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Liberal Hollywood ponders next step in fight for same-sex marriage

Posted by Mats on 15/03/2009

After the passage of Proposition 8, some are calling for boycotts and firings. Others worry about free speech rights being trampled.

By Rachel Abramowitz and Tina Daunt

November 23, 2008

Should there be boycotts, blacklists, firings or de facto shunning of those who supported Proposition 8?

That’s the issue consuming many in liberal Hollywood who fought to defeat the initiative banning same-sex marriage and are now reeling with recrimination and dismay. Meanwhile, activists continue to comb donor lists and employ the Internet to expose those who donated money to support the ban.

Already out is Scott Eckern, director of the nonprofit California Musical Theatre in Sacramento, who resigned after a flurry of complaints from prominent theater artists, including “Hairspray” composer Marc Shaiman, when word of his contribution to the Yes on 8 campaign surfaced.

Other targets include Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that puts on both the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Spirit Awards; the Cinemark theater chain; and the Sundance Film Festival.

In Film Independent’s case, the board has defended the continued employment of Richard Raddon, the Mormon director of the L.A. Film Festival who donated $1,500 to support Proposition 8. Cinemark is under siege because Chief Executive Alan Stock gave $9,999 to support the same-sex marriage ban. And in a sign of a powerful ripple effect, Sundance, perhaps the American institution that has done the most to support gay filmmakers and gay cinema, is being targeted because it screens films in a Cinemark theater.

For many in Hollywood, the Proposition 8 backlash represents a troubling clash of free speech, religious beliefs and the right to fight intolerance. Many supporters of same-sex marriage view the state constitutional amendment as codified bigotry, a rollback of civil liberties for gays and lesbians.

Raddon has been a particularly polarizing figure because Film Independent’s board includes many independent film stalwarts, including Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker, Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice and Oscar-winning writer Bill Condon. One of the group’s explicit missions is to promote diversity.

Last week, Raddon offered to resign. According to one board member, a conference call was hastily arranged, and after much discussion the board voted unanimously to keep him.

Yet the anger continues to stew.

“There is still roiling debate within the organization,” says distributor Howard Cohen, an advisor to the film festival who is gay. “Is it OK to let this go? There are a lot of gay people who work at Film Independent. The issue has not been closed.”

No one is certain how the current protest will affect Film Independent’s Spirit Awards in the spring, a popular event recognizing work that “challenges the status quo.” And there are already indications the Los Angeles Film Festival could be affected.

Gregg Araki, director of the critically acclaimed gay cult hit “Mysterious Skin” and an influential figure in “new queer cinema,” has said he won’t allow his films to be shown there, while others, such as “Milk” producers and gay activists Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, say they’re going to “study in depth all the facets of our specific situation before making a decision.”

Araki says Raddon should step down. “I don’t think he should be forcibly removed. The bottom line is if he contributed money to a hateful campaign against black people, or against Jewish people, or any other minority group, there would be much less excusing of him. The terrible irony is that he runs a film festival that is intended to promote tolerance and equality.”

Others are leery of punishing free speech, even if they consider it hateful. “I can’t quite stomach the notion that you fire somebody because of what they believe. It doesn’t feel right to me,” says Christine Vachon, a pillar of gay cinema who produced such films as “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Far From Heaven.”

Raddon declined to comment, but Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, says, “Are we happy with his donation? No. But he has a right to his religious and personal beliefs.

“The very cornerstone of our organization is diversity, and diversity includes sexual orientation. Rich’s actions have always been in accordance with those principles,” she said.

Condon, the gay writer-director of “Dreamgirls” and a Film Independent board member, offered this retort to what he calls the “off-with-his-head” crowd: “If you’re asking, ‘Do we take discrimination against gays as seriously as bigotry against African Americans and Jews?’ . . . the answer is, ‘Of course we do.’ But we also believe that some people, including Rich, saw Prop. 8 not as a civil rights issue but a religious one. That is their right. And it is not, in and of itself, proof of bigotry.”

Fury is certainly percolating in the gay community, fomented largely through the Web. Younger advocates, not necessarily from Hollywood, have been using Facebook and YouTube to get the word out.

What began as a kind of cyber-venting is mushrooming into a new kind of viral protest movement, including the latest protest of Proposition 8 in Hollywood on Saturday, which was largely publicized via Facebook.

And there remains a distinct contingent of same-sex marriage supporters who are adamant about retribution. One is Chad Griffin, a political advisor to Hollywood executives who says, “A dollar to the yes campaign is a dollar in support of bigotry, homophobia and discrimination. There are going to be consequences. Any individual who has held homophobic views and who has gone public by writing a check, you can expect to be publicly judged. Many can expect to pay a price for a long time to come.”

Still, film companies are typically wary of involving themselves in causes, particularly those that advocate boycotts, because they know how vulnerable their products are to similar initiatives by well-organized groups on the religious right. For eight years, the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted the Walt Disney Co. for extending employee benefits to same-sex partners and urged its members not to patronize the theme parks and Disney products. Films with religious subjects — most notably “The Last Temptation of Christ” — have also sparked protests.

Bruce Cohen, one of the producers of “Milk” — which lands in theaters next week and traces the life and death of California’s first openly gay elected official (San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk) — and a leader of the No on 8 campaign in Hollywood, suggests that everyone should proceed with caution.

“You need to draw a very specific distinction between the cases where it’s the actual owner of the company who put money into a cause. If it’s an employee, it’s a different discussion. That becomes a freedom of speech issue,” he says. “People should personally always have the right to express their own opinions even if that means getting out their checkbook.”

And in fact, Focus Features, which is distributing “Milk,” still intends to play the film in Cinemark theaters despite calls for a boycott.

In particular, the notion of boycotting Sundance, which seems to have originated with the liberal Americablog, has picked up little traction thus far within the Hollywood community.

“I don’t feel the Sundance Film Festival deserves our ire or our censor,” says Howard Cohen. “It’s an incredible force for good. I know where they are on the issues, and there’s no evidence they supported Yes on 8.”

“If there is one festival that has supported queer cinema from the start, it’s Sundance,” says Marcus Hu, president of Strand Releasing, which has released many gay-themed films. “Sundance has been, first and foremost, people who have been discovering and fostering young gay talent.”

In part, Hollywood’s distress is a reflection of its guilty conscience about Proposition 8’s passage. Many feel that they were asleep at the wheel, preoccupied with Barack Obama’s candidacy and winning larger congressional majorities for the Democrats. “Many straight people really don’t understand it’s a civil rights issue,” says Vachon. “We didn’t do our job well enough. We need to do it better.”

“What the passage of Prop. 8 did is stir the soul of the people in the gay community,” says publicist-activist Howard Bragman. “It took what had been a top-down movement and made it a grass-roots movement.”

Abramowitz and Daunt are Times staff writers.

rachel.abramowitz@ latimes.com

tina.daunt@latimes.com

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