The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Want a Hollywood deal with James Cameron? Make a donation to his Avatar Foundation

October 28, 2010 |  5:29 pm

Jim_cameron Hollywood insiders have been buzzing since reading the news Wednesday morning that James Cameron only committed to making his "Avatar" sequels after News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox subsidiary agreed to make what the Deadline website called a "huge donation" to Cameron's environmental fund. To say that the news made studio bosses uneasy would be an understatement. Movie studios have made donations to star's pet causes in the past, but as a perk, not as a prerequisite for a gigantic movie deal. 

If studios had to make donations to make deals, it would open up a very messy Pandora's box of obligations. Just imagine: If Amy Pascal still wants Angelina Jolie to make "Cleopatra" at Sony, would this mean she'd have to start a string of orphanages around the globe as part of the deal?

Fox is now telling me that the report isn't especially accurate. As it turns out, the studio hasn't earmarked or contributed any money at all yet. Nor has the fund, known as the Avatar Foundation, been formally established. Fox has simply agreed that down the line it will help establish a nonprofit organization (co-funded with Cameron) dedicated to environmental issues, which will allow the "Avatar" sequels to be viewed not just as Hollywood commerce but as good works toward the future of the planet.

The most fascinating angle to this story, which has gone unnoticed in all the breathless blog posts about the "Avatar" sequel deal, is that it once again highlights the topsy-turvy inside politics at Rupert Murdoch's sprawling News Corp. empire. After all, Fox News and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, both owned by News Corp., have consistently scoffed at and taken issue with any scientific arguments that global warming is a looming threat to the planet. If I had a dollar for every WSJ op-ed page piece that mocked "An Inconvenient Truth," I'd be almost as rich as Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch himself made news recently when it was widely reported that News Corp., at his direction, made a $1-million donation to the Republican Governors Assn. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been a major donor to Republican candidates across the country. And many of those GOP candidates view global warming as either a hoax or a left-wing conspiracy theory. As a New York Times editorial recently noted: "With one exception, none of the Republicans running for the Senate--including the 20 or so with a serious chance of winning--accept the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming."

So what is Murdoch doing, funding an environmental fund on the one hand and GOP global warming deniers on the other? It is simply the latest example of the fact that Murdoch himself is a crafty businessman--he's a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Remember, in 2006, after years of Clinton bashing, the Murdoch-owned New York Post endorsed Hillary Clinton in her run for U.S. Senate. It was clear that once Murdoch realized that Clinton was going to win, he wanted to share some credit for her victory, since as a senator, she had a lot to say about ownership issues involving his TV and newspaper businesses.

Murdoch's Fox News brand revolves around zealous conservatism, so it is allowed to push its right-wing agenda as much as it wants. But Murdoch's 20th Century Fox brand revolves around the rare creative abilities of filmmakers like Cameron, so if establishing an environmental fund helps give Fox two hugely commercial franchise films that could only be made by Cameron, then that wing of News Corp. will happily save as much as the rain forest as possible.

Don't tell this to Sean Hannity, but News Corp. has quietly gone green already. In the most recent rankings from the Carbon Disclosure Project, News Corp. ranked No. 1 in its sector and No. 2 in the U.S. overall for the transparency and rigor of its carbon footprint disclosure. It also received an A for its performance toward its goal. The company also has made a number of investments in solar power and wind energy businesses in recent years. I guess you could say that Murdoch is positioning himself so that, no matter how the debate over global warming is decided, he'll be on the winning side.

Photo: James Cameron speaking at the 20th annual Environmental Media Assn. Awards in Burbank. Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images