Upon arriving in Paris as the new U.S. ambassador to France and Monaco in 2009, Charles Rivkin used his show business pedigree to charm President Nicolas Sarkozy with a gift: a framed poster of Rita Hayworth.
It was a smooth move for Rivkin, whom President Obama chose for the role after a 20-year career in the entertainment industry, including stints at Jim Henson Co. and “Yo Gabba Gabba” producer WildBrain.
“I witnessed first-hand the impact entertainment has on the planet,” Rivkin, 55, said of his time in the Foreign Service. “It’s a shining beacon of what our country stands for.”
Rivkin’s diplomatic skills are about to be put to their biggest test yet as he takes the helm of the Motion Picture Assn. of America this week, replacing Christopher Dodd, who has held the job since 2011. Rivkin will be the top Washington lobbyist for Hollywood at a time of great uncertainty driven by changes in consumer behavior.
The job of MPAA chief has long been considered one of the toughest gigs in the entertainment business, even during the days of the late Jack Valenti, who ran the organization for four decades until he retired in 2004.
The biggest challenge: to wrangle consensus among six major studios — Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and Paramount — whose interests often conflict. The organization, for example, has been reluctant to weigh in on the fierce debate over the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules.
“It’s a very difficult job,” said Jeff Shell, chairman of Comcast Corp.’s Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. “We need the MPAA to be a strong advocate for things that improve the business collectively and figure out how to address the world as it changes.”
Indeed, the MPAA’s role has become only more complicated in recent years as the list of challenges gets longer and more formidable.
The domestic box office, which for years has faced long-term stagnation in theater attendance, just wrapped up its least-attended summer movie season in 25 years. Studios are under pressure to figure out how to make movies available for home viewing more quickly after their theatrical releases, but none agree how to do so.
Online piracy continues to eat into studio profits and disruption by Silicon Valley is driving consolidation among media conglomerates. Warner Bros.’ parent company, Time Warner Inc., is in the process of being acquired by AT&T, pending government approval.
The MPAA doesn’t have the kind of influence it once did as tech giants such as Google and Facebook have increased their clout in Washington.
“It’s a completely different business now,” said John Emerson, former U.S. ambassador to Germany who has known Rivkin for years. “Charlie has those skills that will help him navigate what is a much more complicated job than it was when it was first created.”
Complicating matters, Rivkin will be dealing with a Trump administration that has been openly hostile to people connected to the Obama administration, and especially Hollywood elite, who generally backed Hillary Clinton.
If that all sounds daunting, you wouldn’t know it from talking to Rivkin. Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., the former ambassador sounded ebullient about the tasks ahead.
“This is possibly the best job in the world,” said Rivkin, who starts Tuesday. “My objective is to chart the course for success in a world that is accelerating extraordinarily quickly…. The essence of diplomacy is finding common ground, and there’s plenty of common ground in this industry.”
As for the Trump administration, Rivkin says the entertainment industry is more aligned with the president’s agenda than it seems.
“What we need to do is get the word out and help everyone understand that when you invest in this industry, you invest in American jobs,” he said.
One of his key priorities at the MPAA will be to ramp up the organization’s anti-piracy efforts, both in the U.S. and abroad. Under Dodd, who will stay at the organization until the end of the year, the MPAA waged successful battles against piracy on several fronts, but the group suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Google and other tech giants in 2012 because of the failure of the Stop Online Piracy Act, known as SOPA.
More recently, Dodd and the MPAA forged an unlikely partnership with technology companies including Netflix and Amazon to combat copyright theft around the world. How those efforts will unfold remains to be seen, but building on that pact (known as ACE) by forging alliances with Silicon Valley will be key.
“This alliance is now going to aid us tremendously in the fight against piracy,” Rivkin said.
Rivkin said another key task will be to evaluate the MPAA’s most thankless job: that of assigning parental guidance ratings to Hollywood’s theatrical films. Critics have said the ratings are inconsistent and at times arbitrary. An R-rating for transgender film “3 Generations” recently sparked a backlash from the Weinstein Co.
Perhaps the most pressing task is in China, which remains a vitally important foreign market despite a cooling of the box office there. Rivkin plans to work with U.S. government officials to increase the number of movies the studios can release under a revenue sharing agreement with the Chinese government. The current quota allows only 34 foreign movies into the country annually under a deal in which studios collect 25% of ticket sales. He also sees hope in the future of co-productions between U.S. and Chinese companies.
“It’s an enormous opportunity for the American studios,” Rivkin said. Expanding the quota will “absolutely be at the top of my list once I get involved.”
Rivkin’s background in politics and business has uniquely prepared him for his new job. His father, respected diplomat William R. Rivkin, served as ambassador to Luxembourg, Senegal and Gambia under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
And as a college student at Yale, the young Rivkin contemplated following in his father’s footsteps, but he ultimately pursued a career in the private sector. After getting his MBA from Harvard, Rivkin brought much-needed business acumen to the tight-knit, family-run Jim Henson Co.
“When Jim hired me, there were no other MBAs in the history of the company, so we had to do everything from scratch,” Rivkin said. “I worked closely with Jim to clean up the business.”
After Henson died in 1990, Rivkin worked with Brian Henson to grow the company when few in Hollywood believed it could continue without its visionary founder and he eventually became its president.
“After my dad died, everyone in Hollywood thought the company was done,” said Brian Henson, chairman of Jim Henson Co. “Within three years, we had a fully fledged Muppet movie.”
Rivkin engineered the sale of the company for $680 million in 2000. Later, after the Henson family bought the company back, he helped negotiate the sale of rights to “The Muppets” and “Bear in the Big Blue House” to Walt Disney Co. in 2004 for an undisclosed amount.
Rivkin ventured further into kids programming the next year when he became CEO of San Francisco-based WildBrain, which produced children’s shows and commercials.
Meanwhile, Rivkin kept one foot in politics, working on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He served as California finance co-chair for Barack Obama’s 2008 run at the presidency, corralling high-profile donors, many of whom were entertainment industry elite. He raised $500,000 for the campaign and played a key role uniting Hollywood behind the young senator after he defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination.
His twin interests in politics and entertainment converged after Obama’s victory, when Rivkin became the youngest ambassador to France in 56 years. Fluent in French, he used his show business connections to improve America’s image in France, especially in the low-income communities in Paris’ banlieues, or suburbs. He brought Samuel L. Jackson to talk to young Parisians, who knew the actor from “Pulp Fiction.” He also arranged a concert by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am and an appearance by Jodie Foster, a flawless French speaker.
“That was his instinct, and he saw that as an area where he could actually make a big difference,” said Emerson, the former ambassador to Germany. “I thought that was proactively visionary of Charlie.”
In 2014, he was sworn in as assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs, where his duties included the protection of international property rights. In India, for example, Rivkin pushed ways to stem the rise of digital piracy, including legislation against video recording in movie theaters.
Rivkin’s knowledge of piracy and other key issues, plus his experience running businesses and dealing with Washington and international governments — not to mention fragile Hollywood egos — made him an ideal choice to lead the MPAA, executives said.
“One of the things that was really evident was Charlie’s passion for the economic impact and cultural impact of entertainment around the world,” said Kevin Tsujihara, CEO of Warner Bros. “I knew he was going to be an incredible advocate for what we do.”
For his part, Rivkin said he was looking for a role that would combine his interests in media and government. He recalls a lesson imparted many times by Jim Henson that media can be used as a source of good in the world. The same, he argues, can be said of government.
“I said to myself, ‘I wonder if a job exists where I can serve both passions,’” he said. “It turns out, this is the only one that does that.”