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Hollywood Preparing for Valenti's Exit

The movie lobbyist will meet with studios to plot his eventual departure.

June 28, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Jack Valenti's long goodbye is starting, although he says it could be some time before the end credits roll on his 37-year tenure as Hollywood's top lobbyist.

One topic Valenti plans to raise Monday during a private meeting with studio executives in Beverly Hills is the shaping of a plan for his replacement as president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Studio wish lists of candidates also are expected to be on the agenda.

Valenti, 81, has hinted for more than a year that he is contemplating retirement. But in an interview he insisted he still had not set any date for his departure, saying that there was "zero timetable" and that the studios that make up the association had given him "total autonomy" over setting one.

"I may leave in September, I may leave in December, I may leave in June '04 or I may leave in December '04," Valenti said, adding that the date could even come after that. "So long as I'm able to do a 15-hour day without collapsing, and so long as 90% of it is fun and 10% is business, I'll keep going."

Nonetheless, the meeting makes clear that Valenti's long-running show has entered its final act.

Speculation about Valenti's possible retirement and successor has been a favorite Hollywood guessing game as far back as the late 1980s, fueled in part by Valenti's own musings about his future. His departure, when it comes, will cap a career during which the silver-maned lobbyist achieved personal celebrity while ushering his industry through successive waves of change, from cultural turmoil in the 1960s through the still-roiling digital revolution.

Valenti has privately told people he would like to have details settled by the end of this year, although logistically that may be unrealistic. Whatever the official date, Valenti's leaving will be a watershed moment for Hollywood and its chief lobbying group, which probably will have to redefine itself in tandem with the leadership change.

Although the digital piracy of movies is a top priority for all studios, today's companies often wind up with conflicting agendas in Washington because they are in widely divergent businesses such as cable, film, network TV, the Internet, radio, music and theme parks.

(The trade association's seven companies are studio units of News Corp., Sony Corp., Viacom Inc., Vivendi Univer- sal, Walt Disney Co., AOL Time Warner Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.)

"There's a fundamental decision they have to make about what they want from the MPAA in the future," said Hilary Rosen, departing chief of the Recording Industry Assn. of America. "But the issue of the digital transformation of motion pictures and piracy is so significant and affects all of them, they don't have to get too grandiose to find an important agenda."

Several studio sources, none of whom would talk on the record about Valenti's future, said it was their understanding that each of the seven member studios of the MPAA would bring to Monday's meeting five names of people they would like to see in the job even if there are no indications any of the potential candidates are interested.

But Valenti adamantly denied that. He said he asked studios as long ago as last August to start offering up names, and that all but two have done so. He wouldn't identify the studios or names that have come up.

Other sources said the most likely outcome would be a decision on the process for finding a replacement, such as whether to hire an executive recruitment firm as a neutral party to identify candidates, or to pursue a list of names each studio likes. One catch: The seven companies must unanimously agree on a successor.

Studio sources said the job -- at more than $1 million annually one of the highest-paid lobbying positions in Washington -- probably would go to a Washington insider, as Valenti was when he was hired.

Over the years, speculation about Valenti's possible successor has included a wide range of names, from Sherry Lansing, who heads the motion picture group of Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, to even former President Clinton.

More recently, a name frequently mentioned as a favorite by studio executives is Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is one of Washington's most influential figures on media policy. Tauzin declared earlier this week that he planned to run for reelection in 2004, denying interest in Valenti's job.

Another legislator studio sources said is well liked is Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who in Washington has taken up such issues as runaway production. Also mentioned by studios is Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee and veteran actor who this last TV season starred as Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch on "Law & Order."

It's unclear whether any would be interested. A spokeswoman for Dreier said he was traveling in Europe and was unavailable for comment. Thompson could not be reached.

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