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Courtship starts with free film screenings

Times Staff Writer

The previews you see in movie theaters are approved for all audiences by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. But the trade group for the major Hollywood studios saves one type of sneak peek for a more select crowd.

At its exclusive 70-seat theater two blocks from the White House, the MPAA offers free movie screenings to its best friends in Washington -- and those it wants to join the list. The screenings are a long-standing lobbying tool, refined to deal with new congressional ethics rules, that help Hollywood stay on the A-list of influential industries in the nation’s capital.

“We do have an asset that most people don’t have: the power and glamour of entertainment and film,” said MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman. “We might as well use it.”

A ticket to the cozy theater, which underwent major renovation last year, is a coveted invite. The guest list usually is punctuated with big names from government and politics, who can be as much a draw as the movie itself for the young aides mixed into the crowd. Well-known senators including Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- a movie buff who has had cameos in two Batman films -- have been spotted there, along with Supreme Court justices, administration officials, think tank scholars, foreign dignitaries and celebrity journalists.

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“It presents this great sort of social event,” said one White House staffer, who did not want to be named publicly talking about a perk of the job.

Before a recent screening of “Charlie Wilson’s War” for the Washington press corps, for example, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer greeted CBS’ Bob Schieffer. “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace stood near the shiny new black granite bar in the MPAA lobby. Even the glasses of wine at the open bar had a Hollywood connection -- the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon came from director Francis Ford Coppola’s Napa Valley winery. Under the frozen gazes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and other Hollywood legends, Glickman served up handshakes as waitresses offered shrimp spring rolls with sweet chile sauce and triangles of quesadillas filled with Camembert cheese, mango and red onion. Soon everyone moved to the dining room for a buffet featuring roasted beef tenderloins and grilled salmon fillets.

Enjoying some free food and drink before getting an early peek at a major motion picture, these Washington insiders are Hollywood’s dates for a night. Those relationships can pay off when the major movie studios need a favor.

“Washington is a town where you gain power through personal relationships, and this screening room is one of those places where you develop those personal relationships,” said John Feehery, a former MPAA executive who now runs his own government affairs and public relations firm in Washington.

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It’s difficult to make direct connections between the relationships nurtured at the screenings and a specific favorable bill passed or unfavorable trade deal blocked, and MPAA officials aren’t eager to trumpet them. The idea is to gently woo influential people with what Feehery calls “soft lobbying.”

Feehery recalled a screening last year of “The Lost City,” a film set in Cuba during Fidel Castro’s rise to power. The director and star, Cuban American Andy Garcia, was there, and one of the guests was Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba. The event helped the MPAA build a relationship with Martinez, who had been elected in 2004, he said.

“If you do it right, you kind of create a hospitable atmosphere where people are enjoying the movie and they start getting the message this is an experience they want to protect,” he said.

Trade associations traditionally try to use their products to win friends in Washington.

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The Wine Institute, which represents California vintners, hosts an annual reception featuring fine wines at the Library of Congress for the state’s congressional delegation. The Recording Industry Assn. of America invites lawmakers, staffers and other officials to its Washington headquarters for mini-concerts by trendy musicians. And the National Cable Television Assn. has its own 105-seat screening room for major cable programs, such as the final episode of “The Sopranos.”

He made lobbying an art

Jack Valenti raised the movie screening to a lobbying art during his 38 years as CEO of the MPAA. He had the theater built when the MPAA’s headquarters was constructed in 1969, and used the lure of major motion pictures to make it a desired destination. But he often said he never directly lobbied at the events.

“After introducing a movie he would close it the same way every time, with the perfect blend of Hollywood and Washington: ‘If you like this film, go out and tell everyone you know. If you don’t, don’t leak it all over town,’ ” said Matt Gerson, a lobbyist for Universal Music Group, who worked at the MPAA from 1989 to 1995. “Every time he said it, it got a laugh.”

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Yet Valenti explained in his memoir, “This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood,” released shortly after his death this year, how the screenings helped the MPAA. At one, he found himself seated during dinner between the two young grandsons of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Valenti regaled them with stories about the movies and his World War II combat. The next morning, Helms -- a conservative with little affection for Hollywood -- called to thank him.

“Would you agree to have lunch with me soon in the Senate dining room?” Valenti recalled Helms asking. They struck up a friendship. When South Korea tried to put film quotas in a trade deal with the United States in 1998, Valenti asked Helms, who was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to block the deal because it would harm one of America’s leading exports. Helms agreed, Valenti said.

Glickman uses the screenings in the same relationship-building way.

“The main value is goodwill,” he said. “People come here, they relax. . . . They can sit next to people they may be fighting and screaming with, and they come here and they don’t fight and scream. They sometimes will bring their families. And it makes them feel good about this product.”

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Part of that feel-good message is avoiding highly controversial films with a lot of violence or nudity, Glickman said. But the MPAA, which holds about 10 screenings a year, isn’t the only one using the theater. It’s booked about four nights a week, with the group’s member companies -- Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Co., and Warner Bros. -- using it for screenings of their films for critics and other guests.

Ethics rules come into play

Although the MPAA’s goal of the screenings is the same as under Valenti, Glickman has made some changes.

Some were spurred by new congressional ethics rules signed into law in September designed to curb the influence of lobbyists. The MPAA no longer serves dinner when lawmakers or their staffers attend, keeping the menu to just appetizers to avoid complex rules for free meals. Entire committees can no longer be wooed, as the MPAA must invite at least 25 people from outside of Congress to meet the definition of a “widely attended event,” which is allowed under the rules.

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The MPAA also shows a short film about the industry’s economic effect or movie piracy to provide an educational component.

But some nonpartisan advocacy groups say the free screenings should end because they are improper gifts to lawmakers and their staffs.

“They’re intended to lure in a lawmaker or a staffer so the lobbyist can sit down with them one-on-one and the appreciative lawmakers will lend a very favorable ear,” said Craig Holman, a lobbying expert at Public Citizen. “That’s the kind of influence peddling . . . the new ethics law is intended to stop.”

But the show goes on at the MPAA -- and in upgraded style.

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After more than three decades, the theater and lobby were looking “frayed and a little ragged,” Glickman said. “You’d lean back and you’d lean back into the other people’s laps,” he said of the old red velour theater seats.

So the MPAA spent about $100,000 to refurbish the theater last year. It now features chocolate-brown crushed velour seats and curtains a warm shade of cafe au lait. The screening room was closed for several months this year before reopening in October as the MPAA updated the lobby and the rest of the building’s first floor, giving it a more modern look by softening the colors. They plan to add a row of flat-panel TVs in the large living room, just off the bar area.

It’s all to showcase the movies -- and make government officials feel good about the companies that make them.

“We’re in the business of producing something that makes people smile and happy,” Glickman said, “and it’s good that we show this off.”

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com


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