Published on Sunday, July 4, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
MoveOn Works the Hollywood Spotlight to Amplify Its Voice
by Ronald Brownstein
After revolutionizing the political use of the Internet, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org is now pursuing a leading role in the electoral mobilization of Hollywood.
Even as the 2.25-million-member organization comes under increasing criticism from the GOP for its fierce opposition to President Bush, MoveOn is building what may be the most systematic effort to enlist celebrities in liberal causes in several years.
Within a few days, MoveOn plans to announce that it has recruited a team of prominent entertainment figures — including film directors Rob Reiner and Richard Linklater, writer Aaron Sorkin and musician Moby — to produce anti-Bush ads that it hopes will capture the attention of voters numbed by traditional political messages.
"Most political ads are very dry and didactic," said Laura Dawn, a rock singer now coordinating MoveOn's new political plans. "If we use the talent of people who understand how to reach people emotionally, we might get a lot farther."
As part of its efforts, MoveOn last week convened more than 4,000 house parties to promote Michael Moore's controversial documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" — after organizing thousands of its members to attend the movie on its opening weekend to increase the film's receipts and visibility. It has also helped fund documentaries criticizing the Iraq war and the Fox News Channel, arranged to sponsor the Lollapalooza rock festival this summer (until poor ticket sales recently forced the tour's cancellation) and held preliminary discussions about launching its own television show.
"We believe in big cultural messages; we believe that politics should be something that is part of mass culture," said Wes Boyd, MoveOn's co-founder.
MoveOn's increasing engagement with the entertainment world underscores the rapid growth of the group, which began in 1998 as an online petition opposing President Clinton's impeachment and has expanded into one of the most influential — and controversial — organizations in U.S. politics. It pioneered many of the Internet fundraising and advocacy techniques that later helped ignite former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The group's rising profile, and relentless opposition to Bush, increasingly has made it a GOP target. The party recently began a drive to label MoveOn — along with other high-profile liberals, such as Moore and former Vice President Al Gore — as a "coalition of the wild-eyed" behind Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
"This is becoming the face of the Democratic Party: anger and hatred of the president," said Jim Dyke, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "It turns off the voters that don't know John Kerry yet and the voters who are looking for a positive agenda."
Privately, some centrist Democrats share those concerns. MoveOn's "contempt for Bush is alien to most Americans; it's over the top," said one Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity and is working on independent efforts to support Kerry.
But precisely because MoveOn is so uncompromising in its resistance to Bush — and so inventive about developing new means of advancing a left-of-center message — the group is becoming a magnet for liberal activists, including those in the entertainment world.
"We're all on their e-mail list and we know how effective they are," said Reiner, a veteran in liberal and Democratic causes. "When they ask us to play a role in getting rid of President Bush, you jump to the task."
While creating opportunities for MoveOn to broadcast its message in new ways, the Hollywood connection also risks clouding the group's identity, some insiders acknowledge.
Bill Zimmerman, the group's media consultant, said the increasing interaction with celebrities presented the same challenge as MoveOn's alliance with politicians, such as Gore, and key donors, such as businessmen George Soros and Peter B. Lewis. "There is a danger in becoming too identified with the Hollywood left, because that becomes the face of the organization," Zimmerman said. "This is an organization of grass-roots activists, and we don't want it to be under the control of any individual sectors."
Typically, groups that have attracted significant support from Hollywood have relied upon powerful figures in the industry to open doors — such as the agents, producers and stars who helped make the Hollywood Women's Political Committee the most powerful political organization in the entertainment world from the mid-1980s through 1997, when it folded.
By contrast, MoveOn doesn't have an office in Hollywood; in fact, it doesn't have an office anywhere. The group's handful of staffers work from their homes in different cities, staying in touch mostly through e-mail and instant messaging.
MoveOn's pop-culture initiatives have been spearheaded mainly by Dawn, 34, who suspended her singing career to work as the group's event director, and Eli Pariser, 23, executive director of its political action committee.
Both of them work from apartments in New York.
Boyd and his wife, Joan Blades, the former software executives who founded the organization, operate from their home on a quiet residential street in Berkeley.
MoveOn has established a beachhead in the entertainment world largely the same way it has secured a growing place in the overall Democratic firmament: by providing a voice to those most disaffected by Bush's policies.
