MPAA Selects Chris Dodd For Top Job And Huge Challenges

By J. Sperling Reich | March 5, 2011 9:48 pm PST
Chris Dodd

All the rumors being reported by the mainstream press as a foregone conclusion were actually correct. This week the Motion Picture Association of America announced that Christopher Dodd, the former U.S. Senator from Connecticut, would become their chairman and chief executive beginning March 17th.

The position, often viewed as Hollywood’s top lobbyist, had been vacant for a year. MPAA president, Bob Pisano, filled in during that time and did what many consider to be a stellar job; he made sure Congress banned two movie futures trading exchanges and gained the Federal Communication’s approval for Selective Output Control (SOC) technology which is meant to prevent home entertainment devices from pirating video-on-demand content. Pisano will help Dodd make the transition into his new role with the MPAA.

Some news reports pointed out that Dodd, who is 66, comes to the job with no entertainment industry experience. But Jack Valenti, who led the MPAA for 38 years, came to the job with the same deficit in 1966. Though Dodd has a few industry connections with the likes of Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, from whom he sought advice before taking the position, it is his political background the MPAA found so appealing.

As a senator with five-terms under his belt, Dodd has a bit of experience negotiating complicated deals and drafting legislation like the Family and Medical Leave Act. During his 30 year run in the Senate he’s made a few influential friends in Washington. As an added bonus, Dodd has a reputation of being an intelligent and amiable person, traits which helped him during an unsuccessful campaign for President in 2008.

After spending six years under the leadership of the capable unknown Dan Glickman, Dodd brings the kind of star power and name recognition the MPAA needs right now. No doubt he’ll need to flex his political muscle early and often given the number of obstacles he’ll be facing. Let’s review just a few:

  • Lobbying – Though Dodd can help assist with the MPAA’s lobbying initiatives, he is forbidden by law from directly trying to influence his former contemporaries on Capital Hill for the next two years.
  • Consensus Building – Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. are the six studio members that make up the MPAA. These companies are run by executives with large egos who report to huge conglomerates. Getting them to agree on anything can often be a Sisyphean task, one that could make the challenge of getting Republicans and Democrats to compromise on legislation look like a welcome opportunity. Remember how long it took to come up with a DCI spec?
  • The Ratings System – On a number of occasions over the past year the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) has had to defend the ratings it assigned films. Appeals such as the one mounted for “Blue Valentine” and “The King’s Speech” were aired in the court of public opinion and made the system seem seriously out-dated. Audience have now joined distributors in complaining that violent action films wind up with PG-13 ratings while adult dramas featuring sexually suggestive content or a few profane words, are slapped with more commercially restrictive ratings.
  • International Markets – Dodd will have to performa tight rope act over China, where the number of multiplexes is expanding rapidly. Some reports have predicted the country will one day have 100,000 movie screens; nearly more than the rest of the world combined. However, China has effectively been a closed market for Hollywood since about 20 foreign movies per year are allowed into the country. Until now this hasn’t really mattered since any film that plays in China is immediately pirated. The MPAA must convince China to open its doors to Western film distributors while at the same time getting the government to crack down on piracy.
  • Piracy – This issue very easily could have been the first one mentioned. The MPAA has often stated this is their number one priority. In their attempts to fight piracy the organization has publicly spoken out against net neutrality and their desire to force Internet service providers to hand over data on their customer’s online activities. While in the Senate, Dodd was for net neutrality and against ISP data retention. His positions will likely change in his new role with the MPAA.
  • Business Models – Besides piracy, the film industry is suffering from a decade long run of flat theatrical attendance with a 22% decline this year alone. This is on top of the evaporation of DVD sales as consumers move to online streaming and rentals. There is a belief that audiences have simply migrated to other forms of entertainment such as video games and the Internet, while the industry has struggled to come up with any form of an attractive business model. Of course, this has led to the debate over premium VOD and day-and-date releases of films in the cinema and at home.

Though perhaps Dodd is up for all these difficult challenges. He certainly seems to have the right attitude as he demonstrated when speaking to the Hollywood Reporter after being named to the post:

“Someone said something to me very smart. They said there are jobs that have great “issues.” And in other [jobs] the issues won’t be great but the people will be great. This is one where actually you get both. The issues are great and the people… If I didn’t think these were good people I wouldn’t have taken the job.”

J. Sperling Reich