MPAA roadshow a hit with legislators

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WASHINGTON -- If the idea behind the MPAA's the Business of Show Business conference was to give lawmakers, their aides and other inside-the-Beltway types an earful on the importance of Hollywood, then Tuesday's event was a success.

Starting with a command performance by Will Smith, the participants seemed impressed by the impact the movie and TV production business has across the nation and around the globe.

"There's a real Hollywood," Smith told the packed house in the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery's auditorium. "When you consider issues about Hollywood like piracy, it's not just about me and Tom."

Smith didn't spell out which Hollywood Tom he was talking about, Hanks or Cruise, but he made it clear that the industry employs far more people who never make the headlines than those who do.

While his performance was backed by new numbers released by the MPAA claiming that the industry employs more than 1.3 million Americans who make more than $30.2 billion in total wages, it was his tale of Hollywood's impact overseas that seemed to resonate the most.

Smith informed the policy elite that Nelson Mandela told him that viewing "In the Heat of the Night" while he was in prison helped him to persevere, even though the critical scene where Sidney Poitier's character slaps Larry Gates' character was censored. According to Smith, it was months before Mandela was told what happened, though the South African president knew something important had occurred.

"He said it took four or five months to get the information that in an American movie, Sidney Poitier had slapped a white man," Smith said. "He said that when he heard that, he became so inspired -- that the idea that American movies were putting out that type of imagery, the possibility of change is real and obtainable. He said, 'Don't ever underestimate the power of what you do.' "

Smith's sentiment was backed by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. As chairman of the House Tax Writing Committee, Rangel has great influence in Congress and power over many Hollywood's initiatives.

"I told a group of big shots that I didn't want a level playing field," Rangel said. "I want a fair advantage over every nation in the world."

Barry Meyer, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros., emphasized that piracy has grown from being primarily a business concern for the major studios to a creative rights issue for Hollywood's artisans.

"The idea that creators suddenly lose all their rights when they put a product in the marketplace is patently wrong," Meyer said during his luncheon address.

While most of the lawmakers -- including Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intellectual Property subcommittee -- pledged to help the industry, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the assembly that their help didn't come without strings.

Feinstein has been a consistent backer of entertainment industry interests on the Hill, but she said concerns about the content of movies and TV shows dampen her enthusiasm.

"Too often, we see movies that exploit the use of violence just for the sake of violence and sex just for the sake of sex," she said. "They celebrate murder. They glamorize torture. They degrade women, and they dehumanize individuals. Worst of all, these types of films also desensitize each of us to the painful realities of such horrific actions."

Feinstein highlighted one of the problems the industry has in Washington. While Republicans made headlines by pushing legislation in the last Congress that increased the fines broadcasters face for indecent programming, Democrats want to push similar content controls for violent programming.

"I hope you will work with me to raise the standards of this industry," she said. "I'm going to continue to work with you to see that we reconcile many of the problems with piracy and violation of intellectual property rights. So welcome to Washington."

Later at the dinner that capped the summit, News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin offered an answer of sorts to Feinstein's criticism.

"We don't always get it right," he said in his keynote address. "Sometimes it might be vulgar or distasteful, but we live in a country that allows it."

Also at the dinner, filmmaker Clint Eastwood was presented with the MPAA's inaugural Jack Valenti Humanitarian Award.
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