A Chat With Jack Valenti

With his long career as the chief voice of the American movie industry drawing to a close, Motion Picture Assn. of America CEO Jack Valenti spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Brooks Boliek.

With his long career as the chief voice of the American movie industry drawing to a close, Motion Picture Assn. of America CEO Jack Valenti spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Brooks Boliek.

The Hollywood Reporter: It seems we're in another big technology fight. Everyone wants to paint the motion picture industry as anti-technology.

Jack Valenti: We've never been against technology. Long before I came here, in the '40s and '50s, television was beginning to sprout. The studios didn't want it because they were afraid of it, but Lew Wasserman wasn't. He's the one who saw that movies were going to big on TV in the '50s, so he bought the pre-1950 library of Paramount. Lew Wasserman during that time had a partnership with a Japanese company that made the VCRs. We were never against the VCR.

THR: But you had a pitched battle with the consumer electronics industry that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Valenti: What the fight was all about was not to abolish the VCR but to get a copyright royalty fee to be placed on every blank videocassette. What I said was, there would be massive piracy in the analog world, and there has been. We lose over $3 billion a year in analog piracy. What I wanted was a small copyright royalty fee that would go to the copyright owners to partially compensate them for thievery. That's the way they do it in Europe. But to get Congress to pass that law, the Supreme Court had to say that the VCR infringed on copyrights. Once you had that, then we go to Congress and get the copyright royalty fee. What Betamax said was you could copy off the air free TV for time-shifting purposes. That's all.

THR: So you think the perception that the movie industry is anti-tech is all wet?

Valenti: The idea that we're Luddites is foolish. Contrary to popular notion, there are many terrifically smart people in the movie business who have vision and know where the industry is going. When you see what's going to happen in the next 18 months to two years, then you'll realize there's a lot of evidence for some of my outbursts of pain. Caltech has FAST, where a movie can be downloaded in five seconds, and Internet II, which is a consortium of scientists, has brought it down in one minute. That's the stuff that will be in the marketplace in 18 months to two years. We have to begin now to develop technology that will allow us to protect our works.

THR: You went through this indecency thing when you created the MPAA ratings system, and through this on the TV ratings system. Is there something different this time?

Valenti: No. It's just that they pressed the detonator, with Janet Jackson's gross performance with Justin Timberlake and Howard Stern. I would call that tasteless but not indecent--one of the hazards of dealing in this subjective arena. If you're going to charge someone, you are going to have to specifically and precisely define what he did wrong. Burglary is breaking and entering a house with the intent of stealing something of value. So if you're caught in a house that's not yours with a handful of jewelry, you have per se violated the law. But what is indecency?

THR: I know there's a definition. Something about sexual or excretory functions as compared to community standards.

Valenti: Keep in mind the Supreme Court of the United States to this hour can't define pornography. They say it violates community standards. Now that's a hole big enough to send 40 Humvees side by side through. I'm reluctant to get involved or support anything that charges people with something that violates the law, but you can't define what the crime is. I'm hard-pressed to say why a four-second exposure of a breast is a violation. You can go into museums and see Venus de Milo, one of the greatest pieces of art ever known, and children study that in school. Why is this different?

THR: One of the different wrinkles I've noticed is Congress' desire to go after the individual. They want to allow the FCC to fine someone up to a half-million dollars. So you go on Larry King or Don Imus. You say "bullshit" on the air, and right then, you're eligible for a $500,000 notice of apparent liability from the FCC.

Valenti: The idea that you go after people for subjective reasons is not in the long-range best interests of the country. You know, I invented a ratings system, which understood two things: One, the First Amendment reigns: Freedom of speech. Freedom of content. The director is free to make any movie he wants to make and not have to cut a millimeter of it. But freedom without responsibility is anarchy. The director will know he can do that, but some of his films may be restricted from viewing by children. I thought that was a balancing of the moral compact. It'll be 36 years old in November. Very few things last 36 years.