Charles Rivkin on Netflix Joining the MPAA — Will Amazon Be Next?

Charles Rivkin'The State of the Industry'
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WASHINGTON — After Netflix’s decision to join the Motion Picture Association of America, the obvious question is, will others follow?

Charles Rivkin, the chairman and CEO of the MPAA, suggested that it was a possibility. In an interview with Variety, he said that the MPAA’s board last month “gave me full authority, unanimous authority, to approach Netflix and a handful of other companies.”

He added, “The only thing I will say about this is, I am really pleased that a lot of people are interested in talking to us. I think that what you see with Netflix joining is a re-invigoration of the MPAA, and clearly we are on the move. There is no question there are a lot of people interested.”

The MPAA announced on Tuesday that Netflix will join the MPAA, a turning point in the trade association’s 97-year history.

Netflix is the first internet platform to become a member, reflecting its dramatic growth as a player in the content business, and the announcement came the same day that it landed its first Oscar best picture nomination, for “Roma.”

Most of the studios’ corporate parents, meanwhile, are going the Netflix streaming route, as the Walt Disney Co., NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia develop their own platforms, and Viacom purchases Pluto TV.

“Netflix is the pioneer, and their experience in the space where all of my studios are heading is invaluable,” Rivkin said, adding that the company brings “a technological expertise and a global perspective.”

“Just like the other members, they will be extremely additive. They are producing high quality programming, and they face the same issues that we face, protecting that programming.”

He also said Netflix has interest in issues like production incentives and opening up new markets, while Netflix may benefit from the MPAA’s global reach and relationships in other countries.

Rivkin declined to identify other companies interested in membership, but one name springs to mind. In 2017, Amazon joined with Netflix and the six major studios to create the Alliance for Creativity in Entertainment, a global anti-piracy coalition. An Amazon spokesman did not return requests for comment.

The addition of Netflix is a significant achievement for Rivkin, who joined the MPAA in 2017, and has been tasked with revitalizing the trade association at a time of upheaval in the business.

Over the past decade, tech companies have greatly expanded their lobbying strength in D.C., while studio parent conglomerates have built up their own government affairs teams to handle a host of divergent issues.

“I felt from the very beginning [of his tenure] that we should have more members, the logic being that the greater weight that we represent, the more effective that we can be in advocacy, both in Washington and around the world,” said Rivkin. He is the former CEO of WildBrain and the Jim Henson Co., and later served as U.S. Ambassador to France and then in the State Department as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

What pushed the idea of pursuing other members forward was the pending merger of the Walt Disney Company with many of the assets of Fox, which will leave the MPAA with one less legacy studio member. Members pay an equal amount in dues, which run an estimated $15 million per year, although that figure varies.

Rivkin, however, suggested that economics weren’t the motivation in pursuing Netflix, as studio members probably would have made up the difference in dues. “It did focus the opportunity on what a new member might look like if we were to have one,” he said.

Even before he joined the MPAA, Rivkin was friends with Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. In 2008, Rivkin co-chaired Barack Obama’s Southern California campaign along with Nicole Avant, just as she and Sarandos started dating. They later were married.

The MPAA’s board has had an almost infamously difficult time reaching unanimity among its hyper-competitive six member studios on some significant issues, and what impact Netflix has on its agenda remains to be seen. For instance, the MPAA largely stayed out of the net neutrality debate, one of the biggest telecom policy fights of recent years. Netflix was among the champions of net neutrality when the FCC passed a robust set of rules in 2015, although the company was less outspoken as Republicans took control of the commission and reversed and rolled back the regulations.

Rivkin, though, says that Netflix is actually in sync with the MPAA on many issues. Netflix recently hired Dean Garfield, who had been CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council and previously worked at the MPAA, to oversee its global public policy. In working with Garfield, Netflix general counsel David Hyman and other executives, Rivkin said that he couldn’t “think of a single policy issue where we were at odds. Regardless of that, what I do, from my time in government, is I find consensus. You find things that we agree on, and advance that together as an industry.”

The MPAA also has been at odds with major internet companies like Google over their responsibility for policing piracy on their platforms, whether it is in the way that search results are ranked or via third party content. A flashpoint is the safe harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which shields internet platforms from liability for third-party content.

Rivkin suggested that is not such an issue for Netflix specifically. He said that “we don’t have a difference of opinion when it comes to content creation with Netflix on that point.” Netflix recently left the Internet Association, the trade association that represents Google, Facebook and other major players.

The MPAA also is not involved in one of Netflix’s most contentious debates with exhibitors, over theatrical windows. “Antitrust wise, there are certain things that I cannot touch,” Rivkin said.

Other changes are under consideration at the MPAA, like whether to change its longtime logo and other forms of branding. This August, it is expected to move into its newly renovated headquarters near the White House, with an expanded, state-of-the-art theater, rooftop deck and event space. Rivkin said that he wants to bring more of the casts and crews of movies to D.C. for some of the screening events.

“Anyone who is surprised by Netflix joining the MPAA may not fully understand what the core business of our members actually is,” he said, noting the move of the studios into streaming.

“And if you have an old or outdated version of the MPAA, you wouldn’t fully understand that what we are as an organization,” he added. “We are content creators, content protectors, whose product is seen on all screens big and small.”