Working together: MPAA's Chris Dodd believes in choice, control and education


“We need to explain to consumers that this is an industry which is more than box-office receipts and salaries of stars,” opines Senator Chris Dodd. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who work in this industry you will never see walking on the red carpet, or any green or yellow carpet, for that matter.”

During CinemaCon, however, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) will see many of us navigating the ornate carpeting at Caesars Palace. Just like exhibitors, he says, the people who create movies “are hard-working American artists in their own right who make a significant contribution to these amazing products of entertainment.”

Dodd does not believe this is “terribly well-known by the viewing audience, either domestically or internationally.” He feels letting people know has to be “part of our effort to demonstrate to consumers that piracy and related matters are important. Not just because of the jobs that people hold in this business, but also for the consumers themselves if they want to continue to enjoy this quality product.” He notes that film theft and other illegal activity jeopardize “our ability to continue to create [entertainment] that will cause an audience to pour into the 40,000 screens in this country and into some 150,000 screens worldwide.” Piracy puts all this at risk, he adds, “if we can’t make this a viable economic enterprise.”

Dodd reports that inroads are being established for content protection. “Google has modified its algorithms,” he cites one example, “trying to reduce the number of illegal sites that are showing up high on the first search pages. When people try to find films and entertainment, it is hard for them to distinguish between legal and illegal offerings. So we really appreciate what I consider to be a positive step on the part of Google to recognize that intellectual property is a legitimate issue. That we have a right to try and protect the innovations of our producers and content providers. We’ve seen positive steps from the payment processors as well, with memorandums of understanding,” he adds, “and from advertising brokers about trying to keep legitimate advertising off these sites, which represents a major source of revenue for illegal pirates.”

Dodd mentions that the Copyright Alert System has been put in place and begun to issue warnings to offenders. “It’s more educational than punitive,” he is the first to acknowledge. “But it is a program that our content companies developed jointly with Internet service providers and other tech companies. People said we could never agree on anything. Yet, all of us have actually developed a plan together. We are going to see how it works. The jury is out.”

The Alert System works on the assumption that “the majority of people who have been informed that they’re downloading an illegal product, stealing someone else’s hard work, in fact [will stop that activity.] Many people are not as clear about this when they go to a site. So we believe that we can make a major dent into the illegal business.”

That has already been the case in France. Dodd notes that careful monitoring of a warning system there, which is similar to the Copyright Alert System, shows an 80% success rate of people who stopped downloading after they were notified. “We’ll see over time whether or not that’s persistent and continues to work,” he says. “I am encouraged by this, however, and hope that the Copyright Alert System will work as well.”

Dodd is equally encouraged by the results of a study by the Institute for Digital Entertainment Analytics (IDEA) at Carnegie Mellon University. Revenues from digital sales and rentals—by two major studios, over 18 weeks in 12 countries—were up 6% to 10% and 4% to 7%, respectively, after Megaupload was shut down in mid-January. Dodd calls the digital locker service “one of the, if not the major content theft operator in the world.”

While the industry did enjoy a record year in 2012, the impact of content theft remains damaging. “I don’t hear people in the automobile industry saying, ‘We had a great year, so car theft is no longer an issue,’ or that crime rates are down and that’s great news, so we’re going to stop worrying about it. We had a great year, and some of the numbers were better than they have been in a long, long time. But we could’ve had an even better year.”

Creatively, 2012 was about as good as they come. “Hats off to our studios who did tremendously well but also to the filmmakers, actors, directors, producers and other people involved in putting these products together: great stories, well-told. And we had stories that appealed to a very broad audience, including an audience that has a little gray hair like me,” he laughs. “You may think they forgot about us, but last year proves that they didn’t.” Make a movie or two or three, he mentions Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Misérables, “that appeal to us as an age group, and we will buy those tickets and show up in those theatres.” Life of Pi, in particular, was “a breakthrough in many ways because amazing technology was used.” Ang Lee’s film, he opines, makes a clear point that “movies are not old media” versus the new-media argument of tech companies. “Here is a wonderful example where I think things are moving with a film that could not have been made 12 years ago… The technology didn’t exist to create the dynamic between a man-eating tiger and an adolescent boy captured together on a rowboat. It would’ve been a hard sell.”

Life of Pi has another unique selling proposition. “Here’s a story written by a Canadian, directed by a Taiwanese, made in Taiwan with a largely Indian cast by a U.S. studio, Twentieth Century Fox. You are going to see more of this kind of international cooperation,” he foresees. “So, Life of Pi is more than a great film. It is an indication of where we can go. I find it terribly exciting for the industry to bring together that kind of international talent and capability.”

