On July 11, a special group of diplomats and lawmakers attended a dinner honoring the secretary general of the Organization of American States and a VIP screening of producer Steven Spielberg’s new hit, “Back to the Future.”
Among the guests were Republican senators Pete Wilson of California, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina and their families.
Unlike millions of average folks who had to queue up to see Spielberg’s new movie, this group spent a pleasant evening munching and chatting before they sauntered into the most exclusive movie theater in town--Jack Valenti’s 70-seat screening room just a block from the White House in the headquarters of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
For nearly 20 years Valenti, president of the association that represents the political and business interests of the major Hollywood movie studios, has hosted the greats and near greats of the capital at his exclusive private screenings.
“It’s a great way to see new movies and mingle,” says one regular at Valenti’s theater.
The gatherings, sometimes several a week, offer politicians, the media and other notables a great deal more than a comfortable, relaxed way of seeing Hollywood’s latest releases. They are also as much a part of the studied process of Washington lobbying as embassy parties, testimony before congressional committees or visits to the Oval Office.
And the screenings have helped to turn their host into one of the most recognized and effective power brokers in town.
“He’s become generic like Kleenex,” says attorney Joel Jankowski, whose firm has worked with Valenti on several issues. “He is the industry in Washington.”
Valenti’s name and face are known better than many of the actors who appear on his screen. In a city where politics is the producer of the day’s events, Valenti is a master at set design. His friends are powerful, his name is news and his connections are legend.
Few here would disagree that Valenti is a savvy operator who can effectively use a powerful tool that other groups envy: the mutual fascination of Hollywood stars and Washington politicians.
“He’s done a remarkably good job at presenting his constituency’s case to Capitol Hill and the Administration,” says Lew Wasserman, chairman of the board of MCA Inc., and widely regarded as the most powerful executive in Hollywood. Wasserman was instrumental in selecting Valenti to represent Hollywood on the Potomac.
Wasserman isn’t clapping alone. “He is the best I know at what he does,” says Barry Diller, chairman of 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
As he turns 64 years of age on Thursday, Valenti is still going strong. Fans and foes alike attribute his effectiveness to a combination of his longevity in Washington, careful selection of issues, knowledge of the key players and stamina for battle.
“He’s the Indiana Jones of lobbyists,” says Wilson, comparing Valenti to the daring Harrison Ford screen character. “He may dress differently, but he has the same instincts.”
For Valenti, who left his position as a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson in April, 1966, to take the movie industry job, those carefully honed instincts are increasingly important in light of events that have buffeted the movie industry in recent years. In addition to top executive changes at several studios, movie producers are faced with new technologies including videocassettes, cable and pay TV and their impact on theater audiences.
“Nobody knows where it’s all going,” says Valenti. When he started in this job, he recalls, the industry was concerned with the production of feature films and the growth of television. The sea changes began a decade ago with satellites and the electronic revolution, which spawned such phenomena as 100-channel cable-TV and videocassette recorders.
Today, forming a consensus among the nine studios who make up the association’s membership also is complicated by diverse corporate structures and interests. For example, Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. is a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Co., while Paramount Pictures Corp. is owned by Gulf & Western Industries Inc. Warner Bros. Inc. is a subsidiary of Warner Communications Inc., which has cable television interests as does Walt Disney Productions. And 20th Century Fox recently was linked to five Metromedia TV stations through Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Metromedia and half of Fox.
Of Valenti’s consensus-building ability with the studios, Diller says, “He’s generally been able to bring them together, which is nothing short of miraculous in our business. The only way to do this is with a great deal of communication,” he says, adding that Valenti “is a great communicator.”
Recently, when Ted Turner launched his hostile takeover bid for CBS, several studios disagreed on a public position. The association gingerly tiptoed through the issue by opposing Turner’s takeover without formally supporting CBS. In comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission, it questioned whether the consolidation of the two companies into one entity would likely decrease news and entertainment sources for TV viewers. At the same time, however, the association contended that the merger could spur other networks to acquire their emerging competitors and thus further reduce the diversity of available programs.
Adding glamour to the industry’s case, celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore testified at a Senate hearing, and other stars including Charlton Heston, Larry Hagman, Daniel Travanti and Henry Winkler made visits to lawmakers’ offices. Even Valenti’s presence can cause a stir.
