Personal politics and flicks don’t mix

David Almasi Executive Director, NCPPR
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Last September, actor Morgan Freeman insulted more than half of the politically active American public when he went on CNN and said Republicans, conservatives and tea party members are essentially “racist” and that they would “screw the country” just to make Barack Obama look bad.

Freeman wasn’t invited to be on “Piers Morgan Tonight” to share his political views. He was there to promote his new Warner Brothers movie “Dolphin Tale.”

Oscar Murdock, a black tea party activist representing the National Center for Public Policy Research at Time Warner Inc.’s recent shareholder meeting, asked Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes what the company (which owns Warner Brothers) might do to protect itself and its products from slanderous attacks on potential moviegoers made by its hired talent such as Freeman.

Bewkes said he was sympathetic to Murdock’s concern, but was resigned that there was “not much” he or the company could do to protect their investments from such pitfalls.

It’s a very cavalier attitude for a company that’s about to take a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar gamble on Freeman with the new movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”

At the shareholder meeting, Murdock mentioned a poll conducted by Penn Schoen Berland for The Hollywood Reporter that indicated Freeman’s remarks probably hurt the box office returns for “Dolphin Tale.”

According to that poll, conservatives and tea party activists were initially more likely to see the movie than liberals. But 34 percent of conservatives and 37 percent of tea party activists felt differently after hearing about Freeman’s remarks.

Bewkes insisted Freeman’s remarks did not hurt the profits for “Dolphin Tale,” but admitted he had no analysis to prove his assertion.

“Dolphin Tale” made over $72 million at domestic theaters. It was beaten by comparable 2011 family films such as “The Smurfs,” “We Bought a Zoo” and a re-release of “The Lion King.” Even 2012’s “John Carter,” a movie likely to be remembered as one of Hollywood’s biggest flops ever, will probably make more domestically before it leaves theaters (it’s already made two-and-a-half times more than “Dolphin Tale” in worldwide sales).

Bewkes acts as if he’s powerless to stop Morgan Freeman — essentially Bewkes’s employee — from insulting and possibly driving away moviegoers. He isn’t.

Many talented actors can’t find work because studios view them as liabilities. Charlie Sheen’s destructive lifestyle got him fired from Warner Brothers Television’s “Two and a Half Men.” Mel Gibson’s offensive temper tantrums turned him from an icon into a pariah. And in between his Oscar-nominated performance in “Chaplin” in 1992 and his mega-stardom in “Iron Man” in 2008, Robert Downey Jr. found little substantial work in Hollywood; things only turned around for Downey after he tackled his drug problems.

Whether behavior makes someone uninsurable, unmanageable or unpopular, Hollywood has never had trouble sacking actors. Studio heads should add political radicalism to the list of things that make actors toxic.

Murdock, for instance, lists Jane Fonda and Sean Penn among those whose movies or television shows he won’t watch. Oliver Stone, Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen are similar political lightning rods.

Bewkes might think that those offended by Freeman will still see Freeman’s movies, but that’s not necessarily true, especially considering modern entertainment options. “The Dark Knight Rises” will only be in theaters for a few weeks. Conservative Batman fans could easily wait to see it on Netflix, stream it online or rent it from Redbox.

Bewkes and other studio heads are not powerless. They can tell their stars to stick to promoting their films and not promoting their politics.

David W. Almasi is the executive director of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C. Comments may be sent to DAlmasi@nationalcenter.org.