President Bush's top political advisor met Sunday with the country's entertainment titans in Beverly Hills in an attempt to enlist Hollywood in persuading the world that Americans are the good guys in the war on terrorism.
Karl Rove began the 90-minute meeting, in the swank but refined environs of the Peninsula Hotel, with a Power Point presentation on the history and reach of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network that some likened to a White House intelligence briefing. When the session ended, several of the moguls publicly expressed eagerness to sign up for the war effort, but they were short on specifics.
"All of us in the industry have had this incredible need, this incredible urge to do something," said Paramount Pictures Chairman Sherry Lansing, a prominent Democrat who co-hosted the meeting.
The meeting was extraordinary if for no other reason than it brought together top-level executives from every major film studio, television network and the screen actors, directors and writers guilds. Most are Democrats, many of them activists and fund-raisers who campaigned against Bush last year. But outrage over the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--and the personal attention of a top White House advisor--made them determined to participate Sunday. Several said afterward that they felt proud to have been tapped for the war effort.
Rove and industry representatives, perhaps mindful of concerns in some quarters of Hollywood that the White House is seeking a war propaganda arm, repeatedly said afterward that there was no overt attempt to dictate the content of movies or television.
But there was general discussion of Washington's war aims and how the U.S. might better communicate that the American assault on Afghanistan is an act of self-defense targeting the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed an estimated 4,500 people.
"One of the big thrusts that we will try to do is . . . make it clear to the millions of Muslims in the world that this is not an attack on Muslims. This is an attack on people who murder innocent people," said Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and co-organizer of the meeting.
Rove's only concrete request was that first-run movies and DVDs be made available more rapidly to front-line military units and U.S. bases. He said the captain of the Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier deployed in the bombing campaign of Afghanistan, had said, "We've got a lot of movies, but they're all old, and we've seen them a lot of times."
Aside from that, the participants agreed to brainstorm some more and meet again at an unspecified date in the future.
"We have taken the wonderful ideas that Mr. Rove has said, which have nothing to do with content . . . that stimulated discussion, and we had more wonderful ideas that came that we all got excited about," Lansing said.
They discussed public service announcements that might be televised in the U.S. and overseas, participation in USO tours and showing more family films on military bases. Rove specifically mentioned the upcoming movies "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
"I don't need to tell you that from time to time this is an antagonistic group," said Valenti, who helped organize the meeting. "We have conflicts . . . but in this meeting there was a seamless web of unity that was really quite affectionate to behold. . . . I will say again there was no mention of content."
Executives in attendance included Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone, Viacom Chairman Jonathan Dolgen, Walt Disney Co. President and Chief Operating Officer Robert Iger, MGM Chairman Alex Yemenidjian, Fox chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman and Warner Bros. Television head Peter Roth.
In addition to Rove, Bush sent Mark McKinnon, who handled media during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.
Sunday's meeting drew a much more enthusiastic response from the industry than an earlier session that brought together mid-level officials and entertainment executives. That meeting, on Oct. 17, was criticized by many in Hollywood as unproductive. In calling Sunday's meeting, Rove made clear that he wanted to hear from just top executives.
Despite the Democratic leanings of many film industry leaders, the Bush administration has been generally friendly. It has refrained from criticizing consolidation of media companies and has been far less critical of film and television violence and marketing techniques than was the administration of President Clinton.
A recent Federal Trade Commission report that accused the studios of marketing adult-themed movies to minors was not mentioned Sunday, according to several participants. During the meeting, Valenti suggested providing additional and widespread air time for Saira Shah's one-hour documentary, "Beneath the Veil," which examined the life of women in Afghanistan. The powerful program, shot in part with hidden cameras by both Shah and representatives of underground women's movements in the country, aired on CNN in September.
Screen Actors Guild President-elect Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls on NBC's "Little House on the Prairie" from 1974 to 1982, told Rove that entertainers were excited at the prospect of performing for troops overseas. As the newly installed chairman of the United Service Organizations, singer Wayne Newton begins a weeklong 14-show USO tour today.
Valenti suggested that public service broadcasts could emphasize that "America has been the most generous country in the world. We have fed and clothed millions of people without asking anything in return."
Valenti, who was an aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, added that the MPAA would coordinate the effort, installing a sort of industry hotline that would connect the participants in Sunday's meeting, catalog their ideas and avoid duplication.
But Bryce Zabel, who heads the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, suggested that amid the patriotic fervor Sunday, considerations of profit were not lost.
"Any projects that result from this will have to pay for themselves," he said. "They're going to have to make some sense on a financial model. If they reflect the 9/11 reality, so much the better, but it's still going to have carry its own weight."
Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times