Hollywood is threatening politicians with one thing they hold very dear: campaign cash.
As anti-piracy legislation stalled in Congress last week, the movie industry's top lobbyist, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, warned Democrats not to count on Hollywood money if they turn their backs on the industry's legislative priority.
Among the biggest recipients of Hollywood money are Californian members of Congress who remain supportive of the controversial anti-piracy bills. Eight Californians in the House of Representatives, as well as Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, co-sponsored the bills, representing more co-sponsors than from any other state.
Boxer was the top Senate recipient of campaign contributions from the movie production industry over the last six years, picking up nearly $413,000, according to data compiled by MapLight.org and the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, whose Los Angeles district includes the famed Hollywood sign, is the industry's top beneficiary in the House, picking up $106,500 in the last two years of reported contributions. Berman was an early co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act that the Motion Picture Association of America has been pushing.
The movie industry and other supporters maintain that the bills, known as SOPA in the House and PIPA [PDF] in the Senate, are necessary to fight foreign websites that pirate American films and music. Opponents, including tech companies, claim the bills threaten freedom of expression on the Internet.
The debate pits two powerful California industries against each other, but one gives much more political money than the other. In the Senate, for example, MapLight.org found that the entertainment industry gave $14 million in contributions over the last six years, compared with $2 million from Internet interest groups.
The rare admission of the power of campaign contributions from Dodd, a former senator and past presidential candidate, puts a spotlight on the influence of money in this policy debate.
"Candidly, those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," Dodd told Fox News last week. "Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."
Dodd, CEO of the movie industry association, added: "I would caution people don't make the assumption that because the quote 'Hollywood community' has been historically supportive of Democrats, which they have, don't make the false assumptions this year that because we did it in years past, we will do it this year."
Watch Dodd's interview with Fox News:
Howard Gantman, spokesman for the association, said in an e-mail that Dodd "was merely making the obvious point that people support politicians whose views coincide with their own. When politicians take positions that people disagree with, those people tend not to support those politicians."
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, said Dodd's statement "reveals how much the current system is legalized bribery."
"It's notable that it's coming from someone who was so steeped in the system," she said.
Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that fought the anti-piracy bills, said campaign contributions have indeed factored into the policy battle.
"You'd have to be totally naive not to think so," he said. "Look at the contributions and look where people were on the issue."
Californian co-sponsors of anti-piracy legislation in the House include Los Angeles-area Democrats Karen Bass, who received nearly $30,000 from the movie industry; Brad Sherman, who got $23,000; and Adam Schiff, who picked up about $19,000. Another co-sponsor, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a Palm Springs Republican, received almost $22,000 over two years.
Technology companies and Internet activists succeeded in stalling the bills despite the fact that Hollywood gives more money. But that doesn't mean that campaign cash didn't matter, said McGehee, because the fight isn't over. "We're only in round one," she said.
Feinstein, who garnered about $146,000 over six years from movie production interests, is working toward compromise legislation. In a statement, Feinstein said: "The only way we can resolve the differences on this bill is by the key CEOs sitting down together."
Will Evans is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.