Second high-profile pol rejects top post

This article was updated at 3:15 p.m. on Feb. 15, 2004.

WASHINGTON — Hollywood knew it would be hard to find someone to fill the boots of outgoing Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti, but studio execs didn’t expect it to be this hard.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who is retiring after the November elections, has taken his name out of consideration for the MPAA post.

It’s the second time in three weeks that a popular Washington lawmaker has declined an invitation to become the film industry’s top lobbyist, a plum Washington post that pays more than $1 million annually.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) declined a formal offer in January.

Embarrassed by Breaux’s decision to take his name out of the running and still frustrated by Tauzin’s turnabout, studio heads are now forced back to the drawing board to find a successor.

In the meantime, they’ve asked Valenti to remain at the top spot at the MPAA until at least the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Breaux, a three-term senator, declined the position for a number of reasons.

First, the studios only approached him after Tauzin, Breaux’s good friend and fellow Bayou stater, snubbed them.

“Breaux didn’t want to play sloppy seconds,” one source noted.

Breaux also was reluctant to become the studios’ chief referee, spending his time arbitrating pitched battles within the industry and traveling around the world to promote Hollywood’s anti-piracy campaign.

“He’s used to being his own boss,” a congressional source noted.

As a respected retiring senator, Breaux could make more money with less aggravation by opening his own lobbying shop, a move he’s pondering with Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who also announced his decision to retire at the end of the year.

Valenti had already accepted a position with the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and expected his MPAA replacement to be on the job well before May. The Global Fund position will require Valenti to work only one day a week, but he is eager to begin.

The bionic 82-year-old has also agreed to keep his title of chairman of the org he has run since Lew Wasserman wooed him away from the Johnson administration in 1966. For the next year Valenti also plans to continue working on ratings issues with the National Assn. of Theater Owners, a position that will remain separate from the MPAA.

But pressure is mounting to find a strong successor who will accept the job and insulate the industry from further embarrassment.

“The studios are very disappointed about how public the search has become and may now be reluctant to reach out to a sitting member of Congress because it’s been so hard to maintain order and control,” one industry exec noted.

Names that have been circulating in Washington as potential candidates for years are now back in the mix. Among them are Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who left Congress in 2002 and now stars on NBC’s “Law and Order”; Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who headed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial transition team; and Torie Clarke, the former Pentagon spokeswoman who recently signed as a top lobbyist for Comcast.

Some insiders are also considering Matt Gerson, Vivendi Universal studio’s top Washington lobbyist. While he lacks the instant name recognition of the crop of current and former politicos, Gerson has close ties to Congress, where he served as a senior Democratic aide, and the MPAA, where he spent eight years.

Gerson is widely regarded in the industry, but some insiders say he lacks the star power some studios are seeking for the top MPAA post. Others argue his name is being floated because General Electric’s purchase of Universal could create a shakeup in the two companies’ lobbying shops.

Dreier’s star has risen in the last year for his leading role in the Schwarzenegger transition team. But the ambitious lawmaker’s personal fortunes could be tied to his ability to get out the California vote for President Bush. If he makes serious gains from previous years, Dreier could win a cabinet seat in a second Bush administration or wait for a run at the speakership sometime in the future.

Thompson has kept one foot in each world, visiting Washington often while continuing his acting career. Thompson may have the perfect resume for the job, but the studios will likely have to boost the salary dramatically to make it worth his while.

Tauzin had discussed his interest in the post with studio execs for more than a year and led studio execs to believe he would take the job.

But he kept the studios guessing for months, coming back each week with a request to sweeten the deal far beyond the $1 million-plus offer, asking for a five-year contract and a $250,000 annuity, among other things.

The studios were stunned when they complied and offered Tauzin what he asked for only to see him decline the post, informing Valenti that the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association had given him a more generous offer.

So far, Tauzin has yet to accept the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Assn. deal, rumored to be the largest salary package a trade group has ever offered.

Spokesmen for Breaux and the MPAA declined comment.

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