MPAA Chief Christopher Dodd Says SOPA Debate Isn't Over, Defends Hosting Harvey Weinstein Even as He Attacked Over 'Bully'

Christopher Dodd
Christopher Dodd
 Erika Larsen

This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

To say that former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd's first year as head of the Motion Picture Association of America was tumultuous would be an understatement.

In January, the politician-turned-lobbyist found his abilities called into question when, at the eleventh hour, a massive online campaign supported by Google and other Silicon Valley heavyweights derailed MPAA-backed legislation that would have toughened Internet piracy laws to target overseas copyright infringers. Dodd was irate when the White House issued a statement saying it had grave concerns about the bill's impact on online freedom, and he suggested in a Fox News interview that Hollywood would cut off campaign funds for President Obama and other lawmakers who withdrew support -- a threat that was widely criticized.

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But Dodd, 67, who spent 30 years as a senator and six years as a congressman from Connecticut, knows how to shake off defeat and says he has no trouble getting the White House on the line. He's now weathering the controversy over the MPAA-backed ratings board's decision to give the anti-bullying documentary Bully an R rating for six uses of the F-word; at the same time, the MPAA is throwing its support behind the Justice Department's unfolding battle against Kim Dotcom, whose Megaupload was one of the most visited sites for movie pirates.

Dodd's chief concerns include piracy, trade and improving Hollywood's image as well as the ratings system. And while the major studios pay his $1.5 million salary, he believes the MPAA's constituency goes beyond the six studios and says the trade organization needs to expand its horizons and be more involved in all aspects of the business, such as supporting Sean Penn's efforts in Haiti.

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A highlight of his Senate tenure was securing passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act; a low point came towards the end when he was criticized for using his role as chair of the influential Senate Banking Committee to participate in a VIP mortgage program with Countrywide. [A Senate ethics panel ultimately cleared Dodd of receiving any special treatment.] A rakish man about town for much of the 1980s and '90s, he has longtime ties to the entertainment world (he has been friends with Lorne Michaels since 1974). Dodd married Jackie Clegg Dodd, a consultant and former executive at the Export-Import Bank, in 1999. They have two daughters, Grace, 10, and Christina, 7.

The Hollywood Reporter: Rules prohibit former lawmakers from lobbying on Capitol Hill for two years after they leave office. In your case, that means not until early next year. You have said it hasn't hurt the MPAA since anyone on your staff can carry out your wishes. But is it difficult?

Christopher Dodd: It is awkward. I spent 36 years on Capitol Hill and have great personal friends, and you'd think they'd know better. But people call me all the time, and I have to remind them that I can't talk to them about certain things, but I can talk to the White House, I can talk to ambassadors, I just can't talk to my former colleagues. So I've stayed away, though I still go up and get a haircut from the barber in the Capitol building.

THR: What is the status of the Stop Online Piracy Act? Is the legislation dead, or will there be compromise between Hollywood and Silicon Valley?

Dodd: I regret that Steve Jobs isn't around today. At least he understood the connection between content and technology. The fellow who started eBay, Jeff Skoll, gets it [Skoll is founder and chairman of the film company Participant Media]. There are not a huge number of people who understand that content and technology absolutely need each other, so I'm counting on the fact that there are people like Jeff and others who are smart and highly respected in both communities. Between now and sometime next year [after the presidential election], the two industries need to come to an understanding.

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THR: Are there conversations going on now?

Dodd: I'm confident that's the case, but I'm not going to go into more detail because obviously if I do, it becomes counterproductive.

THR: Did you feel personally blindsided by Obama over SOPA?

Dodd: I'm not going to revisit the events of last winter. I'll only say to you that I'm confident he's using his good relationships in both communities to do exactly what you and I have been talking about.

THR: Just as SOPA was falling apart, U.S. and New Zealand authorities arrested Kim Dotcom, the flamboyant mastermind behind Megaupload, one of the world's biggest downloading sites. Did the timing strike you as odd?