One of the group's first interactions with Hollywood came early last year, when producer Robert Greenwald and actor Mike Farrell, a longtime liberal activist, organized more than 100 celebrities in opposition to the impending war in Iraq. That group soon joined an antiwar coalition called Win Without War, in which MoveOn was a central participant.
Greenwald shot an ad featuring actor Martin Sheen, taking a lunch break from the set of "The West Wing" television show, that MoveOn posted on its website to encourage supporters to send e-mails or make phone calls as part of a "virtual march" on Washington opposing the war.
After that, Greenwald filmed a documentary criticizing the Iraq war.
When he ran out of money for the project, he received funds from MoveOn and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
After Greenwald completed the film, called "Uncovered," MoveOn promoted it by holding in December more than 2,200 house parties where its members discussed the movie and then distributed tens of thousands of copies to members who contributed to the group. The visibility helped Greenwald line up distribution of the film in a limited number of theaters for this fall.
Now, MoveOn and the Center for American Progress have helped Greenwald finance a documentary criticizing the Fox News Channel, called "Outfoxed," which MoveOn will promote with house parties July 18.
This spring, MoveOn mobilized volunteers to distribute leaflets criticizing Bush's environmental policies at showings of the film "The Day After Tomorrow," which posited that global warming could trigger a new ice age.
Even more aggressively, the group's PAC in June asked members to commit to attend Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" on its opening weekend (more than 110,000 signed up) and then organized 4,600 house parties around the country Monday night where Moore, over telephone and Internet hook-ups, urged an estimated 55,000 people to work against Bush.
The party at the lower Manhattan home of painter Damian Loeb showed how celebrities could amplify the group's message. While a hip, casual crowd milled around the elegantly unfinished space in jeans and baseball caps, camera crews from networks such as CNN and VH-1 filmed testimonials to the film from such celebrities as actress Edie Falco of "The Sopranos," comedian David Cross and Moby.
Moby and other celebrities also played a key role in MoveOn's efforts to design new ads against Bush.
The original idea for developing the ads came last year from Dawn, who was working as a musician in Los Angeles after releasing her debut album in 2002 and had performed as a back-up singer for Moby.
Drawing in part on Moby's experience inviting fans to submit their own videos or remixes for his songs, Dawn, Moby and Pariser designed a competition for MoveOn supporters to submit homemade ads against Bush; Moby then helped recruit a panel of celebrity judges, including Moore and rock stars Michael Stipe and Eddie Vedder, to pick the winner.
That effort drew enormous publicity for MoveOn, but also exposed the group to intense criticism when one contestant submitted an ad likening Bush to Hitler.
Although the group removed the submission from its website and apologized, Republican critics said the ad — like the organization's embrace of "Fahrenheit 9/11" — showed MoveOn to be out of the mainstream.
The Bush campaign is now running a clip of the ad on its website, together with images of Moore, Gore and Dean, as a part of a video that declares, "This is not a time for pessimism and rage."
Said Dyke, the RNC spokesman, "This is clearly a very angry bunch."
That lingering controversy, though, didn't dissuade several prominent entertainers from participating in the upcoming round of the group's ad campaign against Bush. Along with Reiner, Linklater (whose films include "Before Sunrise" and "School of Rock") and Sorkin (the creator of "The West Wing"), others lending their talents include film director Allison Anders ("Mi Vida Loca") and video director Benny Boom.
MoveOn says it will feature all the ads on the Internet and buy television time for those that test well with audiences; it is also trying to arrange running some as movie trailers. Reiner predicts that many of the ads will look very different from traditional political messages.
MoveOn has "gotten people who will add a new slant to things," he said.
On Friday, the group announced that it would purchase television time for a separate series of anti-Bush ads from documentary film maker Errol Morris, who won an Academy Award this year for "The Fog of War." The ads, scheduled to begin airing around the time of the Democratic convention late this month, will feature ordinary people.
All of this reflects Dawn's belief that the most effective way to use entertainers is to exploit their skills rather than just their fame. "The theory behind this is that artists can be great in theaters of social change as long as they are playing to their strength," she said.
Dawn said she would like to test that idea by moving the group into its own forms of production.
"I'd personally like to see a TV show that combines the political depth and heart of MoveOn, the humor of Jon Stewart and the interactivity of 'American Idol,' " she said. "We've just started to discuss how something like that might be done."
© Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times