This website is part of the USC Annenberg Digital Archives. Read More

This website is part of the USC Annenberg Digital Archives. Read More

about the reporterhome

The Activists

Hollywood is known for throwing big glitzy events and even bigger, glitzier checks at politicians on their California campaign stops. But a portion of Hollywood’s industry figures go above and beyond the call of duty to fight for their beliefs and causes, often leading the march to Washington D.C. to address the issues where they matter most. Profiled here are eight activists spanning the Hollywood industry, who have used their Hollywood connections to not only raise money, but to change bills and legislature in favor of their causes. Read about their impact, challenges and experiences as they took the long road to D.C. to fight on behalf of their causes.

The Girl About Town

Name: Lynda Obst
Age: 61
Current Role: Producer, Lynda Obst Productions
Affiliations: Political solidarity causes, Barack Obama

Name: Lynda Obst

Age: 61

Current Role: Producer, Lynda Obst Productions

Affiliations: Political causes, Barack Obama

 

Some may say Lynda Obst fell into Hollywood quite by accident. A native of New York, Obst studied philosophy at Columbia University while engaging in student activism before finding herself in an editorial role at the New York Times Magazine in 1977.

“I never planned to leave journalism,” laughs Obst, as she recounts how she married her then-husband David and moved to Los Angeles in 1979 and found herself working at the Geffen Company developing scripts, with David Geffen as her mentor. 

Having racked up more than 25 years in the business, Obst boasts an impressive filmography as an A-List producer. She was behind the development of “Flashdance,” “Risky Business” and “After Hours,” which led her to form a production company with producer Deborah Hill. Hill/Obst Productions was responsible for “Adventures in Babysitting” and the Oscar-nominated “The Fisher King,” among others.

Eventually Obst decided to venture out on her own, and the results have been notable. Among her top films are “Sleepless in Seattle,” “One Fine Day” and more recently, “The Invention of Lying.” She is also behind the television hit “Hot in Cleveland.”

Obst’s media background and her earlier political activism, though, have a bigger influence on her projects behind the scenes.

“It doesn’t influence the way I produce a film, but it interests my sources for development,” says Obst. “I still read more newspapers, blogs and magazines than I see movies, so I’m still a media freak fundamentally, and I would say that all of my self-generated movies are deeply influenced by my fundamental connection to the zeitgeist and pop culture.”

She has also used her editorial background to find her own voice as a writer, notably authoring an articulate piece on the concept of writing a film pitch (“Anatomy of a Pitch”) that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1986, after lauded Esquire editor Harold Hayes persuaded her to write. 

Since then, Obst has gone on to write the best-selling book “Hello He Lied: And Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches,” about working in the film industry, drawing on her role as a woman in a male-dominated industry to give some humorously accurate insight into the inner workings of Hollywood. She also frequently writes for the Atlantic and the Huffington Post.

“It was finding a voice that described being in here and being anthropological about it at the same time,” says Obst. “I was always both a New Yorker in L.A. and also a journalist in L.A., and yet I couldn’t be a journalist.”

The producer overcame restrictions by not naming names; instead, she assigned types and roles through the device of mock screenplays.

“I can make it slightly bigger making my point, and sometimes not so much bigger but true to life, but then not indict anyone specific and still give the sociology,” explains Obst.

Obst looks much younger than her 61 years as she sits on a bench outside her office on the Sony Studios lot smoking a cigarette. Her energy is contagious as her young staff flits around her, running errands and sending emails, but it is her extracurricular political activities that pique interest outside of her colorful career.

“When I was at the Times, I wasn’t really free to be as political as I might have been, so it may have been somewhat liberating for me to get to Hollywood and have no political constraints,” says Obst.  

Obst becomes a whirlwind when she gets involved in issues, and she confessed that her own family described her as a “one-issue candidate.” In the '80s, Obst found herself deeply invested in solidarity causes related to the war in El Salvador.  

“I was a little obsessed,” says Obst. “I did fly there during the war and got myself tangled up with not being able to get back. It was very exciting.”

Her eyes light up as she recounts several harrowing incidents, including a trip to the airport via a road manned by guerillas, and almost being stranded in El Salvador due to a blackout, with no help from the American embassy. When her plane finally took off from El Salvador, Obst describes how she left under fire.

“We were involved with something that our own government was aggressively against,” explains Obst. “Our work in El Salvador was considered by the Reagan administration to be subversive because we supported giving medical aid to the guerillas and the campesinos.”

