Hollywood doesn't rush to political forum


For Sonny Bono, getting elected to Congress may have been easier than gaining the respect and cooperation of his former Hollywood colleagues.

His Entertainment Task Force "summit meeting," intended to "build a bridge" between the House Republican leadership and the traditionally Democratic show business community, will be held tomorrow morning at the Beverly Hills City Hall. But the event had trouble attracting a broad segment of Hollywood's power elite, and was salvaged only when organizers shifted to a less confrontational format that brought about 20 industry higher-ups into the fold.

"I assured everyone that we had no interest in being adversarial or pointing fingers and was surprised they weren't pleased with the opportunity to state their case," says Mr. Bono, R-Calif., a former mayor of Palm Springs. "There's a real vulnerability as a result of the attacks by [Sen. Bob] Dole. If there are skeletons in the closet, they're afraid they'll be exposed."

Mr. Bono proposed the idea of a task force in January and received a green light from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the following month. The panel aims to open a dialogue with the entertainment industry, identifying areas of mutual interest, he says. Using the movie ratings system as a model, it also would solicit ideas from music, TV and film executives about ways in which they could avoid outside censorship by agreeing to monitor themselves.

In April, some 20 industry leaders, including Viacom Entertainment Group Chairman Jonathan Dolgen, Sony Pictures Entertainment President Alan J. Levine and MGM CEO Frank Mancuso met privately with the task force and, according to one participant, most came away impressed.

Yet, few invitees were willing to commit to a follow-up session in September -- particularly one structured as a congressional hearing. By all accounts, the notion of sitting in the hot seat and fielding questions was unappealing, even though the news media and public will be kept out.

And, though task force members such as Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif., Robert Ehrlich Jr., R-Md., and Andrea Seastrand, R-Calif., are scheduled to attend, minus Mr. Gingrich, the Bono event was thought to lack )) credibility and panache. "Anyone of any stature was reluctant to be the first one on," one insider observes.

Now billed as a "round-table discussion," the event is expected to draw, among others, NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, MCA Music Entertainment Group Chairman Al Teller and Sony Pictures Entertainment Executive Vice President Dennis Miller. A handful of related groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the California Film Commission also are expected to attend.

"We were told that the meeting is principally informational," Mr. Miller says. "Since there's a slate of issues affecting the telecommunications industry ranging from piracy to the v-chip to copyright protection to deregulation, we're going there to listen."

In a season serving up the NC-17-rated "Showgirls" and violence-laden films such as "Desperado" and "Dead Presidents," however, no one expects the content controversy to be shelved. Down the line, Mr. Bono concedes, he intends to tackle the "morality" issue and push for the creation of "nonpartisan" product.

"Many sitcoms and certain performers such as Robin Williams and even Steven Seagal in that Alaska picture [1994's "On Deadly Ground"] take cheap shots," he says. "And it's almost always at the expense of the Republicans."

Should the issue of content arise tomorrow, Recording Industry Association of America President Hilary Rosen has an agenda of her own. "I intend to let the Republican leadership know that the industry is not about to monitor itself," she says. "Decisions about content are made on an artist-by-artist or company-by-company basis. We're not a monolith but a group of diverse, creative people."

Still, political realities loom large. Whatever the party leanings of the top brass, entertainment giants -- through political action committees -- are contributing to candidates on both sides of the aisle.

"Democrats can't be renegades," says one Hollywood heavyweight active in party politics. "We have to adopt a pragmatic approach. You won't see the MPAA flexing big muscles at Dole or Gingrich because there's no upside. Taking on the Republicans is a fight you can't win."

Frank Cullen Jr., a spokesman for Mr. Bono, concurs. "Though the industry presents illusion," he says, "it doesn't operate under any."

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