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Hollywood Studios Place Their Bet On California Governor Gavin Newsom In His Fight Against Recall

Hollywood studios are lining up to support Gavin Newsom and the effort to defeat the Sept. 14 recall, as executives and the companies themselves pour money into his campaign and a committee set up to ensure that he remains in office.

Their support is hardly a surprise: With the “No” to the recall leading in the polls, and Newsom already having garnered significant industry backing for his reelection bid, studio support for his effort to fight off the recall is far from surprising.

But Newsom’s tenure hasn’t been without some significant industry friction: Last November, The Walt Disney Co. went public with its unhappiness over the governor’s refusal to allow theme parks to reopen. CEO Bob Chapek said.the company was “extremely disappointed” over the continued closure, while executive chairman Bob Iger resigned from a task force on the state’s recovery.

Disney, though, is a member of the Motion Picture Association, which earlier this month donated $10,000 to Stop the Republican Recall,, the committee set up to collect unlimited amounts to fight the effort to oust the governor. Also donating was MPA chairman Charles Rivkin, with a $5,000 contribution; Paramount Pictures, with $40,000; and, in the largest single donation of them all, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, who gave $3 million in May.

A more recent contribution: Jon Feltheimer, the CEO of Lionsgate, who said in a statement, “It is easy to second-guess difficult decisions, but Gavin Newsom has worked hard to navigate California through the Covid pandemic during an extraordinary year, remains a steadfast supporter of the media and entertainment business, and continues to advance a thoughtful and enlightened social and economic agenda.”

More studios are expected to chip in — as Newsom’s backers and the governor himself have been reaching out to industry figures.

Newsom also has been steadily raising money for his reelection campaign, drawing a long list of industry donors who include director Steven Spielberg, UTA’s Jay Sures, director J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg, Walt Disney TV’s Dana Walden, writer-producer Chuck Lorre and NBCUniversal’s Jeff Shell. When Newsom held a press conference to announce the state’s “reopening” in June, he did so at Universal Studios Hollywood, with a full contingent of park characters in tow.

The governor sweetened the pot for the industry in May when, shortly after announcing a massive state budget surplus, he proposed adding $30 million to the state production incentive program; last week, the state legislature passed an even larger expansion, including an additional $180 million over two years as well as the establishment of a credit for the construction and renovation of sound stages. Far from the move being controversial, the expanded tax incentives passed the state Assembly and Senate with no “no” votes, with lawmakers highlighting the impact on rank and file workers.

A spokesperson for the recall did not respond to a request for comment. But one of the recall candidates, John Cox, has been highlighting Newsom’s actions as detrimental to the state business environment, and last week he seized on The Walt Disney Co.’s announcement that around 2,000 positions primarily from the parks, experiences and products division would be moved to central Florida. “Disney plans to relocate thousands of jobs from California to Florida. Why? Because of Gavin Newsom’s job-killing policies and Florida’s friendly business environment,” Cox wrote on Facebook, as he held a press conference near Disneyland.

Disney representatives did not respond to requests for comment. But when announcing the relocation of jobs in a memo to employees, top executive Josh D’Amaro did cite Florida’s “business friendly climate,” while emphasizing that the company remains committed to California.

“The Hollywood studios have reacted to the recall in the same way as most of the state’s business community: they know that Newsom is very likely to survive and so they are donating heavily to maintain their relationship with him,” said Dan Schnur, professor at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studios, Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of School of Public Policy and USC Annenberg School of Communications.

There also is the matter of incumbency — the notion that the safest choice is the current occupant of the office. Back in 2003, a number of the studios, as well as the Motion Picture Association, chipped in to a committee to help Governor Gray Davis fend off a recall, even with one of the industry’s own, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the race and drawing individual  support from some studio and production heads.

But political observers say that the circumstances were far different back then.

Andy Spahn, principal at Gonring Lin Spahn, the political and philanthropic consultant firm, said via email, “Certainly the absence of Arnold is one of those differences, along with very real changes in the state, and the very real depth of support here for Gavin. Add to that the extreme right wing Trump base for the recall and there is every reason to believe we will win this thing.”

Here’s how the recall works: Voters will be asked Yes or No whether to oust Newsom, and then the question of who his replacement should be from a field of candidates. If the answer to the first question is No, Newsom stays in office. If it is Yes, then the candidate with the most votes is the next governor.

Friday was the deadline for potential replacement candidates to file, with more than 40 contenders that includes Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Caitlyn Jenner, while radio host Larry Elder announced early last week that he was running. Among Elder’s early contributors are retired studio executive Frank Price, who gave $32,400.

The best news for Newsom was that the list of contenders in the recall lacks any high-profile Democrat. Back in 2003, what may have been Devastating for Davis’ prospects was the fact that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante entered the race, undermining Democrats’ show of unity and confidence that the governor would be able to stay in office.

“First of all, there’s no Arnold-type figure to tempt entertainment industry leaders to support one of their own,” Schnur said via email. “But the bigger difference is that Newsom’s prospects are so much stronger than Davis’, so they are simply being pragmatic. And Hollywood knows better than most that the sequel is almost never as good as the original.”

Jenner certainly has ties to the industry, but more recently has had to defend her commitment to the race after she flew to Australia to film a version of the reality show Big Brother.

Jenner said on Twitter that she is honoring a work commitment that she made before she decided to run.

“My campaign team is in full operation as am I,” she wrote. “I am in this race to win for California, because it is worth fighting for.” She  has drawn the support of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who gave $32,500.

Asked about the industry support of Newsom campaign spokesman, Nathan Click, said via email, “Across our state, Democrats are united against this Republican recall. They understand this recall is nothing more than a partisan power grab — a Republican attempt to abuse recall rules and force an election because they can’t win under normal rules.”

As good as things may look for Newsom, some industry insiders also have words of caution that it is still too early and the race is still unpredictable.

Newsom and his backers may be raising big money, with hopes that the relatively short time left in the campaign works to his advantage. But circumstances can change quickly: it’s unclear what, if any, impact a recent uptick in Covid cases would have on the recall race, but the develop led to Los Angeles County reimposing an indoor mask mandate. The state also is facing a devastating, ever-earlier fire season as well, another test of Newsom’s leadership.

There also is the conventional wisdom that the energy in a recall election is for the side that wants action — namely to oust an incumbent. Newsom supporters have been tapping the organizational strength of union support.

“A low turnout election could put Newsom at some risk, but it would take a massive Covid outbreak or some other type of natural catastrophe to put him in danger of losing,” Schnur said. “None of the Republican candidates can defeat Newsom, but the coronavirus or wildfires could.”

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