Dodd: It seemed a little too coincidental. I take my daughters to school every morning, and I was in the playground one day and this woman comes up to me and says: "I just want to say hello. I work at the Justice Department, and I've been involved in this Megaupload case for the past several years." And I said: "That's interesting. Let me ask you something: Why did this guy get arrested at this particular time?" She said: "Oh, we've known about the date for the last year because it was his birthday. It was a big party, and we knew all the assets would be there."

THR: The MPAA ratings system again is making headlines because of the R rating assigned to Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully. Do you believe the language rules need to be changed?

Dodd: It's a difficult subject because you are trying to determine what the community standards are, and it's very complex. We've done surveys, and language resonates with people. And sexuality goes off the charts in terms of what parents claim they care deeply about. You're dealing with communities in the heartland of this country that have different standards than New York or California. As a parent, I put violence right up there with language and sexuality, but to other people, violence is important, just not as important as language and sexuality. The ratings don't move in a single trajectory, and we need to be sensitive to that.

THR: Why did you host a screening of Bully at the MPAA with Harvey Weinstein when The Weinstein Co. isn't a member company?

Dodd: Because I care about the issue, and I thought it was a great film. I called Harvey, and I said I would invite the superintendent of schools, teachers and principals, an expert on bullying and Lee Hirsch, the director. We had a great discussion after the screening. You're right, Harvey is not a member of the MPAA, but he's a brilliant film producer, and it's an important film on an important subject matter. It is utilizing the platform I was given at the MPAA.

THR: But Weinstein was highly critical of the ratings board at the time and has used his attacks against the board to market the movie.

Dodd: First of all, I've known Harvey for 25, 30 years, and we've been friends. He was very helpful to me as a candidate for Congress and as a senator over the years.

THR: After Bully plays for a few weeks in New York and Los Angeles, The Weinstein Co. might edit the film so that it can be resubmitted and receive a PG-13. Did Weinstein talk to you about this when planning the MPAA event?

Dodd: I wouldn't be shocked if that happened. My hope is that in the next week or two we'll figure out a way to make sure we can show this as a PG-13. It would involve some editing, but nothing that would denigrate the content and the substance.

THR: In addition to issues including piracy, the ratings system and trade, you've said you are intent on improving Hollywood's image. Why?

Dodd: There's so much misunderstanding about this business. Before I started this job, I would have said it's about Oscar night, red carpets, movie stars and glamorous lives. But there are 2.2 million people who get up every morning and work in this business. I think it's unfortunate there isn't a deeper understanding of how important this industry is to this country.

THR: What are you doing to get your point across?

Dodd: While my direct responsibility is to the six studios, it doesn't begin and end there. I'm trying to expand our reputation. I went to the Independent Spirit Awards and met with some of the people who are independent distributors. We need to expand our universe so it doesn't seem like it is just about the studios. I was at Sundance, and I'll be at the Cannes Film Festival this year. And I'm doing stuff with Sean Penn.

THR: What are you doing with him?

Dodd: I served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, and there was a reunion there this year. I told Sean Penn I was going to be there, and he asked me to come to Haiti for a couple of days and see what he was doing. The foundation [J/P HRO] is doing remarkable things. Sean is doing an event in Cannes that I'm going to co-host with some others.

THR: How has your family adjusted to all the travel you must do in this job?

Dodd: They're great. I was just in India, China and Hong Kong, and I try to get to Los Angeles every six or eight weeks. But when I'm in Washington [where his family lives], I'm home at night and on the weekends [unlike the hectic schedule of his Senate days]. In January of last year, I asked my daughter Christina, "What would you like Daddy to do?" She paused a couple of seconds and said, in these exact words, "I'd like you to own a zoo or a candy store."

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MPAA Primer

  • Member Companies: Disney, Fox/News Corp., Paramount/Viacom, Warner Bros./Time Warner, Universal/Comcast, Sony
  • Annual Budget: $100 million
  • Dodd's Annual Salary: $1.5 million
  • Global Offices: Washington, Los Angeles, Toronto, Brussels, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Mexico City
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