“Jack is the Ted Turner of lobbying. He and Ted have a great deal in common in that they are both larger than life,” says Thomas Wheeler, former president of the National Cable Television Assn. and an ardent admirer of Valenti’s style.
To be sure, Valenti, a former Houston advertising executive who still has a hint of Texas in his voice, prides himself on his communications skills and works hard to keep his delivery shipshape. For example, when he was a key speaker at a friendly “roast” for Wheeler that was carried on cable television, Valenti had his speech written by Red Buttons.
Those familiar with Valenti’s speeches, his reams of statistics and his histrionic delivery also know that he likes to add pithy qutes from figures such as Winston Churchill or poet John Dryden and refer to favorite books like “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Says one acquaintance of Valenti: “He is probably the only man in the world I would believe if he told me he was reading Thomas More last night.”
One of the three books he has written is titled “Speak Up With Confidence.” Last May, a private firm offered three videotapes of Dinah Shore interviewing Valenti on speaking techniques--complete with workbooks--for $500 apiece.
To be sure, the master communicator has commanding presence. He is immaculately dressed in custom-tailored suits, opts for a touch of flair with colored and striped shirts with crisp white collars, and adds a little extra heel on his shoe to boost his trim 5-foot-7 frame. He has been known to stand on boxes at podiums to look taller.
Few who have dealt with Valenti here doubt his competitive instincts.
“He’s bright, quick, extremely articulate and he has great intensity,” says former FCC chairman Charles Ferris. “Those are all the ingredients of a true professional.”
Ferris and Valenti became a familiar “dog and pony” show as they traveled around the country presenting arguments on the battle over home videotaping. Valenti pushed for royalty fees on videocassette recorders and blank tapes while Ferris opposed them. Not one to miss the moment, Valenti once said, “The videocassette recorder is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the American woman at home alone.”
“We’ve been both opponents and allies,” says Ferris, an attorney who represented Ted Turner in his CBS takeover bid. “It’s tough being on the other side because you have to put out your best and it’s a real challenge.”
At the major TV networks, even Valenti’s foes concede his effectiveness. “It is very tough for anybody to go up against Jack given his money, his stars and his years of longevity,” says one network executive.
Valenti’s muscle also extends overseas, backed up by the $1 billion that the U.S. film and television industries return annually to help out the balance of trade.
When the Korean government recently balked at easing restrictions on U.S. films, the motion picture association got eight senators to send a letter to the Korean ambassador, and it prepared to seek U.S. government intervention. A press conference announcing the action was suddenly canceled when the Koreans acquiesced.
Occasionally, Valenti has had to back down, as he did after the movie industry adopted its fifth rating category, PG-13, in July, 1984. Valenti questioned the need to add another rating to the voluntary classification system that he had helped establish in 1968, and which had been dubbed then as the “Valenti Plan.” But anger at increasing violence in movies seen by children, such as “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” had stirred momentum for the change.
No one talks about Valenti without mentioning his boundless energy and non-stop pace.
“He’s indefatigable,” says actor Kirk Douglas, a close friend of Valenti’s. “I don’t know of anyone who has the vitality he has. He travels all over the world and arrives here and says, ‘Let’s play tennis.’ ”
Valenti’s busy schedule includes frequent trips to California and travel around the world to film festivals and various events as well as to negotiating sessions with foreign officials concerning agreements to distribute U.S. films.
Valenti also heads two related organizations, the Motion Picture Export Assn. of America, which handles U.S film distribution rights, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers Inc.
Wearing several hats has compensation. Valenti’s contract, renegotiated in December, 1983, and running through 1988, reportedly provides him $500,000-$600,000 in salary and benefits.
He also serves on the board of directors of Trans World Airlines Inc., which provides its board members with passes enabling them to fly free on the airline.
In addition to his private theater, Valenti also has an enviable expense account. After a day of politics, a movie can be a welcome change from the evening rounds of fund-raisers and receptions. The association insists that the evenings are social and involve no lobbying and payoff in terms of contacts.
“When he has problems, members feel they know him on a personal basis and they are willing to hear him out,” says Rep. James Jones (D-Okla).
The movie association’s office, a block from the White House, is run with a staff of 22 people, compared to 25 in Los Angeles and 65 in New York. But few people are as highly visible as Valenti.
On important issues, Valenti draws on the expertise of a support network that some observers call “the best little army” of lobbyists, consultants and lawyers in the city.
