WASHINGTON — On July 11, a special group of diplomats and lawmakers attended a dinner honoring the secretary general of the Organization of American States and a VIP screening of producer Steven Spielberg's new hit, "Back to the Future."
Among the guests were Republican senators Pete Wilson of California, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina and their families.
Unlike millions of average folks who had to queue up to see Spielberg's new movie, this group spent a pleasant evening munching and chatting before they sauntered into the most exclusive movie theater in town--Jack Valenti's 70-seat screening room just a block from the White House in the headquarters of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
For nearly 20 years Valenti, president of the association that represents the political and business interests of the major Hollywood movie studios, has hosted the greats and near greats of the capital at his exclusive private screenings.
"It's a great way to see new movies and mingle," says one regular at Valenti's theater.
The gatherings, sometimes several a week, offer politicians, the media and other notables a great deal more than a comfortable, relaxed way of seeing Hollywood's latest releases. They are also as much a part of the studied process of Washington lobbying as embassy parties, testimony before congressional committees or visits to the Oval Office.
And the screenings have helped to turn their host into one of the most recognized and effective power brokers in town.
"He's become generic like Kleenex," says attorney Joel Jankowski, whose firm has worked with Valenti on several issues. "He is the industry in Washington."
Valenti's name and face are known better than many of the actors who appear on his screen. In a city where politics is the producer of the day's events, Valenti is a master at set design. His friends are powerful, his name is news and his connections are legend.
Few here would disagree that Valenti is a savvy operator who can effectively use a powerful tool that other groups envy: the mutual fascination of Hollywood stars and Washington politicians.
"He's done a remarkably good job at presenting his constituency's case to Capitol Hill and the Administration," says Lew Wasserman, chairman of the board of MCA Inc., and widely regarded as the most powerful executive in Hollywood. Wasserman was instrumental in selecting Valenti to represent Hollywood on the Potomac.
Wasserman isn't clapping alone. "He is the best I know at what he does," says Barry Diller, chairman of 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
As he turns 64 years of age on Thursday, Valenti is still going strong. Fans and foes alike attribute his effectiveness to a combination of his longevity in Washington, careful selection of issues, knowledge of the key players and stamina for battle.
"He's the Indiana Jones of lobbyists," says Wilson, comparing Valenti to the daring Harrison Ford screen character. "He may dress differently, but he has the same instincts."
For Valenti, who left his position as a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson in April, 1966, to take the movie industry job, those carefully honed instincts are increasingly important in light of events that have buffeted the movie industry in recent years. In addition to top executive changes at several studios, movie producers are faced with new technologies including videocassettes, cable and pay TV and their impact on theater audiences.
"Nobody knows where it's all going," says Valenti. When he started in this job, he recalls, the industry was concerned with the production of feature films and the growth of television. The sea changes began a decade ago with satellites and the electronic revolution, which spawned such phenomena as 100-channel cable-TV and videocassette recorders.
Today, forming a consensus among the nine studios who make up the association's membership also is complicated by diverse corporate structures and interests. For example, Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. is a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Co., while Paramount Pictures Corp. is owned by Gulf & Western Industries Inc. Warner Bros. Inc. is a subsidiary of Warner Communications Inc., which has cable television interests as does Walt Disney Productions. And 20th Century Fox recently was linked to five Metromedia TV stations through Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Metromedia and half of Fox.
Of Valenti's consensus-building ability with the studios, Diller says, "He's generally been able to bring them together, which is nothing short of miraculous in our business. The only way to do this is with a great deal of communication," he says, adding that Valenti "is a great communicator."