Why is the top job at the MPAA still vacant?

Commentary: Chief needs difficult combo of charisma, clout

It's become the hardest job to fill in Hollywood -- and, no, I'm not talking about Simon Cowell's chair on "American Idol." It's the top job at the MPAA, the trade organization that reps the six Hollywood heavyweight studios and some affiliate members.

This dilly-dallying in filling the role is even more stunning than Fox-Fremantle's futzing with their reality behemoth, and could, like the idling on "Idol," bode ill for the ninetysomething MPAA.

A lot of people are scratching their heads as to why the initial attempt to fill the role that Dan Glickman most recently occupied ended in such an embarrassing way, after months of supposedly careful vetting by headhunters and studio chieftains. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey bowed out of an already protracted search almost at the finish line -- in fact, after telling a radio host that essentially he had accepted the gig. That didn't go over well with his potential new bosses, and apparently in his own heart of hearts, he really didn't want to move back to D.C. or do the bidding of six bosses for "just" $1.5 million a year.

Then there's the fact that Kerrey was not the most popular person at his current post as head of the New School in New York. There were public protests against his management style -- how did that not get flagged, one might ask?

Kinda like Cowell on the potential replacements for his role, Jack Valenti would have had something pithy to say on the issue. As is, everyone directly involved has gone silent, with sources saying the studio heads have tabled the problem until the fall, perhaps even until after the midterm elections. That would mean that a candidate to fill the post wouldn't be available until January at the earliest. (This delay has given a leg up to other trade groups to strut their stuff, most notably IFTA, which reps indie producer-distributors and recently exacted concessions from Comcast as the cable giant hurtles toward a deal to acquire most of NBC Universal.)

In any case, just as there is a debate as to how much the individual "Idol" judges matter to the success of the format and how much the Cowell "X Factor" will weigh, there also is a debate as to what the precise skills and tasks of the new MPAA head should be and how the job should be tweaked.

What, in essence, is the correct balance between expertise in pulling the levers of power in Washington and knowledge of the entertainment business, including the psychodynamics of its key players? And this being Hollywood, how important is charisma and clout?

Valenti was indefatigable and uncannily adept at the sound bite, and he spoke with authority. It was a simpler time when the studios chiefly were film and TV companies whose interests were much more closely aligned than they are now. Plus, Valenti had a direct line to Lew Wasserman. There is no Wasserman now.

"Charisma and clout -- it's a hard combination to find," said one longtime Hollywood observer, and it's one reason a name like Arnold Schwarzenegger gets bandied about. "The Governator would have instant clout on global issues because he enjoys worldwide name recognition. He draws crowds. He could make fighting those copyright pirates cool."

But his record in Sacramento is mixed, and he more likely will want to get back to his acting career. So enough of that rumor.

So who are potential candidates who either have expressed interest in the job or for whatever reason are likely to be on the MPAA's radar?

One is Antoinette Cook Bush, a lawyer at Skadden Arps who has done work for the MPAA in its dealings with the FCC. She's a step-daughter of longtime power broker and Clintonite Vernon Jordan and considered "very effective," two D.C. sources say. Another is Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who is not seeking re-election. He certainly is at home in the corridors of power but raised many eyebrows for failing to recognize, as head of the Senate Banking Committee, those Wall Street shenanigans back in 2007-08. (Challenge with former Congress people though is that they're used to yes people around them, and may not be disposed to answering to six different bosses.)

Others who tossed their hats into the ring a round or two ago include entertainment industry lobbyists, most notably Disney's Richard Bates and Universal's Matt Gerson. There is irony attached to such candidates: Having been two of the best at furthering the interests of their respective studios, they might have lessened their chances because of rivalries among the top studios. (Gerson though now works for the Music division of Universal, which might improve his odds.)

As for folks who are in the Obama administration, or might be leaving it soon, their names would be problematic because there's a two-year ban on lobbying the White House after departure.

Judging from the unsolicited lists of potential candidates that we've been fielding -- and which no doubt have been sent to the various heads of studios in the wake of the Kerrey kerfuffle -- Hollywood folks feel strongly that there are a number of top-notch candidates in our midst who could do the job. Most of the lists I've seen generally start with Sherry Lansing (don't get excited; she's not going to do it) and include a number of the good and great.

One of them (not Lansing) said the job was largely "thankless" and even queried whether such a role nowadays is needed: "The studios all agree that piracy is bad, so what's the job there? And for everything else issue-wise, they each have their own lobbyists."

Others see it differently. There are a lot of regulatory issues on which Hollywood needs to weigh in -- Net neutrality, media consolidation and unfair trade practices, not to mention education, promotion and research initiatives. Plus, there are oddities that pop up like the recent Hollywood Box Office Exchanges proposal. (On that one, the MPAA's interim head Bob Pisano not only flew the flag but successfully led the charge against the greenlighting of these entities.)

So, what about Bob? "As well as he knows Tinseltown, if they had wanted to name him they would have done so when Glickman stepped down in the spring. They simply are fixated on Valenti's verve and want to replicate that," one well-placed source said.

But others say Pisano is so good at the nuts and bolts that the studios would be foolish to go after someone who doesn't complement him. Why not bifurcate the job, they argue?

Given the timetable for "Idol" to get its act together is next month, it's pretty clear we'll know who fronts that show long before we know who's on center stage at the MPAA.
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