During the end credits, which were decidedly international indeed, this reporter noticed for the first time a mention of how many people were employed working on the film. Does this have to do with the MPAA? Is this something that might become part of educating the public? “The author of the idea was the Vice President of the United States himself,” Dodd explains with obvious pride. “Joseph Biden held a reception at his residence when I had a board meeting of studio executives. The Vice President raised the idea of why not show at some point, during the onset of the film or during the credits, how many people were actually involved in its making?” Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos “jumped all over the idea,” Dodd says, giving further credit. “I don’t know if the other studios have followed suit or not, but we have all talked about this.”

“About 2.1 million people got up this morning in the United States,” he continues, “and went to a job that’s dependent on the film or television industry. There are about 300,000 direct jobs and 95,000 businesses, 80% of which employ fewer than 10 people, that depend upon our industry for their wellbeing. And by the way, they’re not just located in California and New York. Film and television work happens all across the country, in all 50 states. I was in Michigan the other night and gave speeches at seven different screenings. Oz the Great and Powerful was a fundraiser because that movie was entirely made in Pontiac, Michigan. A hundred million dollars spent on production in that state and literally thousands of jobs were created to produce that film. So it does make a difference.”

Dodd also hopes to make a real difference in the discussion about violence in the media. As a three-decade representative from the State of Connecticut, Senator Dodd has “more than a deep awareness and strong sensibility” about the December tragedy in Newtown. “I have a hard time talking about it as a father of an eight-year-old and an eleven-year-old,” he acknowledges. “But here’s how we approached it… I thought it was important to bring together the various elements that are involved in the production, the distribution and the exhibition of our product. Instead of each one of us going off on our own separate ways, why not sit down with each other, and talk about how each of us should make up this equation so we are doing our job together. If one of us did something well and the others didn’t, are you really getting the job done? So this is more than an alliance of convenience. It is an alliance of necessity in what I believe we must be doing as an industry.”

Dodd explains that leading representatives from the broadcast and cable associations, NAB, NCTA and ACA, came together with NATO and the MPAA to join the effort. “Basically, we see our product as standing on a three-legged stool. One is choice, two is control and the third is education.” Beginning with the first, Dodd elaborates. “We take great pride in the fact that we offer a menu of choices for the viewing public, both at home and abroad, that is unparalleled and unprecedented by any other entertainment industry. It runs a range from that which should be and is only available to an adult, mature, sophisticated audience, to the products that are the delight of children. Choice is something people want and that we have tried to provide for them for more than a century now.”

The element of control goes back to the days of the Motion Picture Production Code that Will Hayes came up with in the 1930s. Speaking more contemporaneously, “Jack Valenti proposed a rating system that has evolved over the last 50 years on a voluntary basis. This never took an act of Congress, an executive order by a president, or a regulation or a court decree,” Dodd emphasizes. “This industry, on its own initiative, set up a rating system that has provided information to parents…always trying to improve that system and make it more reflective of the times and the community standards that we live in.”

Lastly, he says, the industry needs to educate. “How do we, in effect, make sure that people are aware of what those choices are? The question isn’t just about going to a theatre alone, it now includes what comes into your home as well.”

“There’s been a lot of discussion about how to do this,” he confirms, including public-service announcements in theatres, expanding the Red Carpet Ratings service and updating websites “so they become more than a platform for the technical aspects but rather a place that parents can utilize to engage with information.” These are the areas. Dodd believes, in which the industry has “an obligation to do as good a job as we can. So that people have the best information and can make the best choices based on what they think is appropriate for them and their families.” Dodd notes that he has held “great meetings with the Vice President and his staff, talking about how we can do a better job in this space. We’ll continue to work at it.”

Dodd understands there is nothing static about the ratings process. “Community standards change. I suspect there is far more interest today in violence on television than there may have been prior to December 14. We have to keep in mind that these standards do change. Always asking ourselves: Are we doing the best job we can? Are we providing parents with the best controls we can? Are we educating them well enough about what that film or that television show is going to be presenting?” Recognizing that the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) does an “incredible job” of “making good judgments” in their rating about 750 films a year, he still believes “it is our responsibility to never be absolutely satisfied.”

In closing our conversation about “this great industry,” Dodd returns to the economic impact. “We have $7 in exports for every $1 of import in the film industry. There’s no other industry like it. Our balance is better than any of the other industries in this country. However, I don’t think one in a thousand people, maybe one in five thousand…really understands how vitally important this industry is in economic terms. Surely, it is cultural, educational, motivational and all the other things that are hard to put a number on; but it’s sheer raw economics too. This is a very important American business which does an awful lot for our country.”

Dodd says this “respectfully, because around the world a lot of countries also make incredible product, [but] no one makes as good a product for that big screen in the theatre or for a television set than the United States does.” Making great entertainment “does not happen miraculously or automatically,” he cautions. “It happens because people support this industry, because we write good stories and tell good stories and we have talented people making these products. But we’re not always going to be number one because we believe it to be so. You’ve got to continue to work at it and that’s my job and the job of the people in this industry.”