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Courtship starts with free film screenings

A-listers in politics and government are in MPAA's audience.

December 31, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The previews you see in movie theaters are approved for all audiences by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. But the trade group for the major Hollywood studios saves one type of sneak peek for a more select crowd.

At its exclusive 70-seat theater two blocks from the White House, the MPAA offers free movie screenings to its best friends in Washington -- and those it wants to join the list. The screenings are a long-standing lobbying tool, refined to deal with new congressional ethics rules, that help Hollywood stay on the A-list of influential industries in the nation's capital.

"We do have an asset that most people don't have: the power and glamour of entertainment and film," said MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman. "We might as well use it."

A ticket to the cozy theater, which underwent major renovation last year, is a coveted invite. The guest list usually is punctuated with big names from government and politics, who can be as much a draw as the movie itself for the young aides mixed into the crowd. Well-known senators including Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- a movie buff who has had cameos in two Batman films -- have been spotted there, along with Supreme Court justices, administration officials, think tank scholars, foreign dignitaries and celebrity journalists.

"It presents this great sort of social event," said one White House staffer, who did not want to be named publicly talking about a perk of the job.

Before a recent screening of "Charlie Wilson's War" for the Washington press corps, for example, CNN's Wolf Blitzer greeted CBS' Bob Schieffer. "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace stood near the shiny new black granite bar in the MPAA lobby. Even the glasses of wine at the open bar had a Hollywood connection -- the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon came from director Francis Ford Coppola's Napa Valley winery. Under the frozen gazes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and other Hollywood legends, Glickman served up handshakes as waitresses offered shrimp spring rolls with sweet chile sauce and triangles of quesadillas filled with Camembert cheese, mango and red onion. Soon everyone moved to the dining room for a buffet featuring roasted beef tenderloins and grilled salmon fillets.

Enjoying some free food and drink before getting an early peek at a major motion picture, these Washington insiders are Hollywood's dates for a night. Those relationships can pay off when the major movie studios need a favor.

"Washington is a town where you gain power through personal relationships, and this screening room is one of those places where you develop those personal relationships," said John Feehery, a former MPAA executive who now runs his own government affairs and public relations firm in Washington.

It's difficult to make direct connections between the relationships nurtured at the screenings and a specific favorable bill passed or unfavorable trade deal blocked, and MPAA officials aren't eager to trumpet them. The idea is to gently woo influential people with what Feehery calls "soft lobbying."

Feehery recalled a screening last year of "The Lost City," a film set in Cuba during Fidel Castro's rise to power. The director and star, Cuban American Andy Garcia, was there, and one of the guests was Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba. The event helped the MPAA build a relationship with Martinez, who had been elected in 2004, he said.

"If you do it right, you kind of create a hospitable atmosphere where people are enjoying the movie and they start getting the message this is an experience they want to protect," he said.

Trade associations traditionally try to use their products to win friends in Washington.

The Wine Institute, which represents California vintners, hosts an annual reception featuring fine wines at the Library of Congress for the state's congressional delegation. The Recording Industry Assn. of America invites lawmakers, staffers and other officials to its Washington headquarters for mini-concerts by trendy musicians. And the National Cable Television Assn. has its own 105-seat screening room for major cable programs, such as the final episode of "The Sopranos."

He made lobbying an art

Jack Valenti raised the movie screening to a lobbying art during his 38 years as CEO of the MPAA. He had the theater built when the MPAA's headquarters was constructed in 1969, and used the lure of major motion pictures to make it a desired destination. But he often said he never directly lobbied at the events.

"After introducing a movie he would close it the same way every time, with the perfect blend of Hollywood and Washington: 'If you like this film, go out and tell everyone you know. If you don't, don't leak it all over town,' " said Matt Gerson, a lobbyist for Universal Music Group, who worked at the MPAA from 1989 to 1995. "Every time he said it, it got a laugh."

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