the door, but that is all it does. We have to get people saying the right statements and the right facts, to get the facts out there, so people know and make the right decisions,” Phillips told The Hill.
Phillips is expected to attend an Oct. 23 screening in Washington of his namesake movie. About 300 people are expected to attend, and invitations have been sent to roughly 50 members of Congress.
“We take the view it doesn’t hurt. Whether it actually helps, we’re not sure. You have got to think of the situation on the Alabama as a microcosm of what’s happening to our industry. You are under siege and you need to fight to keep your survival,” said Capt. Steve Werse, MMP’s secretary-treasurer, referring to the ship Phillips was captured on.
The union is worried about the federal spending cuts from sequestration, which it says could take out a number of merchant marine ships — private ships that are paid by the U.S. government to haul cargo, military and otherwise.
They’re also concerned about a proposed change in food aid policy that would give funds to developing countries instead of shipping them U.S. food directly.
“We want to fight to keep the backbone of our industry going,” Werse said. “We have reached a critical point where if we do any more outsourcing ... we will not be there for the next war.”
The ship captains are not the only ones who see Hollywood as a ticket to Washington.
The American Gaming Association (AGA) put together a full-fledged promotional campaign around the movie “Runner Runner,” which features Ben Affleck manipulating Internet gambling from a hideout in Costa Rica.
The casino lobby has embraced the film, seeing it as an argument in favor of increased federal regulation of online gambling, which they say is being abused by foreign operators.
The AGA has run online ads on IMDB as well as Google, Facebook and Twitter related to the film. It has also set up its own website geared to the movie and highlighted an AGA-commissioned study that shows Americans spent $2.6 billion on illegal offshore gambling websites last year.
The movie hasn’t done well, only earning about $7 million during its opening weekend at the box office. But the trade group said the film — which also stars Justin Timberlake — has been a godsend.
“The movie presented an opportunity to get our message out. We knew a movie was coming out with two A-List actors,” Freeman said. “We could sit back and see what happens or we could leverage the opportunity and engage.”
Oscar-nominated movies have proven to be especially effective at stirring up debate in Washington.
Earlier this year, a National Alliance on Mental Illness lobbyist was part of a press conference where actor Bradley Cooper was the main draw.
The NAMI said the appearance by Cooper, who played a man dealing with bipolar disorder in “Silver Linings Playbook,” did wonders for their cause.
“The reason to have those kind of events with celebrities is because they gather attention. People want to hear what they have to say about their cause or issue,” said Katrina Gay, NAMI’s national communications director.
Many groups consider movies as part of their lobbying tool kit. The Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug policy reforms, has organized more than 100 events for screenings of “The House I Live In,” a documentary by Eugene Jarecki that takes a critical look at the war on drugs.
But the group’s biggest hope for changing drug policy might be that old Hollywood standby — the sequel.
“We need the sequel at least in spirit to ‘Traffic,’ which showed the futility of the drug war,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director for the Drug Policy Alliance.