As Hollywood Lobbied State Department, It Built Free Home Theaters For US Embassies

from the lobbying-by-any-means-possible dept

Hollywood's efforts to win political clout have always stretched across the country, from glitzy campaign fundraisers in Beverly Hills to cocktail parties with power brokers in Washington.

Last year, the film industry staked out another zone of influence: U.S. embassies. Its lobbying arm paid to renovate screening rooms in at least four overseas outposts, hoping the new theaters would help ambassadors and their foreign guests "keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind," according to an internal email.

That was the same year that the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the six biggest studios, reported it was lobbying the State Department on issues including piracy and online content distribution. Hollywood's interests – including its push for tougher copyright rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact – often put the industry at odds with Silicon Valley.

The only public indication of the embassy-theater initiative was a February 2015 press release from American officials in Madrid, titled "U.S. Embassy Launches State-of-the-Art Screening Room." It credited "a generous donation" from the MPAA.

Asked about its gifts to the State Department, the lobby group declined to say how many embassies got donations or how much they were worth.

"Because film is a great ambassador for U.S. culture around the world, MPAA assisted with the upgrade of some embassy theater facilities," said spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield. "All gifts complied with the law as well as with State Department ethics guidelines."

Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, said at least three embassies besides Madrid received between $20,000 and $50,000 in entertainment upgrades last year – London, Paris and Rome. The revamped screening rooms, she said, aren't intended to entertain U.S. officials, but rather to help them host screenings to promote an American industry and sow goodwill.

Thompson said the donations were proper and that all gifts to the department are reviewed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. "The department has explicit authorities to accept gifts made for its benefit or for carrying out any of its functions," she said.

The State Department routinely accepts gifts from outside groups, Thompson said. She couldn't provide any other examples of major gifts from groups that simultaneously lobby the agency. Thompson declined to list the items given by the MPAA or their total value, and wouldn't say whether the group had made similar gifts in the past.

There was at least one precedent. A spokesman for Warner Bros. Entertainment said the studio helped pay for the refurbishment of the screening room at the U.S. ambassador's home in Paris in 2011. "This donation was coordinated with the State Department and complied with all appropriate rules and regulations," the spokesman said.

State Department policies posted online specifically permit gifts from individuals, groups or corporations for "embassy refurbishment, " provided that the donors are vetted to ensure there's no conflict or possible "embarrassment or harm" to the agency. The posted policies include no caps on the value of donations, nor any requirements for public disclosure of foreign or American donors. The rules also say that the donations can't come with a promise or expectation of "any advantage or preference from the U.S. Government."

Obtaining an advantage, albeit a nonspecific one, sounded like the goal when a Sony Pictures Entertainment official wrote to the studio's chief executive officer, Michael Lynton, to relay a request to fund the screening rooms from Chris Dodd, the former U.S. senator who heads the MPAA. The executive writing the note – Keith Weaver – sought to assure the CEO that such a donation wouldn't be improper.

"The rationale being that key Ambassadors will keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind, as they screen American movies for high level officials where they are stationed," reads the message, included in a cache of emails hacked from Sony and which were posted online by the website WikiLeaks.

"The cost implication is estimated to be $165k (aggregate of $$$/in-kind) per embassy/per studio. Apparently, donations of this kind are permissible."

Besides Sony, the MPAA represents Disney, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Entertainment. The e-mails suggest that Sony executives decided against contributing to the project for budget reasons.

The MPAA has long been a powerful presence in the nation's capital, spending $1.34 million on federal lobbying last year, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. One of its flashier tools has been to host exclusive gatherings at its Washington screening room, two blocks from the White House, where lawmakers get to watch blockbuster films, rub elbows with celebrities, and up until several years ago, enjoy dinner – a perk scuttled because of stricter rules on congressional lobbying.

Hollywood studios depend on foreign markets for much of their profit but the MPAA's interests don't always align with those of other major American constituencies. For example, Hollywood studios have moved some film production to Canada to cut costs. American film workers have tried to get the federal government to stop the outsourcing of jobs, but have been met with resistance from the MPAA.

The trade group has also pushed federal officials to pressure foreign governments into adopting stricter copyright laws. An MPAA-funded study found that in 2005 worldwide piracy cost American studios $6.1 billion in revenue. That number has been disputed by digital rights advocates.

For the TPP trade deal, the MPAA has discouraged the American government from exporting "fair use" protections to other countries. In a hacked message from Dodd to the U.S. Trade Representative, the MPAA chief warned that including such provisions, which in American law allow limited use of copyrighted materials without permission, would be "extremely controversial and divisive." Digital rights activists have characterized the efforts as overzealous.

"They're basically encouraging other countries to adopt the most draconian parts of U.S. copyright law and even to reinterpret U.S. copyright law to make it more stringent," said Mitch Stoltz, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Broadly speaking broadening copyright law harms free speech in many cases by creating a mechanism for censorship."

The state-of-the-art screening rooms are a relatively minimal investment by Hollywood as it works to strengthen connections abroad.

This spring, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, James Costos, brought a group of foreign officials to Los Angeles for a meeting hosted by the MPAA. Among them were representatives from the Canary Islands, who came prepared to discuss filming opportunities and tax incentives for American studios in the Spanish territory. The State Department touted the trip as an opportunity to "expand bilateral trade and investment, including through ties between the entertainment industries."

