Role of Motion Picture Assn. of America chief is tough to fill

The role sounds perfect for a leading man or woman: a charismatic diplomat who hobnobs with the Hollywood elite and powerful politicians. An agent might want to call a George Clooney or a Meryl Streep.

Instead, it looks like they’re going to have to call central casting.

The role of head for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the lobbying organization of the six major studios that also oversees the movie and TV ratings systems, is proving to be a tough one to fill.

No clear star candidates have emerged as front-runners, despite it being widely known for almost a year that Chief Executive Dan Glickman was stepping down last week after five years on the job.

Glickman, a former congressman from Kansas and secretary of Agriculture, didn’t exactly flash glamour and power. But then he had to follow the stentorian-toned, perpetually tanned Jack Valenti, who led the MPAA for almost four decades and deftly commanded the stages of Hollywood and Washington.

The challenges of filling what would seem to be a coveted gig says much about how government and popular culture have changed. For starters, since President Obama took office stricter lobbying rules have gone into effect that make even hosting a movie screening and dinner fraught with danger of running afoul of ethics guidelines.

“The White House has declared war on lobbyists,” said Ki P. Hong, a partner who specializes in government affairs at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “Because of that, it is harder to find qualified individuals to serve at trade associations.”

He noted that the “administrative hassles” of lobbying now make the job unappealing to many. “It’s not like the old days,” he said.

But perhaps more problematic, the MPAA’s influence in Washington has waned since Valenti’s heyday, exacerbating the difficulty of the search, according to people close to the organization. Once virtually assured of attracting a star politico or a seasoned lobbyist eager for prominence, Hollywood these days falls distantly behind Silicon Valley in cachet, and show business lacks the weighty public policy issues faced by the healthcare and banking industries.

At the same time, a fractured business has left it much tougher to speak with a single voice. The studios are now mere units inside global conglomerates with often conflicting agendas, making it tricky to forge consensus.

Indeed, one of the few issues upon which the studios are in agreement is the need to fight widespread piracy of their movies and TV shows, a Sisyphean task in the digital era.

The problem the industry has always had, said Tim Boggs, a former Time Warner Inc. lobbyist, is figuring out “what’s really important that we can all agree on.”

The MPAA has reviewed about two dozen candidates for the job, which comes with a salary of $1.2 million a year. Among them are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former Democratic presidential candidate; Harold Ford Jr., a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee; outgoing Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.); and John Emerson, president of the Capital Guardian Trust Co. and a former deputy assistant to President Clinton, people close to the process said.

Richardson has already signaled that he’s not interested in the job, as has Emerson, while Ford was initially ruled out because of a planned run for a Senate seat, these people said. Another candidate under consideration is Kevin Sheekey, a former deputy mayor and top advisor to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Sheekey did not return a call seeking comment.

The search, which began in January, is being led by headhunting firm Korn/Ferry International, while the MPAA’s search committee is led by Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton, Warner Bros. Chief Executive Barry Meyer and Fox Filmed Entertainment Chief Executive Jim Gianopulos.

One person who has emerged as a serious contender is interim MPAA Chief Executive Bob Pisano, who had been its president and chief operating officer since 2005, according to people close to the situation.

A former studio and actors guild executive, Pisano is known for his strong administrative skills and expertise with piracy and other policy issues important to the MPAA. He’s also respected by his studio bosses and has roots in Hollywood, having worked at two studios

What Pisano lacks is a gold-plated Washington resume.

That may not be as much of a liability as in the past, however. Each of the six studios or their corporate parents have their own highly paid lobbyists and lawyers in Washington and in emerging markets like India and China where they have expanding -- and often competing -- business interests.

Like the studios, the MPAA has slimmed down in recent years. The organization’s expenses fell 28% to $66.9 million between 2007 and 2008, according to its most recent tax return.

Cuts continued last year when member studios slashed as much as 20%, or $20 million, from its budget, triggering staff layoffs in Los Angeles and Washington. The organization now employs 175 full-time workers in Hollywood, Washington, Canada, Belgium, Singapore, Brazil and Mexico.

Pisano declined to comment on his candidacy but said the MPAA’s role was more essential than ever, not only in preserving the ratings system for movies and protecting intellectual property from theft, but also in opening up markets for Hollywood around the world at a time when international markets are increasingly important to the industry.

“Much more so than in Jack’s era, we’re global ambassadors today,” Pisano said. “It means our focus needs to be not only in Washington but also Brussels, Tokyo, London, Paris and Beijing.”


Times staff writer Claudia Eller contributed to this report.