Nonprofit’s new head courts Hollywood’s help in bridging political divide – The Hill

When it comes to the deeply divided country, a nonprofit is aiming for a Hollywood ending, trying to reduce political polarization in movies, TV shows and more.

“Whether we like it or not, the status quo has an impact on the political culture of America,” said Steven Olikara, who ITK can exclusively reveal is the new head of Bridge Entertainment Labs.

“Whether they are more cynical narratives like ‘House of Cards’ presented or more aspirational narratives like ‘The West Wing’ presented, we are being hit with messages left and right. And the question is: Which messages are we sending?” Olikara said.

The mission of Bridge Entertainment Labs, formerly called the Center for Entertainment and Civic Health, is to “ignite compelling narratives that bridge political and social divides and generate new stories of ‘us’ as Americans.”

The first step, its new president Olikara said, is to establish the “issue of polarization and democracy and the need to bridge divides as an issue in Hollywood.”

“You’ve seen parallel efforts succeed at this — whether that’s the minority representation movement, gender equity — where these issues have established themselves in Hollywood. And we want to create that organizing force around democracy and bridge-building in Hollywood.”

The other key component, Olikara said, is partnering with TV and film producers and writers “to introduce narrative story arcs that model the kind of conversation we want to see in America.”

Some of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit’s advisory council, he noted, include Emmy Award-nominated writers, award-winning professors and researchers and executive producers of series such as “The Conners” and “That ’70s Show.”

“So they’ve seen the impact firsthand that popular culture has in America,” he said.

Olikara, who mounted an unsuccessful Democratic Wisconsin Senate bid last year with a message of bringing “dignity and humanity that is inclusive” to politics, said there are a “lot of similarities” between the cutthroat worlds of Hollywood and Washington.

“I can’t tell you how many leaders in the entertainment industry said, ‘You’re going to be right at home here given your background working in politics,’” the 33-year-old former chief executive of the nonprofit Millennial Action Project said.

“I’ve worked with celebrities in the past on their social impact campaigns, and talking with them, they have such a fascination in how Congress works, and how the White House works and how politics works,” said Olikara, who has also advised singer Akon’s sustainable energy foundation. “The fascination and intrigue is there. Now, we can bring people together in one room.”

While Olikara said the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes have had a “huge impact” on his group’s work, putting a number of projects “very much on hold,” Bridge Entertainment Labs will be kicking off its efforts at the American Democracy Summit in Los Angeles on Sep. 27, hosting an event called “Creating New American Stories of Us.”

Olikara said he sees the 2024 White House race and the “incredibly divisive election season” as a “huge opportunity.”

“I think it’s a moment when America focuses on what’s going on in our democracy, and I think the issues of the divide in our country and the polarization is front and center,” he said.

“The path of demonization and dehumanization may have some short-term benefits in terms of clicks and likes, but it doesn’t have the long-term benefit of making our country stronger,” Olikara said.

“A different way is possible.”

So should TV viewers suddenly expect to see “Succession’s” fiery conservative media mogul Logan Roy coming back to life to break bread with Democrats, or “Game of Thrones” to change its infamous and bloody “Red Wedding” episode to a more bipartisan “Red and Blue Wedding”? Olikara said the goal isn’t necessarily to have characters on some of the country’s most beloved shows suddenly singing “Kumbaya.”

“I think the core theory of change and division here is if we can have a 5 percent shift across 100 TV shows and films of multiple different genres, that is a transformative impact in changing the conversation in America.”

“It’s not about hitting people over the head with bridge-building messages in a show where people from different backgrounds figure out how to sit in a room together and talk — maybe someone has an idea and maybe it will be successful — but it’s more about how can we shift and introduce a storyline in a show like ‘Game of Thrones’ or a show like ‘The Mandalorian,’ and how can we have a small impact on shows that have an outsize audience?”  

“It’s more about partnering with people who are already doing the work,” Olikara said, “and trying to enhance it in terms of telling better stories of us.”

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