Will Hollywood be coaxed to the political middle?

Will Hollywood be coaxed to the political middle?
© Getty Images

It looked like a typical Hollywood scene at first glance: 500 people packed into a theater on the Paramount Studios lot. But no one was there to screen the latest blockbuster, or to listen to a media mogul. They came to hear red-district Democrats talk about life in the party’s political center.

That is anything but typical for Hollywood.

The event a couple of weeks ago was the largest so far in a modest but growing movement that could impact the 2020 race, by shifting chunks of entertainment industry activism and money toward the Democratic middle and away from the left-leaning edges.


This push began during the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. Billy Ray, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, was convinced that Democrats had let 2016 slip away by ignoring entire categories of voters. Ray invited Democratic congressional candidates from red districts to meet Hollywood activists at his home. The goal: convincing industry influencers (and their bank accounts) to avoid judging red-state candidates with litmus tests and policy checklists that don’t work for them and their constituents.

Ray told me he “needed Hollywood to understand red state voters and stop demonizing them.”

After the House flipped Democratic in 2018, his effort gained more attention. The free gatherings that started in Ray’s living room grew into that crowded theater at Paramount, where the audience included at least one former television studio chief, several top agents and an actor dressed in surgeon’s scrubs on a meal break from a TV series that films on the studio’s backlot.

The stage featured a panel, moderated by Ray, with four Democrats from normally red districts: Katie Hill (D-Calif.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), Colin Allred (D-Texas) and Cindy Axne (D-Iowa). As they described hometown voters, the words “practical solutions” and “pragmatic thinking” kept cropping up. Major issues in their districts did not include divisive topics like impeachment — because jobs, health care, tariffs and opioid addiction are more imperative.

That position was met with applause uncommon for an entertainment industry audience. Hollywood is, as most everyone knows, a very deep shade of blue — a community that combines strong commitment to certain key issues with financial resources to make an impact.


Another version of that deep shade was on full display right around the same time up in San Francisco, at the California Democratic convention. The Bay Area throng featured 14 of the party’s presidential contenders — but also included heckles for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over impeachment foot-dragging and boos aimed at presidential candidate and former governor John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada Trump seeks to boost vulnerable GOP senator with Colorado rally Nonpartisan election forecaster moves Colorado Senate race to 'leans Democratic' MORE (D-Colo.) when he denounced socialism. (Hickenlooper was criticized in March for hesitating to call himself a “capitalist” during an MSNBC interview. He apparently thought the California convention presented a good opportunity to clarify his remarks. Wrong crowd.)

Over the course of the two-day session, a segment of California Democrats clearly demonstrated that moving the state’s party to the center may take more than a few panel discussions at a screenwriter’s house and a studio theater.

But the effort is being made — and attention should be paid — because of a revised 2020 primary calendar that will rewrite any political scripts that came before it. California’s Democratic primary is now scheduled for Super Tuesday, March 3, moved up from its traditional and meaningless slot in June when the race is typically all but over. For the first time in a long time, California will be a big factor in choosing a presidential nominee.

That puts a much brighter spotlight on Hollywood Democrats. Thanks to their checkbooks and activist energy, they have always been influential — but entertainment industry powerbrokers now face an unusual amount of pressure. Democrats are desperate to get President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE out of the White House; at the same time, the new primary line-up gives California extra clout.

The intraparty tension all this has created was on full display in San Francisco and at the Paramount theater: mission-driven foot soldiers versus Hollywood donors; purity versus practicality; litmus tests versus electability.

A heightened sense of urgency — something close to the mantra “Failure is not an option” from the movie “Apollo 13” — ultimately may coax Hollywood into the middle. Meetings with red-state Democrats could indeed help move that along. Where California eventually lands on Super Tuesday, and what role Hollywood money and power play in that, will determine how Democrats of all stripes feel the morning after Election Day.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter@ironworker1.