It’s 8:15 on a beautiful Friday morning at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the once-bustling Polo Lounge is all but deserted. One guy, eating alone, reads the paper and sips coffee, his bacon and eggs getting cold. Outside on the patio, there are more service staff than customers. By 9 o’clock, a few more people have arrived, but two-thirds of the tables remain unoccupied. Downstairs at the coffee shop, one guy sits alone at the counter having breakfast.
“How’s business?” I ask our waiter.
“It’s terrible,” he says. “Business is down seventy percent.”
“You know,” he whispers, “because of what’s happening – the boycott.”
Hollywood’s hotel boycott has yet to convince the owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Sultan of Brunei, to reverse his decree that gays and adulterers will be put to death by stoning in his country beginning in 2016. And Brunei is not the only Islamic country that prescribes barbaric punishments for sexual “transgressors,” with many having strong business ties to Hollywood. Should those countries — and the Hollywood companies doing business with them — be boycotted as well?
“We all distribute our product in countries that are questionable, and take their revenue,” says the top executive at a film production and financing company with global connections. “So everyone — studios, executives, producers, financiers — are hypocrites to some degree. But is Hollywood any different than Apple assembling its phones in China? Or Starbucks having locations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia?”
A Deadline investigation into the companies, groups and individuals who have publicly supported the boycott reveals that many of them are also in business with countries that practice strict sharia law. Boycotting them all – and those who do business there – would mean boycotting most of Hollywood, including Sony Pictures, 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney Pictures, Universal Pictures, DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm and Miramax, among others.
Paramount would even have to boycott itself and the hotels its licensing division is planning to build in Dubai and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality and adultery are also punishable by death. And then there’s China, infamous for censoring Hollywood movies, shutting down film festivals, and repressing the most basic human rights of its people. And almost everyone in Hollywood wants to do business there. And don’t forget about India, another favored Hollywood market, where homosexual acts are punishable by life in prison.
On April 28, Sharon Osbourne, co-host of The Talk, tweeted: “Please join me in BOYCOTTING @BevHillsHotel.” A few weeks later, she was in Abu Dhabi, where gays and adulterers also face brutal punishment, touring with her husband Ozzy and touting her Atkins diet. “I just got back to Los Angeles, I had been on tour with Ozzy in Abu Dhabi and Russia,” she wrote on her blog. “It was absolutely spectacular! I had the most wonderful time and I was able to stay on track with Atkins. I think that says a lot about the program. It is flexible enough to stick to anywhere you go, from grandma’s house to Abu Dhabi!”
Abu Dhabi is one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates, where, according to the U.S. State Department’s Report on Human Rights, “Both civil law and sharia criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity. Under sharia individuals who engage in consensual same-sex sexual conduct are subject to the death penalty.”
Elton John, who through his AIDS Foundation has probably done more to combat AIDS than anyone else in show business, also joined the boycott, writing in the Huffington Post that he and his husband would have faced execution if they’d traveled to Brunei. “If we lived in Brunei,” he wrote, “we wouldn’t be getting married in front of our sons. We’d be getting beaten to death, with objects, by a mob arranged and authorized by the government.” Two years earlier, however, he played a concert in Abu Dhabi, and two years before that in Dubai, where homosexuality is also punishable by death. John didn’t speak out when he was there against the brutality of sharia law.
“I took meetings in Dubai, but didn’t take the money,” an independent film financier told Deadline. “That was my personal choice. I turned down Angolan money due to their human rights violations. For me the bottom line is that the all money must be clean and the owners clean and we need to know everything about the money or any deal is a non starter. But that’s me.”
On May 6, three days after tweeting his support for the boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, billionaire Richard Branson flew to Dallas to do a little Virgin Airlines business in a state that still outlaws gay marriage. Of course, Texas law doesn’t prescribe the death penalty for being gay, but Branson does business in two countries that do.
“No Virgin employee, nor our family, will stay at Dorchester Hotels until the Sultan abides by basic human rights,” Branson tweeted. The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles are both part of the Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester Collection. But that hasn’t stopped Branson from doing business in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where being gay is also punishable by death.
“Saudi Arabia is a big market and we want to do a good job,” he said last year as Virgin Mobile was applying for a license to do business there. “After the license is awarded, we want to get going as soon as possible to bring the benefits to the Saudi customers and get the business moving.” Virgin Mobile subsequently got the license, and its website states: “Virgin Mobile Saudi Arabia Be Part of It.”
Being part of it also means partnering in a country in which sharia law makes homosexuality punishable by death – not by stoning as in Brunei, but by beheading. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report on Saudi Arabia, “Under sharia, as interpreted in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging, depending on the perceived seriousness of the case.” Last month, a man was executed in Saudi Arabia for practicing sorcery.
Branson opposed apartheid in South Africa and has crusaded for human rights all around the world, but he does business in places showing little or no respect for human rights. His Virgin Megastores have closed all across Europe and North America, but they’re still thriving in the Middle East, in places like the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. “We have 26 Megastores currently in the region, with more planned in the coming years,” Branson recently blogged. “The reason Megastores are still thriving in the Middle East is by diversifying to suit their markets.”
