MPAA topper trumpets unity of efforts, education

Chris Dodd trumpeted moviegoing and rattled his antipiracy saber before exhibitors gathered at CinemaCon Tuesday morning, while NATO topper John Fithian warned that exhibs could be obsolete if they don’t make the leap to digital by the end of 2013.

Dodd, the newly minted Motion Picture Assn. of America chairman-CEO, offered little in the way of specifics. But maybe the former senator, making his first public address in the role, just needs a little time: As he pointed out several times in his address at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Tuesday was only his ninth day on the job.

Away from the podium, Dodd was more forthcoming on one of the biggest issues facing the biz: shrinking theatrical windows.

“That’s not something to jump into, other than making the point that this business doesn’t make it if our theaters fail,” Dodd told Variety. “And I want (exhibitors) to leave here knowing that there’s a new guy running the Motion Picture Assn. who’s on their side of the street on that issue.”

Earlier, National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy-CEO Fithian discussed several pressing biz issues, most notably digital theater conversion. He projected that film prints for Hollywood fare will be unavailable by the end of 2013, which may incite a rush among circuits that have yet to convert; there are now more than 15,000 digital screens in the U.S., significant but still just 39% of the country’s total screen count of 39,260.

“Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business,” Fithian said.

Dodd’s kinetic oratory style was in evidence during his speech, first in a reverent homage to the cultural significance of the moviegoing experience, then with the bluster of a seasoned political fighter as he made clear that battling piracy would be his signature issue.

“I am deeply concerned that too many people see movie theft as a victimless crime,” Dodd said. “How much economic damage could there be to some rich studio executive or Hollywood star if a movie is stolen? … It is critical that we aggressively educate people to understand that movie theft is not just a Hollywood problem, it is an American problem.”

He put it on theater owners to help spread the word that piracy erodes not just a particular film’s bottom line but the integrity of an industry that employs some 2.5 million people in all 50 states. He asked exhibs to engage with him in a campaign to educate their respective communities.

“We must continue to work together, pushing for stronger laws to protect intellectual property and more meaningful enforcement of those laws,” Dodd said. “We must also educate parents and students and everyone else about the real-world impact of movie theft on jobs and on local tax revenues.”

Dodd was candid in saying he’s bewildered that Hollywood, while more than capable of marketing its product, has been unable to promote itself as a business not focused solely on red carpets and tuxedos. “We need to activate the face of this industry on a local level,” he said.

He also addressed concerns about this year’s sagging box office, sounding the same hopeful note that Paramount Pictures vice chairman Rob Moore and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had on Monday night.

“When we saw box office growth in 2009, we cheered,” Dodd said. “In 2010 it slowed, and revenues dropped off in the early part of this year. That’s not just a concern for you, it’s a concern for all of us. But I, for one, do not believe the sky is falling. … I believe audiences will be coming back to your theaters to see our films,” he said, “because there really is no parallel to the incredible experience that we, together, provide.”

Dodd opened his speech with a message underscoring the need for continued studio-exhibitor partnerships. “Let me begin with the obvious: The production and exhibition industries cannot succeed — cannot survive — without each other. If you fail, we fail. And it’s just as true that if we fail, so will you.”

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