Little Hollywood gold for the Olympics
China wants to impress the world, but Hollywood's bigs mostly shrug, says Richard Sikos.
LOS ANGELES (Fortune) -- On a Saturday afternoon last month, nearly 600 performers from Beijing were featured in a parade down Hollywood Boulevard to promote the upcoming Olympic games. The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa was on hand, and the theme was "Beijing welcomes you." Notably absent from the festivities, as far as I could tell, was the one thing you'd expect from a parade alongside the walk of fame: celebs. Indeed, the event itself went off with very little notice - I read about it in the Chinese press, but found no mention of it in the Los Angeles Times.
It's a small thing, but a reminder that Hollywood's relationship with the Olympics has gone from lukewarm to pretty much non-existent. It's a statement both about Hollywood and China, two of the most powerful (albeit in a very different way) forces in the 21st century, and, additionally, a comment on how the games always end up being politicized, regardless of who's hosting. Beijing, of course, is determined to stage a competition that the world will never forget - complete with gleaming new facilities, gala entertainment, and even customized weather. And why not? China is ascendant, and this is a great moment to show off its burgeoning economic might.
It first became clear in January that America's close and complicated relationship with China might develop some cracks under the glare of the stadium lights when Stephen Spielberg resigned as an artistic adviser to the summer games because of China's economic, political and military ties to the Sudan. Spielberg had lobbied the Chinese government to do more to do more to curb Sudan's attacks in Darfur. Chinese officials responded that it was unreasonable and irresponsible to assign them blame for Sudan's internal politics - although they did subsequently endorse a greater UN peacekeeping force in the region.
Since then, protests against the games over this and other human rights issues have risen to a low boil - led mainly by images of Chinese security guards tackling protestors who try to snatch the Olympic flame from runners on its world tour. There have been other celebrity outcries against the Olympics, from such movie stars as Don Cheadle and Mia Farrow (who has labeled Beijing "the genocide Olympics" and provided a list of sponsors she is urging boycotts of.
George Clooney, who has campaigned to raise awareness of Darfur, is in an interesting position. Omega watches, a company with whom he has a cushy endorsement deal, is one of those sponsors. Clooney has said he has encouraged Omega to drop its sponsorship. And Richard Gere, known for his championing of Tibet, has been a vocal critic of the games - not to mention Beijing's plans to run the torch through Tibet.
On top of all this is the brewing call for world leaders and corporate chieftains to boycott the opening ceremonies - Hillary Clinton called on President Bush to do so, and Barack Obama seemed to agree. All of these rumbles lead to a couple of conclusions. First, if members of the International Olympic Committee wanted to avoid controversy, they should have just awarded the games to Toronto (the distant runner-up for 2008). The fact that people are up in arms is not surprising - plenty of nations have boycotted Olympics over the years, including the Soviet Union skipping the Los Angeles games and China threatening to pull out of the Atlanta games over U.S. ties to Taiwan.
Secondly, maybe the Olympics and Hollywood really don't mix. Film-maker Ang Lee and music impresario Quincy Jones are still listed as creative advisors to the games, but a quick canvas of big media executives did not yield enormous involvement on their part (aside from NBC, of course, which holds the broadcast rights). One leader of one of the top film studios told me the Olympics are kind of a non-event in his eyes, but if he had a movie opening in China tied to the games he probably would reconsider it given the political tempest.
My guess is that whether Hollywood is involved or not, China will still mount a thoroughly over the top and in some ways impressive production. My hope is that the focus will be on the sports and competitions themselves, and less on the pomp and circumstance. It's still amazing to recall that at the last games - albeit the winter variety - more people tuned in on key nights to watch American Idol than competitions. Then again, I thought there was something appropriate for the times about the scaled-down, least-watched-ever, post-strike iteration of the Academy Awards. Maybe the lesson here - one that both future Olympics and Hollywood can share - is that not everything needs to be a blockbuster.