All About Me
No wonder the rest of the country hates Hollywood. It doesn't take much to see that the entertainment industry's non-cash contributions to the post-9/11 world don't amount to a hill of beans, to use "Casablanca"'s World War II-era parlance. Remember last September's celebrity telethon for the terrorist victims? It turned into a one-time gig whose afterglow was destroyed by ranter-for-ratings Bill O'Reilly. And how about last October's confab at USC's Institute for Creative Technology, where legendary and/or cutting-edge screenwriters and directors all tried to top one another devising doomsday-terrorist scenarios? That group never met again. "I'd say we had most of it covered. But a few things they thought of were unique," Army chief scientist Mike Andrews said. Like what? "I'm not going to tell you."
Which brings us to Hollywood 9/11, that committee dominated by big-media suits and led by Jack Valenti, the chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America. P. Diddy keeps better track of his posse than Valenti, whose office claims he doesn't keep a list of Hollywood 9/11 members. Perhaps there's no need since those much-touted conference calls have dwindled from twice a week to once a week to every two to three weeks, and accomplished so little that the supposedly major successes anyone mentions are the timely delivery of first-run movies to soldiers everywhere, some PSA spots spurring volunteerism, and sporadic show-biz visits to warships and military bases. (Just what Osama bin Laden fears the most: fossilized producer Jerry Weintraub and the cast of "Ocean's Eleven" entertaining the troops live and in person).
Even in this town, where failure is an art form, that's a lousy track record. Little wonder Valenti's leadership of Hollywood 9/11 deserves more scrutiny. (Valenti went AWOL for a scheduled phone interview with the LA Weekly.)
"Everybody had their own ideas about what they thought it would be. But Jack has been nothing but a great driving force in all of this," insists panel member Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. "I still haven't seen anyone else stand up." That anyone even takes Valenti seriously is a bigger mystery than the recent renewal of his reputed $1.2 million-a-year contract to preside over a nonsensical film-ratings system and fight the puerile perils of online piracy. Still a spry anachronism with French cuffs and silver pompadour, Valenti, who turns 81 on September 5, was expected to do a slow fade as soon as Lew Wasserman took his last limousine ride. But then all jostling for Jack's job was postponed when Valenti found a new protector in Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone, who also is determined to rule forever.
Valenti wasn't included when, back on October 17, a grassroots Hollywood gaggle including creatives, TV honchos, the guilds, the academies, even agents and craftsmen, met with three Bush administration operatives in the conference room of entertainment Ã¼berattorney Bruce Ramer's law firm. At the time, the 9/11 sentiment was strong and the ideas symbolic, like when "Bobbie G" (Bob Gale) said pal "Bobbie Z" (Bob Zemeckis) wanted to remake Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" film series to stir the public's patriotism. Friedman's boss, Paramount Pictures' movie chieftain Sherry Lansing, was unable to attend because of a schedule conflict with a meeting of the California Board of Regents, where she is vice chairman. Sources say it was her relationship with fellow Regents board member Gerald Parsky, a Los Angeles venture capitalist and George W's controversial political point man in California, that took Hollywood-Washington cooperation on the war on terrorism to the next level with senior Bush adviser Karl Rove. Next thing anyone knew, a meeting was scheduled November 11 at the Peninsula Hotel, with Lansing and Parsky seated at the head table with Rove and Valenti, who saw to it that, while Redstone and other Viacom/Paramount execs sat in first-class, most of the other Hollywood moguls were relegated to coach.
Sources say that Valenti hijacked the Hollywood 9/11 publicity process even before the start of the meeting when his office wrote a news release on MPAA letterhead containing Rove's seven talking points, a direct Rove quote and other information -- none of which had been vetted in advance by the White House. A journalist alerted some Hollywood Republicans to Valenti's shenanigans. Then, as soon as the Peninsula meeting ended, Valenti grabbed the spotlight again by handing out another press release about what had just happened to the waiting media. "It was a true Hollywood moment," one attendee recalled. When a week later the Los Angeles Times ran a suspiciously timed story quoting Hollywood creatives as questioning whether the Bush administration would keep repeated promises to take content off the table in 9/11 talks, sources say Valenti was suspected as sparking the report.
So what happened? One theory is that Valenti, a lifetime Democrat, was intent on protecting the interests of his party by keeping conservative guru Rove at arm's length from the entertainment business to ensure the 9/11 cause didn't translate into Republican cash. Even hardcore Hollywood Democrats admit that, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and for months afterward, a lot of rhetoric poured from big Democratic donors in praise of Bush -- though a year later, these same fat cats who now find their stock options under water blame Bush for the drowning economy. Another equally convincing explanation is that Valenti was merely doing what he always does: taking his marching orders from the powers who pay him that gargantuan salary and whose egos have to be constantly placated. "By all accounts, that first meeting was a disaster because the wrong people were in the room. Which is why you saw a follow-up meeting with Valenti that attempted to bring in all the studios at a much higher level and engage in a more productive and meaningful dialogue," said a longtime Democratic operative in the entertainment business.
This would mean Hollywood politics wasn't at work; it was Hollywood elitism, which is worse. And this explains why the output of Hollywood 9/11 was so feeble. What a huge mistake to take this campaign out of the hands of creative people and into the maw of the infamous studio and TV-network systems known for skewering every new idea and slowing to a crawl all progress forward. "What do they mean 'the wrong people'? The whole idea was inclusion, and that remark speaks to exclusion," complained veteran screenwriter and director Lionel Chetwynd, a well-known Hollywood Republican and new appointee to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. "It's like they tried to fight a war with only generals and not ground troops."
Chetwynd blames Valenti for this: "Jack's agenda is the industry agenda with a capital I. But some of us who work within the industry with the small i wanted to be part of something to help America too."
Maybe it was a fantasy to think that national tragedy could show the entertainment industry at its most noble. Or maybe it was just Jack Valenti taking a cue from Rick in "Casablanca", who said aptly, "I'm the only cause I'm interested in."