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Why Is Hollywood Still Going to D.C.’s Prom?

“The Prom” is what Washington media call Saturday’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

The name’s truer than they think. Where else do grownups wage popularity contests to score the best table locations? Wear tuxedos that have never met a tailor and flammable rayon gowns that taunt lit matches? And recruit such random Hollywood names that you almost expect Davy Jones to arrive with Marcia Brady?

I’ve attended the huge Washington Hilton gala for years, when it’s been sublime (with President Bush and the press equally pissed at then-rising star Stephen Colbert’s routine) and surreal (in 2007, when Rich Little channeled Nixon to a crowd that barely remembered either of them). 

It’s a chance to rub elbows with — and observe the eating habits of — everyone from Madeleine Albright to Leon Panetta. Over the years, it’s attracted a nominal Hollywood contingent: political groupies, actors hyping projects and flavors of the month (Ozzy, Sanjaya).

Although there’s sometimes confusion as to just what exactly the event is. An ABC star once asked his handler, “Aren’t we supposed to be at the White House?” 

This year, the talent lineup is crazy. Steven Spielberg, Mike Myers, Ludacris, Eva Longoria, Ed Westwick, Jon Bon Jovi, Sully, Colin Firth, Brooke Shields, Kristi Yamaguchi, Jon Hamm,  Ashton and Demi, Tyra Banks, Mariska Hargitay, Owen Wilson, Justin Long. For starters.

Why?

Blame it partly on Obama.  Arm-twisting a celebrity to attend during the last administration was usually an exercise in futility. 

It’s also smart for the nets and studios to make friends in town after facing enemies for so long. Star power has always helped on the Hill. Offering a little proximity to members of Congress and FCC commissioners can only help during the next wardrobe malfunction.

But most of all, the industry has finally realized that the event is a PR dream.  It offers the same fluffiness and harmless media exposure as the Golden Globes, only 3,000 miles away and with uglier tablemates.

Publicists love bringing celebrities to Washington. It’s a small town masquerading as a power center:  where a Bo Obama photo op can get global coverage yet an aging Broadway musical starring someone from “Designing Women” is one of the theater season’s major events.

D.C. delights in any level of celebrity. The mundane activities of a modest sitcom’s third-billed cast member will be endlessly, glowingly chronicled by gossip columnists, bloggers and TV. An actor who hasn’t had a box-office success in years can be the guest of honor at black tie fundraisers, posing endlessly in between those flammable gowns.

The local media compete to report Kevin Spacey’s having lunch! Goldie Hawn’s in a club! Norm Abrams is getting an award! And he’s from “This Old House,” in case you forgot!

Despite TMZ’s new presence, D.C. has also always been a fairly safe harbor. Mel Gibson and Chris Brown could be spotted tomorrow shopping together in Georgetown, and all they’d be asked is if they’d bought new Nantucket Reds. It’s partly the town’s innate primness, which probably explains all the bondage classifieds in Washingtonian magazine. But it’s also that same “Look, Ethel, there’s a movie star!” mentality you find in Des Moines, Hartford or Mobile.

The WHCA dinner is all of those things, jammed into a hotel ballroom and surrounded by big-name media unabashedly poised with cellphone cameras.

The bigger question is: Does this make sense now?

Aside from some photo ops and quick red carpet interviews, the dinner offers little opportunity for promotion. Plus, there’s the inevitable pecking order:  It’ll be hard to get “ET” or AP facetime when you’re competing with the Afflecks, Sting or the Rock. Not to mention that Washington has no national entertainment shows or magazines to fill a talent’s travel schedule with valuable interviews.

So, this year’s guests will arrive, get hair and makeup, get in the limo, do the dinner and some pre- or post-reception and leave. For about $8,000 each. 

If the personal services contract requires a suite, companion or stylists, that’s another $5,000-$10,000. Which means if 10 of NBC’s stars come from L.A., that’s easily $100,000 out of the network’s budget. 

All for a wire photo, sound bite and chance to pass the breadbasket to Rahm Emanuel’s doctor brother. If I were an NBC executive watching my staff and budget continually trimmed, I’d have a hard time agreeing it’s money well-spent.

At my last WHCA dinner, I hosted a table with a current cabinet member, an FCC commissioner and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in full dress uniform (making me nostalgic for Halloween in West Hollywood). I prepped endlessly to sound intelligent. And the attendee my tablemates most wanted to meet that evening?

Some “American Idol” finalist.

Such is the peculiar nexus of Hollywood, Washington and celebrity.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.