A movie czar prepares to roll the credits

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In February 1966, when I was special assistant to President Johnson, Lew Wasserman, chairman of Universal Studios, and Arthur Krim, chief of United Artists, appeared at my White House office. They offered me the presidency of the Motion Picture Association of America - a role they described as "leader of the movie industry."

I told them no, I couldn't leave the president. But Wasserman kept coming back. On the fourth visit he said, "You'll have to leave the White House when LBJ does - what do you want to do with the rest of your life?"

The more I thought about it, the more I was enticed: Movies? TV? And for the rest of my life? "Yes," I said, and 38 years later, an astonishing (to me) adventure is coming to an end.

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When someone asks, "What's your greatest achievement in the movie industry?" my answer is "I survived." To endure in a volatile, unpredictable arena populated by egos the size of small planets is not an inconsiderable achievement.

When I'm asked what I enjoyed the most, my answer is the friendships with directors, writers, actors, producers, and studio executives who are always fascinating, never dull. (I count dullness to be the one sin for which there is no absolution.)

And when someone asks me what I witnessed in my long love affair with Hollywood, I say, "change." When I took over the MPAA in 1966, the first-weekend box office gross didn't make or break a movie; the international arena was smallish - now it's huge - and magical special effects had yet to be born.

At my first MPAA board meeting, an actual, live Warner brother was at the table, Jack. Darryl F. Zanuck also was there, along with Spyros Skouras, Barney Balaban, Leo Jaffe, Abe Schneider, Wasserman, and Krim.

When I finished my maiden speech to the moguls (delivered with some passion, I must say), Warner, his pencil-thin mustache dancing imperiously just above a wide smile, spoke up: "Jack, you have to understand that your biggest problem is going to be the people around this table." He had a point - I soon learned that out of the boardroom, the princes of Hollywood were fierce competitors, relentlessly antagonistic in the marketplace.

The major studios then were feudal kingdoms whose monarchs were the first generation to succeed the immigrant founders. They were confident of their instincts for picking gifted producers to film the stories the moguls just knew would attract audiences. Today, when the average film has seven, eight, nine names attached to that credit, the producer is a dying breed.

A very different set of sinews now binds Hollywood. The studios are divisions of large corporations now. A new generation of chieftains reigns - younger, well educated, alert to what's just over the horizon. Coloring everything are the costs of making and marketing films, which have ballooned into huge sums, sometimes disfiguring the entire enterprise.

And the enterprise itself is changing its creative and technological stripes, racing from analog to digital, whose differences can be summed up, in Mark Twain's words, as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

DVDs have become the Goliath of home video, digital cinema is just a few short years away, the Internet will soon dispatch any one of thousands of movies instantaneously to your home at a fair price.

Movies have always appealed to the young, but today the young are the movies' essential patrons. With a fragmented audience - bombarded by 100-plus channels on cable, video games, the Internet, e-mail, instant messages, blogs, and more - it's the frequent movie patron, one who sees at least 12 a year, who has become indispensable in a carnivorously competitive market, and that means the 12-to-25 age group.

Yet one thing has not changed. A moviemaker's single indispensable asset - as elemental now as it was in the Golden Years - is the Story. And that means studio executives of this era must share the same DNA as industry pioneers in at least one particular - the ability to find a narrative with heart and heat.

What was my role amid all this change? Every day I worked to make sure the American movie could move freely and competitively, unrestricted, and protected throughout the world. I believe I had some modest success doing just that.

Which of my accomplishments will last? Probably the 36-year-old (come November) movie-rating system, which not only frees filmmakers from arbitrary rules but, more important, helps parents guide their moviegoing children.

What's left to do? The highest priority is to corner and fight the dragon of movie thievery. It's a battle we will win - new, secure technology, plus changes in public attitudes and more enforcement of copyright laws, will bring moral serenity to the marketplace soon.

Finally, how would I rate my almost-40 years in this dazzling art form/ business? AE - Always Exciting. It's been a long run and challenging, but every day was great fun. Hard to beat that for a working life.

Jack Valenti relinquishes his post as president of the Motion Picture Association of America to Dan Glickman on Sept. 1. He will continue to supervise the movie rating system. © Los Angeles Times.

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