Jack Valenti, Hollywood's voice in Washington for nearly 38 years, most likely will step down in early January as chief of the Motion Picture Assn. of America while retaining the chairman's title and continuing to oversee the movie ratings system he fathered, sources said Thursday.
People familiar with the matter said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) remained the clear front-runner to replace the 82-year-old Valenti, who last summer disclosed he was planning for succession but left the timing vague.
With an annual salary of $1 million, Valenti occupies one of Washington's highest-paying and most visible lobbying positions.
Tauzin's name has been linked to the job as far back as January, with the 60-year-old chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee edging slowly toward the MPAA post amid repeated reports that a secret deal already has been forged.
But sources said there still was no formal agreement between Tauzin and the MPAA.
"There's no final stamp," one source said.
Still, several senior studio executives said it was informally understood that Tauzin would accept the title of MPAA president and chief executive if offered. The MPAA's member studios have given their quiet blessing to the move, sources said.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said up to this point, "no one from the MPAA and none of the studio heads have contacted him about the position."
But, Johnson said, "is he on their wish list? Absolutely. If Jack Valenti retires, and in fact an offer is made, he will listen to what they have to say."
The MPAA declined to comment.
The MPAA's three-member finance committee -- made up of Viacom Entertainment Group Chairman Jonathan Dolgen, News Corp. President Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. President Robert Iger -- would work with Valenti to finalize any deal with Tauzin.
Earlier, certain studio officials privately expressed reservations about whether Tauzin would be a good fit with the MPAA, while some put out feelers to gauge who else might be available. Executives at Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros., for example, met with former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who was co-chairman of Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful campaign for California governor.
Hollywood's studios have given Valenti wide latitude in setting a schedule for his departure.
Although he has made it known that he wants to formally announce his retirement as chief in January, sources said the date remains somewhat in flux and Valenti's exit could come as late as March. The studios, people close to the situation said, want Valenti to keep the chairman's title of the organization he has led since being hired away in 1966 from President Johnson's White House staff.
Under the plan being discussed, Valenti also would continue his work with the National Assn. of Theatre Owners on ratings issues. The ratings operation would remain independent from the MPAA.
Sources say Tauzin has been reluctant to formally negotiate a deal with the MPAA while Congress is in session, noting that he is behind three major pieces of legislation -- relating to energy, Medicare and Internet spam -- that he would like to leave as a legacy.
If Tauzin was hired, he would be unable to lobby Congress for a year under laws aimed at curbing influence abuse.
But sources said the studios were comfortable with Tauzin sitting out 2004 as a lobbyist because they didn't expect much headway to be made on their legislative agenda during an election year.
Even before last summer's disclosure, Valenti had been hinting for a long time that he might want to shed his day-to-day work at the MPAA. Although he relishes the job, it carries numerous headaches.
In recent weeks, for example, Valenti has been the target of intense criticism over his move to stem piracy by cutting off the DVDs that studios send out to promote films for awards. Sources said the uproar had nothing to do with Valenti's planned departure.