Hollywood's Top Lobbying Group Tilts Toward Republicans

Matt Petit/©AMPAS
MPAA CEO Chris Dodd

After losing a bruising battle over piracy, the MPAA has a new strategy, new hires and increased donations to influential groups, some spending "dark money."

The Motion Picture Association of America, the main trade group representing the biggest Hollywood studios, has shifted its lobbying and funding strategy in the past couple years increasingly toward Republican politicians and causes.

The MPAA has historically been seen as closely associated with Democrats, dating back to the era when it was run by Jack Valenti, a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson. The shift has occurred since the MPAA failed in 2012 -- despite intense lobbying efforts -- to gain passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, both of which went after foreign websites that carried content pirated from American movie and TV distributors.

The very public failure of those bills came only a year after former Sen. Chris Dodd became the CEO of the MPAA. Although he is a Democrat, Dodd is also a savvy politician who knows how to work both sides of the aisle.

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Since then, the MPAA has made a number of key personnel changes that reflect its shifting focus. Last August, it hired Neil Fried, formerly counsel to Republican congressman Fred Upton, to oversee its lobbying efforts. It also terminated four of its seven outside lobbying groups.

One of those it retained was Cove Strategies. The group's founder, Matthew Schlapp, was a deputy assistant to the president under George W. Bush and was a lobbyist for Koch Industries Inc., whose owners, David and Charles Koch, are big supporters of conservative Republican causes and policies.

In January, the MPAA added two other lobbyists, one a Republican and the other connected to Democrats.

The MPAA also has upped its spending. In 2013, the group spent $2.16 million on lobbying, the most since the presidential election year of 2008, according to a report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

The report says the shift isn't a complete surprise. "The MPAA PAC's donations have slanted toward the party in power during any given cycle," says the group, "but overall have been almost evenly split between the two parties. When Republicans controlled Congress ... Republican candidates received 62 percent of the PAC's contributions. Two years later, Democrats were in control and received 62 percent of contributions."

Now with Republicans again in control of the House, the effort has shifted back toward Republicans -- but this time with a difference. The money flow is not just for lobbying but also for outside groups whom it believes support its agenda.

According to the CREW report, the money to groups that attempt to influence elections "skyrocketed" from $109,000 in 2009 to $2.4 million in 2012 -- a 2,134 percent increase.

Some of the groups the MPAA supports now are well known, such as the Democratic and Republican governors associations. But others are what DC insiders refer to as "dark money," organizations that seek influence but don't reveal their donors.

Those "dark money" donations went to groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($100,000), Americans For Tax Reform ($200,000) and Let Freedom Ring, which the CREW report says exists to counter anti-conservative attacks.

These days the MPAA has backed off strong anti-piracy legislation, although fighting piracy remains a priority for the group. The MPAA is still seeking to include protection of intellectual property in talks about the Trans-Pacific partnership. The MPAA also lobbies for other bills, many of them related to new technology issues.

Asked for a response, the MPAA provided the following statement: "Over the past few years, MPAA has set out to change the way we communicate to reflect the changes in the way audiences and policymakers are interacting with creators and content. We're doing that by increasing our education efforts among consumers, lawmakers and organizations that share our passion for promoting creative interests. We're talking directly with audiences through sites like TheCredits.org and WheretoWatch.org, and we're working with a wide array of stakeholders to better tell the story of our industry's substantial and innovative contributions to American culture and the economy."