From Muppets to MPAA: New CEO Charles Rivkin realigns entertainment and politics

Cinemas Features

“Well, we never leave the Muppets, do we? They are always in our hearts.”

The onetime president and CEO of The Jim Henson Company, Charles Rivkin left the entertainment world for Washington, DC in the 2000s, though he insists he “was never a politician. But I did decide that maybe it was time to start working with people who weren’t either green, fuzzy or pink.”

Today, Rivkin blends his dual backgrounds as head of the Motion Picture Association of America. “When I had the incredible honor to serve my country for seven years—as an ambassador and leading the State Department’s economic and business agenda—I saw a powerful connection between creative businesses and government. Both can be—and must be—forces for good. As chairman and CEO of the MPAA, I saw an opportunity to combine my passions, my perspective and my experience to advance the industry’s overwhelmingly positive impact on the world.”

He adds, “The MPAA plays a critical role in promoting creativity, economic prosperity and American values on the global stage. And right now, the importance of safeguarding and enhancing that mission is rising steadily as the film and television industry continues to transform on an almost daily basis.”

On the job every day, as chief executive since September 2017 and chairman since December, Rivkin is headed to CinemaCon for the first time. We had to play catch-up with his busy agenda, and we thank him and his communications team for letting us provide our readers with this exclusive interview.

“I have been active on many fronts,” he confirms. “I have spent a lot of time in Los Angeles—not only meeting with my CEOs and board members, but also with their physical production teams, marketing executives, business executives, international executives. If I am going to represent the men and women of this industry, I need to listen to every voice. I need to understand fundamentally what makes this industry tick.”

Rivkin has also traveled abroad and is “looking forward to many opportunities on the international calendar”; he enjoyed speaking at the Dijon Film Festival in France and during the Berlinale in Berlin, Germany, back in February. “I have been meeting with culture ministers around the world…as well as justice ministers, to talk about our mutual commitment to fighting piracy, and to discuss how we can advance creativity in the regions.”

Closer to home base, “on Capitol Hill, we are heavily involved in supporting public policies and legislation that enhance the important work we do. Lately, much of our effort has centered on tax reform. My studios had $20 billon of taxes paid at 35 percent, so we are very pleased with the legislation that was passed.”

What are some of his early learnings on the job? “I have been surprised that so many people do not understand that this industry extends beyond Los Angeles and New York—that we are so much more than glamour and premieres. We are going to change that,” he insists. “We will tell the story of the American film and television industry on the global stage as compellingly as we can. We will continue to support millions of jobs and hundreds of thousands of small businesses here at home. Outside the United States, films and television shows drive international economies and are some of our country’s greatest ambassadors and exports. They serve as a cultural force for good in the world. That is the story I want to share broadly—because it is a great one to tell.”

Rivkin says his “immediate priorities” also include “promoting a strong creative economy, encouraging the production of new movies and television shows to drive continued job creation, defending intellectual property, reducing piracy and expanding access to markets around the world.” Sounds like not that much has changed since his time at The Jim Henson Company and animation production house Wildbrain. “Thanks to innovations in storytelling, advances in technology and many other factors, the film and television industry is changing rapidly,” he corrects our assumption. “Change is a constant part of this environment. So, we are supporting and championing creative companies that are charting new strategies to not only develop the best content but deliver it how and when audiences want it.”

Moving forward, Rivkin believes “we must ensure creators can take advantage of these opportunities. Global piracy remains a significant threat, especially in the form of pre-loaded devices and infringing apps. But we are making progress. Through initiatives like the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment [ACE], we are working with other content creators to reduce online piracy. Using the content protection expertise and resources of the MPAA, ACE brings together 30 leading content companies, including Netflix and Amazon, who are all committed to reducing online piracy and protecting the legal marketplace for creative content.”

Rivkin is equally committed to the theatrical marketplace. He says meeting with his counterparts at the National Association of Theatre Owners was a priority. “I made a point of meeting with John Fithian before my first official day at the MPAA. One of my first events as CEO was to speak at NATO’s board meeting, where I had the opportunity to meet many NATO members. John is a tireless advocate for NATO members and the theatrical experience. I really look forward to working together with him in the years ahead.The MPAA and NATO have a longstanding, strong relationship” that goes beyond film ratings, he concurs. “Every day, filmmakers put their trust in theatres to present their art in the way they intended—to bring audiences around the world the stories they have poured their time, energy and talents into bringing to life. As both filmmakers and theatre owners continually invest in new technologies, it is clear both sides are committed to advancing great storytelling. I have no doubt this will continue going forward.”

