It’s not easy being MPAA chief

For new steward, it will be about ego, allies and theft

After months of procrastination, the MPAA apparently has lined up its prospective new president in the person of former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. (As of last week, Kerrey was still on the fence.) Now that the majors have finished asking their questions of Kerrey, however, it’s up to Kerrey to ask his big question: Is it much of a job?

Sure, the pay is good — about $1.2 million a year — and Kerrey would have terrific perks, like unlimited travel and a cool screening room in Washington D.C. Those are enticing rewards for an ex-Senator whose principal connection with the movie industry is that he once dated Debra Winger. (That, in itself, can be an unsettling experience.)

But here are the problems he’ll inherit: The big entertainment companies are rarely on the same page. Some of the CEOs on the board are simply not interested in the MPAA’s activities (most have their own lobbyists). And, finally, the new MPAA president inevitably will labor in the long shadow of a short man — the late Jack Valenti.

Valenti loved his job and gave it glitz. He had a gift for turning boring industry functions into showbiz celebrations. He was able to preside over a board of starfuckers because he was himself a star.

He also had the leverage of some important allies. On matters of policy, Universal’s Lew Wasserman was in his court. On matters of politics and labor, Sidney Korshak, the industry lawyer and “fixer,” was at his beck and call. Korshak’s other random clients and allies included Jimmy Hoffa, Sam Giancana and Chicago mobster Tony Accardo.

Kerrey himself suffers no shortfall when it comes to ego. At various times he has disclosed his availability to run for mayor of New York and president of the United States. In the meantime, he has had to settle for presidency of the New School, where he has had a bumpy ride (his term of office ends in 2011).

Like Dan Glickman, who exited as MPAA chief in April, Kerrey’s roots are in the Midwest. Just as Glickman was a congressman from Kansas, Kerrey was governor of Nebraska. Glickman went on to become Secretary of Agriculture and, as of April, became chief of Refugees Intl.

A warm-spirited, thoughtful man, Glickman nonetheless never mobilized anything resembling Valenti-like support among the busy and distracted industry CEOs. The org’s interim CEO, Bob Pisano, has mastered the intricacies of the business yet still had trouble focusing the attention of his hierarchs and is known to believe that the MPAA must redefine the structure of its leadership.

Still, most of the industry’s initiatives are not very high on the glamour quotient. Esoteric technology must be mobilized to fight piracy. Foreign bureaucrats must be flattered into protecting the rights of intellectual property that’s not especially intellectual.

When Jack Valenti got bored with the details of his job, he would throw a great party and would be at the front of the room with Kirk Douglas, shaking hands with guests. He wrote books and delivered flowery speeches with famously circumlocutious sentence structure. He invited politicians and heads of states to the MPAA screening room. Last week, had Valenti still been in power, he would surely have invited Hamid Karzai from Afghanistan to a screening of “Kick-Ass.”

Valenti established the industry code, thus saving the business from a hostile thicket of state regulators. But in his era, the only piracy that Hollywood was concerned with involved the stealing of story ideas or girlfriends.

Even before Glickman announced last fall that he would leave his position, names of potential successors were being circulated — Harold Ford Jr., former Tennessee congressman, was one of them. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner for his service in Vietnam, ultimately emerged as a leading candidate. A skilled politician, Kerrey, 66, had served as Nebraska governor from 1983 to 1987 and as senator from 1989 until 2001. At one time, he was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out after a disappointing finish in the early state results.

As of late last week, Kerrey still hadn’t made up his mind about his potential new gig. If he says “no” or procrastinates too long, the search committee will have to reconvene. It consists of Barry Meyer of Warner Bros., Michael Lynton of Sony, Jim Gianopulos of Fox and Bob Iger’s stand-in from Disney, Alan Braverman, senior executive vice president and general counsel.

Korn-Ferry, the top headhunting firm, has led the search. But a longstanding dictum among headhunters is that if a search takes too long, there’s something wrong with the job, not the potential candidates.

That may turn out to be the case with the MPAA.

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