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Candid shots of Valenti

Outgoing exec sez education key to combatting theft

Though several studio toppers are bullish on the idea of suing pirates, MPAA prez-CEO Jack Valenti insisted, “We have no plans to sue anybody.” Instead, he said, Hollywood is embarking on a “public persuasion plan.”

As part of the Variety Conference Series at Variety Village Monday, Valenti said the extensive plan means educating the public that piracy is stealing. So Hollywood is trying to use the Internet: “It’s the greatest distribution method ever seen.”

But digital moves the piracy battle into a whole new realm, he told Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart at the one-on-one morning session. “We’re dealing in a new world we’ve never, ever confronted before,” and film execs are working with computer experts and engineers to confront technology that is evolving “so bewilderingly fast.”

Valenti admitted that in his 38 years with the MPAA, the low point occurred last year “with the so-called Screener Wars.” After using stats from 2002 that traced pirated films to screener videos, he and the studio execs decided unilaterally that no titles would be mailed out in 2003.

The denunciation was so strong and so fast, “You’d think I had strangled children in their cribs.”

Valenti added, “What I should have done, and I don’t mind admitting it now: Instead of making this abrupt decision, I should have called a meeting” of all the involved parties, including voting orgs.

However, he feels there was an upside. “It brought to the fore the issue of piracy” to those in the film biz, who hadn’t taken the issue seriously.

In terms of piracy, Valenti repeated his conviction that piracy solutions must be achieved quickly (Variety, May 17). New technology permits a feature film to be downloaded in five seconds and transmitted halfway across the globe in a minute, and Valenti said this technology could be on the market within two years.

When Bart pointed out that some in the film biz feel the ratings system is “rigid and anachronistic,” Valenti exclaimed that there are now three NC-17 pics playing on 2,500-3,500 playdates, “so it’s a canard to say you can’t get your picture played.” He again insisted the system is voluntary.

He said if the MPAA ratings didn’t exist, “There would be a government-mandated ratings system.” As for the U.S.’ war on alleged indecency, such as the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, Valenti said “The government is grazing on the outer edge of lunacy right now,” finding it ludicrous that “a silicone breast shown for four seconds” could be such a rallying cry.

The biggest changes Valenti has seen over the past 38 years: In the 1960s, a studio was a kingdom in itself, as opposed to a segment of a multinational; and now there is much more competition for the eyes and ears of consumers, thanks to the Internet, videogames and TV channels. America’s choices are fragmented, “which has had a devastating effect on the marketplace.”

Bart asked him about $200 million tentpoles and studios’ apparent reluctance to acknowledge the fact that the fastest-growing segment of filmgoers is the over-50 audience. Valenti simply said the $45 million opening weekend for “Troy” was “not peanuts,” and expressed confidence that the film would “eventually make money” thanks to other venues such as overseas and DVD.

The MPA honcho repeated his mantra that the $6 average cost of a movie ticket is “unbelievably inexpensive” compared to things like sporting events.

Turning to politics, Valenti, who worked with LBJ in the 1960s, admitted there is “a slight odor of Vietnam” in the current Iraq situation and “the similarities are stark and foreboding.”

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