Next summer, when you go to the multiplex, you’ll be given a choice of two futures. In one, Terminator Salvation, a postapocalyptic world is ruled by a merciless computer and human beings are hunted by killer robots (civil rights, freedom of speech, privacy — they’re all out the window). In the other, Star Trek, different species from different worlds unite in a benevolent United Federation of Planets and send bold explorers to places no one has gone before (universal health care, green energy — they’ve got everything). The choice is yours: Terminator or Trek. Fear or hope. Six months from now, which movie will best connect with the national mood?
Three weeks after the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, a lot of folks in Hollywood are asking themselves that kind of question. Never mind the change Obama’s about to bring to Washington; what’s his presidency going to mean to entertainment? Most Commanders-in-Chief leave big footprints on the culture. JFK launched America into the New Frontier amid visions of Camelot and cheery fare like The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reagan made it morning in America with a patriotic surge that produced Tom Cruise in Top Gun and the sweet excesses of Dynasty. George W. Bush set the world stage for jittery, paranoid dramas brimming with government conspiracies (even the Dark Knight violated wiretapping laws). And now there’s a new guy moving into the West Wing — elected on a platform of hope — with the potential to plant Sasquatch-size tracks all over the zeitgeist. ”The idea of change and hope has permeated the country, regardless of politics, and that includes Hollywood,” says Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, home to Iron Man and the soon-to-be-launched Captain America. ”Discussions in all our development meetings include the zeitgeist and how it’s changed in the last two weeks. Things are being adjusted.”
With the inauguration still months away, it’s too early to start measuring the exact dimensions of the Obama Effect. Some, like writer-director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle), are skeptical that it will transform Hollywood, or that it even exists. ”Wouldn’t it be great if it did, but absolutely not,” she says flatly. Others seem a tad overexcited. ”Wouldn’t it be great if American movies could capture this spirit!” beams director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Most, though, like screenwriter John August (Charlie’s Angels), are cautiously optimistic. ”There probably will be an echo effect as a popular president interacts with popular things,” he says. ”For example, if Obama starts wearing cardigans, you won’t be able to keep them on the shelves.”
Nobody in Hollywood or elsewhere would disagree that Obama has already become the biggest celebrity in the world. Even before the election, he was drawing more TV viewers than American Idol and larger crowds than Bono (with speeches that were almost as political!). True, he wasn’t everybody’s choice — some 58 million Americans voted for John McCain — and optimism may be difficult for even Hollywood liberals to summon if the recession grinds on indefinitely. Still, Obama did make a Kennedyesque connection with younger voters, known in Hollywood as the critical 18-to-34-year-old demographic. He even got their e-mail addresses. At only 47, he’s hip enough to post his favorite music on Facebook (Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, the Fugees), and what he doesn’t know about entertainment he’ll learn from those two young Hannah Montana fans he’ll be sharing the White House with. (His daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, have already been invited on the show.) We obviously can’t predict everything that’s going to happen to pop culture once the new president-elect takes office, but you don’t have to be Doris Kearns Goodwin to see that some sort of change is coming.
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