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MPAA's Charles Rivkin touts global box office, takes aim at piracy in first CinemaCon address

MPAA's Charles Rivkin touts global box office, takes aim at piracy in first CinemaCon address
MPAA CEO Charles Rivkin, photographed in Washington, spoke at CinemaCon about the global appeal of movies and movie theaters. (Joshua Roberts / For The Times)

Motion Picture Assn. of America Chairman and Chief Executive Charles Rivkin highlighted global box office records in Tuesday remarks to cinema owners, saying the "heartbeat" of the film industry — putting movies in theaters — remains strong.

In his first address at CinemaCon in Las Vegas since taking over as the Hollywood studios' chief lobbyist last year, Rivkin focused on the number of people who still go to the movies, despite the long-term challenges facing the theatrical film business.

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"The theatrical experience will always be at the heart of our experience — and that heartbeat is strong," Rivkin said at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. "In the U.S. and Canada, 263 million people went to the movies at least once last year .... That's more than three quarters of the North American population."

His statements come after a weak year for filmgoing in North America. The U.S. and Canada posted attendance of 1.24 billion in 2017, the lowest admissions level in 22 years, according to data from the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. Experts blamed a string of bad films, and an audience that has become pickier because of increasing entertainment options.

But if the cinema business needs saving, you won't hear it at CinemaCon, the annual gathering of theater owners and studios.​​​​​ Rivkin cited revenue figures that paint an upbeat picture for the industry. The domestic box office revenue of $11.1 billion was down slightly (about 2%) from 2016 and matched 2015 sales, he noted.

"It was the second-highest total in the past decade," Rivkin said. "That is pretty remarkable when you consider how large, diverse and mature this market is. I believe we will always be moving between record high or near-record high years."

Additionally, the global box office crossed the $40-billion mark for the first time ever, thanks to a big boost from international markets such as China. Fast-growing China is the world's second-largest film market, behind the U.S. and Canada.

Rivkin, who served as U.S. ambassador to France and Monaco under President Obama before replacing Christopher Dodd at the MPAA, described his new job as a "homecoming."

Before his career in politics, he spent two decades in the entertainment industry, including stints at Jim Henson Co. and "Yo Gabba Gabba" producer WildBrain. He told the CinemaCon crowd about his experience as a diplomat, taking celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson and Will.i.am to underprivileged communities in France.

He also promised that fighting copyright theft will be the organization's "top priority," citing new initiatives such as the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE), an anti-piracy partnership among studios and tech companies Netflix and Amazon. The organization has taken recent legal action against several companies that it says facilitate piracy through streaming TV boxes and apps.

"At the Henson Co. and WildBrain, I learned just how much intellectual property affects everyone," Rivkin said. "Our entire business model depended on our ability to license Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the Muppets and distribute them across the globe. I guarantee you that fighting piracy in all forms represents our top priority."

Before Rivkin's speech, National Assn. of Theatre Owners President John Fithian mounted a vigorous defense of the cinema business, dismissing the idea that popular streaming services are disrupting the traditional model by hurting attendance.

"The word 'disruption' is thrown around way too much," Fithian said. "Nothing needs to be disrupted when it comes to the basic goal of our industry: bringing people together to share a communal experience."

In recent years, studios have pushed to respond to changes in consumer behavior by shortening the time gap between a movie's theatrical debut and its home video release. Those discussions have quieted lately, however, because studios and cinema owners have been unable to reach a workable compromise, and issues such as industry consolidation have taken precedent.

Still, Fithian's speech included a barb against the idea of putting movies directly on streaming services instead of theaters, citing the cultural significance of certain blockbusters.

"Would 'Black Panther,' 'Get Out,' 'Wonder Woman' or any other major recent hits have become significant cultural landmarks if they went straight to streaming? Of course not," he said. "Their impact is a direct result of people experiencing them in a communal way."

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Fithian dismissed predictions of the industry's demise, saying people who stream video content aren't staying away from movie theaters. He referred to a study the association recently conducted with consulting firm Ernst & Young surveying 1,400 people that found that 33% of moviegoers who see nine or more movies per year also spend 15 or more hours per week on streaming platforms.

"We view every new way to view content as a positive thing," he said at a news conference following the speeches. "The data shows that people who stream are the people who go to the movies, and the more people stream, the more they go to the movies."

UPDATES:

1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional remarks from National Assn. of Theatre Owners President John Fithian.

This article was originally published at 10:30 a.m.

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