Hollywood Deployed Lobbyists to Win Exemptions to Strict California Lockdown

by | Dec 14, 2020


Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom was caught violating his own warnings against multiple households dining together indoors. The Democratic governor was spotted at the French Laundry, an exclusive restaurant north of San Francisco, where he was celebrating the birthday of longtime friend Jason Kinney.

The dinner controversy was more than just an opulent display of political double standards — it also highlighted the backroom efforts to maintain special treatment during the pandemic. Kinney, a veteran political operative, is a lobbyist for a number of interests seeking to shape the rules governing life under the pandemic, including what kind of economic activities are deemed essential in order to stay in business.

The inside track may have paid off. One of Kinney’s clients, Netflix, has been allowed to continue to operate during the latest round of forced closures that began last week as intensive care hospital capacity has dwindled across the state.

The entertainment industry has been given extensive leeway to operate during the pandemic, even as California now faces a stay-at-home order. The state has deemed the television and movie production industry as “critical infrastructure” and has allowed Hollywood studios to continue filming projects, including in Los Angeles, which is facing the most strict lockdown order.

Many studios are still filming shows across Los Angeles, including HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method,” along with at least 40 feature films that began filming in November. Sony Pictures told investors that it began to ramp up its production schedule back in July.

This stands in sharp contrast to the strict rules applied to the average California resident or small business. Californians in many counties now face fines or imprisonment for venturing outside for any “nonessential” travel, congregating in small groups, or operating an outdoor restaurant, even one that follows federal guidelines on social distancing and hygiene.

Kinney is just one of many entertainment industry lobbyists who has sought to influence the governor’s office over essential work and coronavirus response rules. Sony Pictures, Walt Disney and Co., Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers Entertainment, and the Motion Picture Association, the trade group for major Hollywood studios, deployed lobbyists to influence California state officials during the pandemic, disclosures show.

Warner Brothers, for instance, spent $22,500 earlier this year on lobbyists contacting the governor’s office for “COVID/OUTREACH, TV/FILM PRODUCTION,” according to a disclosure. The Motion Picture Association spent $45,000 on lobbyists to shape the “COVID-19 Reopening of film/tv sector.” Paramount Pictures has spent at least $85,000 this year on the “essential business” rules developed by state agencies in California.

Netflix nearly tripled spending on lobbying in California as the pandemic hit the state. The streaming giant, according to filings, spent an average of about $24,437 a quarter on efforts to influence state policymakers in 2019. This year, during the pandemic, Netflix’s lobbying fees jumped to an average of $70,725 a quarter. The jump in spending includes increased fees to Axiom Advisors, the firm founded by Kinney.

The movie studios, Kinney, and the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The Motion Picture Association referred The Intercept to a previous statement from the group noting that the industry has worked with union and guild partners “for reaching consensus on health and safety guidelines for motion picture, television and streaming productions in response to COVID-19.”

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  • Lee Fang

    Lee Fang is a journalist with a longstanding interest in how public policy is influenced by organized interest groups and money. He was the first to uncover and detail the role of the billionaire Koch brothers in financing the tea party movement. His interviews and research on the Koch brothers have been featured on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” the documentaries “Merchants of Doubt” and “Citizen Koch,” as well as in multiple media outlets. He was an investigative blogger for ThinkProgress from 2009 to 2011, and then a fellow at the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation.

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