Newly appointed Motion Picture Association of America chief Charles Rivkin had a message for theater owners at CinemaCon on Tuesday: I’m one of you.
Before he was a top State Department official and ambassador to France, Rivkin spent time in Hollywood. He served as president and CEO of the Jim Henson Company and headed an animated film, TV and merchandising company called Wildbrain.
“Like you, I know what it means to make payroll and to watch box office returns with hope and anticipation,” Rivkin said. “More importantly, like you, I share a deep passion for this industry and I share your optimism and belief in the future of theatrical exhibition. And like everyone in this room, I love the movies.”
CinemaCon is taking place as domestic cinema attendance has stagnated and questions linger about the ability of movies to compete with video games and streaming services. Despite these challenges, Rivkin argued that the movie business is well positioned to succeed. He noted that the global box office hit a record $40.6 billion in 2017, which helped off-set declines in the stateside theatrical business. He also choose to look at the domestic total of $11.1 billion in glass half-full terms, noting it was the second highest total in the past decade.
“That is pretty remarkable when you consider how large, diverse and mature this market is,” said Rivkin. “I believe we will always be moving between record high or near-record high years.”
Rivkin, who took over from Sen. Chris Dodd at the MPAA last year, did sound a few notes of alarm. He noted that the business needs to work to combat piracy and protect open markets.
“Making sure our creative works are valued and protected is one of the most important things we can do to keep that industry heartbeat strong,” said Rivkin, adding, “As Chairman and CEO of the MPAA, I guarantee you that fighting piracy in all forms remains our top priority.”
Rivkin said the MPAA has formed a coalition of 30 content creators, including the major studios, called the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment. The group is working to strengthen copyright laws at a time when films and television shows are being illegally recorded, downloaded, and shared around the world.
“Protecting our creativity isn’t only a fundamental right,” said Rivkin. “It’s an economic necessity, for us and all creative economies. Film and television are among the most valuable — and most impactful – exports we have.”
The entertainment business is responsible for some $16.5 billion in exports, he said, representing four times what the U.S. imports. Using a factoid that should register with a White House consumed in reducing trade deficits often by using economic brinksmanship, Rivkin said the entertainment industry registers a trade surplus with nearly every one of the 130 countries in which it does business.
The movie business is synonymous with red carpets and glitzy premieres, but Rivkin said that masks what is at its heart, a blue collar industry, one that supports 2.1 million jobs and $139 billion in wages every year.
“Those jobs and wages go to set builders and ticket takers,” he said. “Artists and engineers. We provide economic opportunity to more than 400,000 businesses across the country. Most of them are small businesses that employ fewer than 10 people.”
The speech wasn’t just a dry recitation of statistics, cherry picked to suggest that the movie business bolsters local economies and enables thousands of people to put food on their tables. Rivkin cited his time as a diplomat to illustrate the power of movies to cross cultural barriers and inspire people around the world. When he was in France, Rivkin said he arranged to have Samuel L. Jackson visit an impoverished neighborhood.
“When [people] complained about a lack of opportunity and other issues, [Jackson] told them the only reason the American dream worked for him was hard work,” Rivkin remembered. “Early in his career, he had to take unappealing roles. But he played those roles with everything he had. The roles got bigger and better, and he became successful. Sam told the residents to stop complaining and start working to fulfill their lives.”
The message resonated because Jackson arrived with a unique type of charisma.
“At that moment, he turned from Sam Jackson, movie star, to Sam Jackson, aspirational figure and ambassador for the American dream and, by extension, the entertainment industry,” said Rivkin.