ProPublica: As Hollywood Lobbied State Department, It Built Free Home Theaters for U.S. Embassies

by Robert Faturechi ProPublica, July 2, 2015, 5:15 a.m.

This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.

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 2013 including its push for tougher copyright rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact 2013 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 2013 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 2013 Keith Weaver 2013 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 2013 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 2013 the Netflix series “House of Cards.”

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.

Republished under Creative Commons.
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Stratfor Email Leak aka: The Global Intelligence Files — What’s interesting to read?

On February 27, WikiLeaks began publishing “The Global Intelligence Files” – more than five million purported emails from the Texas-headquartered “global intelligence” company Stratfor. The emails date from between July 2004 and late December 2011.  In a statement cited by CNN, Stratfor says it is outraged over the breach of its privacy:

“This is a deplorable, unfortunate – and illegal – breach of privacy” […] The company refused, however, to answer any questions about the information contained within them, saying: “Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic. We will not validate either. Nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them.”

We’ve read through some of the emails on State Department-related topics and though they appear like trivial exchange, there are some interesting ones.

About Jared Cohen, formerly with the State Department and now Director of Google Ideas at Google

Stratfor Insight into USG public diplomacy and the genesis of movements.org

Some back and forth on the CIA’s chief of station in Athens, Richard Welch who was gunned down on 23 December 1975 outside his residence in front of his wife and driver in a 17N’s attack.

Decades old rumor that Welch was set up by an Embassy FSN.

An email exchange on the US Embassy Athens RPG hit in 2007

[DSonlineforum] Alledged Leak of 260,000 Classified and Sensitive State Department Cables – shows a state.gov email addy.

About Wikileaks and the State Department Documents

Thought–Re: wikileaks cablegate – disappearing cables  — and old cronies @ State

Re: wikileaks cablegate – disappearing cables or how “The Foggy-Bottom Bow-Ties have their panties in a knot over a specific Iraq cable outed”

Yep, the purported email really did say “panties in a knot.”

An email titled, FBI SAIC comment on WikiLeaks (internal use only pls) says “nobody knew better than us how those State Department people write….”

One purported email from a Senior Eurasia Analyst dated September 2011 had awful things to say about Ambassador McFaul:

“On McFaul: everyone in CE hates dealing with him. He is deluded. He believes that Russia can actually be pulled into being an ally with the US. McFaul wants to use Regan’s gameplan. He constantly quotes Regan. On a sidenote, in McFaul’s office there is a large (really large, like4x3) photo blown up above his desk of McFaul, Obama, Medvedev and Putin all sitting around the lunchtable smiling. However, the way I heard it was that McFaul was scared to death of Putin and stuttered the entire time.”

Then there’s a source in Mexico dubbed MX1 with concerns about Wikileaks and afraid to “get fired when those cables are leaked.”  The 2010 email exchange citing the same MX1 source also includes the following:

“MX1 says that this is a bad thing because it is already difficult to get Mexicans to be frank about how much GOM sucks. First you have the nationalism issue, then the fact that many just don’t like Americans, and now the ones that want to be frank are afraid they’ll lose their job when GOM finds out they said Calderon has his head up his ass and that the Consul General is taking money from the Zetas.”

Among the purported Stratfor emails released by Wikileaks are speculations about UBL’s non-burial at sea. Asked about that during a Daily Press Briefing, the State Department’s Mike Hammer had this to say:

“All right, as far as I understand, as far as my colleagues at the State Department go, excuse me, the Department of Defense, they have already clearly stated that the report is false and quite ridiculous.”

Elsewhere online, firstpost.com notes that “The latest leaked emails, spinning fanciful theories about bin Laden’s body disposal, are almost certain to feed the liveliest imagination of conspiracy theorists, of whom there is no dearth.”

No doubt.

And before you say “oh, dear!” — here is Trevor Timm, an activist at Electronic Frontier Foundation about rumors with no second source:


Sounds like an excellent question…

By the way, Stratfor’s VP of Intelligence  is Fred Burton, a former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.

Domani Spero