Former five-term Senator from Connecticut starts March 17

The choice of former Sen. Christopher Dodd as the next chief of the Motion Picture Assn. of America is a bet that the future of Hollywood’s lobbying organization is best set by a figure of star political stature.

Having represented Connecticut for 30 years, co-authored the financial reform bill and played a major role in health care reform, as well as waging a presidential bid in 2008, Dodd is perhaps better known than Jack Valenti was when he took the post in 1966. But he’ll be taking over a post far different from the job Valenti had to tackle, with an ever-morphing series of challenges over piracy and distribution models as well as divergent agendas of media congloms.

In a brief interview with Variety, Dodd, 66, cited digital theft and access to markets as major issues to tackle but also said, “I think we need to do everything we can to become good ambassadors for this industry … I find that very exciting.”

“As change is occurring, this industry can play a pivotal role, not just here (in Washington), but globally. It is more of a Washington-based operation, and that is what is exciting about it.”

Of no small importance to D.C. and Hollywood is the perception that despite ample legislative successes, the MPAA risks becoming just another lobby among many and a trade association facing the growing strength of the tech industry. That notion was perhaps reinforced several weeks ago, when President Obama trekked to California for a dinner meeting on innovation with Silicon Valley leaders, not entertainment figures.

“There was a feeling that what our industry needed now was someone of real position and stature,” said Barry Meyer, chairman-CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment and a member of the search committee. “We all felt that it was important to position our industry for what it really is, which is a massive American export industry that is creating jobs, that is innovating, that is on the cutting edge of technology and, to some extent over the last several years, has lost some of its luster” in getting that message out. “We needed someone of significant global stature to help” rejuvenate the org.

The studios also cited Dodd’s ability to “successfully reach across party lines,” which will be important given Republican control of the House.

Dodd will assume his post on March 17, succeeding Bob Pisano, who had been serving as interim CEO since the departure of Dan Glickman nearly a year ago. It’s unclear whether Pisano, whose contract runs through September, will stay with the org. He was considered for the permanent post and, even as the search process dragged on, was able to score some legislative victories, including a ban on movie futures trading that was included as part of the financial reform package. Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) were lead co-authors of the legislation. An MPAA spokeswoman said Pisano “looks forward to working with Senator Dodd, and questions about his future are premature.”

While studio chiefs say Dodd’s experience as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be important in opening new markets and fighting piracy overseas, he will still have a learning curve in the nuances of the business. Via fund-raising swings and campaign events, he’s already familiar with some of the figures, having long had strong relationships with Meyer, Universal Studios prexy Ron Meyer and Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger. HBO co-prexy Richard Plepler is a former aide; singer Paul Simon is also a friend, having campaigned with Dodd in Iowa during his presidential bid in 2007.

“It is just a difficult job because of all the different interests involved,” producer Mike Medavoy, a friend since the 1970s, said of Dodd’s new post. “But he is certainly one of those people who could pull this off because he does have a broader reach and a broader knowledge. He brings a wealth of knowledge and relationships, and he is so charming, and he can deal with so many various aspects of the job. They are lucky to have him.”

Dodd said that there is a “renewed interest among the leaders of these studios to really get on the same page, to work together, to realize they have tremendous interests in common, and they want to see that the focus of the job here. That was a critical element for me. I hear from every one of these people how interested they were in really gathering together with common points of view and common interests.”

The search elicited a bonanza of speculation over who was in the running and who was not. Last summer, it appeared that former senator Bob Kerrey was close to taking the job, but those plans fizzled as the weeks dragged on and it became clear that Kerrey wanted to remain in New York.

Barry Meyer said that Dodd was “somebody we all feel comfortable could lead our industry, more than anyone.” Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman Jim Gianopulos said that when he met with Dodd several weeks ago, it became clear that he “was not only brilliant in his insight but enthusiastic about the issues. …He had already thought of the directions he wanted to go and where the answers might lie.”

Facing a difficult re-election fight in part over a controversy surrounding his ties to subprime lender Countrywide Financial, Dodd announced in January 2010 that he would not seek another term. Meyer said that after his announcement, there were “vague contacts early on” to see if Dodd would be interested, but conversations started in earnest around Thanksgiving. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) “were instrumental to us” in talking to Dodd about the job and what it entailed, Meyer said, but Dodd also needed to make the decision that he immediately wanted to transition into another full-time job.

In the recent past the MPAA chief has been paid about $1.3 million; although terms of the deal with Dodd were not immediately disclosed, he said that he had been weighing other options but found this post “more exciting in many ways.” Under so-called revolving door rules that establish a two-year “cooling off” period for senators when they leave office and take jobs in the private sector, he will be restricted from directly lobbying his former colleagues. But Dodd is not prohibited from planning lobbying strategy or assigning duties to MPAA staffers. “I have no intention of violating the letter and spirit of that,” he said. “I respect that. That is one element of this job but far less than the overall responsibilities.”

After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, Dodd received his law degree and, after a few years in practice, was elected to the House in 1974 and to the Senate in 1980. He and his wife, Jackie Clegg Dodd, have two daughters.

“It’s an exciting job with tremendous implications for the country,” Dodd said. “I said the other night that, without engaging in hyperbole, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who were demonstrating (in the Middle East) went home that evening and turned on the television and watched an American movie or an American TV program. It is still a product the world enjoys, that they gravitate to, that we can make a difference in people’s lives with, both at home and abroad.”

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