A bit of the old Jack Valenti pizazz is back at Hollywood's outpost in the nation's capital, thanks to a new silver-haired frontman.
More than six years after the legendary lobbyist stepped down, the Motion Picture Assn. of America is reviving his tried-and-true methods of tapping entertainment industry glitz to help the major movie studios make their case to Washington's power brokers.
The strategy was on display the night before the recent White House Correspondents Assn. dinner. The MPAA's headquarters were bathed in purple-and-green mood lighting like a Hollywood nightclub as the group for the first time hosted its own bash on Washington's most star-studded weekend.
Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live" and Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper of "The King's Speech" worked the crowd as "Top Chef All-Stars" runner-up Mike Isabella cooked up mini beef paninis, pancetta frittatas and other hors d'oeuvres.
The man putting it all together was the MPAA's new leader, former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who greeted each guest at the door as if they were long-lost cousins.
"He's trying to bring the magic back to the organization," said Richard Bates, senior vice president for government relations at Walt Disney Co.
Dodd, 66, who retired last year after 36 years in Congress, said he found the MPAA in a state of atrophy when he arrived in March and has been trying to reignite the group.
"If everything had been running really smoothly, this thing was flying along at 90 miles an hour … I'm not sure it would have had quite as much appeal," Dodd said about his new job, which pays more than $2 million a year. "I like challenges."
The MPAA once was Washington's most glamorous trade association even though it represented a relatively small industry. In recent years, the trade group's prestige has slipped in the capital's hierarchy.
Buffeted by the recession and troubles in the movie industry, such as declining DVD sales and piracy, the MPAA's budget dropped to $64 million in 2009 from $93 million in 2007, according to the latest available tax filings.
And even as overall lobbying expenses in Washington for all companies have increased in recent years, the MPAA has cut back. Its spending on lobbying peaked at $2.7 million in 2008 but dropped to $1.7 million last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Hollywood isn't one of the bigger pieces of the U.S. economy, paling in comparison with the oil, pharmaceutical and financial industries. The oil and natural gas industry, for instance, said it supports 9.2 million U.S. jobs, while Hollywood said it supports 2.4 million jobs.
But Hollywood has allure, and bringing some of that back to the MPAA is a way to help the group better advocate for its members, Dodd said.
"This is not a job in which your sole purpose is to create buzz. Your purpose here is to educate people about the importance of this industry to the economy of the country," Dodd said as he sat in his new office.
"The face of this industry is the thousands of people whose names you'll never know, whose faces you'll never see, whose jobs, whose livelihood, depend upon this industry, and I want people to know that," he said.
Educating Washington and the world about the industry's economic contributions is a top priority, he said.
"They've had historically a pretty good reputation of marketing what they make, their movies. I would tell you candidly I think they need an awful lot of improvement in marketing their business as a business," Dodd said. "I'm going to do my best to see to it that we tell our story."
His office in the MPAA's building two blocks from the White House is decorated with mementos of his long political career. There are framed presidential pens used to sign landmark bills he shepherded, such as last year's healthcare and financial regulatory reform, as well as photos with presidents back to Richard Nixon and world leaders such as Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela.
Four years ago, Dodd was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. But he was in political trouble last year and decided not to seek reelection. Asked at one point what he might do after Congress, Dodd said it wouldn't be lobbying.
But the heads of the six major movie studios — Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Disney and Warner Bros. — were having trouble finding a new MPAA head.
Dodd's predecessor, Dan Glickman, had stepped down after spending five years in the unenviable role of trying to replace Valenti, the smooth-talking head of the organization for nearly 40 years. The studio chiefs wanted someone who had some of Valenti's flair.
"What Valenti did very well was to make the MPAA seem bigger than it actually was," said John Feehery, a former MPAA executive who now lobbies for other interests in Washington. "I think Dodd can meet that challenge as well."
Glickman, a former Kansas congressman and Agriculture secretary, wasn't able to. He was well-known and well-liked around Washington but lacked Valenti's stature and strong personality.
The MPAA was further hampered by new congressional ethics rules in 2007 that made it more difficult to lure lawmakers to the MPAA for dinner and private movie screenings.
"There was never any lobbying going on at those but a lot of goodwill being built up, and it made it a lot easier for the MPAA to call and say, 'Did you enjoy the movie?' and go from there," said Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who is a key player on intellectual property issues.
The MPAA continued its screenings under the new ethics rules. To avoid violations, it replaced the sit-down dinners with appetizers for lawmakers and staffers.
But the organization lost some luster, said Leahy, whose attendance at last month's party was his first visit to the MPAA in several years.
"I like Dan Glickman, and everybody brings their own personality, but in this industry you've got to have somebody who really reaches out," Leahy said. "I've traveled around different parts of the world with Chris and he never stops.... He has the energy, but he also has decades of experience here in Washington."
Senate rules prevent Dodd from lobbying his former colleagues for two years. But he said he could still guide the MPAA's efforts in Washington.
His high energy and ready trove of stories recalls Valenti, as does his instant recognition in Washington and ability to turn a phrase. In a recent speech, Dodd coined his own term for illegal viewing of movies online or on pirated DVDs, one of the few issues on which the studios have a united position.
"You can call it what you want: piracy, IP theft, content theft," he told the Media Institute in Washington. "Frankly, I call it looting."
Disney's Bates said the term described the issue perfectly. And he said Dodd was a perfect fit for the MPAA.
"He automatically brings more glitz and stature to the organization," Bates said.