And on a global scale, one might add. “Movies and television shows are one of America’s greatest and most sought-after products,” Rivkin says, noting that the industry generates exports of $16.5 billion to more than 140 countries. “The global box office hit a record high of $40.6 billion in 2017. The number of cinema screens around the world also grew last year, jumping eight percent—led by double-digit growth across the Asia-Pacific region. There are opportunities in all parts of the world, because audiences everywhere crave imaginative stories and powerful performances.”

As for opportunities looming large in Las Vegas, Rivkin is “thrilled” to attend CinemaCon for the first time with the MPAA. “Since day one here, I have heard so much about this tradeshow. This is the place where you have permission to feel like a kid again—from the concessions and candy to virtual-reality experiences and the very best movie chairs! You are reminded what a great industry this is and how important it is to make the moviegoing experience as compelling as possible for all ages, but especially for younger generations who are among our most enthusiastic supporters. I cannot wait to see what the show has in store. And I cannot wait to share this experience with people who share my love for film and commitment to advancing this industry.”

As an adult, setting aside the candy and in a more official capacity, what is the focus of his CinemaCon keynote speech? “Again, I am going to CinemaCon to emphasize that we are committed to building on the great relationship we have enjoyed with theatre owners and exhibitors for decades—and that we will continue to work together, hand in glove, far into the foreseeable future. I look forward to underscoring that great relationship and to emphasizing our appreciation for the valuable role [exhibitors] play with respect to our shared moviegoing experience. Most importantly, I look forward to hearing what is on the minds of this important community.”

Rivkin’s favorite characters on “The Muppet Show” may reveal something about his personality and approach to business. “I always admired Kermit for keeping his cool, mostly, while chaos swirled around him. But my favorite was the much-overlooked Janice, who was the lead guitar player for Dr. Teeth’s Electric Mayhem. She could have been a big hit on “Star Search.’”

Meet Charles H. Rivkin

“Of course, popcorn is always my go-to,” Charles Rivkin notes about his favorite movie snack. “And I drink Diet Coke with that. I am always on the lookout for a box of Jujubes. If I cannot find those, I buy Starburst.” While we do not know whether his favorite movie theatre, the Esquire in downtown Chicago, offered either one of the treats, we do know that Chicago holds dear many of his movie memories, including one of the first. “Looking back, I would say it was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Such a wonderful movie. As for my favorite theatre memory, in high school in Chicago I was a repeat visitor to midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I would go with all my friends. It was the interactive experience of throwing things at the screen, not to mention dressing up. Something I will never forget. I was exhausted by the end!”

Other favorite movies? “That’s a long list. Isn’t it for everyone? But some of the movies that have always stayed with me include Singin’ In the Rain, The Graduate, Pulp Fiction, Stand By Me, the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A River Runs Through It.”

Rivkin previously served as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs from February 2014 to January 2017. He led the bureau at the U.S. State Department responsible for managing trade negotiations, investment treaties, economic sanctions, transportation affairs, telecommunications policy, international finance and development-related issues, as well as intellectual property rights protection. The Bureau is also the State Department’s primary link to the private sector through its Office of Commercial and Business Affairs, which supports U.S. business interests overseas and works to create American jobs at home by facilitating foreign investment. In addition, Rivkin provided guidance to the Department’s 1,600 economic officers around the world and to the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Prior to his appointment, Rivkin served for more than four years as the United States Ambassador to France and Monaco, leading a diplomatic mission that contained six constituent posts throughout France and represents more than 50 U.S. government agencies.

Rivkin joined government service after working in media for over 20 years, where he served as president and CEO of award-winning entertainment companies such as The Jim Henson Company and Wildbrain. He helped engineer the sale of The Jim Henson Company in 2000 for nearly $1 billion and his contribution to the television landscape has influenced generations of viewers. (Details above from Rivkin’s official MPAA bio.)