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November 12, 2007

Joel Surnow's Q&A: Politics In Hollywood

24 producer Joel Surnow's speech was brief, and just prefatory remarks to a longish Q&A session, led off by Young America's Foundation spokesman Jason Mattera's initial questions, then questions from the audience. Later he met with Stacey McCain of the Washington Times and some bloggers for a half-hour group interview.

Surnow made two main point: 1, Hollywood isn't quite as monolithically liberal as advertised, 2, Hollywood doesn't have much of a bias in terms of hiring or greenlighting films according to political correctness (I sort of doubt this, but that's what he says).

I took a lot of notes for this one, as I know so many are 24 fans, and quite frankly, newshounds like me (and you) have heard most of what the Usual Suspects have to say; it's less common to hear a non-politician's views. I've divided the remarks up, more or less, into his general political observations and comments specifically about 24, though a lot of those remarks were also political. The post on 24 will follow this one.

As to Hollywood generally, Surnow said that "Reagan's presidency was a fairly non-political time;" politics really became supercharged in Hollywood during Bill Clinton's presidency, noting he had actually lost friends because he voted for Bush the Elder over Clinton in 1992. He says that that period was even worse for partisanship than the current one -- though I wonder if he sees it this way partly because he's had a wildly-popular TV show on all during the Bush years and so is, in a sense, untouchable and immune to most of the political sorts of snubs.

Surnow claimed -- oddly, I thought -- that it wasn't really the case that Hollywood was liberally biased in choosing what films to make, though his other comments seemed to contradict this. While it's true that it's hard to get a conservative film made, he said, it's also true that it's hard to get any film at all made, and also hard to get "very liberal" films made, too. Though, to argue with him, while he may be right about it being very hard to get "very liberal" films made, they 1) still do get made (see the various anti-war bombs dudding at the box office) and 2) if it's equally hard to get a mildly conservative movie made and a "very liberal" film made, obviously, there's bias there: mildly liberal movies get made all the time.

He also noted that of course much of this has to do with A-list actors pushing their pet projects. He allowed that if Tim Robbins and Sean Penn want to get a movie made, they can do so. George Clooney, he said, had to keep making movies like Ocean's Thirteen in order to get movies like Syriana made. Still, though I didn't argue this point, it does seem that nearly every single movie which is explicitly political in tone is very liberal, so I'm not sure where he gets the idea that there's little if any liberal bias in the type of projects Hollywood chooses to get behind. It seems to me that Hollywood will make very liberal projects they know will lose money, whereas they refuse to make conservative-leaning films they're pretty sure will make money. (See The Passion, for instance -- even if one wants to quibble that no one could have seen that box-office blowout coming, one should still have expected an avalanche of traditionalist/religious movies following it its wake.)

Surnow also noted specifically that it was hard to "spin" the Iraq War in a positive way at the moment. Again a quibble: Most war movies are, at heart, fairly anti-war, even those taken to be more patriotic. It's hard to make young brave men cut down in the prime off their lives a really fun movie experience. Still, even with all the horror of war graphic-violence type stuff that is now necessary in war movies, one can still make a war movie that depicts soldiers as noble, even if their cause is doomed, as Black Hawk Down showed.

He said that the boming anti-war films like Valley of Elah will make it harder to get explicitly liberal/anti-war movies made in the future -- but again I doubt this will have much effect. These movies are loss leaders to appease stars and directors and producers. Hollywood knows they're going to bomb, but they make them anyway. Partly just to get these people to make commercial films in the future that will make money, and partly because, at heart, they put liberal politics ahead of best business practice.

Asked if he'd been shunned due to his conservative politics, Surnow declined to answer directly, saying it was the job of liberals to "whine," and that he didn't want to invade their space.

Surnow denied the charge that Hollywood had a blacklist against conservatives, stating that the idea that "conservatives where shut out right out of the gate" was simply "bullshit."

For those who care, he said that the Writer's Guild strike might end up breaking the union. He thought it would last months, as it did last time, and result in not only harming Hollywood generally (most production is shut down during this period, meaning that all those lighting guys, sound guys, gaffers, etc., are currently not working) but also in the Writer's Guild ultimately caving and getting almost nothing out of their strike, as happened in the previous one.

Bill Clinton, you will not be surprised to learn, has offered himself as a mediator in the strike. "What a shock" I snorted at this point that Clinton would attempt to insert himself into the Hollywood limelight.

As has been noted elsewhere, Surnow finds it "nuts" that the country actually seems to be considering electing Hillary Clinton as president, and himself supports Giuliani. His wife (who sat with us during the small roundtable) is also a conservative, incidentally.

Finally, asked about the supposed "sexiness of liberalism" -- one of its main selling points to the young, of course, who perceive liberalism as hip and cool and conservatism as judgmental and old-fogeyish-- Surnow said that if you wanted to "drink, smoke, and eat red meat, you have to hang out with Republicans." He noted that his daughter subscribes to Rolling Stone, and his annoyance at the unabashedly liberal politics of the magazine and how it presented liberalism as cool when actually it was "old and repressive." The Half Hour Comedy Hour, he said, was an attempt to show conservatism as something hip and fun and put a "modern face" on the movement.

But obviously he's fighting an uphill battle, as he said it was extremely difficult to get actors to appear on that show at all -- simply because it was known to be conservative leaning and had featured Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.

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posted by Ace at 03:23 PM

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