On the Comeback Trail: Motion Picture Association Chairman & CEO Charlie Rivkin on Cinema’s Global Recovery Effort

Photo Courtesy Motion Picture Association

Where is the entertainment industry today? And what is your assessment of the theatrical sector’s recovery in context of the entertainment ecosystem as a whole?

The film, TV and streaming industry today is proving once again that we are among the most innovative, resilient and creative communities in the world. For more than 100 years, we have witnessed cultural revolutions, paradigm shifts in technology, advances in distribution models, and changes in consumer tastes and behavior. And as we’ve done every time, we are now evolving and growing stronger.

The theatrical side of the business is still recovering from the pandemic, but I believe the trendline is positive. The worldwide success of Top Gun: Maverick and, more recently, Avatar: The Way of Water, which now stands as the third-highest grossing film in history at $2.3 billion, confirms once again the value of theatrical openings and the reality that audiences are hungry for the cinema experience. In fact, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) predicts that in the U.S./Canada alone, the number of wide theatrical releases will increase by over 40 percent in 2023.

So I’m very confident about the future of theaters, as part of the larger creative economy. There’s a communal value of watching movies in theaters, sharing the experience with friends and strangers, that is baked into us all as humans. It will never go away.

What are some of the MPA’s major priorities and projects in 2023?

The MPA advocates for storytellers and their artistic freedom and ensures our members can produce and distribute their content anywhere in the world. And we protect that content by combatting digital piracy in every corner of the globe.

This means we fight for strong copyright law and I.P. protections around the world, and we shut down illegal streaming subscription websites (and their operators). We work with local coalitions, from New York to Hawaii, to enhance and preserve film incentives that create thousands of middle-class jobs and pump millions of dollars into local economies. Recently, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a 10-year extension of the Illinois film incentive program, until 2033, which will ensure the state continues to attract production.

We also help our members expand their access to overseas markets so they can deliver their content to audiences anywhere in the world. Piracy is a constantly evolving menace to our industry, but our coalition, the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE), is leading a global mission to end it. In just six years, ACE has grown to more than 50 media and entertainment companies, which work with law enforcement and other partners to target and shut down piracy operators wherever they are.

How has piracy evolved in the digital era? What are the biggest piracy threats facing the industry today?

While illegal piracy operators are constantly adapting to new digital technologies, the MPA and ACE, in partnership with law enforcement and other groups around the world, are working around the clock to stay ahead of them. We’re targeting illegal operators, for example, that rip content directly from legal streaming services, and we are regularly shutting down illegal streaming services that upload this illegal content. Piracy operators also leverage new technologies to try to create anonymity, using different intermediaries to run their illegal businesses. With that in mind, we’ve expanded our tool kit to break this anonymity through a coordinated, global approach.

We’re continuing to work with theater managers to target organized groups that record movies on camcorders in theaters, usually on a movie’s opening day, and then upload the recording to illegal streaming services. ACE is also enhancing our focus on the piracy of sports matches and other live programming, which is a growing threat to sports leagues and networks around the world. We welcomed beIN Sports, a Qatar-based sports broadcasting company, to ACE last year and are looking forward to announcing other new sports leagues soon.

It’s been very inspiring to see audiences come back to the movies. What has been your fondest moviegoing memory of the past couple of years?

I might be biased, but every time I walk into our state-of-the-art theater at the MPA’s global headquarters in Washington, I feel the boundless magic of movies and the sheer joy of watching them together in a theater. Our theater is a gathering place—where Hollywood meets Washington and people come together to laugh, cry, reflect, and see the world in new and different ways. Every time I watch a movie there, I’m reminded about the role I’m honored to play as Hollywood’s ambassador to D.C., bringing Hollywood to our nation’s capital.

NATO president and CEO John Fithian is retiring this year. How would you describe his impact and influence in the industry?

John’s impact and influence in the industry have been truly immeasurable. Under his leadership for almost a quarter century, NATO has worked side by side with the MPA through several challenges, including the industry’s transition to digital cinema, a pandemic that shuttered theaters across the world, and our continuing fight against piracy. Guided by his vision, CinemaCon has grown into the most important annual gathering in the global cinema sector. John also worked with the MPA to help create protocols that saved our ratings system from being codified into law, with the prospect of penalties and additional tax penalties levied on exhibitors.

Throughout that time, I’ve relied regularly on his counsel. Of course, his experience as a First Amendment lawyer has proven invaluable to the MPA, our member companies, and to the broader industry, which is fundamentally grounded in the principles of free speech.

I am proud to have partnered with him for the past six years. He has always been a calming presence, advocating for solutions that work for everyone, while also underscoring that the theatrical run of a movie establishes a brand of quality that leads to even greater business in its continuing life.

Michael O’Leary, an MPA veteran, will be taking over the role in May. What can you tell us about him?

For almost a decade, Michael played a key leadership role at our association, ultimately leading the Global Policy and External Affairs team and advancing an ambitious agenda on behalf of our members. Many people on my team have fond memories of working with him at what was then the MPAA, and he has stayed in touch with us through his later roles at 20th Century Fox and the Electronic Software Association. So he’s a familiar and friendly face, and we’re very much looking forward to working closely with him again.

We’ve recently seen influential tech companies like Apple and Amazon join digital players like Netflix in investing in our sector. What do you think that says about the entertainment sector as we exit the pandemic?

It says that the entertainment sector is poised for incredible growth and evolution. Audiences around the world today want to watch more high-quality movies and TV shows, on screens large and small. And Apple TV Plus and Amazon, along with Netflix and all MPA member studios, are investing in creative, new ways to deliver that to them.

Audiences continue to evolve—their tastes, habits, preferences, and priorities—influenced in part by the many advancements we’re seeing in technology. As an industry, we need to keep pace with that evolution. That’s why I was proud to recruit Netflix in 2019 to join the MPA, ensuring that the association continued to represent the full scale and scope of the industry. Today, we also work closely with Apple TV Plus and Amazon as members of ACE’s governing board.

The MPA believes in the power of storytelling and creative content, regardless of how that content is distributed. More investment, from a more diverse spectrum of players, is a great thing for the creative community. It ensures we are better equipped to deliver great films and TV shows to audiences around the world.

Photo Courtesy Motion Picture Association

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