“He’s a virtuoso,” says lobbyist Anne Wexler, former White House aide for President Jimmy Carter. “There are a lot of people who have been here a long time who can’t play this town like a musical instrument.”
And when the battle toughens, his ultimate weapon is the portfolio of stars that can turn a congressional hearing room into a movie set. Valenti says there is a kindred spirit between actors and politicians. “They’re both performers,” he says. “They both have to give the public what they want.”
To be sure, Hollywood has scored some major victories in recent years, most notably one involving regulations concerning the $800-million market for syndicated programs.
After a heated battle with the three major TV networks--ABC, CBS and NBC--which included Capitol Hill hearings and a letter from the White House, the FCC put its proposed changes on hold.
Last December, after the FCC proposed to change its rules to allow increased ownership of TV stations, Valenti again corraled his troops. Again, after some congressional persuasion, the FCC modified its proposal.
“You can learn a lot from Jack,” says Michelle Laxalt, whose firm consults for the association. The daughter of Valenti’s friend Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), she calls Valenti a “great strategist with good instincts. “If we had more Jack Valentis in this world, politics would be more fun,” she says.”
Another Washington observer views the movie industry’s impact differently. He maintains that Valenti’s effectiveness is greater on Capitol Hill than at other government agencies where policies often originate. “Valenti’s victories have been getting Congress to stop things,” the observer says.
At the TV networks, Valenti’s critics charge that he engages in “network bashing.” Valenti insists he is not “anti-network,” but that he wants to assure robust competition in the broadcast arena and keep the TV networks from dominating programming.
But even Valenti admits that he does not win all his battles. One gnawing problem for the industry has been the unwillingness of Congress to attach a fee on sales of videocassette recorders and blank tapes.
“One of the biggest intellectual contaminations is that anything that comes to a television set is fair game to copy,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t know how you expunge that from people’s minds.”
Ahead now for the industry are tax issues and matters of copyright protection and licensing, including the first-sale doctrine which prevents studios from collecting income from rental cassettes.
With the demands of the job and the increasingly complex environment of today’s movie industry, there is some thought building among industry executives that there may be a need for another person at the association here to share some of the workload. “I think it makes it more time-consuming for Jack,” Wasserman says of a change.
While few doubt Valenti’s effectiveness and stature, some industry leaders say quietly that the time may be coming to give some thought to a successor for the time Valenti does decide to leave.
“I’m not a guy who wants to retire,” Valenti says, adding that he plans to stay “until something comes along that is more fun.”
At one point he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the job of commissioner of baseball and gave some thought to the job filled by Peter Ueberroth.
The grandson of Italian immigrants from Sicily who came to Galveston, Tex., in the 1880s, Valenti grew up in Houston where his father was a city clerk.
He finished high school early--at age 15, took a job as an office boy at the Humble Oil Co., and attended night school at the University of Houston.
That was interrupted by World War II; Valenti joined the Air Force and flew 51 combat missions over Italy. After the war, he returned to Houston and obtained his college degree in 1946. He then went to Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard.
He first met Lyndon Johnson in 1957, and three years later his firm handled political advertising for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in Texas. He met and later married L.B.J.'s personal secretary, Mary Margaret Wiley.
Valenti happened to be riding in the fateful Dallas motorcade when President John F. Kennedy was shot, and at Johnson’s request returned to Washington on Air Force One, where Johnson told him “as of now you’re working for me.” As Valenti has said many times “that act of inscrutable fate changed my life.”
Valenti became one of the President’s closest aides. Johnson once said of him, “He gets up with me in the morning, he stays up with me until I go to bed at night, around midnight, and he is the only one who can really take it.”
To this day, Valenti is remembered for one statement of his White House days: “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confident because Lyndon Johnson is my President.”
When he joined the Motion Picture Assn. of America in April, 1966, the $175,000 job had been unfilled since the death of Eric Johnston in 1962. Valenti was making about $30,000 and the father of three. Among the reported candidates for the job were trial lawyer Louis Nizer, Richard Nixon and Adlai Stevenson.
In recent weeks, Valenti recently returned to Italy to trace his Sicilian roots, flew to a film seminar in Sun Valley, Idaho, and then went off to Mexico to discuss film piracy. He went on to Santa Barbara to vacation at the home of Michael Douglas.
Even at that pace, Jack Valenti says he is still having fun.
As he puts it, “Everything in my life has been serendipity.”