Film: From Deeley Plaza to the top of the heap

Spending 40 years at the helm of the US film industry has its perks. Playing a round with Bill Clinton, for one. By Geoffrey Macnab
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Before Jack Valenti entered the movie business, he had his own advertising and political consulting agency in Houston. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson, then candidate for Vice-President and a fellow Texan, asked Valenti's agency to handle all the radio and television for the Kennedy-Johnson campaign in Texas. Three years later, Valenti was on the motorcade in Dallas on the day that Kennedy was killed. "The new President ordered me aboard Air Force One and hired me that day as his special assistant," Valenti recalls. "Of course, when your office is next to the President; you get to meet everybody." In his time at the White House with LBJ, Valenti hobnobbed with all the movie moguls of the period. In 1966, Lew Wasserman, then head of Universal, talked him into taking the job as President of the Motion Picture Association of America, "the voice and advocate of the American motion picture, home video and television industries", as it styles itself. That is where he has stayed ever since.

In person, Valenti seems the kind of character who might have spilled out of the pages of a Mark Twain or Sinclair Lewis novel. The diminutive, Harvard-educated Texan is a supremely eloquent phrasemaker who preaches his message with all the conviction of a latterday Elmer Gantry. In David Puttnam's words, "he is a brilliant and indefatigable lobbyist for the American film industry".

There are seven members of the MPAA - Disney, Sony, MGM, Paramount, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. As Valenti ruefully puts it, "they kill each other every day in the marketplace. It's the most virulently competitive group of companies I have ever seen in my life". His task is to make them stop bickering long enough to identify their common interests, which he lists as follows: "Piracy, which they are all interested in combating, the fight against barriers governmentally imposed all around the world and how we get to the future without being discriminated against or baffled by governmental regulations." In other words, he is the official face of Hollywood, the man who represents the studios whenever there is talk of trade war or quotas or the need for self-regulation.

Valenti was in London last week to give the second annual Gerry O'Halloran lecture at BAFTA. He titled his address, Cinema Renaissance: It's Morning In Britain. As one would expect from Johnson's favourite speechwriter, it was an expertly crafted oratory. Valenti flattered his hosts, complimenting the British industry on the recently published Film Policy Review; he cautioned against State interference (government cannot be the primal force which ignites the creative flame nor can governments command superior films to be made); he encouraged British filmmakers to go after private risk capital, and he threw in some choice quotes from Churchill, Bagshot and Lord Macaulay for good measure. After London, Valenti was due to go to Paris and then on to Rome. In both cities, one imagines, he will also have charmed his hosts while making sure that they heard the Hollywood message loud and clear.

The single biggest change in his 30 years at the helm of the MPAA, Valenti claims, is the way that film-making costs have spiralled. "The average cost of a film made by the majors in 1997 is $53m. That's the negative cost. Add to that $22m plus for marketing, advertising, prints and development," he remarks, beginning to sound like a housewife computing groceries, and you have $75m as your average cost investment which you must recoup." Only three out of ten studio movies make their money back in the US market alone. That's why other markets are so important and why Valenti will cajole; flatter, and, if need be, intimidate, to ensure that those markets are kept open.

Ask him his greatest achievement in his three decades at the helm Of the MPAA, and Valenti has no doubt. "Making sure that the American movie can move freely and unhobbled around the world, and to let its fate rests not with governments or film industry people but with audiences. I put my faith in audiences."

Wouldn't he agree that America has a huge competitive advantage when it comes to showing its films throughout the rest of the world? It's a question Valenti must have been asked many times: but he still doesn't much care for it. The answer, inevitably, is a resounding no. He insists that the reason Hollywood exercises such a huge influence over cinemagoers has nothing to do with budgets or marketing or stars. "What it comes down to is: are you telling a story that people like. Is your dramatic narrative compelling? Nobody has a monopoly on ideas. Nobody can bully the audience."

Valenti himself is a budding storyteller. "I've just got into the novel- writing business in the last six years," he drawls, "and I tell you I thoroughly enjoy it. I write at weekends and I write on airplane trips." His last novel, Protect And Defend, has been optioned by RKO Pictures and is currently in development. "I'll see how it goes. I'm not rehearsing any of my Academy Award acceptance speeches yet."

Valenti returns to his main theme - proselytising on behalf of Hollywood. In the last three years, he claims, Hollywood has invested $3bn in the British film economy. "It's a huge investment, larger than we make anywhere else in the world. The reason why is that this is more or less a free economy. It's competitive and hospitable to investors."

These are just the kind of words that Chris Smith and Tom Clarke, the British ministers responsible for film, no doubt want to hear. But ask Valenti about two issues which are currently vexing the European film industry, and he is brutally frank. Until Seagram's takeover earlier in the summer, Polygram was the only European company with the same muscle as the Hollywood majors. Does Valenti welcome the fact that Polygram's film interests may now fall into American hands? `"It's not whether I welcome it or not," he replies, "it's the marketplace. The European Union has a hundred million more people than the United States. Its gross domestic product is equal to the United States ... so why didn't some German company or Dutch company or some partnership of Italian, Spanish and British companies buy Polygram?" He is equally blunt about the mooted EU action to break up UIP, the US distribution outfit. "I never understood how there could be any indictment against UIP when they only have 18 per cent of the market ... how on earth you could proclaim that UIP has monopolistic tendencies when 82 per cent of the market is owned by other entities passes my understanding."

Back in the early 1970s, Valenti used to offer Cassandra-like predictions about how home video would cripple the American film industry. (Ironically, video is currently the largest source of income for MPAA members.) He is glad to have been proved wrong on that score, but now, in the digital era, he is forecasting that piracy is the great new danger. Given that he announces in the next breath that last year more people went to US cinema theatres at any time since 1959, his worries seem a little misplaced. Still, Valenti admits that trying to predict future trends is often a waste of time. "In Hollywood," he says, quoting William Goldman's famous aphorism, "nobody knows anything."

Outside films, Valenti's abiding passion is golf. He played a round last year with Bill Clinton. "By the way, he's a pretty good golfer." Valenti admits that he is no Sam Snead ("I'm somewhere between bad and terrible") but he does have one piece of advice for anybody invited to tee off with the US President - don't talk business or you'll never be invited back. And, on a final note, no, Valenti, who is already in his seventies, has no immediate intention of quitting the MPAA so he can spend more time practising his putting. "I'm going to be in this job as long as it's fun and as long as I can work a 14 or 15-hour day without collapsing in a dead heap."