Jack Valenti, who headed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) from 1966 to 2004 passed away on April 26, 2007. Despite having spent much of his professional life lobbying on behalf of Hollywood studios, Valenti was a Washington insider through and through.
Valenti served in the Kennedy/Johnson Administration and, after L.B.J. assumed the presidency, he was tapped to head the newly created MPAA, ostensibly to head off government meddling in the film industry by creating a ratings system that would categorize films (based on their content) according to their suitability for different age groups. The result: the G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings which, according to the MPAA, let parents make decisions about which films they should let their children watch.
Critics of the MPAA’s methods and rating system contend that the association illogically gives films with sexual content more restrictive ratings while giving less restrictive ratings to violent films. For an in-depth expose on the MPAA’s methods, see Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006). Independent filmmakers often run afoul of the MPAA ratings system since their films do not get widely advertised on TV or in theaters if they get an NC-17 rating. Fans of Mr. Valenti credit him for abandoning the Hays Code, an earlier attempt at regulating the film industry and for creating a system that categorized films according to content without restricting filmmakers’ creative control of their art. But anyone who hasn’t seen Kirby Dick’s film might know Jack Valenti better for his crusade against copyright piracy, a task made more difficult for the MPAA with the growth of high-speed internet and peer-to-peer file sharing services like Kazaa, Limewire, and Napster.
Regardless of one’s feelings on the MPAA and its erstwhile boss, one thing that remains indisputable is that Mr. Valenti was a consummate Washington insider. From his political appointment to his appearances before Congress and his lobbying on behalf of stricter copyright laws and harsher punishment for copyright infringement, Jack Valenti was a major player in Washington politics. And no wonder. He represented such film industry heavyweights as Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, SONY Pictures, and Walt Disney.
I happen to have the good fortune of working right next to St. Matthews Cathedral on Rhode Island Ave., NW in Washington, DC where Jack Valenti’s funeral service took place today. A long and impressive list of Washington power players and Hollywood celebrities graced the service with their presence. When I came outside for lunch, people gathered on the sidewalk talked of having sighted, among others, Steven Spielberg but the big names had left by the time I got there so I had to content myself with sightings of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
The star-studded guest list at Jack Valenti’s funeral shows what an accomplished man he was and proves that he ran with many crowds. But more importantly, it demonstrates the close ties between government and big Hollywood studios.