Charles Rivkin Starts as MPAA Chief at Time of Upheaval

Charles Rivkin
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WASHINGTON — When Charles Rivkin starts his tenure at the MPAA on Tuesday, he’ll be plunging into key industry priorities like tax reform and trade, but he’s also taking the helm of the organization at a time of transformation.

Warner Bros., one of six studio members, will have a far different corporate parent if the Justice Department approves AT&T’s merger with Time Warner. If that happens, as expected, more mergers could follow.

A big challenge is to envision what protections content will need years into the future, even as distribution platforms are ever evolving.

But there’s also the lobbying landscape that has changed in Washington, not just from the uncertainties generated from President Donald Trump’s administration, but because lobbying increasingly demands a greater degree of public advocacy.

As a studio official notes, the model is changing, and what’s needed ever more is to be nimble in messaging, communications and content. Garnering the public’s attention has proven to be especially difficult on issues like piracy and copyright — even after years of efforts to create public service campaigns and mobilize grassroots groups. In D.C., the MPAA faces an ever more potent field of competing industry interests.

“It’s a great job and a tough job,” says one industry representative. “You can’t just recite a talking point.”

Rivkin, 55, will take the title of CEO and then, during a transition period, that of chairman when Chris Dodd, 73, departs at the end of the year.

Although Rivkin doesn’t have Dodd’s stature as a longtime former senator, studio officials note that he’s bringing something unique to the table, a combination of experience in entertainment and in diplomacy. Before serving in President Obama’s administration as ambassador to France and then in a senior state department post, Rivkin spent two decades in the industry, including a tenure as CEO of The Jim Henson Co. and later as CEO of Wildbrain Media, responsible for the series “Yo Gabba Gabba!”

Rivkin’s father, William, was an ambassador under President John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson. He died when Charles was just five, but politics and public diplomacy left an impression on he and his family. Rivkin’s godfather was Hubert Humphrey.

He got heavily involved in presidential politics during the campaign of 2004, when he raised money and volunteered on the campaign of John Kerry. The gained an even bigger profile in the tight-knit Los Angeles donor world when he served as California finance co-chair of Barack Obama’s 2008 bid. He was teamed with music executive Nicole Avant who, along with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, are close friends.

The fundraising position put Rivkin in regular contact with high profile industry figures and high ranking studio executives, and required a lot of managing egos and expectations, particularly when it came to getting face time with the candidate. But that election campaign also was especially dicey, as Hollywood’s loyalties were bitterly split during the primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton supporters. After Obama secured the nomination and Clinton dropped out, Rivkin had a leading role in trying to unite the Los Angeles donor pool.

Ken Solomon, the president of The Tennis Channel, who also worked on the Obama campaign, recalls that “there was really a polarization, and Charlie had to thread that needle.”

Merging the two campaign infrastructures was “extraordinarily delicate, complex and had extremely high stakes, and he did it.”

Several months after he took office in 2009, Obama tapped Rivkin for one of the most prized of all ambassador posts, to be the top diplomat in France. There is a tension between career and non-career diplomats, particularly those ambassadors who are chosen from among the ranks of top campaign fundraisers, but Rivkin received high marks in a 2012 report from the State Department’s inspector general.

The report said that Rivkin was a “dynamic and visionary non career Ambassador” who “has challenged embassy employees to tackle innovative projects while at the same time performing their important advocacy and support responsibilities.” It certainly helped that Rivkin spoke French — believe it or not, ambassadors don’t necessarily have to be fluent in the native language of their postings.

During Obama’s second term, Rivkin returned to the United States to serve under Kerry as the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs. That position took him all over the world and, studio officials hope, will prove to be an especially unique asset as the MPAA pushes for greater access to foreign markets.

In fact, that will be a very immediate concern as negotiations continue between U.S. trade officials and the Chinese government on China’s film quota and Hollywood’s share of the box office pie. Dodd put a focus greater access to international markets, and during his tenure in 2012 China reached an agreement with U.S. trade negotiators to increase its quota. Studios have been anxious for further expansion.

