MPAA Chief Charles Rivkin Hopeful for Growth Amid Piracy Concerns

MPAA Chief Charles Rivkin
Joy Asico/Asico Photo

As the MPAA’s new chairman and CEO, Charles Rivkin is tasked with trying to solve one of Hollywood’s most vexing problems: IP theft.

“Fighting piracy will be part of our mission for many, many years, but I think we are starting to win that battle,” Rivkin says. The exec, who succeeded Chris Dodd last year as the industry’s chief global champion, makes the case for optimism in a host of areas, including worldwide box office, trade and content protection, despite an era of disruption.

The studios have tried for years to find the magic formula to reduce piracy, whether through public service announcements, legislation or online “copyright alerts.” Lost revenues from online piracy are projected to soar to $52 billion by 2022, almost doubling in the span of six years, according to a recent report from British firm Digital TV Research.

But Rivkin notes the rapid growth of legal streaming options helps counter illegal sites, while the studios have teamed up with dozens of companies, including Netflix and Amazon, in a global coalition to battle piracy.  The organization, the Alliance for Creativity in Entertainment, has recently been filing lawsuits to curb illegal streaming devices — kodi boxes that are legally sold yet contain software to enable access to unauthorized live streams or copies.

“We are fighting them hard,” he says.

Rivkin is the former CEO of the Jim Henson Co. and WildBrain Media; his most recent career arc has been in a much different field — diplomacy. He was U.S. ambassador to France in President Obama’s first term and then, in his second, went to the State Department to serve as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

That experience in international markets is one reason the studios tapped him for the job, and he’s been adept at rattling off statistics about the industry’s global reach.

“We export four times what we import,” Rivkin says, noting that the movie and TV business has a $12 billion to $13 billion surplus.

That’s a message that could resonate with President Trump. Dismayed by the U.S. trade deficit, Trump has recently threatened tariffs on countries like China.

The threats have come as U.S. trade officials have been negotiating with China to update a 2012 memorandum of understanding that set China’s quota for foreign films and other access issues. Rivkin says that there has been some delay with a reorganization of China’s film and television bureau and the pending appointment of a new head of its film bureau, but as soon as the reorganization is in place, “I think we’ll be able to get quickly back on track.”

“China wants our product. It’s building 25 screens a day.”
Charles Rivkin

China is on pace to become the No. 1 box office market in the world “within a year,” Rifkin says. “China wants our product,” he notes. “It’s building 25 screens a day right now, and they love American blockbuster films.”

None of the major studio chiefs publicly backed Trump in the election. Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger even quit a presidential business council.

Trump, though, has raised the issue of intellectual property protection in trading relationships, something that makes the major studios very happy, Rivkin says.

“He clearly understands that issue and how important it is to our economy, and we are thrilled, because protecting copyright is one of our most important objectives.”

He hasn’t met with Trump yet, but says that “this is a president who spent 14 years on television, on NBC, so he in my mind understand the entertainment industry probably even more than Ronald Reagan, because he understands the business of it.”

The administration dropped out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a major initiative of the Obama years and one of the MPAA’s key priorities. More recently, trade officials have been renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, something that the MPAA favors because it was written before the rise of the digital economy, Rivkin says.

The most recent friction there, though, has been in just what the update should look like. Internet companies have been pushing for the revised pact to adopt similar “safe harbor” standards that they enjoy in the U.S. Copyright law  shields internet firms from liability for hosting infringing content, as it is taken down promptly upon notice.

The studios, though, want greater protections for copyright. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have come under scrutiny on Capitol Hill for their role in hosting Russian-sourced posts during the 2016 election. When Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill in April, Rivkin sent a letter to lawmakers that brought up safe harbors and the need for greater “accountability.”

“Right now in the United States there is a very healthy debate about platform responsibility,” Rivkin says. “And it is important to think about the safe harbors that exist, how they are currently playing out in the marketplace. All we want is a national conversation about that.”