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Jack Valenti's curtain call

Hollywood's top lobbyist will leave behind an industry caught in a love-hate relationship with technology. And what does he have to say about the Internet?

Jack Valenti, whose soaring flights of rhetoric have defined Hollywood's voice in Washington, D.C., for two generations, is nearing the end of his post as the film industry's chief lobbyist.

With announced plans to step down when a replacement is found, he will leave behind an industry deeply entangled in a love-hate relationship with the technology world. On the one hand, Silicon Valley-created tools have revolutionized the moviemaking business, allowing the creation of films like "Lord of the Rings," "Shrek" and Pixar's string of hits.

On the other, Hollywood studio executives see movie swapping on the Internet and DVD burners as the modern equivalent of plunder-obsessed Greeks pouring through Trojan walls. Studio heads remain worried that their traditional ways of doing business will be catastrophically disrupted and hope to avoid the plight of the music business over the past several years.

In recent years, Valenti has asked Congress to impose far-reaching technological measures blocking or impeding digital copying. The most ambitious proposals have failed, but much of the Motion Pictures Association of America's copy protection proposals have been moving forward piecemeal in other venues, including the Federal Communications Commission.

With speeches that sound drawn from a Hollywood screenwriter's pen rather than from a lobbyist's desk, Valenti had been an apt representative of Hollywood's own self-image of glitz and magic. He is a deep believer in the appeal of filmmaking in its most classic sense--as an immersive storytelling medium unlike any other.

But he will likely be remembered best for his decades-long battles against the unrestrained spread of copying technologies, from videocassette recorders to today's peer-to-peer tools. As he prepares to step down, his organization is boosting its monitoring of film swapping on the Internet, while holding lawsuits against individual computer users out as a potential next step.

CNET spoke with Valenti recently about the changing relationship between Hollywood and technology, and about his own longtime role at the Motion Picture Association of America.

Q: How stable is the movie business, as you leave, with respect to piracy and technology? Have the enforcement efforts that you and the music industry have been engaged in made a difference?
A: We have a lot to do. We have made some strides, particularly with analog and disc piracy. But in the Internet--that's in the future. We think that's going to be a real problem. For example, we know that experiments now going on at CalTech and Internet2 and other high-technology centers, the (download) periods--well, at CalTech they have brought down a DVD in five seconds. Internet2 has brought one down in one minute. So we know it will be minutes for takedown time in--I'd say 18 months to two and a half years. So we're looking ahead to that time.

But I think I'm confident in the technology in this country. The best minds in the information technology business are working with us, and I'm very optimistic that we will find some sturdy protective clothing to put on these movies within the next 18 months or so.

You played a large role in educating Congress and various administrations about the issue. Are you happy with the way that Congress and the Department of Justice, in particular, are pursuing the issue today?

I think that Congress--the great majority of Congress-- understands with great clarity that intellectual property is America's greatest trade export.
I think that Congress--the great majority of Congress--understands with great clarity that intellectual property is America's greatest trade export. It has more than 5 percent of the gross domestic product of this country. Almost a million people work in some element of the movie business, distribution business or retail businesses alone. It is an awesome engine of economic growth in this country. They want to make sure that it doesn't decay or shrink or be splintered in the years ahead. So there is a great deal of support and understanding for the protection of intellectual property in Congress.

Over the years, you've seen a great deal of change in technology, both in terms of piracy technology and in terms of the actual technology used in the creation and distribution of films. How do you see the evolving relationship between Silicon Valley, the technology community and Hollywood?
I think it's becoming more cooperative. I don't think there's any question about that. We had a meeting in California just a couple of weeks ago with some of the top information technology people in the country sitting down with the movie people. It was a very wholesome and, I thought, revelatory discussion. So I feel very comfortable about that. I think it's going to evolve on a higher plane and with a cooperative effort.

Many of the most popular movies, like "Shrek" and certainly the Pixar films, are really as much technology products as they are Hollywood products at this point.
You mean movies?

