The appointment of former US Senator Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut to head the Motion Picture Association of America – announced March 1 – is being widely applauded by film industry watchers and cinema academics.
The MPAA was formed in 1922 with two primary objectives, says Howard Suber, professor emeritus of the UCLA School of Film. One was to deal with attacks from outside, such as the calls for more regulation of sex and violence onscreen, and the other to advance the industry's interests – like any other lobbying organization.
By appointing Christopher Dodd, the MPAA is going back to its roots of choosing major Washington politicos, says Professor Suber.
“The MPAA began by hiring an important Washington insider who ... had major contacts without being perceived as too partisan,” says Suber, referring to Will Hays, who had run President Warren Harding’s successful 1920 presidential campaign.
“Christopher Dodd has the certain kind of class, breadth and depth that the MPAA has always looked for,” says Suber. “He is an elder statesman.”
The film industry is at a critical juncture, as one of America’s largest export industries faces piracy in foreign markets and dwindling audiences at home. Attendance is 22 percent lower than this time last year, ratings for Sunday’s Oscarcast was down 10 percent, and DVD sales have plummeted.
The times call for savvy in finance and international relations, both strong suits for Dodd, says Toby Miller, professor and chair of the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
“Hollywood is a major employer and export earner," says Professor Miller. "Most of Hollywood revenue comes from DVDs, downloads, and TV. Cinema attendance hasn't been its major contribution economically for decades. Our overseas image is affected by what Hollywood produces. And this job is the key point person to D.C. in terms of regulation, stimulus, and piracy.”
Dodd may have some bumpy going in Washington, Suber warns, because he was a major force behind the health care program that Republicans want to dismantle.
In addition, since Dodd just stepped down from the Senate, by law he cannot directly lobby Congress – on behalf of Hollywood or anyone else – for two years, says Nancy Snow, professor of communications at California State University at Fullerton.
Dodd, who served five terms as senator, chaired the US Senate Banking Committee and established a high profile on family and children's issues, even writing the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But he also was investigated by a Senate ethics panel over allegations that he received improper discounts for mortgages from Countrywide Financial Corp. In August 2009, the committee found "no credible evidence" that Dodd had violated any rules, but criticized Dodd and Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota for not avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
Dodd's role as the face of the motion picture industry carries one major downside: “He is now in the central arena of the culture wars," warns Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
"Social conservatives have long viewed Hollywood as the source of much that is wrong with American culture,” Professor Schier notes. “Dodd will need to defend the industry from their unyielding criticism, which will be voiced by their allies in Congress.”
Dodd has large shoes to fill, says Peter Lehman, Director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. Jack Valenti, who died four years ago, served as head of the MPAA for four decades after leaving President Lyndon Johnson's White House.
"We live in a world of constantly renewed cycles of anxiety about the effects of media, especially film, [on attitudes towards] sex and violence,” says Professor Lehman. When film undergoes a period of technological innovation – like what is happening now, with new 3-D formats and more sophisticated visual effects – these concerns tend to intensify.
“The issues are much more nuanced than the frequently crude, cause-and-effect public discourse about them,” says Lehman. “I'm optimistic that a former senator and presidential hopeful like Christopher Dodd can provide mature leadership during discussion of and policymaking about such crucial aspects of the motion picture industry.”
Adds Professor Snow, “He’ll never be a Jack Valenti, but in time he may serve the MPAA well."