During the '90s, Obst found herself working with the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, joining forces with other influential women in the industry. She went along to the very first party for Bill and Hillary Clinton, thrown by her best friend, Dawn Steel (who passed away from cancer in 1997), and her husband, producer Charles Roven. Steel, an established producer in Hollywood with credits including "Top Gun" and "Fatal Attraction," and her producer husband Roven were a respected and well-connected Hollywood power couple.

“I remember the first thing I heard when I walked into the party was that the wife was amazing,” recalls Obst. “So I made sure to meet the wife.”

Despite her earlier support of the Clintons, it wasn’t until 2004 that she was once again passionately moved to get involved in a campaign. 

“I saw Barack Obama speak at the [Democratic National Committee] convention in 2004 on television and just thought, ‘that’s my guy!’ ” says Obst. “It was hard for me to fall in love with Obama to the degree that I did since she [Hillary] was really there for Dawn when she was sick.”

Obst was able to connect to then-Senator Obama through her brother, Rick Rosen, who was partners with Hollywood agent-extraordinaire Ari Emanuel of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.

Emanuel himself is a politically influential hotshot in Hollywood and is the younger brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as senior adviser to the Clinton administration and chief of staff to President Obama. Emanuel's clients include director Martin Scorsese, Matt Damon, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Garner; he also achieved heightened recognition after the popular HBO show “Entourage” modeled the slick agent character Ari Gold after him.

For Emanuel, the Hollywood and D.C. connections are cemented, and he was one of the first members of Hollywood to host an intimate dinner for Obama in 2006, where Obst found that her sharp wit attracted the attention of the future president.  

“I had the most divine conversation with him,” reveals Obst. “Meeting Obama is not like meeting Tim Pawlenty!”

It appeared that Obama was taken by Obst’s repartee as well, telling one of his aides to “get her number, she’s on fire.” The next day after the party, Obama called the producer and proceeded to grill her on her career and industry.

“I got the sense that wherever he goes, he just likes to find out where he is and talk to somebody interesting,” says Obst.

Their chat swiftly moved to strategizing about how to secure the Hollywood vote, with Obst putting particular emphasis on young Hollywood.

“Old Hollywood will want you, but they’re scared of Hillary,” Obst recalls telling Obama. At this time, the senator had not yet announced his intentions to seek the presidency, and Obst told him she would be heartbroken if he didn’t run.

Obama’s reponse? “Lynda, I’m not a heartbreaker.”

Her advice paid off. As hard as it may have been for Hollywood to switch its infatuation from Hillary Clinton to Obama, it eventually backed the senator from Illinois in his race for the White House.

“I know at least a hundred people in this town who were in crisis because they loved Obama so much, but they were personally close to the Clintons, and they had given lots of money to the Clintons,” says Obst. 

She got to work on Obama’s campaign as a bundler in Hollywood, focusing on the midlevel earners to gather donations of $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000. But her biggest challenge was persuading her African-American friends that Obama had a chance to win.

“The hardest people to convince were my black friends,” says Obst, indicating that they didn’t have enough faith in America to vote for Obama. But it was Obama’s primary victories in Iowa and South Carolina that brought them around, and slowly, Obst got closer to her $100,000 goal in bundled donations for Obama’s campaign.

This time around, Obst is back on board to raise money for Obama in 2012, knowing she will still have to convince her friends that he is the right choice.

“The job for the next campaign is to convince my friends on the left that the second term is the most vital term, as that’s when he won’t have to fight re-election, and that’s when we can get everything done,” says Obst. 

For Obst, the key to the re-election campaign lies in registering voters in the face of changing registration laws. 

“There are a lot of rich people that can do bundling, but I know how to do voter registration," says Obst. I can get people to the polls, and I like being with people on the street. There are a lot of people like me who don’t like being with people on the street,” says Obst. In 2008, she was assigned to a district in Florida to register voters. Calling on her skills as a producer, she performed well, proving to the Obama team she was indeed a force to be reckoned with.

Whether it be wars in Central America or presidential campaigns, Obst clearly prefers life on the front lines — just like Election Night 2008, when she opted to watch the historic night unfold at Millie’s Café, among the Florida voters she helped to register. She intends to shun the Hollywood glitz once again this cycle and be a part of the grass-roots action on the street. 

The Top Political Players in Hollywood Political Power of the Alcohol Lobby Playing Politics with Healthcare Who Runs Los Angeles? The Nuclear Landscape The Elephant in the Room Political Power of the Pro-Israel Lobby Schooled, Education Reform Rich Congress, Poor Constituents About the Project