Patt Morrison Asks: Hollywood’s pol, Chris Dodd

Hollywood loves comeback stories. Will SOPA/PIPA be one of them? The anti-piracy bills that were working their way through Congress with Hollywood’s blessing got tanked by a massive online campaign — petitions, website blackouts, even T-shirts. From 1981 until 2010, Christopher J. Dodd was a Democratic senator from Connecticut. A year later, as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, he was dealing with SOPA/PIPA fallout. Showing up at the Oscars — which he will do — is just the tip of the MPAA job. Dodd has arranged matinees for veterans at MPAA’s theater in D.C., worked on film trade matters, and postelection, he’ll try out an anti-piracy law sequel. Will it be boffo for all sides?

You’re an old Washington hand. How do you explain what happened when Congress threw in the towel on SOPA/PIPA?

The mistake we’re making is to assume this happened over an eight- or 10-day period. It goes back some years. You had the technology community growing in its relationship with a generation who routinely use the Internet for everything, and social media expressing support for issues that are important to it. So you had a sort of perfect storm. The industry, in a sense, lost its capacity to communicate with people.

Here’s the good news: No one’s arguing about whether the theft of intellectual property needs to be dealt with. The question becomes, how?


[The technology community] globalized the issue, made it [about] freedom of speech and breaking the Internet. It’s [rather] a question of whether the hard work of the creative community ought to be protected .

I say this respectfully: There were those in the technology community who chose Hollywood as an opponent, when we’re just one of a number of industries being assaulted by theft of our intellectual property. Because we’re the opponent, because it was hard for us to respond in a space where we didn’t have much of a presence, for all those reasons I think you ended up with the result you did.

You don’t think provisions of SOPA/PIPA were, as some said, dangerous, lopsided, inadequate, overreaching?

I think those words are excessive. I’ve never seen a perfect piece of legislation; there’s a normal process [that] inevitably changes legislation. This was not a normal experience, people [were] commenting on a bill not in final form. While there may be legitimacy to some of the criticism, it might have been premature criticism. Technology needs content, and content needs technology. Consumers want choices. I think it’s incumbent on the two communities to work together.


Could future legislation be crowd-sourced all along?

This was a watershed event in terms of how [official] business is done. Frankly, I think it’s worthwhile to see that the process is going to be more democratic and more people can be involved in expressing themselves about critical pieces of legislation. That much is never going to be the same. It doesn’t mean you won’t still have congressional hearings and the like. People being involved is great, [but you have to] make sure all sides can be heard, so that people can understand the complexity of the issues.

Can Silicon Valley make common cause with Hollywood?

I believe they can. The communities — in the same state, a car ride away from each other — [must] figure out how best to do this and then ask Congress, where appropriate, to codify that understanding.

Critics think Hollywood is waging a rear-guard action. Does the business model need changing even as the product needs protecting?

The idea of being “old media” — this business has produced digital animation, IMAX screens, 3D production, surround sound. Hollywood is anything but old media, in my view. [It] still believe[s] the theatrical experience is critical. And [it’s] anxious to make sure that consumers who want that product on iPads or BlackBerrys or computers are going to be able to do so.

So much on the Internet appears to be free. What do you tell people who think there’s no harm done?

The product doesn’t make itself. You only have to sit around until the end — the credits sometimes take as long as the movie! Those are hardworking people; the average salary is about $55,000 a year; 90% of the jobs are blue collar, from that person selling popcorn to that truck driver, that makeup artist.


We bring back more money to the United States than aerospace, automobiles or agriculture. [But] it isn’t just economics. It’s an accessible, democratic form of culture, and people need to understand how critical this is.

“The Hurt Locker” is a great example of a great film about an important issue. By the time that film went to DVD, it had been stolen so many times it was a money-loser, despite having won the Academy Award. [You can’t] get people to invest in the “Hurt Lockers” of the future [if] you can’t get back the investment you make.

In an agreement made last week, the Chinese will allow in more foreign IMAX and 3D movies a year and will pay filmmakers a higher percentage of box-office receipts.

This now gives 14 additional movies and up to 25% of box-office revenues [compared with about 13%]. I don’t want to be effusive. It’s less than we would have liked. We’re going to keep pressing.

Last year China banned films and television about time travel. That’s a different kind of challenge.

I say this respectfully, but the Chinese are very uneasy about allowing [in] any product that [shows] any form of democracy, lifestyle alternatives.

You put elected officials on notice that Hollywood would be watching who opposed anti-piracy legislation, and perhaps withholding campaign contributions.

I thought I was saying something purely axiomatic; people have a tendency to support those who agree with them and oppose those who don’t. That’s as old as American politics. I was not suggesting this was somehow a big threat. The Hollywood community has been tremendously supportive of this president and Democratic administrations for many years, and with good cause. It was somewhat of a disappointment that there wasn’t more opportunity to use the office [of the presidency] to help craft something that would satisfy the Internet community but also address [Hollywood’s] issues.


How do you reset that discussion? Do you change the vocabulary, as Directors Guild President Taylor Hackford suggests — say it’s theft, not piracy, which sounds rather swashbuckling?

Sometimes I think people believe that [it’s] not theft. Someone said to me: “If I steal your pocketbook, you don’t have your pocketbook. If I steal your movie, you’ve still got your movie.”

One-quarter of the bandwidth of the Internet traffics in infringed property. The intellectual property of a country is its lifeblood. [This] isn’t about one industry; it’s about how nations grow and provide economic opportunity.

You have other matters on your plate — the DVD sales slump, box-office figures.

We’re doing much better at the box office. You want to be careful predicting a year based on a month [January], but I’m optimistic. The DVD market — we [are] looking for new ideas. In 1927, Mary Pickford said, “Sound in film is like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” With all due respect, she was wrong. The industry is big enough to accommodate and become part of the technology.

You’ve been in this job about a year; it’s not the same as when Jack Valenti filled it.

The day Jack Valenti walked into this office, there were three networks, no Internet, no cable, 13 or 14 or 15 studios, self-contained, not part of larger corporations, so it’s a very different world. I’ve got a lot to learn. I want to be the best advocate I can. I’ve developed a passion about it. I had a guy in Australia [say]: “I’m not a great fan of America’s foreign policy, but one thing I admire is you not only tell stories about your public and private institutions that are highly critical, you celebrate the products that do so. What greater testimony is there to freedom of expression?” I don’t think we value that [enough].

Then there are the ratings. The MPAA was criticized for giving “The King’s Speech” an R rating because the board seemed to be counting the curse words rather than assessing the context. Who does the MPAA have in mind with these ratings?

In the 1960s, Dallas had a local rating agency for film. This was a nightmare: state by state [there] would have [been] different criteria and ratings. So this voluntary system has worked pretty well. There’s nothing static about it; there ought to be an evaluation from time to time assessing what public and parental views are. We’re not critics; we collect a lot of data and listen to people. Different parts of the country have different values when it comes to language and violence and sexual content. But we do try to at least give parents some guide.

What films are your favorites?

“The Deer Hunter” is one I absolutely loved. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “Midnight Cowboy.” “A Man for All Seasons.” I’ve had a portrait of Thomas More in my office since I’ve been in public life. He’s the only guy I know [who] pulled off the hat trick. He was a lawyer, a politician and a saint.

What about the one you had a cameo in, the 1993 political comedy “Dave”?

To this day, it’s been shown so many times on television, I’ll be walking along the street and people point and say, “I know you!” That’s “Dave.” My time on film — you dropped your popcorn, you missed me.

You voted for the Oscars. What’s your pick for best picture?

I was born at night, but not last night.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive:

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