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updated 2/27/2004 3:22:04 PM ET 2004-02-27T20:22:04

On Sunday night, as he has done every year since 1967, Jack Valenti will put on a black tie and walk up the red carpet at the Oscars.

With his mop of grey hair and black eyebrows, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America is often mistaken for a film star. This is not entirely surprising. As the industry's chief lobbyist, his job is to be Hollywood's public face.

If everything goes to plan, this year will mark Mr. Valenti's final appearance at the Academy Awards as the MPAA's chairman and chief executive. At 82, he is ready to hand over the job he has held for almost 38 years.

But his impending retirement has left the film industry struggling to find someone to fill a position that has been held by only three people since the MPAA was established in 1922.

Indeed, the large movie studios responsible for the appointment can barely agree on a job description.

Some want a Washington insider who can lobby effectively on Capitol Hill, while others seek someone who knows his way around the global movie business.

What is clear, however, is that the next head of the MPAA will be taking over at a time when the industry is facing multiple challenges.

The successful applicant will have to lead Hollywood's battle against growing digital piracy while fending off renewed attempts in Washington to impose tighter controls on sex and violence in movies.

They will also have to reconcile the conflicting interests of the largest studios, as well as the media conglomerates that own them.

"It's important to have somebody who knows their way around Washington and can get along with people," says Bob Daly, the former co-head of Warner Brothers. "Whoever takes that job will have a lot of bosses."

After almost four decades, Mr. Valenti has achieved the celebrity status enjoyed by some of the stars he counts as friends. He has presented numerous Oscars - an honor usually only accorded to Hollywood's biggest stars.

Yet when he was picked to run the MPAA in 1966, he had no experience of movies.

A former advertising executive, he was a senior aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson when Lew Wasserman, legendary head of MCA, asked him if he would be interested in the job.

Mr. Valenti quickly established himself. Drawing on contacts he had developed during his years in the White House, he helped to devise the voluntary system for film ratings that allowed Hollywood to escape the threat of tighter government regulation and censorship. Later he helped persuade the Federal Communications Commission to restrict the power of the broadcast networks in syndicating television shows, opening the way for movie studios to expand into TV production.

Recently he has been mainly preoccupied with the threat of piracy. Movie executives are terrified that, with the spread of high-speed internet connections and copying devices for digital video discs, Hollywood could suffer the same fate as the music business.

Until a few weeks ago, the widespread expectation in Washington and Hollywood was that Billy Tauzin, a powerful congressman from Louisiana, would take over from Mr. Valenti. But Mr. Tauzin opted for a better-paid job lobbying for the pharmaceutical industry. Shortly afterwards Senator John Breaux, the Louisiana senator who some saw as an ideal candidate, also ruled himself out.

So the MPAA has been forced to start again. It has retained Spencer Stuart, the headhunters, to draw up a shortlist of candidates. Some executives think a rigorous search may turn up unusual candidates who would not normally have been considered. And Spencer Stuart's stamp of approval may also make it easier for the MPAA to hire an existing Hollywood executive who might otherwise face opposition from rival studios.

Whoever takes the job will face a punishing schedule of meetings and hearings and ceremonial dinners.

But they they will also have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the world's leading movie stars, and a front-row seat at the industry's most glitzy events.

Mr. Valenti, who declined to comment, is expected to stay on until the Cannes film festival in May before handing over.

But some Hollywood executives point out that he has unsuccessfully been trying to retire for at least three years. There is still a chance he will be walking down the red carpet again in 2005.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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