Actors Join Tech Tycoons Backing Obama Amid Piracy Feud

Actors Join Tech Tycoons Backing Obama as Feud Looms Over Piracy
Actor George Clooney, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama talks about Sudan during a meeting outside the Oval Office. Source: The White House, Pete Souza via Getty Images

Three months after a tuxedo-clad George Clooney shared a White House dinner table with Barack and Michelle Obama, the president traveled to the actor’s mansion in Studio City for another meal. That second party, a star-studded affair in May, came with a better dessert: $15 million in campaign cash.

Less than two weeks later, Obama returned to California, this time to the San Francisco Bay area, to collect contributions from the state’s technology crowd at a Hawaiian-themed dinner thrown by venture capitalist Douglas Goldman.

“Arguably, California has become the ATM for Democrats in this race,” said Chris Lehane, a San Francisco-based party strategist who worked on Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Hollywood is doing more than ever; Silicon Valley is stepping up with its new money.”

Obama, 51, has attended at least 25 California fundraisers in the past two years, records show. Almost all were in or near Los Angeles or San Francisco. Golden State residents account for one-fifth, or about $31 million, of the re-election campaign’s contributions of more than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks fundraising.

Piracy Fight

Tech and entertainment’s like-minded backing of Obama masks a political drama embroiling these two industries: a fight over content piracy. Winning the president’s favor could give one side an edge in a legislative battle that might be re-engaged as early as next year.

If Hollywood succeeds in curtailing unsanctioned use of its content online by going after companies such as Google Inc., it would hamper the growth of the Internet and free speech, the technology industry has argued. For Google and other Silicon Valley companies, whose employees have invested millions of dollars in Obama’s campaign, winning the piracy fight could translate to billions for their bottom line, said Andrew Schwartzman, a communications attorney in Washington.

The stakes are high in Hollywood, too. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates the film industry loses $20 billion annually to piracy. Federal researchers have called the cost “sizable,” while saying it is impossible to calculate.

Internet Protest

Movie studios were close this year to winning a major federal victory in cracking down on illegal Internet use of its content. The MPAA, which represents the studios, was lobbying for a measure that would let the Justice Department seek court orders forcing Web providers, search engines, payment processors and online ad networks to block or stop doing business with non-U.S. sites linked to counterfeit goods.

The legislation was sailing toward passage in Congress -- until an Internet protest led by Google and Wikipedia stopped it in its tracks this January. In the middle of that battle, Obama’s technology and intellectual property aides issued a statement that tried to split the difference, saying “the important task of protecting intellectual property online must not threaten an open and innovative Internet.”

Some in Hollywood were taken aback; they were expecting the president’s support of their legislation.

Shortly after the bill collapsed, Jim Gianopulos, who donated the maximum allowed to Obama in 2008 and is co-chairman of News Corp.’s Fox Filmed Entertainment, said in an interview with Variety magazine, “I have been a very early and ardent supporter of the president, but I couldn’t say at this time that I am very enthusiastic about providing support.”

Dealmaker Role

His initial anger has abated. “There was annoyance, yes, but you move on,” Gianopulos said in an interview.

If Obama wins re-election against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, he may be cast as the dealmaker in the piracy fight sequel -- a difficult role to play from the Oval Office.

“The best way to inoculate yourself is to telegraph where you’re going to go on an issue,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for Republican President George W. Bush.

Obama recently assured technology supporters that he “won’t stray” from the principle of keeping the Internet open and accessible when it comes to crafting anti-piracy legislation.

“Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too,” he said in an interview Aug. 29 on, a news discussion website. “We will fight hard to make sure that the Internet remains the open forum for everybody -- from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business.”

Wake-up Call

The piracy showdown earlier this year was a wake-up call for the tech community, which expanded its lobbying presence and ramped up its political giving.

“One thing is certain: There will be a lot more sitting down and discussing things with Silicon Valley before there’s another bill,” Schwartzman said. “You’ll never again see Hollywood controlling the show with no opposition.”

Tech companies including Google and Facebook Inc. have tried to raise their profiles with politicians by sponsoring events at both the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Florida, and the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Technology leaders, including executives at Netflix Inc. and Inc. are among Obama’s most active bundlers - - those who aggregate individual donations -- and Google and Microsoft Corp. employees give more collectively to the president than workers at almost any other company.

Million-Dollar Donations

Hollywood is also nurturing its relationship with Obama. His campaign has raffled off time with Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker to drive $5 campaign donations, while on the other end, a super-political action committee supporting him has leaned on Hollywood for $1 million checks, including a pledge for such a donation from talk show host Bill Maher.

Obama’s celebrity simpatico was on display last month at film producer Harvey Weinstein’s waterfront house in Connecticut, where two gleaming gold Oscar statues peered down at him from a bookcase. The president called actress Anne Hathaway “spectacular” as Catwoman in the Batman movie and remarked that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin “writes the way every Democrat in Washington wished they spoke.”

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg was among the first to jump into the re-election fray. In May 2011, he wrote a $2 million check -- an amount matched only by Qualcomm Inc. founder Irwin Jacobs, a fellow Californian -- to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC run by former Obama aides. Katzenberg also organized the May 11 Obama fundraiser at Clooney’s house.

Stepping Forward

“Once again, the entertainment industry has stepped forward in a very big way,” Katzenberg told the crowd gathered to partake in Wolfgang Puck-catered food on Clooney’s tented basketball court.

It was an event that took place a day after Obama voiced support for gay marriage, a top issue for California Democrats and many in the entertainment industry.

“The creative community tends to be very values-driven as opposed to single-issue or financial-interest driven,” said Andy Spahn, a former DreamWorks spokesman who is a national finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee. Beyond that, Obama has “a generational appeal” compared with Romney, 65, among Hollywood donors, Spahn said.

Innovation Meeting

Just after Valentine’s Day in 2011, Obama held court with top tech minds at a private “innovation” meeting outside San Francisco. Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings all got a chance to pepper the president with questions at a dinner hosted by John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In April, Zuckerberg traded his signature hoodie for a tie to appear at a town hall with Obama.

“The president is popular in the Valley,” said Rey Ramsey, president of TechNet, a technology trade group based in Washington. “It’s never difficult for him to fill a room.”

Ramsey said the tech world is drawn in by Obama’s tone and demeanor, as well as Democratic Party positions -- including making it easier for foreign workers to obtain visas. “He speaks the language of innovation,” Ramsey said.

That translates into campaign cash.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg opened her Atherton, California, home in September for a million-dollar fundraiser that Lady Gaga attended. Also present was Sarah Feinberg, a former White House staffer who now works for Facebook.

‘Natural Affinity’

Another Atherton resident who has hosted Obama, venture capitalist Goldman, said there’s “a natural affinity” in the Bay area for the president because of his positions on tolerance and innovation.

The frequent flights go both directions: High-profile Californians show up at the White House with regularity. A review of visitor logs shows that Clooney, Weinstein and Katzenberg are among those who have made repeat trips. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have visited the president’s home a dozen times.

Romney supporters have sought to turn Obama’s celebrity ties against him. An online advertisement by American Crossroads, a super-PAC backing Romney and Republican congressional candidates, shows Obama wearing sunglasses in one clip and dancing with talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres in another before displaying sobering unemployment statistics. The 45-second spot has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube.

“After four years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?” text in the ad reads.

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