Motion Picture Association’s Charles Rivkin

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was set up in 1922 to support and protect the then-nascent film industry. Through the decades it has branched out to include the television and, more recently, streaming content businesses. Its members currently include Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. Entertainment. As Charles Rivkin, the MPAA’s chairman and CEO, tells World Screen, the association today is active on several fronts: from fighting piracy and protecting artistic and creative freedoms to advancing the business of storytelling.

WS: I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Valenti, the former president of the MPAA, years ago. The industry has changed so much since then. What is the MPAA focusing on now?
RIVKIN: Well since you mentioned Jack, I have to throw a couple of words of praise his way. He had the job that I currently have for almost 40 years, which meant that the institution was him. I had the pleasure of meeting him five or six times when I was in the private sector, and he was a real statesman, a real force of nature. The industry that he was leading is very different from the one I’ve inherited. Now, no doubt, if Jack were alive today, he would be as brilliant today as he was in the past. But back then it was the film industry, right? And now the industry has evolved to be much more complicated. The rise of digital entertainment, digital piracy and the threats that face the business are quite different. But the business ultimately is the same, which is protecting artists, storytellers and copyright, advancing the interests of film, television and direct-to-consumer, and that’s what we try to do every day.

WS: You mentioned piracy. Is there a multi-pronged approach to attacking it?
RIVKIN: The MPAA created an organization called ACE, the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, and the original ACE included what was then six MPAA members plus Netflix and Amazon—Netflix is still a member, but it was part of the first meeting group—and those are the core members. Then we added 22 other members to it, and it’s global. Every major market has a participating member. We’re in the process of dramatically expanding it even more. It is already the premier global effort to reduce piracy. For example, we shut down a pirate website called 123Movies, which was out of Hanoi, where about 80 million illegal downloads a month were taking place. We are working with local law enforcement with a highly sophisticated hub-and-spokes system for our global team, and we’re starting to notch up some victories. We were able to win in court against pirate operators called TickBox and Dragon Box, and they represent a new threat: the internet streaming devices, the ISDs, that are basically devices that can be purchased completely legally but when loaded with illegal software, can do enormous damage to content. It’s a never-ending fight, but we’re starting to make a big difference. And it’s an existential threat for some of the small and medium businesses that make up the industry. I was speaking to some broadcasters in Paris who said that piracy can be as big as their entire bottom line. And the impact on entertainment companies is huge, so this is a top priority for us.

WS: What collaboration are you getting in Europe or other countries to help fight piracy?
RIVKIN: Huge. Canal+, for example, is a member of ACE. ACE is a great complement to other anti-piracy efforts, like Content Protection Organization ALPA in France, where the MPA is a proud member.

WS: If a series still in production is grossly pirated, how many people are impacted?
RIVKIN: You asked the right question, but it’s very difficult to answer. We’ve estimated around 19 percent of box-office results can be impacted for a film that’s stolen before it has a chance to release. And think about this: our industry in the U.S. has 2.6 million Americans who wake up every day and go to work in all 50 states because of the film and television business. These are good blue-collar jobs; these aren’t the people who walk the red carpet and are on the cover of magazines. These are set designers, hairdressers, caterers and electricians working in this industry, sometimes for generations. Those are the people who are being harmed by this activity, and if productions don’t take place because they can no longer make economic sense because of piracy, these creators lose jobs. So it’s a big issue, and our industry generates a tremendous amount of economic growth for the U.S.

WS: I was going to ask you about that.
RIVKIN: We recently came out with our THEME Report, which we do every year, and since I took over the Motion Picture Association about a year and a half ago, I’ve included the home-entertainment market in the report. It used to be just the theatrical part, but we’re trying to reflect the reality of what’s happening in the marketplace. I’ll give you some statistics. I mentioned the film industry supports 2.6 million jobs, and it pays $177 billion in total wages. It comprises 93,000 American businesses, most of which are small and medium enterprises like I was talking about.

In the E.U., copyright-intensive industries generated 11 million jobs, and they contribute about $914 billion to European GDP. So the stakes are big. I was mentioning the economics in the U.S.; in addition to the 2.6 million jobs, we export twice as much as we import. And we as an industry have a surplus in every major market in which we trade around the world, so it’s a big driver of the American economy, and the same can be said of every local film business around the world. This is good business.