It's not known whether the path to that particular meeting was eased by the new screening room in Madrid. At the theater's debut in February, the ambassador's guests were treated to a dark tale of corruption, lobbying and double-dealing in Washington – the Netflix series "House of Cards."

Republished from ProPublica

Related stories: For more coverage of politics and influence, read ProPublica's previous reporting on secret political dealings by Sony, a reversal by the higher ed lobby and an imploding super PAC.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 8 Jul 2015 @ 7:28am

    "Because film is a great ambassador for U.S. culture around the world..."

    The whole article is infuriating (but hardly a surprise) but this sentence caught my eyes. They want movies to act as US ambassadors by further locking them in and restricting access? Really? Because restricting access is what made the US have so much soft power in the past, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 8 Jul 2015 @ 8:33am

    Can we please please please pass a law whereby any funds/favors/services that are provided to an official government employee is a bribe to both the receiver AND the recipient?!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Baron von Robber, 8 Jul 2015 @ 8:35am

      Re:

      Bah, meant bribery to both giver and recipient.
      Penalties would be the same for both too.

      That would save so much money, time, etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2015 @ 10:59am

      Re:

      And why can't this be regarded as a 'gift' and treated as such? Or have those laws changed?

      In Colin Powell's autobiography he tells of being gifted a shotgun from a foreign dignitary. When he declared it he was told that if he wanted to keep it he would have to buy it from the US government. (He did.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    HegemonicDistortion (profile), 8 Jul 2015 @ 9:07am

    Thompson said the donations were proper and that all gifts to the department are reviewed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

    I do not think that means what she thinks it means.

    Jeez, do they not even try to restate the question as different one, or to give a long-winded response that doesn't actually address the question but then pretend that it did anymore? Nope, just goes straight for the blatant denial of self-evident reality. I can't decide whether that's badass or just bad at the job.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2015 @ 12:24pm

      Re:

      Who cares, its' not like the citizens matter anyways. Politicians continue to act in their own personal best interest, with no regard for the public interest, and there is nothing we can do so why should they care?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2015 @ 9:28am

    so when the MPAA etc give a government body a donation in the form of a free movie studio or contribute to the upgrading of an existing one, even though those same bodies are lobbying as hard as they possibly can to get certain things that they want included in a new 'Trade Deal', it is perfectly ok to do. if, on the other hand, us ordinary people were to club together to keep those things OUT of a Trade Deal, we would be arrested and charged with bribery!! yup! about right for how US politics works!! bringing sense and looking after the people, the ones politicians have sworn to protect, into the equation is obviously a no-no, but being thrown money from an industry etc, is perfectly ok because that helps the individual bank accounts??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Village Idiot (profile), 8 Jul 2015 @ 12:15pm

    The only thing that makes me feel better about how absurdly tyrannical the MPAA acts is that both them and their copyright have an expiration date. Technological progress is not held by their impotent attempts to stifle innovation and keep the public behind the gates they control.

    We won't even have to legislate or lobby the MPAA out of power. As tech improves and the cost of production plummets, we will simply walk right around their gates and completely forget about them.


    The MPAA is a flailing beast that sees its own demise on the horizon. Expect them to continue to get more absurd and vicious as they near their inevitable end. Good luck MPAA, it was hell while it lasted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2015 @ 12:26pm

    So where are all the shills now? I'd like to see what they have to say.

    'cricket, cricket'

    Here, let me try something. Tell me how I did

    See, everyone uses Google and that's how Google bribes politicians. This is no different. The MPAA is just allowing these ambassadors the opportunity to see the benefits of their works just like Google does the same thing by letting those some ambassadors use their search engine. No different. Google is just as guilty.

    How did I do?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Digitari, 8 Jul 2015 @ 1:53pm

      Re:

      you get a 3.5, you forgot to attack Mike for the article.


      The MPAA are just beasts of burden, they burden everything around them in a beastly way..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2015 @ 2:48pm

        Re: Re:

        Since mike uses Google he's also a shill for Google because that's how they bribe him by allowing him to use their service

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Tubal (profile), 8 Jul 2015 @ 5:01pm

    The 2011 Paris gifts are presumably another item included in now-missing Hillary Clinton emails...

    Seriously, amidst the TPP negotiations these types of gifts are inappropriate. The fact that the head of the State Department, at the relevant time of the 2011 Paris gift, is running for president, and that this is one of a host of highly questionable dealings raising conflict of interests concerns, is worthy of further inquiry.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2015 @ 5:44pm

    Free theaters? But that's crazy! Everyone knows that people won't watch movies if there's a FREE alternative!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    CharlieBrown, 8 Jul 2015 @ 9:01pm

    Revenue

    If revenues are so far down due to piracy, how can the MPAA afford this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jul 2015 @ 4:22am

    I scratch your back, you scratch my back

    Nudge nudge, wink wink


    corporate>piece of crap>human

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    M. Alan Thomas II (profile), 10 Jul 2015 @ 6:52pm

    At the theater's debut in February, the ambassador's guests were treated to a dark tale of corruption, lobbying and double-dealing in Washington – the Netflix series "House of Cards."
    Wait, the MPAA paid for State to refurbish a screening room and State turned around and used it to play a streaming "TV" show? That's . . . actually kinda hilarious.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    L.R., 21 Jul 2015 @ 4:13pm

    Hollywood

    Unusual info on Hollywood. This is interesting. Not run of the mill "Hollywood" article but I'm glad I read it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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