Donald Trump was a showman whose election in 2016 was in part due to his fame from The Apprentice, but President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will come into office with much closer ties to the entertainment industry.
The new administration will likely usher in a much more receptive vibe from Hollywood figures, reminiscent of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the White House routinely hosted movie screenings, celebrity-led workshops and In Performance at the White House concerts.
But beyond the prospect of a revived Hollywood-D.C. social scene, Biden has a history of working on entertainment-centric issues like piracy and trade that are atop the agenda of Hollywood studios.
Perhaps the biggest asset for the industry is that a number of Biden’s advisers have ties to the Motion Picture Association. Kate Bedingfield, his deputy campaign manager, and T.J. Ducklo, his national press secretary, formerly worked for the trade and lobbying group in communications posts. Chris Dodd, a longtime Biden friend who has been a confidant during the campaign, is the former chairman of the MPA. The current chairman, Charles Rivkin, also is a veteran of the Obama administration who knows Biden well.
Another industry trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, is led by Gordon Smith, a Republican, who served with Biden in the Senate. In a video message to members, Smith emphasized his relationship to the president-elect.
“Joe Biden and I — we became more than colleagues,” Smith said. “We became friends, and that is a friendship that has continued to this day. And so I know that I am going to have the chance to make the NAB’s case to the president-elect when and if that should become necessary.”
Harris, meanwhile, perhaps has even deeper ties to Hollywood than Biden, in part due to her campaigns for statewide offices and her cultivation of friendships through the years. If she is tasked with handling issues of special interest to the entertainment industry, like copyright and trade, that also could prove to be a big asset to the business.
Here’s a look at some of the issues that the industry will be watching in the new Biden era:
COVID-19 relief. The most pressing need is for a new relief package, as movie theaters desperately need a lifeline. The question is whether there may be a new package during the lame-duck session of Congress, or whether it will have to wait until Biden is sworn in.
If it happens during the Biden transition, much will depend on whether Trump will want to try to forge a deal with the Democrats, after see-sawing back and forth between backing away from negotiations and encouraging a massive package. As with everything, political dynamics are in play.
While theater owners have been the most vocal about getting relief ASAP, other sectors of the industry also are hoping for other measures, like expanded small business loans, hiring incentives, and worker retention tax credits. The industry also is concerned that aid is extended to state and local governments, as film and TV tax credits often are threatened amid a budget crisis. A sticking point in COVID-19 relief negotiations have been whether a bill would include business liability protections. A broader insurance package looks to be separate legislation.
The pre-election negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin went on for weeks, but in the end they were said to be far apart. Some surmise that Mitch McConnell will go for a deal if he believes that a new deal is something that could potentially help Republican chances of winning Georgia’s two Senate seats, which will decide whether the Senate stays in party hands. “There is a positive vibe that something is going to get done,” said one industry source.
If nothing happens in the lame duck, it may be up to Biden to expend a bit of capital to push things through.
Piracy. Hollywood for the past decade has had to contend with the rising lobbying power of Silicon Valley, particularly on issues of copyright, but the situation has changed considerably in the past four years.
The hands-off approach to the major tech platforms have given way to constant scrutiny, to the point that one of Silicon Valley’s sacred cows, the immunity granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is in the cross-hairs of Republicans and Democrats. Meanwhile, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google, and House Democrats recently released a sweeping and critical report on competition among the tech giants.
At times, the MPA has seized on the situation to call for greater platform accountability, but the studios have largely stayed out of thornier congressional debates over Section 230. It’s unclear if the environment would change enough to pursue major anti-piracy legislation, but the strategy of recent years has been to pressure tech platforms to take greater steps to curb infringement.
There is some feeling that Biden will be less tech-friendly than the Obama administration, as his campaign has been highly critical of Facebook and what they see as the platform’s inability to curb disinformation.
What is encouraging to some in the industry is that Biden already knows the issues. When he was vice president, Biden was tasked with piracy issues, and held summits with executives across industries. One of his policy groups during the campaign was named platform accountability, a term that’s music to the ears of content creators who want the likes of Google to do more to curb infringing content.
Richard Bates, SVP Government Relations for Disney, said, “We love Joe Biden. We are very positive about his support for intellectual property and anti-piracy issues.”
In a recent interview, Jim Gianopulos, the chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, said that one takeaway in his conversations with Biden is that he understands the impact of piracy on jobs.
Biden, he said, made the point that “it is about the impact on the economy in this country. That is the message, that it is not just to help Hollywood protect its content alone. It is to help Hollywood protect content so we can keep people employed. He made that connection himself.”
Trade. There is some expectation that the tone with China will change, even if the trade tensions don’t immediately dissipate. Hollywood’s interest lies not just on piracy, but in expanding the number of films allowed into the Chinese market. Back in 2012, Biden and then-Chinese vice president Xi Jinping reached an agreement for more U.S. film exports to China, in what was considered a major breakthrough at the time.
Bates said that Biden was “our biggest advocate when it comes to negotiations with the Chinese.”
An industry source said that Biden “could help with the tone and the relationship” with China, even if trade tensions don’t immediately dissipate. “It will take time,” said one industry source. “I don’t see a change anytime soon.”
Net neutrality and the FCC. The Democratic majority on the FCC will likely tackle broadband access and perhaps even net neutrality, long a priority of the party, which has seen a series of derivations and court battles for the past decade only to be repealed by the Republican-led FCC in late 2017.
The FCC also has been considering a Trump administration executive order to modify Section 230. That is in retaliation for what the current president sees as bias against conservatives, including himself, by Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. With a Biden administration ushering in a Democratic majority, that effort is likely dead.
When it comes to media-ownership rules, much will hinge on the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments this session on the FCC’s latest efforts to loosen restrictions on broadcast stations.