Hollywood is chasing dignitaries like never before. Who’s reaping the dividends?
We’ve seen Hillary Clinton stand by her husband after he had an affair with a White House intern. We’ve seen her endure 11 grueling hours of questioning about Benghazi. And we’ve seen her gracefully concede a presidential election to the former host of “The Apprentice.”
But in “Gutsy,” premiering Sept. 9 on Apple TV+, the first woman nominated for president by a major political party boldly blazes yet another new trail: She tries landscape painting with Megan Thee Stallion.
“I kind of came to awareness of you with the Cardi B ‘WAP,’” Clinton tells the Houston rapper while dabbing blue paint on a canvas.
Based on “The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience,” the glossy eight-part docuseries follows the former secretary of State and her daughter, Chelsea, as they take on adventures with noteworthy female authors, activists and entertainers. It’s Clinton’s latest foray into content creation, following an intimate docuseries, a podcast, and a page-turning novel currently being developed as a feature film.
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“Gutsy” lands just weeks after the surprise release of “Archetypes,” a Spotify podcast in which Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, talks to her famous friends “about the labels and tropes that try to hold women back.” The premiere episode featured a conversation about ambition with tennis great Serena Williams; a brief cameo by her husband, Prince Harry; and frequent use of the word “archetype” as a verb. Propelled by a newsy tidbit about a fire in son Archie’s room during a trip to South Africa, the episode knocked Joe Rogan off the top of the Spotify charts in the U.S. , hit No. 1 in five other territories and briefly quelled skepticism over the Sussexes’ high-profile media ventures.
Next month comes “Descendant,” a Netflix documentary from executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama, whom you may know from their work on the acclaimed film “American Factory,” the children’s show “Waffles + Mochi” — or their eight years in the White House.
Once upon a time in Hollywood, if you wanted to sign a nine-figure production deal, it helped to produce something first. Now, all you have to do is run a historic presidential campaign or publicly challenge a monarchy that has endured for a thousand years — the latest evolution of the entertainment industry’s long-standing preference for known quantities, from established movie stars to comic-book franchises. Call it the politician as IP.
“Hollywood is beginning to recognize that these are brand names,” said author James Patterson, who has written two bestselling thrillers with Bill Clinton. (A film adaptation of their book “The President Is Missing” is being developed by producer Joe Roth.) “The recognition is incredible. When you attach a big director to a project, or a big writer, or President Clinton, that’s when it gets real to people and you can get other players involved.”
For former presidents and big-name political candidates, cashing in by creating content — whether it’s a memoir, a paid speech or a collection of paintings — is nothing new. It dates back to at least the 19th century, when a cash-strapped Ulysses S. Grant cranked out a memoir as he was dying of cancer. It became a national sensation.
Ronald Reagan — one of two Republican presidents, along with Donald Trump, who started out in showbiz before getting into politics — made millions giving paid speeches after he left the White House, a major controversy at the time but now common practice (albeit one that George H.W. Bush jokingly referred to as “white-collar crime”). Richard Nixon left office in disgrace but was paid a small fortune — $600,000, plus a share in the profits — to sit for a TV interview with British journalist David Frost in a deal championed by legendary agent Swifty Lazar.
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After the Supreme Court handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, former Vice President Al Gore wrote and starred in the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and launched a cable TV network.
”Even before presidents return to private life, they are met with a vast wave of offers to speak or publish or produce, because they all come with a voice and large, built-in audiences,” said Michael Duffy, co-author of “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” and opinions editor-at-large at the Washington Post. “For all content, of course, that’s the coin of the realm.” Temperament also plays a role, Duffy noted. “These are all triple-A personalities, and so they don’t know how to slow down, much less stop.”
But the trend accelerated when the Obamas left the White House in 2017 — just as streaming and podcasting were exploding, and the industry, rattled by Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election, scrambled to find new ways to meld activism with entertainment.
“It used to just be books and lectures, and now it’s a whole world of entrepreneurism,” said Hannah Linkenhoker, formerly a political strategist at ICM and now chief engagement officer at the entertainment law firm Johnson Shapiro Slewett & Kole. “As with any venture in this business, there are some winners and there are lots of losers.”
The Clintons, Obamas and Sussexes are not alone, either: Other figures known for their work in (mostly liberal) politics and activism are forging new paths in the industry.
With a Nobel Peace Prize and a degree from Oxford already under her belt, Malala Yousafzai took the next logical step: forging a programming pact with Apple TV+. Meanwhile, Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia and has published numerous books under a pen name, sold the rights to her political thriller, “While Justice Sleeps,” to British production company Working Title, to adapt for television. She also produced the voting rights documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” released by Amazon in 2020.
