A stylish crowd waited beneath a flashing marquee outside the Fonda Theatre. "Appearing tonight!" the sign read. "Eric Garcetti 4 Mayor."
In a city where political campaigns are typically waged at neighborhood meetings, not Hollywood concert halls, last week's star-studded fundraiser for Garcetti highlighted the entertainment industry's outsized role in this year's mayoral race. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel started the show with a stand-up routine and musician Moby got the crowd of several hundred dancing. Actress Amy Smart urged everyone to tweet about the campaign, and actor Will Ferrell beamed in via video to pledge that if Garcetti is elected, every resident in the city will receive free waffles.
Hollywood is taking to City Hall politics like never before, veterans say, with power players such as Steven Spielberg leading a major fundraising effort and celebrities such as Salma Hayek weighing in via YouTube. A Times analysis of city Ethics Commission records found that actors, producers, directors and others in the industry have donated more than $746,000 directly to candidates, with some $462,000 going to Garcetti and $226,000 to City Controller Wendy Greuel.
Several of Greuel's big-name celebrity supporters, including Tobey Maguire, Kate Hudson and Zooey Deschanel, recently hosted a fundraiser for her at an exclusive club on the Sunset Strip. She is getting extra help from Spielberg and his former partners at DreamWorks, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, who have given at least $150,000 and are raising more for an independent group funding a TV ad blitz on her behalf.
The burst of support is coming from an industry often maligned for paying little attention to local politics.
While Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is often photographed at red carpet events and former Mayor Tom Bradley was famously close to actor Gregory Peck, serious Hollywood money and star power has tended to remain tantalizingly out of reach for local politicians. "It's no secret that the entertainment industry has never really focused on the city that houses it," said Steve Soboroff, who ran for mayor and lost in 2001.
Political consultant Garry South, who has worked on mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns, recalled having to pay celebrities to appear at fundraisers in the past. Hollywood has long embraced candidates in presidential and congressional elections, South said, in part because they have more influence over causes favored by celebrities.
"The mayor of L.A. is not going to get us out of Afghanistan. The mayor of L.A. is not going to determine whether or not gay marriage is legal," South said. "The local issues are just not as sexy."
But this year, if you're a part of the Hollywood establishment, chances are you've gotten invitations to fundraisers for Greuel, Garcetti or both.
The difference this time is that both candidates have worked to cultivate deep Hollywood connections, observers say. Garcetti has represented Hollywood for 12 years, overseeing a development boom and presiding over ceremonies to add stars — Kimmel recently got one — on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Greuel is a former executive at DreamWorks, where she worked with the moguls who founded the studio. She has also served for 10 years on the board of the California Film Commission.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry and entertainment attorney Kevin James have reaped far less financial support from the industry, records show, although each claims a share of celebrity endorsements. Dick Van Dyke sponsored a fundraiser for Perry and Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black has given to James.
Agent Feroz Taj, who attended Garcetti's Moby concert, said a flurry of activity around the race, involving friends and colleagues, piqued his interest. He said he's never been involved in a political campaign, but now when he receives invites to Greuel events, he says he is supporting Garcetti.
Industry insiders have been buzzing about a letter they say is being circulated by an advisor to Spielberg and Katzenberg, urging people to give $15,000 to an independent group supporting Greuel. The DreamWorks founders have made a difference for Greuel in previous elections. In 2002, financial support from the studio executives and their allies helped her squeak out a victory in one of the closest City Council races in history.
This time around, billionaire media mogul Haim Saban is getting involved, providing his Beverly Hills estate for a Greuel fundraiser featuring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Greuel has also received contributions from Tom Hanks and actresses Mariska Hargitay and Eva Longoria, neither of whom have given to a local political campaign before, according to records.
Garcetti, on the other hand, has picked up contributions from former Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner, as well as newcomers to local politics Jake Gyllenhaal and Hayek, who once traveled with Garcetti on a global warming awareness mission to the South Pole. The actress released a video endorsing Garcetti and thanking him for helping her find her wallet in the snow.
Campaign consultant Sean Clegg linked the industry's burgeoning interest in mayoral politics to President Obama's election, which he said had "a catalyzing effect on Hollywood." Indeed, many Greuel and Garcetti supporters were Obama backers. Hayek hosted a fundraiser for Obama and Longoria served as a co-chair of his reelection campaign.
Clegg is a consultant for Working Californians, an independent campaign committee that hopes to raise and spend at least $2 million supporting Greuel, with donations from Spielberg and others in Hollywood, as well as the union representing Department of Water and Power employees.
Generally, Clegg argued, Hollywood money is different than the special-interest funding campaigns collect. "Money is coming out of the entertainment industry more on belief and less on the transactional considerations," he said.
But Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said Hollywood's new interest in local elections may be tied to growing concerns about film production being lured elsewhere by tax incentives.
Garcetti and Greuel have both pledged to reverse job losses tied to runaway television and film production, with Garcetti touting a recent proposal to eliminate roughly $231,000 in annual city fees charged for pilot episodes of new TV shows. The number of pilots shot locally has dropped 30% in recent years, but city budget analysts say the tax break would have a minimal effect because city fees represent only a small portion of production costs.
On the council, both candidates voted to eliminate filming fees at most city facilities. Greuel tells audiences she has an insider's perspective on the industry's needs and says she will create an "entertainment cabinet" to help it thrive. "I have sat with studio heads," she said in a recent interview. "They want a city . . . that is a champion for film industry jobs in Los Angeles."
Greuel may have Garcetti beat on experience in the studio front office, but he is the only candidate with his own page on IMDb.com — a closely watched industry website that tracks individuals' film and television credits.
The councilman, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, has made several television appearances, including one for the cable police drama "The Closer." He played the mayor of Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report.