He has eight Megastores in the UAE — including five in Dubai and two in Abu Dhabi — where being gay is also punishable by death, according to the State Department. Branson is also partnered with the Abu Dhabi’s government-owned Aabar Investments in his Virgin Galactic space venture. “It’s all very exciting on a number of levels,” he said on a visit to Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, in February, just a few months before he announced his boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel. “We can have people in space; we can put a whole array of satellites in space, which would have a big effect on global telecommunications. I hope we’ll have a space hub in Abu Dhabi in a couple of years.” His Virgin Radio Dubai has also been operating out of the UAE’s largest city since 2008.
Branson’s Virgin Megastores operated out of Kuwait until it closed in 2012, even though consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men was illegal, punishable by up to seven years in prison. He also has two Virgin Megastores in Qatar and one in Bahrain. “There are now six Virgin Megastores in Lebanon,” Branson blogged recently, “and while wandering around Beirut we found another store opening soon. We have 26 Megastores currently in the region, with more planned in the coming years.”
Should Branson be boycotted too? Or is he in fact helping to bridge the divide between East and West by bringing western culture and ideas to people being denied basic human rights?
A few days after the Children’s Defense Fund joined the Beverly Hills Hotel boycott, JJ Abrams, who co-chaired the charity’s last five annual awards galas at the Beverly Hills Hotel, was in Abu Dhabi directing a certain next movie for Walt Disney Pictures “Hi, it’s J.J. Abrams here on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII, in lovely Abu Dhabi,” he said in a video shot on location. “All these people around that you hear and see are helping us make this movie, and it’s an incredible thing. It’s a thrill to be in this amazing place with these incredible people, working on this film.”
Abrams, who co-chaired the last five Children’s Defense Fund annual Beat the Odds awards galas, has done great work on behalf of disadvantaged children all over the world, and his wife, public relations executive Katie McGrath, chairs the CDF’s event in Los Angeles, which will be held December 4 at the Book Bindery in Culver City.
Abrams’ tape from the Star Wars location was a pitch to the film’s fans to get involved in Star Wars: Force for Change, an innovative program, he said, that’s “dedicated to finding creative solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. It’s about helping kids all around the world by supporting UNICEF labs and programs.” Too bad he had to make the pitch from the UAE, where children born out of wedlock may have to visit their mothers in jail, since “fornication outside of marriage is a crime,” according to the State Department’s Human Rights report. Fortunately, none of Abram’s Star Wars cast and crew was arrested for being gay during filming there, where consensual same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death.
So should we boycott Star Wars: Episode VII because part of it was filmed in a country where there is so little respect for human rights? If so, where will the boycotting end? Which is not to say that the boycotters were wrong to target the Beverly Hills Hotel; on the contrary, they have done more to bring attention to the issue than anyone else. The question then is: What next?
The Beverly Wilshire and the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills are 47.5% owned by Bill Gates and 47.5% by the Kingdom Holding Company, whose billionaire owner, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, is a member of the Saudi royal family. Should those hotels be boycotted because of Saudi Arabia’s rule of sharia law? And what about Alwaleed’s 35% stake in hotels in Santa Monica, San Francisco and New York City? Should they be boycotted, too? And what about News Corp/21st Century Fox? Alwaleed holds a 6.6% voting interest in News Corp through Kingdom Holding. Outside the Murdoch family, he is the second0largest shareholder in News Corp/21st Century Fox. Should News Corp/21st Century Fox be boycotted too?
Should Gates, among the world’s greatest philanthropists, be boycotted? The answer is simple: No.
Many of Hollywood’s foreign partners are among the most enlightened and forward-thinking men and women in their countries. Their continuing involvement with the industry should be embraced and encouraged, not shunned or boycotted. American-educated Alwaleed is one of the most progressive voices in the Middle East and an outspoken critic of Islamic terrorists. His company’s website states: “The Prince describes himself as being religiously conservative, but with a liberal outlook on the social and cultural aspects of contemporary Islam.” He champions women’s rights, for example, believes that all religious beliefs are valid and should be respected, and has spoken out against Islamist terrorism.
Isn’t this the spirit of moderation and tolerance in the Middle East that the West should be embracing? Isn’t this just the type of thinking that’s needed to help modernize the Arab world? And that’s where Hollywood can play a vitally important role: through film, television, the Internet, and strong business ties, Hollywood can actually help westernize the Arab world. And for the two worlds to coexist, one is going to have to become more like the other, and we’re probably not going to become more like them – although a better understanding of their history, culture and religion certainly wouldn’t hurt. The West needs the East, and Hollywood has proven to be a fertile meeting place.
When Teen Line joined the hotel boycott, the teen hotline based out of Cedars-Sinai only had a few days to find a new venue for its annual fundraiser, which would be honoring Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal. Jenny Pascal, Amy’s sister and Teen Line’s training director, said, “There was no way in good conscience that we could hold the event at the hotel in light of the plan that the Sultan of Brunei announced.”