I disagree with that. A movie has to have a story. A movie is a dramatic narrative. You use technology to enhance the story, but the reason why, for example, "Shrek" and others like that--"Toy Story," the Pixar films--are so great is because they are great stories.

So whether you tell it by animation, digital technology or plain 35-millimeter film, the story is the thing. How you compose that story, the dramatic narrative. Technology is not a story. Technology is an enhancement of a story.

You've seen the studios themselves become more technologically sophisticated in the sense that they're using those kinds of tools. Besides the issue of copyright and piracy, how do you see the technology world and--as you say--the storytelling world drawing together? Are these ultimately becoming one industry?
Well, I think the movie industry is visual storytelling. It is what it is. You use every piece of technology you can, you use everything you can to tell your story, but that's what it's all about. You can't break it down by technology and story. The story of how you tell that story is the key to an entertaining dramatic narrative. There's no question about that.

There are a lot of epics that come out that are full of digital morphing and all this digital magic, and they don't do well every now and then, because the story's not there. People don't believe in what you're trying to tell them. So I see the movie staying exactly how it is, which is: You tell a story visually, and whatever technology you have, you use it.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing your successor?
It is the problem of how you go about protecting your valuable creative works, because if you can't protect what you own, you don't own anything. But there are other issues. We are a global enterprise, and we have issues all over the world. Not just piracy issues, but access issues--all sorts of tax and discriminatory issues--and so we have to deal with that. It's a global business. But I think the main thing is to make sure that the American movie can move freely and unrestricted and protected around the world. That's the key.

Over the course of the history of moviemaking, we've had a couple of really epoch-making shifts. From silent films to talking movies, from black-and-white to color. In some senses, the computer technology that is now being used has changed things, but perhaps not to that extent. Do you see any technologically driven shifts of that nature happening in the future?
We'll always have technology enhancements. The next big thing will be digital cinema. That will be in the theaters in the next couple of years, so that will be a big enhancement. There will be high-definition. So all that technical stuff will come on the marketplace and will make the viewing of a picture a lot more enjoyable and a lot more revelatory. But the point is that the essentials of it don't change. Are you telling a story that is so entertaining and captivating that people will feel enthralled?

Over the years, there have also been significant shifts in what might be piracy or what may not be piracy tools--the VCR maybe being the first one. The quote of yours that people always bring up is the Boston Strangler quote (Valenti testified to Congress in 1982 that the VCR was to the American people "as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone").
Well, but keep in mind that they don't quote what else I said.

I said there would be massive piracy as a result of the VCR. And guess what, there was.
I said there would be massive piracy as a result of the VCR. And guess what, there was. We lose 3 and a half billion dollars a year. The VCR is also a great enhancement of the movies. I was never opposed to the VCR, mainly. Among other things, one of our own companies was in partnership with a Japanese company to make these things. So there's no way I'm going to be against the VCR.

What I had to do was to get the courts to say that it infringed copyright. Then what I wanted to do was what they do in Europe right now, which is to have a modest copyright royalty fee placed on every blank videocassette, so when you bought a videocassette, there would be a small fee that would go back to the creators of the film, to the owners of the film, to partially compensate them for the pirating of their films. And I predicted mass piracy, and we have it. VCR analog today and disc piracy is over 3.5 billion dollars a year in lost revenue.

Do you see the Internet or peer-to-peer or DVD copying, if appropriate safeguards are made, as potentially allowing the kind of expansion in revenue we've seen with VCRs?
I think the Internet is the greatest distribution system ever struck off by the hand and brain of man. It will be a huge, huge success story. When we can send out movies sturdily protected, tens of thousands of titles flooding down to people's homes, so they can see what they want to see when they want to see it, at a price that a consumer would see as fair and reasonable. So I think the Internet is fantastic. All we need to do is protect our product, and we can get it on there fast.

We do have alternative ways now. There is Movielink, there is CinemaNow, and there are others that will grow--alternative ways of watching movies on the Internet. So we are anxious to use the Internet. Very greatly anxious to use it.

What will you do after you leave the MPAA?
Well, I've got a lot of things cooking. I'll be involved in a number of things that I haven't announced yet.