Hollywood is backing boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air

By Updated at 2014-05-11 06:30:54 +0000


LOS ANGELES — For longer than most here care to remember, Arthur Cohn, a producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” which won an Oscar in 1972, has staged an intimate pre-Academy Awards dinner for friends, movie stars and others at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The actress Robin Wright and the chief executive of 20th Century Fox Film, Jim Gianopulos, were on hand this year. As ever, the peppery Polo Lounge tomato soup was part of the ritual. And Mr. Cohn now says that dinner will be his very last at the hotel, so long as the sultan of Brunei, whose sovereign wealth fund owns the property, enforces a new penal code that will permit the stoning of gays and adulterers in his home country.

“I absolutely couldn’t do the dinner,” said Mr. Cohn, who spoke by telephone on Friday from Switzerland, where he lives.

“If I’m respected in this industry, it’s as someone who sticks to my views,” he said.

If Hollywood’s palmiest place in the sun has lost the loyalty of Mr. Cohn, it may already have lost half its battle to survive.

Since mid-April, when word spread of the turn in Brunei toward a harsh form of Islamic law by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, whose Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel as part of its Dorchester Collection of properties, Hollywood has turned its back on the hotel.

Until now, it was treated like a doddering loved one: At the age of 102, it could be forgiven a few foibles — the starchy waiters, that hopeless tangle of streets at its Sunset Boulevard entrance. But this is different.

“It’s beyond contemptible,” Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO and until now among the most loyal of guests, said of the sultan’s new policies. He said that he and others from his company “will be staying elsewhere. It’s that simple.”

In the last week, an escalating boycott of the Dorchester properties decreased the company’s revenue by about $2 million, said Christopher Cowdray, a Dorchester executive in London. Cancellations at the Beverly Hills Hotel accounted for almost all of the dropoff.

Business at the Hotel Bel-Air, another Dorchester property, has been much less affected, Mr. Cowdray said. The primary impact of the boycott also has been felt in London, where the Dorchester and 45 Park Lane hotels have seen a slide in entertainment-related business. (Fox, for example, moved its press junket for “X-Men: Days of Future Past” from the Dorchester, a spokesman for the studio said.) Mr. Cowdray, speaking by telephone from London on Friday, said the boycott threatens the livelihood of employees and suppliers of the hotels, including about 650 workers at the Beverly Hills Hotel, though he reiterated a promise to avoid layoffs.

He also asserted that those who withdrew business over the sultan’s policies appeared to have overlooked human rights abuses in the homelands of others who own businesses around the world. In London alone, he said, a number of favorite hotels have owners in Saudi Arabia and other countries that enforce harsh aspects of Islamic law.

Mr. Cowdray said he hoped critics would recognize that a British corporation owns the hotels, and that they are governed by the laws and policies of the countries in which they are located. “The code by which I govern my hotels is absolute equality, and that code is endorsed by our ownership,” he said.

To help spread that word, the company has hired the communications consultant Mark Fabiani, who has worked with Bill Clinton and other high-profile people and companies. Asked whether Dorchester had considered a sale of the Beverly Hills Hotel, a course suggested this week by the Beverly Hills City Council, Mr. Cowdray said: “We haven’t discussed anything of that nature to date.”

Should the sultan decide to divest, some ready buyers are standing by. This week, the entertainment mogul Haim Saban told The Hollywood Reporter that he was interested in purchasing the hotel. Another potential buyer is John Davis, a film producer whose father, the oil tycoon Marvin Davis, now deceased, sold the hotel to the sultan’s investment fund for $110 million in 1987.

Mr. Davis declined to comment, though a person briefed on his plans said he was considering forming an investment group that would be poised to make a bid.

The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air for years have been subject to a boycott by union members over what they said was a successful effort by the Brunei owners to clear union workers out of both hotels. “We have had longtime disdain for the sultan of Brunei,” said Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman for the Unite Here union, which has staged protests and pressed a legal campaign against the Hotel Bel-Air since 2009.

Ms. Shelton, who referred to the sultan as a “homophobic, anti-woman, anti-union jerk,” said the union’s warnings about the sultan were largely overlooked in Hollywood. But, she said, a union associate in San Francisco helped stir outrage in mid-April when he learned of the proposed laws and spread the word on Facebook. That happened even as the Human Rights Campaign in Washington began asking gays, women and others to avoid the Brunei-owned hotels.

Mr. Cowdray said about 150 employees of the Beverly Hills Hotel went to the City Council meeting this week to affirm their satisfaction with their jobs, and to oppose any steps that might further hurt the hotel. But a call for divestment passed, 5 to 0.

Among those in the film business here, it has been difficult to find anyone who is not avoiding what had once been a favorite hotel and its sister properties. “The industry has reacted with a resounding, unanimous response,” said Kelly Bush, a publicist whose ID PR company represents dozens of filmmakers and stars, including Ben Stiller, Diane Lane and Ellen Page.

The response has not been entirely unanimous. The producer Peter Guber, who lives near the Hotel Bel-Air, said he “doesn’t believe for one second” in what the government of Brunei is doing, but will maintain his “good relationship” with that hotel.

Other power players continued to prefer private censure to public comment.

“Jeffrey just doesn’t want to be out front on this one,” said Chip Sullivan, a DreamWorks spokesman, referring to the studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Mr. Katzenberg strengthened the boycott when he announced this week that his annual “Night Before the Oscars” charity event would leave the hotel.

Eric Schiffer, a reputation management consultant who does not work for Dorchester, predicted that the boycott will lose steam. “Many will not give up their hotel,” he said.

Besides, he added, Hollywood isn’t the only game in town. Mr. Schiffer said that last week he spotted Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, appearing to have a fine time at the hotel. (Attempts to reach Mr. Sterling through the Clippers and through his lawyer were unsuccessful.) “He was partying away,” said Mr. Schiffer. “He’s 80, and I don’t think he cares.”

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Correction: May 10, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Washington-based organization that advocated a boycott of Brunei-owned hotels. It is the Human Rights Campaign, not the Human Rights Commission.

A version of this article appears in print on May 10, 2014, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Brunei Ownership Casts a Shadow on a Hollywood Hotel. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe