Leading the War for Independents

Independent Film & Television Alliance Chairman Lloyd Kaufman knew early on that Jean Prewitt was special. So much so that he put his money where his mouth was: The famously parsimonious Kaufman found himself springing for the check after a dinner of stone crabs at the swank Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica, shortly after Prewitt came aboard as IFTA's president and CEO in 2000.

“I've seen other people in her seat,” Kaufman says. “Instantly I could see that she towered above them intellectually and spiritually and morally…hence I sprung for a big dinner.”

At IFTA, Prewitt has more than proved her worth by long showing that she has no qualms about taking on some of the entertainment industry's biggest players, and ensuring that the voice of independents is heard loud and clear. Kaufman admires her understanding of constituents' concerns, along with her ability to frame arguments so that communications policymakers hear them. It is a skill that comes from years of experience in entertainment, law and Washington.

“My style tends to be very grounded in details,” Prewitt says. “Actually delivering the service matters. Understanding what your members and your colleagues around the world are asking you may take more than one go.”

A graduate of Harvard and Georgetown Law School, Prewitt began her career at the New York law firm Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, specializing in federal tax, antitrust and copyright litigation. She moved on to United International Pictures, where she worked as senior VP and general counsel before landing a job at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration in the late 1980s, providing telco policy advice to the White House. In 1994, she became a principal at the D.C.-based entertainment lobbying firm Podesta Associates.

In 2000, Prewitt took the helm of an IFTA that had never been a lobbying presence in Washington, preferring to remain, in her words, “L.A.-centric.” Prewitt set to work engaging non-U.S. members (the IFTA represents producers, distributors and agents from 160 organizations in 22 countries) and encouraging them to run for the board of directors. She also began setting out an “active advocacy agenda for Washington.”

Lobbying in Washington has become an important part of Prewitt's job. Independents have felt increasingly squeezed out of network programming, and many are worried about media consolidation and net neutrality. Prewitt is pushing for a 75% cap on self-supply from networks in primetime cable, freeing up a slice of the pie for independent programming.

She also jumped into the ring against the Motion Picture Association of America last year when MPAA Chairman and CEO Dan Glickman denounced net neutrality. Glickman stated that a law banning Internet service providers from discriminating against certain content would hurt anti-piracy efforts. Prewitt fought back.

“The Internet offers the only true open opportunity for independents…to reach consumers,” she wrote in an open letter to the MPAA. “It is vital that this channel remain competitively accessible to all users.”

The IFTA also launched a provocative online video campaign decrying media consolidation. One video, titled Bound, is a scathing three-minute indictment of Time Warner in which a young boy is bound to a chair with coaxial cable and forced to watch a flickering TV screen.

Kaufman believes Prewitt's approach is showing results in Washington. “She's courageous and unique for someone in her position,” he says.

Prewitt balances her efforts with an enriching personal life. An avid reader, Prewitt and her husband also collect Japanese wood-block prints and contemporary U.S. and British plein air oil paintings. She credits her two daughters with keeping her in the loop on music, television and social media. Before leaving for college, her 18-year-old daughter set up Prewitt's Facebook page.

There's a different kind of networking at work, as Prewitt battles to carve out space for indie programming among a Goliath-like group of studios and broadcasters. It's a daunting task, but being invited to the decision-making table is a huge step.

“I have a great job,” she says. “I really like these people. It's important that this sector of the industry continues to thrive. I hope I contribute to that.”