Edited and updated
The optimism that reigned on New Year's Eve will soon give way to the sober reality of the next 12 months, one likely defined by efforts to alleviate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Politically, it's not hard to guess where Hollywood's efforts will lie, what with a stimulus package being floated and Barack Obama promising to restore millions of new jobs. New attempts surely will be made to promote entertainment as a promising source of manufacturing jobs, a healthy business compared to Detroit and other sectors. Before he withdrew his name as Commerce Secretary, a likely ally would have been Bill Richardson, who pushed incentives for filmmakers as governor of New Mexico. Of particular interest will be incoming House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman, whose district encompasses many of the entertainment community's elite, and whether he offers a friendly approach to the industry's challenges.
Most predictions, however, are frought with peril. They are either too obvious or too absurd: Antonio Villaraigosa wins another term as Los Angeles mayor, or Fran Drescher is appointed to Hillary Clinton's New York Senate seat.
I've come up with a list of somewhere in between mere statements and soothsaying: ten moments most likely to get your attention in the world of politics and entertainment during the coming year, in chronological order.
Early January: Al Franken. If he wins the Senate seat in Minnesota, after a protracted recount, he will be under tremendous scrutiny in how positions himself as a freshman. He’ll already have the press attention, a chorus of critics and plenty of Hollywood cheerleaders, so the question is whether he plays it low key in a body of vaunted tradition and deference, or whether he returns to the acerbic wit that he largely muted during the campaign. Given the contentious nature of the recount, chances are he will play it safe, but over time he could try to establish a unique liberal voice, an heir to Paul Wellstone, and one that will certainly get other Democratic show business figures wondering whether to pursue their own political aspirations. If he loses to Norm Coleman, expect a “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig in the not-too-distant future.
January 20: Barack Obama's inauguration. It goes without saying that this will be one of the year's biggest events, kicking off not just a new presidency but an entirely new set of figures who will define the D.C. - Hollywood fusion over the next four years. As such, much attention will be on who, if anyone, gets face time with the First Family, the cabinet and the White House staff. It's doubtful that Obama will have any entertainment liaison per se, so industry figures will search for any and all connections to the White House, from those who know Rahm Emanuel to incoming social secretary Desiree Rogers. Obama is widely expected to keep the entertainment business at arm's length, but he also has indicated he would like to pay a new level of focus on the arts. A lot of consideration will be given to who lands the first invite to entertain at the first state dinner.
January 21: "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." They don't have George Bush to kick around anymore. Political humor's new paradigm gets its first real test, as both shows respond to the first 24 hours of the Obama presidency, one that sets up a very different dynamic since it was little secret during the campaign who many comics favored. If Stewart and Colbert bomb, you can always take in an HBO showing of Will Ferrell's "You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush."
February 13: "The International" and other pics. Even before
Bernard Madoff, there has been little doubt as to who Hollywood's
favorite villain will be: The Wall Street wizard. One of the first of
the year will be the Clive Owen-Naomi Watts starrer "The International"
posits that an entire bank is involved in nefarious shenanigans
including arms trading and money laundering. What's more, Michael Moore
turns his eye to the financial crisis in his next doc --- not great
news for the likes of AIG.
"The International" also is part of a new wave of political thrillers,
viewed as much more marketable than the pool of Iraq and war on terror
pics. Others coming down the pike include "State of Play," an adaption
of the BBC miniseries that stars Russell Crowe as a reporter
investigating the suspicious death of a congressman's mistress, with
Ben Affleck as the ambitious politico. It's set for release on April 17.
While we are at it, there's a few other projects to keep an eye on,
ranging from Edward Norton's documentary about the Obama campaign,
which HBO has picked up, to the cabler's followup to "Band of
Brothers," "The Pacific." Clint Eastwood is expected to release his
post-apartheid pic about a rugby player who befriends Nelson Mandela.
Ang Lee tells the tale of the 1969 music festival to change all music
festivals in "Taking Woodstock." And if you thought "The Da Vinci Code"
was heretical, just wait until Ron Howard's sequel, "Angels &
February 22: The Academy Awards. Win or lose, "Slumdog Millionaire" will inspire a wave of essays on globalization of creative content, and America's efforts to restore its place as cultural ambassadors. But my eyes are on "Milk," and whether Sean Penn is awarded an acting nomination or win. Should he prevail, expect some statement on the ongoing battle over gay rights, perhaps addressing marriage and even Proposition 8, which banned same-sex nuptials in the state. Should he get shut out of a nomination..well, there's always the boycott, not a small threat when you consider the Oscar audience.
March: Prop 8. While we are at it, one of the biggest 2009 political events in California is expected during this month. It's the state Supreme Court's ruling on the legality of Proposition 8, and of the 18,000 weddings that were performed during the gay community's own Prague spring. One certainty: No decision will mean resolution. A decision to uphold the initiative and invalidate the marriages would inspire a new round of protest, including mobilization from the entertainment community in the form of celebrity-led marches and Internet video. An effort to wear white knots at high profile industry functions --- akin to the red ribbons for the AIDS crisis --- already is afoot. The entertainment industry's most creative commentary may very well be the May 15 release of Sacha Baron Cohen new film "Bruno," a feature version of his gay Austrian television character. Cohen already has been caught shooting scenes in which he is marching with unsuspecting Prop 8 supporters shortly before election day.
April 22: Earth Day. The Walt Disney Co. is among the studios releasing enviro-themed titles, the documentary "Earth," from a new nature films unit. But Hollywood's green lobbyists and activists will surely use the occasion to weigh on the Obama administration's progress or lack of progress, and will use the occasion to put added pressure on Washington to take more drastic action.
May: Fall schedules. With Obama as president, the pressure is on the networks to present a more diverse casts --- or more to the point, more leading minority characters. NBC has a buddy comedy in development called "Making Friends with Black People," a buddy comedy about the state of race relations in the United States that was greenlit after Obama's election. But with what may be a very dicey upfront ad environment, the tendency usually is for broadcasters to seek out safe bets rather than perceived risks.
June: The Supreme Court. By now, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to have issued its ruling in FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, its first opinion on the matter of broadcast indecency in 30 years. The case concerns the FCC's decision to give Fox a good slap after Cher and Nicole Richie uttered fleeting expletives at the Billboard Music Awards. Fox challenged the case, and said that because the feds' criteria was arbitrary, its First Amendment rights were violated.
It was hard to get a read on which way the justices were leaning in oral arguments that were presented, coincidentally, on Election Day. Antonin Scalia even quipped, "I mean, bawdy jokes are OK if they are really good." But there's been some speculation that the court will fall short of making a sweeping decision that could seriously limit the FCC's efforts to regulate indecency. Either way, the case will have an impact on a host of other challenges being pursued by the networks, which are reeling from a crackdown on content during the Bush years. There's pressure on an Obama-led FCC to overhaul the agency and respond to the fact that the body is still operating like its 1978.
Nov. 3: Election day. This is an off-year, but that doesn't mean politicos won't be on the money trail. On the perpetual hunt for PIN numbers to the Hollywood ATM, politicos will be looking to finance gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. In the latter, Terry McAuliffe has formed an exploratory committee, and would surely mine his extensive entertainment sources for donations. What's more, prospects for California's gubernatorial race in '10 will be testing their financial viability, setting up a Democratic primary with notable prospects including Villaraigosa, Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, Steve Westly and even Diane Feinstein. On the GOP side, eBay's Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner are viewed as possible candidates, so attention will focus on whether they test their fund-raising prowess. But most of the speculation will be on the future political prospects of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cannot run again because of term limits.