Jenny Pascal probably had no way of knowing that her sister’s company does business in a country where teen girls are flogged for drinking or getting pregnant outside of wedlock, and where teen girls who are raped can be imprisoned for “for engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage.” That’s the law in the United Arab Emirates, and Sony Pictures does business there. The opening scenes of Sony’s paranormal thriller Deliver Us From Evil were shot in Abu Dhabi last year to cash in on the emirate’s film tax credits. Sony Pictures Television Arabia, which produces local programming for broadcasters across the Arab world, is based in Dubai, the UAE’s most populous city and emirate, where the same sharia laws apply.
Shortly after the boycott began, the Motion Picture & Television Fund announced it would be seeking a new venue for its pre-Oscar party and fundraiser, which had been held at the hotel for the past 12 years. “It’s very sad,” MPTF chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg told Deadline. “The Beverly Hills Hotel has been a part of Hollywood iconography for over 100 years, so to leave is sad but absolutely a must. In this day and age, to have that level of intolerance and prejudice is something that none of us in Hollywood can condone. It’s a shame.”
Katzenberg, who deservedly received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar last year for his many philanthropic efforts, apparently had no problem when DreamWorks partnered with ImageNation, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned production and film financing company, on 2011’s The Help and 2014’s The Hundred-Foot Journey. So should the company he co-founded be boycotted too?
“Selectivity of protest in a larger context also serves to allow economic relationships to thrive with countries that greatly differ over fundamental values such as human rights,” the film financier noted. “This provides economic leverage that can be used to improve human rights. It is likely that the U.S. has made far more progress in human rights through economic leverage than isolationism or military action.”
In February 2013, a young Canadian living in Abu Dhabi mail-ordered a DVD of HBO’s Girls. It never arrived. Instead, she received a notice that it had been confiscated by the Department of Media Content of United Arab Emirates’ National Media Council. “We would like to inform you that the following items are not valid in the UAE: DVD Girls.”
Earlier this year, The Bold And The Beautiful filmed for three days in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The American soap is wildly popular in the Middle East, even though – or perhaps because – so many of its characters are serial adulterers. It may not be Girls, but it’s chipping away at the stifling social mores there all the same. Should we boycott the soap for filming in a country where adultery is punishable by flogging and prison? Should Universal Pictures be boycotted because Fast & Furious 7 was partly shot in Abu Dhabi, or Paramount because part of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was filmed in Dubai?
Disney acquired India’s leading film studio two years ago and formed Walt Disney India, which now outproduces the home office. Should Disney be boycotted for partnering with India, whose Supreme Court ruled in December that homosexual acts could be punished by life in prison?
And then there’s Qatar, which Israeli president Shimon Peres recently accused of being “the world’s largest funder of terror” because of its financial support for Hamas in Gaza. In 2010, Disney sold Miramax to an investment consortium that included the state-owned Qatar Investment Authority. Should Miramax be boycotted, as being gay in Qatar is subject to a seven-year prison sentence?
Last year, Participant Media — which partnered with Abu Dhabi’s state-owned ImageNation to produce The Help and Cesar Chavez — received a $100 million commitment from the Qatari government’s Doha Film Institute to finance a slate of feature films. Should Participant be boycotted, even though the Doha Film Institute is run by one of the most progressive, American-educated women in the Middle East, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who is the sister of the Emir of Qatar and the daughter of the former Emir? Does it matter that she is one of the Arab world’s leading proponents of the arts, and one of the region’s leading voices for women’s rights?
“People have said, ‘Let’s build bridges,’ and frankly, I want to do more than that,” she told the TED Conference in 2010. “I would like to break down the walls of ignorance between East and West.” Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Jim Berk are committed to producing socially relevant films with the type of progressive themes that may be just what is needed to bring western values of tolerance and freedom to Middle Eastern moviegoers.
Far more than its military, American culture permeates world culture. Hollywood’s ties to the Middle East, far from being something that should be boycotted, are a bridge between two worlds, and may be our best hope to tearing down the walls of ignorance.
“That Hollywood chooses to protest the Beverly Hills Hotel over unconscionable treatment of gays by the Sultan of Brunei is a noble exercise of the American tradition of protest,” the film financier told Deadline. “So what if they don’t protest everything, everywhere? Protest achieves results by being selective.”
That may not be good news for the staff at the Beverly Hills Hotel, whose livelihood has been sharply curtailed. The hotel’s beleaguered employees, many of whom rely on tips to pay their rent and food bills, have been the biggest losers in this battle.
Perhaps they should join the boycott by going out on strike. Surely the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union – which publicized the Sultan’s brutal legislation a full year before the boycott began – will be there to support them. Maybe the union will even set up a strike fund to hold the workers over until the Sultan either sells the hotel or relents. If Hollywood’s unions were to get behind it, the current stalemate might be broken.
A boycott with a few sporadic and unorganized picket lines is one thing. A strike with around-the-clock picketing, and the full power of LA’s labor unions behind it, would be something else entirely. Hollywood’s happy hypocrites would, of course, be welcome help along the barricades.