The wild card is Trump, who has been sounding alarms about Chinese trade practices, in part out of his own protectionist impulses but also to pressure the country to do more to rein in North Korea. The fear is that some kind of Chinese retaliation could filter down to Hollywood’s own access to the Chinese marketplace.

When it comes to the MPAA post, Solomon says, “Charlie can get to the heart of the matter, and to the heart of the issues, and he will be trusted. They’ll trust he understands what it means, and he won’t have to take a crash course in media.”

There also will be other trade issues, like the Trump administration’s efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Studios have concerns over what an updated agreement would mean for copyright protection.

He also is starting just as the Republican-controlled Congress launches on an effort to reform the tax code. Although major media companies, like much of the rest of industry, are pushing for a drop in the corporate tax rate, Hollywood has particular concern that lawmakers will look to finance the cut by eliminating a number of deductions, including those that allow for writing off the costs of advertising.

Rivkin also is stepping into the role as a Democrat from a leftward-leaning industry, at a time when Republicans control government and Trump’s team has been reversing many of the policies of his predecessor. More CEOs are willing to speak out against Trump. Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger stepped down from a Trump administration advisory council in protest of the administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. More recently, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch criticized Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville.

Will that be held against him? Rivkin’s Obama administration posts largely kept him out of partisan politics, and those who know him believe that he’ll approach the job by avoiding party conflict and focusing on issues like piracy and copyright that have traditionally commanded bipartisan support.

“He has good relationships on both sides of the hill, which is rare these days,” says John Emerson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany during Obama’s second term and who also worked with Rivkin on political campaigns.

He said that Rivkin “understands the economics and creative demands on the studios, and the same time knows how to build consensus, from his diplomatic experience.”

The trickiest situation may be in lining up consensus among the studio members. It’s something that even Jack Valenti had to grapple with, but the situation is more acute now given the myriad of interests that corporate parents have in the business.

The MPAA has been silent during the biggest telecommunications policy debate of this year, that of whether to repeal the FCC’s foundation for its net neutrality rules. Comcast, parent of NBCUniversal and a major internet provider, supports such a move, but other studios privately fear a future of distribution channels controlled by telecom and cable gatekeepers.

After the Sony hack in 2014, it took weeks for the industry to issue a collective response, via a statement from Dodd.

That ignited new talk of overhauling the organization, and perhaps bringing in new members. Media companies have questioned their return on investment from the organization, as the MPAA represents just a piece of their interests and, in some cases, one of a number of trade associations in which they are members. The MPAA collected $65.5 million in membership dues in 2015 — not cheap.

The MPAA also faces a much greater set of competing interests than they did even when Dodd took the helm in 2011, and certainly since Valenti stepped down in 2004 after nearly 40 years atop the organization. Around Washington, the MPAA is still often compared to the days when Valenti was in charge, even though times are different.

Anti-piracy legislation used to enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress, but that changed in 2012, when internet companies helped lead a public backlash against the Stop Online Piracy Act. The legislation was sidelined, a testament to the growing strength of the internet lobby, but also its ability to mobilize public support to its side. Lawmakers since then have been skittish about igniting new battles. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has for several years now been holding hearings to revise copyright laws, but he’s been proceeding slowly.

There are hopes, though, that those dynamics are changing once again, as Apple and Google make greater forays into the content business. In June, studios and the MPAA joined with  Netflix and Amazon in a new coalition to fight piracy, a goal of Dodd’s as he wraps up his tenure.

A few weeks ago, Dodd hosted a screening of “Dunkirk” at the trade association’s Washington office, in its prime location just blocks from the White House, and drew such D.C. figures as Bob Woodward, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). It was one of Dodd’s last major events as CEO, and also the final screening before the building goes in for an overhaul.

Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the changes to come: After the MPAA sold a major interest in the property, the brutalist 1960s headquarters is getting a complete overhaul and turned into a glassy address.