Other statistics from the THEME Report: it was predicted that because there was a downtick in the American box office in 2017, the American box office is on the decline. In fact, it was $11.9 billion domestically in the last year—which is a record number at the box office. We’re a mature industry in the U.S., so it’s going to go from record to near-record levels each year, but that’s a heck of a business just the same. The combined theatrical and home-entertainment spending was $96.8 billion, which increased 9 percent since the previous year. Global box office has a new record of $41.1 billion, and more and more young people and diverse populations are going to the movies. Audiences between the ages of 12 and 17, and 18 to 24, which is the core demographic, attended an average of five movies per capita over the year. And the reason this is important is this belief that somehow streaming services are cannibalizing box office. The demographics I just talked about are all connected. In fact, our research shows that on average, if you own five or so digital devices, you’re even more likely to be a frequent moviegoer. It’s just about entertainment; it’s about getting out of the house. It’s often been said, you may love a home cooked meal but everybody wants to go out at the same time. The box office is going to remain an important part of our business but not the only part of our business.

WS: Well, we’ve heard this refrain before: television was supposed to kill movies, cable was supposed to kill television, pay TV was supposed to kill cable…
RIVKIN: It’s funny that you say that because I gave a speech in Las Vegas at CinemaCon, which is the big meeting place for all global film exhibitors, and I mentioned exactly that, all the different threats. People are never going to want to see color movies, people are never going to want to see movies that have people talking in them, videos are going to destroy the film market. We’re still here, it’s still going on.

WS: Or the other one that we hear is, nobody will watch black and white movies anymore, but look at Roma.
RIVKIN: I’ll give you some other “nobody will like this” statements, which touch on diversity, and a very important part of my job is to promote diversity in the entertainment industry. Well, nobody believed that a black superhero could exist. Nobody believed that an all-black cast supporting that black superhero would ever do any box office until Black Panther came along and took over the planet. Nobody believed a woman could be a superhero—“We’re not going to be able to sell that!”—until Wonder Woman did and obviously Captain Marvel’s numbers are extraordinary. An all Asian cast for a film? Joy Luck Club was [supposed to be] a big failure. Well, it was a huge success, but there hasn’t been a film with an all Asian cast since Joy Luck Club. People feared that it would be a big failure, but Crazy Rich Asians came along and showed them that they were wrong. Time and time again, we see that the world’s populations, and certainly the American population, want to see themselves on the screen. They want to identify with what they’re watching. You’re seeing demographics of Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans in the U.S. that are going up dramatically.

It’s important to me that all those great statistics are augmented by something else, which is that at this year’s Academy Awards, wins by Alfonso Cuarón, Regina King, Mahershala Ali and Spike Lee, these were historic. Production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter were nominated for Black Panther, the first-ever African American winners in those respective categories. And 15 women won at the Oscars this year, which is a record. Having said that, we’re not done. Just the fact that movies are starting to reflect society, that diverse populations are being honored, that’s great. But we need to do more. Behind the camera, we need to do more with entry-level positions. We need to do much, much more to make sure this industry is fully integrated. And the MPAA has had a loud voice in making that happen.

WS: When I used to think of piracy, I would think China or Asia, but it’s not, it’s closer to home. Is China still a problem?
RIVKIN: Well, even more to the point I think is that it’s not country-specific anymore. I mentioned the takedown in Hanoi of that site, but that site can be accessed from anywhere on the planet. So yes, you have to go for the source, but the use of the stolen material can occur anywhere. It’s a global fight; you can’t solve it in one country and think that you’re done. As far as China goes, China’s film market is increasing dramatically. America is still the number one box office in the world, but China is a close number two, and we have every reason to believe it will surpass the United States in time. It’s very important for the Chinese to increase their box office—they have 50,000 screens. They love American movies. It’s something we have in common with them. But the more they make, I think the more of a partner they can become in helping to prevent piracy.

WS: You come from the world of diplomacy. I sometimes marvel at how a TV show or a movie can connect people and lead to greater understanding in ways that news or politicians can’t.
RIVKIN: Quick story about that. When I was [U.S. Ambassador to France], we would invite people in to see movies that hadn’t been released yet in France, and we’d discuss them. Sometimes movies can talk about powerful topics and raise questions and consciousness in a way that very few other things can. We would screen the movies and have nice healthy debates afterward. But when I was ambassador, I took it to another level and recognized that sometimes the people that are in these films are also good ambassadors of the United States.

We went out to the banlieue outside of Paris and there was a lot of anger at the time about the way the citizens were being treated—I didn’t want to talk about that, that’s for the French government—but I did ask them, What do you like about America? And they mentioned Samuel L. Jackson, Woody Allen,, Jody Foster, Will Smith, and I told them that I was going to come back with these people. The first one I came back with was Sam Jackson. He talked to them about how the American dream and the French dream are similar, you just have to work hard and believe in yourself and you’re going to win. He went from being this two-dimensional international movie star to a three-dimensional American movie star who showed that he was like them. The same thing happened when I brought every one of those stars that they had mentioned, and we had a lot of great dialogue with the future generation of leaders, producers and the creative community in France. If it can happen in France, it can happen around the world. My current role gives me the chance to broaden that message from beyond one country to many.