A basic moviemaking course for Capitol Hill

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood plans to show the nation’s capital today that it’s more than just a pretty face, with the help of some of its most recognizable ones.

In what amounts to a Hollywood 101 course, the Motion Picture Assn. of America trade group is holding a daylong primer on movie industry economics that will include cameos by two household names and current Oscar nominees: actor Will Smith and director Clint Eastwood.

Invited to the symposium “The Business of Show Business” are members of Congress, federal and state officials, think-tank scholars and the media, who will get an earful from directors and moguls about the industry’s global economic muscle, how movies are made and its challenges in the digital age. RSVPs have been sent by some influential Washington players, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who oversee such key policy areas as copyright law and foreign trade.


“We tell a lot of stories ... but we never really tell our story cohesively as an industry,” Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer said. “This is going to be one of the few times we come to Washington and really explain our view of how critical our industry is, why it deserves the attention of the government, why it deserves the protection of the government.”

Showing policy wonks what Hollywood is all about is part of the MPAA’s goal of going beyond the movie screenings, celebrity congressional witnesses and star-studded campaign fundraisers to showcase how entertainment makes multibillion-dollar contributions to the economy and the nation’s balance of trade. In doing so, the industry hopes to underscore that Washington needs to strengthen copyright protection and to crack down on global piracy.

“I think that there are some folks who are very understanding of how important the issues are, and I think there are others who are less so,” said Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “It’s our responsibility to impress upon them the scope of it.”

With rapid technological changes posing opportunities and threats -- the MPAA estimates losses of $6 billion a year worldwide from counterfeit DVDs and other pirated content -- Hollywood decided to make the economic message the star.

The trade group will hammer home the point with data from its first nationwide economic study, which shows that the movie and TV production industry is responsible for 1.3 million U.S. jobs, generates $30.24 billion in annual wages and funnels $10 billion in taxes each year to federal and state governments.

“The tendency is to look at the film and entertainment business in the context of celebrity or glitz,” MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman said, “but the truth of the matter is that this is a big, important industry for America.”

The seminar also comes at a time when the entertainment business is facing a strong push-back in Washington from the consumer electronics lobby over how people use movies and music in their homes.

“We’re on the cusp of a lot of new digital initiatives, and a lot of this is going to be coming before the government,” Warner Bros.’ Meyer said.

“There are factions out there that think anything we put up on the Internet should be free and distributed virally around the world. We think that’s a huge problem for us and could destroy our industry.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that many of her colleagues didn’t grasp Hollywood’s economic clout, and that their views of the industry often were shaped by concerns about excessive sex and violence in movies.

“We want the industry to do well, but we want it to be a net positive addition to the values of Americans,” she said. “It must understand this, I think, and respond to it in a positive sense, instead of saying, ‘Well, this is our business; we’re going to do what we want.’ ”

Despite the emphasis on economics, it’s hard for Hollywood to do anything -- even try to dispel its flashy image -- without at least some star wattage. And today’s invitation-only event will stand out as a Washington policy conference with red-carpet flair.

Smith, nominated for a best actor Academy Award for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” will headline the opening breakfast at the Smithsonian’s stately new downtown art museum. Filmmaker Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild of America, will keynote the luncheon at the swank Hotel Monaco.

“This is a chance for us to come to Washington and for them to actually see us as walking, talking, breathing human beings,” Apted said. “You’ll get a sense that making movies is a very unusual and singular industry.... It’s not like making cars or growing wheat.”

Attendees and panelists include directors Taylor Hackford and Steven Soderbergh, Meyer and top studio executives. Capping the day will be a dinner honoring actor-director Eastwood, nominated for directing “Letters From Iwo Jima,” complete with a rope line and an actual red carpet.

“The celebrity is the icing on the cake, but it can’t be the foundation,” Glickman said. “The foundation is jobs and economic benefit.”

Which, he said, is why Hollywood is doing what other industries do.

“Everybody in a democratic system wants their government to be helpful to them,” he said. “That’s us, that’s the consumer electronics industry, that’s agriculture, that’s aviation, that’s pharmaceuticals.”