Motion Picture Licensing Corporation comes around?

To many people interested in public diplomacy, Hollywood movies are generally seen as an important element in global engagement. Movies can inform others about our culture, for good or bad, and they can tell stories of local relevance based on shared beliefs and morals or retelling history. An generally, if not nearly completely, unknown reality was the restrictions the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation placed on the State Department’s ability to show Hollywood movies abroad. The absurd restrictions were highlighted in last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s report titled “U.S. Public Diplomacy--Time to Get Back in the Game” (see this post).

The report recommended the State Department re-engage the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation to change overly restrictive licensing that severely inhibits public awareness of showings of American films by America’s public diplomats. Below are the comments from the Committee report on the terms of “negotiated” by the State Department:

Paragraph 20 of the State Department's message regarding the [Memorandum of Understanding] to Embassies worldwide expressly notes the following were agreed to:

"The films many be screened for audiences of up to 100 people per screening.

They may not be screened for larger audiences."

"No advertising is permitted. No specific titles or characters from such titles or producers' names may be advertised or publicized to the general public."

Embassy officials report they have been contacted by the MPLC when films are announced on the Internet. To avoid this, many now simply post movie showings on a bulletin board in their facilities - a perfectly painful example of how, in the age of text messaging, our government is forced to operate in methods no different from the 19th century.

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These ridiculous terms prevent the outreach necessary to use movies as effectively as many in the U.S., from Congress to supporters of public diplomacy to future practitioners think they are. For example, the American Center in Alexandria, Egypt, is forced to restrict the announcement of upcoming film viewings and discussions to its outdoor bulletin board. In this case the 1994 film “Little Women” is in the upper right of the picture at the right.

In the age of Twitter, blogs, and websites, the State Department is forced to act like it’s the 18th century with its flyers. Arguably, it is worse as at least with a town crier details of a play, such as the star, would be included. The State Department can not tell the public any details of the movie such as title, characters, etc.

Apparently in response to the report, last week the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation responded to the report. The MPLC says they were responding to a State Department request, but the reality is the “concerns” raised in the Committee’s report.

From an undated letter sent by the MPLC to the State Department March 3rd:

At the State Department's request and in light of concerns recently expressed, the MPLC has agreed to remove limitations on the number of a persons permitted to attend public performance screenings of films on DVD or videotape.  From now on, audience numbers will be unrestricted.

In addition, the MPLC has agreed to revise its policy and allow licensees to post upcoming screenings via the internet. Electronic media such as U.S. embassy websites and newsletters may now be used to communicate specific details of upcoming film programs.    As in the past, U.S. embassies, American Centers and American Corners may continue to send emails or monthly bulletins to specific contacts, members, friends, or registered users containing details about the upcoming film programs.

However, restrictions remain prohibiting the use of specific film titles, characters from such titles, or producers' names in any paid advertisements to the general public. In addition, admission or other fees may not be charged to the audience.

This is one small victory. As Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) wrote,

America's best players in public diplomacy have always been its people and its ideas. The United States should get them back into the game instead of standing on the sidelines.

But the game needs a leader, a coach for the game to help guide all of the tremendously varied players with different skills and purposes. It is time for engaged leadership for America’s global engagement to understand and move public diplomacy forward. This means not only addressing the State Department apparatus, but interagency and “whole of society” partners and pathways as well.

To change analogies, America’s public diplomacy does not have an auto-pilot feature. Left leaderless it will wander and eventually (quickly) take a downward slope into the ground.

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