In his previous foray into Hollywood, former U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd played himself in the 1993 political satire “Dave.”
Now, he is cast in a far tougher role as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the lobbying arm for Hollywood’s movie and TV studios and frequent exponent of American popular culture.
Hollywood has been without a permanent industry lobbyist for nearly a year since former Rep. and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman stepped down after a troubled tenure.
In selecting Dodd, a former Democratic presidential hopeful, Hollywood is seeking to restore some of the clout that the MPAA wielded during the four decades it was commanded by legendary lobbyist Jack Valenti, a former White House aide whose acute political instincts, stentorian speechifying and perpetual tan made him one of the most visible personalities on the Washington stage.
“We really have to have leadership and a team effort to get our issues back on track and elevate the industry,” Dodd said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday.
But he added that his experience working across party lines in forging complex legislation on financial and other issues prepares him for working with often fractious entertainment executives.
“I know how to work with diverse people,” he said. “Putting together a financial reform bill and 50% of the healthcare bill — those are examples of how you can produce results.”
Dodd, 66, takes over MPAA at a tumultuous juncture as the film industry struggles against inroads by online entertainment, social networks and piracy. Attendance at movie theaters has been essentially flat for a decade and is off 22% so far this year compared with early 2010. DVD sales have cratered, and ratings for Sunday’s Academy Awards show on ABC were off 10% from last year.
“It’s a very awkward time to be stepping into this thing,” said Gigi Johnson, a lecturer at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who specializes in the media industry. “You’ve got so many forces going in different and not necessarily positive directions, and you’ve got a group of incredibly opinionated members each with different perspectives and business models. Making all of them happy is probably nearly impossible.”
John Feehery, a former Republican congressional aide and MPAA executive who now lobbies for other interests in Washington, sounded a similar theme. “For Dodd, the important thing is to understand the Jack Valenti period is over. Many of these studios are part of bigger conglomerates that have conflicting interests.”
For example, while industry leaders are united in their opposition to piracy and their desire to have China open its doors wider to American entertainment, they often clash over how to resolve those problems. Also, the assorted business interests of the entertainment conglomerates can find themselves battling one another, as when Fox and ABC fought Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp. over how much cable television operators should pay broadcasters for rights to carry their signals.
Glickman found it difficult to resolve such conflicts and forge a consensus among his employers, leading to his departure after only five years on the job. That also may have had something to do with the long search for Glickman’s successor, which began even before Glickman left office. Last summer, the job looked as if it was going to former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). But the MPAA’s board eliminated him from consideration after he expressed last-minute reservations. Other candidates came and went, including former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).
Dodd’s five terms representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, where he chaired the Banking Committee, and his high profile on family and children’s issues — he wrote the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 — proved attractive to the studios, according to industry officials who participated in the hiring decision.
“Sen. Dodd is a battle-tested leader whose reputation as a strong leader on major issues facing this country has prepared him to serve as the ambassador for the movie business,” said Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos, adding that he was “worth the wait.”
“This put them back on the map,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington digital rights organization that is on the opposing side of many issues facing the MPAA. “He’s smart, he’s energetic, he’s very well connected.”
Feehery, however, said Dodd will be hindered by Senate rules that bar former senators from lobbying anyone in Congress for two years after they step down. While Dodd, who left office in January, could meet with members of Congress and their staffs, he could not personally attempt to influence them on legislation.
His political career has had its share of controversy. He took flak for his role in allowing insurance giant American International Group Inc. to pay $165 million in bonuses in 2009 at a time when the company was receiving federal bailout money.
In 2008, Dodd was investigated by a Senate ethics panel over allegations that he received improper discounts for mortgages he received from Countrywide Financial Corp. In August 2009, the committee found “no credible evidence” that Dodd had violated any rules but criticized Dodd and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) for not avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
Dodd is expected to work closely with interim Chief Executive Bob Pisano, who was praised by the studios for leading the organization during the transition and was himself a candidate for the job.
Dodd will be paid more than $2 million a year, well above the $1.2 million that Glickman was paid and close to the $2.3-million salary that the late Valenti received in 2004, his last year on the job.