Special Report

Goodbye, Valenti

The retiring movie lobbyist and laughingstock sees his industry dying to the bitter end.

By 3.25.04

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LOS ANGELES -- Jack Valenti, octogenarian chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, made headlines this week for -- yet again -- announcing his intention to retire. This shouldn't have been news; he's been on the way out for a while. The MPAA has been pursuing a so far embarrassingly failed attempt on the part of what is, after all, the trade association of one of America's mightiest industries, to find someone willing to sit in the chair Valenti has been warming for nearly 40 years -- since 1966.

Such luminaries as Rep. Billy Tauzin and Sen. John Breaux have refused the blandishments of Hollywood, ignoring that time-honored bit of advice from Herman Mankiewicz to Ben Hecht, that he should come out West and insult the public's intelligence: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots."

Perhaps prospective MPAA heads have been alarmed by Valenti's relentless poormouthing of his own industry's prospects, in which he makes it sound like the real idiots are film studios themselves. In his regular hegiras to the Wailing Wall of Congress, Valenti weeps that the oceans of cash in which his industry is drowning will evaporate like the morning mist just as soon as some feared new demon technology takes control of the souls of the thieving, buccaneering millions out there who Hollywood is proud to call its customer base.

Valenti specializes in chutzpah, perhaps learned at the feet of the master, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to whom he was a special aid and speechwriter. For example, while Valenti has doubtless never failed to have his phone calls patched through directly to Senator Whoever because of the enormous monied interests he represents, he's foursquare for making sure that grassroots interest groups are restrained from expressing their opinions about political matters.

He told the Harvard Political Review recently that "there are too many loopholes in this McCain-Feingold?.It's a tragedy." Yet when congressmen announce their intention to try to make it a federal crime to make a camcorder copy of a theatrical movie, Jack Valenti is, literally, right by their side. How'd he get there? It's a comedy.

YES, VALENTI HAS MADE himself a laughingstock to those who pay attention to history -- and his attempts to repeat it. He was the figure who predicted in the early '80s that the VCR would kill the movie industry, rather than providing it with new and huge sources of revenue. Videocassettes and DVD sales now account for about 40 percent of movie grosses.

Despite this sub-Nostradamus performance, he likes to think of himself as always forward-looking. He told Boxoffice magazine in 1997 something that his successor, whoever he might be, should remember, even as Valenti himself seemed to forget it: "People thought movies would be obliterated by cable, but last year more people went to movies than in the past 40 years. That's with surfing the Web, satellite, cable, television -- people are still going to movies in greater numbers.? People don't want to be chained to an electronic box, they want to have a social experience. They still say, 'Let's go to a movie and get a pizza after.'"

This, please note, was 15 years after Valenti memorably quipped to a congressional committee that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone." And now, movies are threatened by what Valenti assures us is the even worse threat of digital piracy. He hasn't made murderous analogies this time, but if the VCR was the Boston Strangler, perhaps DVDs and the possibility of digital transmission are Pol Pot?

Still, Valenti himself reported this week at the ShoWest convention for theater owners that the movie industry in 2003 saw its second largest box office total in the history of the industry. And this was not even counting all the money Hollywood is making off the 98 million owners of the Boston Strangler and 47 million owners of potential Pol Pots and 22 million with broadband access which, to torture this stupid metaphor one more time, is the escape route for all these mass movie industry murders.

VALENTI IS AS EMBLEMATIC of what we have taken to call the Greatest Generation -- the parents of the Boomers -- as they come. He has the brave, highly decorated World War II combat pilot experiences. He was actually there when JFK was shot. He worked on the groundwork of the Great Society, and loved LBJ as no serf ever adored his liege. One old jibe has it that Valenti, a man who has kept the cowboy-bootlicking faith longer than anyone but Lady Bird and Bill Moyers, would have spun LBJ dropping the hydrogen bomb as an "urban renewal project."

But as it stands now, Valenti will not be most remembered as a generational leader or for his role as a such genuine achievements as the current movie rating system, which did a fair job of ending the previous age of film censorship threats from localized boards and church groups, and beating back threats of federal censorship.

No, the longtime head of the MPAA has decided to stake his legacy not on World War II but on VCR War II. In his fading years he's made himself the leader of the movement to make software like DeCSS illegal and assert control over not only the movie industry's (not the artists', of course, but the studios') "intellectual property" but also over the devices used to play it back. He has lobbied for laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and proposed legislation like the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act -- laws that strive to burden all consumer electronics and computers with government mandated standards to control how end-users are able to use the entertainment products they buy -- all in pursuit of his latest hysterical attempt to convince us all that his ever-thriving industry is finally and truly doomed.

It isn't. And if he weren't spending so much time trying to restrict his customer?s fair use rights pretending it were, it might not be so hard for the MPAA to find his replacement and allow him to take his long-awaited rest.

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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).