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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

Yet Valenti explained in his memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood," released shortly after his death this year, how the screenings helped the MPAA. At one, he found himself seated during dinner between the two young grandsons of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Valenti regaled them with stories about the movies and his World War II combat. The next morning, Helms -- a conservative with little affection for Hollywood -- called to thank him.

"Would you agree to have lunch with me soon in the Senate dining room?" Valenti recalled Helms asking. They struck up a friendship. When South Korea tried to put film quotas in a trade deal with the United States in 1998, Valenti asked Helms, who was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to block the deal because it would harm one of America's leading exports. Helms agreed, Valenti said.

Glickman uses the screenings in the same relationship-building way.

"The main value is goodwill," he said. "People come here, they relax. . . . They can sit next to people they may be fighting and screaming with, and they come here and they don't fight and scream. They sometimes will bring their families. And it makes them feel good about this product."

Part of that feel-good message is avoiding highly controversial films with a lot of violence or nudity, Glickman said. But the MPAA, which holds about 10 screenings a year, isn't the only one using the theater. It's booked about four nights a week, with the group's member companies -- Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Co., and Warner Bros. -- using it for screenings of their films for critics and other guests.

Ethics rules come into play

Although the MPAA's goal of the screenings is the same as under Valenti, Glickman has made some changes.

Some were spurred by new congressional ethics rules signed into law in September designed to curb the influence of lobbyists. The MPAA no longer serves dinner when lawmakers or their staffers attend, keeping the menu to just appetizers to avoid complex rules for free meals. Entire committees can no longer be wooed, as the MPAA must invite at least 25 people from outside of Congress to meet the definition of a "widely attended event," which is allowed under the rules.

The MPAA also shows a short film about the industry's economic effect or movie piracy to provide an educational component.

But some nonpartisan advocacy groups say the free screenings should end because they are improper gifts to lawmakers and their staffs.

"They're intended to lure in a lawmaker or a staffer so the lobbyist can sit down with them one-on-one and the appreciative lawmakers will lend a very favorable ear," said Craig Holman, a lobbying expert at Public Citizen. "That's the kind of influence peddling . . . the new ethics law is intended to stop."

But the show goes on at the MPAA -- and in upgraded style.

After more than three decades, the theater and lobby were looking "frayed and a little ragged," Glickman said. "You'd lean back and you'd lean back into the other people's laps," he said of the old red velour theater seats.

So the MPAA spent about $100,000 to refurbish the theater last year. It now features chocolate-brown crushed velour seats and curtains a warm shade of cafe au lait. The screening room was closed for several months this year before reopening in October as the MPAA updated the lobby and the rest of the building's first floor, giving it a more modern look by softening the colors. They plan to add a row of flat-panel TVs in the large living room, just off the bar area.

It's all to showcase the movies -- and make government officials feel good about the companies that make them.

"We're in the business of producing something that makes people smile and happy," Glickman said, "and it's good that we show this off."

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