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05.24.11

Can Chris Dodd Save Hollywood?

As the MPAA's new chairman, the ex-senator is partying his way toward buffing Hollywood's image in Washington—but it may be too late for the movie business. Dodd tells Lois Romano about his new mission.

A more cautious fellow would have never risked throwing himself a coming-out party on the weekend of Washington's hottest annual press and political dinner. But Christopher Dodd, former senator and expansive Irish-American pol, was undaunted by the social competition. He picked up the phone and called his buddy, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who delivered comedian Seth Meyers as the star attraction for Dodd's party—a coup since Meyers was also headlining the big White House Correspondents' Dinner the next night. The move ensured Dodd a crowd packed with high-level players.

"I want to bring some zip back into this place," Dodd says of his new perch as chairman of the nearly forgotten Motion Picture Association of America. "This thing was sort of lying fallow."

After a yearlong search, Hollywood has found its man in Washington.

Personable, brash, and bit star-struck himself, Dodd, who left Congress in January, has taken over the lobbying arm of the six largest studios at a time when the industry is desperate to regain its credibility and a foothold in the capital. "The studios had come to the conclusion that they were losing ground in making their case—they were watching the Internet community doing a better job," Dodd says.

Indeed, for an industry steeped in imagery, Hollywood can't seem to get its own image right. Studios such as Disney and Paramount are apoplectic about the billions of dollars in revenue being lost to rampant online piracy. Yet the major players are widely seen as lumbering dinosaurs, unwilling to modernize a dated business model to satisfy a new kind of consumer demand, driven by cable, gadgets, and streaming videos. Essentially, a new generation of consumers is sending a clear signal that they don't always want to pay to see a hot movie in the theater.

"It's really simple: Give consumers what they want, when they want it, and the piracy will abate," says Marty Kaplan, professor at University of Southern California who holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media, and society. "What we are talking about is unmet demand. It's a creaky old system and the studios refuse to change it; instead, they hector people not to change." Dodd, says Kaplan, "has moved seamlessly into their talking points."

Dodd does not seem anxious to jump into this battle. Dodd walks a fine line when discussing the fight over a controversial pilot program, aggressively opposed by theater owners, that is making new films available through on-demand video shortly after their release. He says films are made for the "big screen" but acknowledges a potential need to accommodate certain consumers at home -young families, seniors, the disabled—and believes the studios' should have the right to test the market.

Eight weeks into the job, Dodd is convinced the industry does a poor job marketing itself, so he see his jobs as reminding people it's not all about "Oscars and red carpets." It's about about an industry, he says, that employs more that 2 million people and supports 100,000 businesses.

“A year ago, I was at a town in a town-hall meeting getting the crap kicked out of me over health-care reform,” Dodd says. “You tell me what event I’d rather do.”

As the industry's point man, Dodd argues that piracy can be tackled through tougher enforcement and programs educating Internet "looters" that when they illegally access a movie they are "stealing from the middle-class people whose families rely on this industry to make ends meet." Neither tack has been particularly effective so far, critics point out.

The failed 2008 presidential contender is pumped for the challenge. The perception of power in Washington is power, as Dodd knows as well as anyone, which is why he's devised grand plans for getting MPAA back in the conversation.

Invitations to MPAA's dinner and film screenings have long been a coveted A-list invitation in Washington—but Dodd has no intention of recycling the old format or the tired old list. He wants to ramp it up a notch by bringing in stars like Jodie Foster to talk about their films and staging a festival honoring Ronald Reagan's movie career.

The veteran Democrat clearly relishes his Hollywood access. He once dated Bianca Jagger and calls Warren Beatty a friend. He has made a point of visiting movie sets as he traveled around the country in recent weeks. He stopped in on Clint Eastwood on the D.C. set where the star was directing a J. Edgar Hoover biopic, and visited Henry Winkler on the Quincy, Massachusetts, set of a movie about a high-school band. Dodd was front and center at the Cannes Film Festival this month.

The cultivation of star power was practically patented by the man who became synonymous with MPAA, Jack Valenti, a diminutive Texan who wielded Texas-size power in Washington and Hollywood. Film mogul Lew Wasserman, indisputably the most influential post-World War II executive in Hollywood, insisted the LBJ protégé take the job in the 1960s, and they virtually controlled the industry for decades.

Valenti, best known for creating the film rating system, relished the limelight. He created a glamorous Hollywood salon in what was then a sleepy Southern town. He threw lavish parties and cozy dinners for the lions of Washington, long before politicians fretted about violating ethics rules by accepting a free meal. In short, he was a hard act to follow for his successor, Dan Glickman, a well-liked former Kansas congressman and agriculture secretary who could never hope to reach the same level of visibility and panache when he took over in 2004. He and the studios parted by mutual agreement last year.

"They were looking for someone to strengthen the credibility of the association and industry," says Nels Olson, who ran the search for Korn/Ferry and was bombarded with résumés.

After five terms, Dodd retired from the Senate as chairman of the Banking Committee and a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, a key credential for studios that badly want to make inroads into foreign markets. "I have no doubt he could walk into 10 Downing Street now and talk to the prime minister about films," says Richard Bates, a Disney executive vice president for government affairs.

The job, which pays about $1.5 million a year, offers a shot at cinematic-style redemption for the lifelong Democrat, who left the Senate under a bit of a cloud. Dodd learned about scandal at a young age when his father, Thomas Dodd, also a senator from Connecticut, was censured in 1967 for diverting campaign funds for personal use. After winning the seat in 1980, the younger Dodd built a reputation as both a serious legislator and an enthusiastic partier, sharing a rather freewheeling bachelorhood with his friend Ted Kennedy before getting married in 1999 to Jackie Clegg.

Dodd would have had a tough time keeping his seat because he accepted a "Friend of Angelo" loan and VIP treatment from Countrywide Financial, the company at the heart of the mortgage meltdown, and its chief executive, Angelo Mozilo, who pleaded guilty to civil charges of securities fraud. Dodd denied seeking preferential treatment—and the Senate Ethics Committee concluded that the Senator did not violate ethics rules—but he was scarred.

While ethics laws bar Dodd from lobbying his former colleagues personally for two years, he is bolstering his team to pursue legislation that would empower the Justice Department to quickly prosecute and shut down foreign websites pilfering creative content.

No, Dodd doesn't yet miss his old job—but he admits that walking out of the Senate was hard. A few weeks later, there he was, gleefully headlining a tribute to Gregory Peck in Hollywood. "A year ago, I was at a town in a town-hall meeting getting the crap kicked out of me over health-care reform," he says. "You tell me what event I'd rather do." Dodd will need many more such events to bring back the Valenti era.

Note: Dodd's response was added after initial publication.

Lois Romano is a senior writer for Newsweek/Daily Beast based in Washington. She was a longtime political writer and columnist for The Washington Post, covering presidential campaigns and Washington powerbrokers.