Motion Picture Association of America struggles to choose a new leader

By Amanda Becker
Monday, January 17, 2011

One of the most glitzy job openings in Washington has gone unfilled for nearly a year.

The top spot at the Motion Picture Association of America has been in flux since its chief executive left last April and interim chief executive and president Bob Pisano took the helm. For more than a year, a prominent national search firm has struggled to find a suitable candidate with enough glamour and grit to satisfy the whims of the association's notoriously demanding board, generating conjecture and buzz at lunch tables across town.

Industry insiders describe the job as among the top three association gigs in the city -- a $1.2 million salary with a whiff of celebrity. But the lucrative and high-profile position comes with a host of responsibilities to the six major studios the association represents, which grapple with the intellectual property issues created by new technology and at times have interests that diverge.

"You don't go to work and have movie stars in your office and paparazzi following you around, it's a hard job and you work for difficult people," said the association's former leader, Dan Glickman, who left the MPAA five months before his contract was set to expire last September and landed at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Glickman joined the MPAA in 2004 after a similarly exhaustive search to replace Jack Valenti, the iconic figure who spearheaded Hollywood's efforts in Washington for 38 years. The MPAA brought on the recruiting group Spencer Stuart, a favorite of member studios Sony, Warner Bros. and others, which cycled through a list of rumored candidates that included former senator John Breaux (D-La.), who is now with the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, and former representative W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), who ended up at PhRMA, the pharmaceutical lobby, before completing the deal with Glickman, a longtime Democratic congressman from Kansas and Cabinet secretary.

This time around, the names bandied about as potential replacements are no less varied. Former Democratic governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, retired senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and retired congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.) have all been mentioned as potential targets of the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, which is handling the search. Then there is Pisano himself.

"Handling both the interim CEO and COO jobs gives me no time to think about what comes next in my career," Pisano said. "I'm happy to leave to our members the question of whether I or someone else should become the next CEO."

Davis, currently with the government group at the consultancy Deloitte, declined to discuss the matter but suggested that if a career change was in the works it was not imminent. Richardson and Dodd could not be reached for comment. An MPAA representative demurred from discussing specific candidates, saying the board has given no indication when an announcement might be made.

"Associations mimic the industries they represent. Hollywood is a business driven by rumor and publicity, so to certain extent, it's not unlike 'you've got Johnny Depp to play so and so' -- it's Entourage in real life," one association executive across town said of the leaks, buzz and longevity surrounding the search.

Though candidates who possess a bit of star power are likely to catch the MPAA's eye, the individual who is eventually cast as Hollywood's face on Capitol Hill will need the bite to match the bark. Both Glickman and Pisano say the Internet has created a "new world" where studios must struggle to combat an explosion of illegal piracy that plagues its products.

At the same time, the MPAA's most recent filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that its revenue dropped by more than $20 million from 2007 and 2008 after member studios slashed its funding. The association then decreased the amount it spent lobbying federal lawmakers from $2.7 million in 2008 to $1.9 million in 2009, according to figures. The reductions are likely in part due to the fact that the media conglomerates that own the studios at Walt Disney, Paramount, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. are more apt to hire their own lobbyists to handle what they perceive as unrelated or even competing concerns.

"It's a much more complicated world now. They're no longer only movie companies, they became television companies. Now they operate everything from billboards, theme parks and social media sites to newspapers," Glickman said. "Notwithstanding all of that, the heart of the association is advocating for the people who produce entertainment, it's a very special place and the industry is extremely important. They need to get someone in there quickly and I hope they do."

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