The SOPA War: How to Fix Hollywood's Image Problem (Opinion)

2012-04 BIZ SOPA Hollywood Sign Illustration

Silicon Valley trampled Hollywood with a simple -- and, to the studios, absurd -- argument: that the anti-piracy bills would somehow "break the Internet."

A top public-affairs consultant offers candid advice to the entertainment industry.

This story originally appeared in the February 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Don't Hurt the Internet. That was the message -- simple, concise and downright scary -- put forth by Google, Wikipedia and other tech giants in a grassroots marketing campaign so effective it stopped Hollywood's push for strict new anti-piracy legislation dead. The MPAA's Chris Dodd and other industry lobbyists appeared amazed at how technology and effective communications changed the political landscape so quickly. But the fact is, Hollywood is home to some of the most savvy and sophisticated marketing and media relations executives in America. Selling a challenging drama to mainstream moviegoers or TV viewers isn't that different from crafting a campaign to better advocate for Hollywood's priorities in Congress. This could be done in several ways.

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Use Your Stars

Through consumer-oriented campaigns featuring younger and more compelling messengers, more people would listen to what Hollywood has to say. Instead of Dodd, 67, doing media interviews, imagine George Clooney or Reese Witherspoon at a news conference with 50 film-industry workers. "I'm pulling the curtain back to show you who really makes movies and television shows, and who is hurt most by piracy," Clooney could say. 

Most people outside Hollywood have no idea of the jobs that go into creating and distributing entertainment. From set designers and camera operators to grips, caterers and lighting experts, there are thousands of stories that can be told to bring home the impact of piracy, not on movie stars but on ordinary workers and their families. Hollywood should humanize the campaign.

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Grow Grassroots

The thousands of small companies that make up the heart of the content business should form a national coalition providing traditional and social media tools to denounce piracy and support new laws to combat it. These businesses are the real victims and far more sympathetic to the electorate than studio chiefs or D.C. lobbyists.

Demonize the Pirates

Hollywood should put a face on the villains in this story: the pirates themselves. Perhaps a "Most Wanted List" of suspected pirates could be publicized and widely disseminated along with the estimated job losses and economic turmoil they cause.

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Learn Your Lesson

Think of SOPA as a highly rated "lead-in" program. Hollywood should take advantage of the massive exposure generated by the debate and use it to continue the discussion. And this time, work collaboratively to craft a legislative solution that protects U.S. workers and safeguards individual liberties without unduly burdening the technology industry.

Steve Sugerman is president of a public-affairs consulting firm in L.A. and has managed many issue-oriented campaigns.