While in office, Obama shrewdly used different media platforms to get his message out. He became the first sitting president to appear on a late-night show, sat for podcast interviews and even plugged his healthcare program on a fake talk show, “Between Two Ferns.” He also signaled, over and over again, that he cared about pop culture and had good taste. He saw “Hamilton” before it was cool, name-checked “Mad Men” in a State of the Union speech and interviewed David Simon about “The Wire.” Like a professional critic, he puts out year-end lists of his favorite books and movies.
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So a post-White House career as a producer made a certain kind of sense — especially for someone who finished paying off his student loans shortly before running for president and was no doubt happy to make some real scratch. And the Obamas’ deal at Netflix, announced in 2018, has been fruitful, though Higher Ground hasn’t produced a massive, buzzy hit on par with “Bridgerton” or “Tiger King”: “American Factory” won an Oscar, and other projects, including the nature series “Our Great National Parks” and the kids’ show “Ada Twist, Scientist,” also have fared well.
Likewise, the former Meghan Markle was an actress on a popular cable drama and a lifestyle blogger with a large Instagram following before she married into the royal family. From the moment he was paraded in front of the cameras as a newborn, Prince Harry has been providing content for other people to package and profit from. Now he can do it on his own terms — and make enough money to pay for an estate in Montecito while he’s at it.
Even Hillary Clinton, often tarred as calculating and aloof during her time as first lady, has become more comfortable with the performative aspects of politics over the years, appearing in self-deprecating sketches on “Saturday Night Live” and gleefully participating in “but her email” memes.
And perhaps that is at the core of politicians’ emergence as both the creators and subjects of entertainment content. More than ever, connecting with voters and connecting with audiences via social media are one and the same, a prerequisite of both political success and Hollywood profitability. Consider the Senate race in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman is leading in the polls against his Republican rival, Mehmet Oz — an actual celebrity — thanks in part to his culturally savvy Twitter trolling.
What remains unclear is whether these supposed “vanity deals” are sustainable in an environment that has become much more cost-conscious and risk-averse over a few short months. Executives who once were happy to throw money at global luminaries now are proceeding with greater caution.
Spotify recently opted not to renew a podcasting deal with the Obamas, and “Archetypes” was the first Sussex project of any kind to come to fruition since the couple signed lucrative deals with Spotify (worth a reported $25 million) and Netflix (a reported $100 million) in late 2020, months after resigning from “the firm.” The couple founded their company, Archewell, with the goal of creating “programming that informs, elevates, and inspires,” but so far they have mostly inspired speculation. Netflix has yet to announce a release date for ”Heart of Invictus,” a docuseries about the Invictus Games, or confirm the existence of another widely rumored reality series about Harry and Meghan’s new life in California. The streaming service also dropped “Pearl,” an animated series created by Meghan about influential women in history, as part of wide-ranging cutbacks this spring.
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Then there’s the more fraught question of the effectiveness of these projects as a form of political communication. In its debut last month, “Archetypes” did more to generate sympathetic headlines about the pressure Meghan faced inside the royal bubble than to provoke discussions of harmful gender stereotypes. Opening with another telling of the oft-repeated story of how Meghan got a soap company to rewrite a sexist ad when she was 11, the first installment felt like a slick and expensive personal branding exercise. Episode 2, with guest Mariah Carey, was released this week.
“Gutsy” traffics in a similar form of easily digestible feminism. Polished and beautifully photographed, the docuseries features a painstakingly curated blend of guests, from comedian Wanda Sykes to Indigenous model Quannah Chasinghorse. It captures a sillier, accessible version of Clinton, who irritates her daughter with endearingly corny mom jokes and clearly enjoys talking to people from all walks of life.
But the episodes are organized around subjects so broad — love, nature, motherhood, humor — and structured so loosely that they feel lightweight even within the context of a series that puts a premium on personality rather than policy at an urgent moment for women. Though the presence of labor-organizing legend Dolores Huerta and others offers a substantive counterbalance to celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kate Hudson, “Gutsy” is ultimately a series about risk-taking women that takes too few risks.
It’s impossible to know whether this more cautious approach will prove attractive in the long term to Hollywood executives and their civic leaders turned stars, particularly as Trump and others in conservative politics continue to expand provocative and expressly partisan media ecosystems of their own. What remains true, for now, is that working in showbiz, as cutthroat as it can be, is especially appealing to those who’ve already toiled in public service. The pay is usually better and, if nothing else, no one will make you wear pantyhose.
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