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Charles Rivkin had all the makings of a Hollywood wunderkind, rising quickly through the ranks to run the Jim Henson Company and WildBrain Entertainment in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But, after serving as one of former President Barack Obama’s top fundraisers in Southern California, he left the glitz and glamour of Hollywood for the world of politics in 2009 when he became Ambassador to France for the Obama administration. He most recently served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, a post he held from 2014.
Now, Rivkin’s success in both Hollywood and Washington has helped him land his new high-profile job: As was announced on Friday, Rivkin will succeed Christopher Dodd as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, the film industry’s main lobbying group. He will assume his new post on Sept. 5.
Dodd, who is stepping down after six years, will work with Rivkin to complete the transition by the beginning of next year, according to the MPAA.
Industry insiders say that Rivkin’s success in both the entertainment industry and political sphere made him a strong candidate to take over for Dodd.
“Charlie Rivkin is a first-class executive and well-versed in the entertainment and media business,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, former DreamWorks Animation CEO, said in hailing his appointment. “He was a great ambassador, and I think he’ll be a great ambassador to Hollywood.”
In the MPAA’s own announcement, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Rothman testified, “Charlie brings a wealth of experience to his role at the MPAA. From heading a production company to working at the State Department, he brings a perspective and skill set that will help him further the mission of the MPAA around the world.”
Rivkin spent the first 20 years of his career working in Hollywood. After working as a corporate finance analyst at Salomon Brothers, Rivkin was hired by the Jim Henson Company as a strategic planner in 1988 and promoted to president and COO of the company in 1995 (he was the first chief exec who was not a member of the Henson family). In 2000, Rivkin facilitated the sale of the company to German-owned EM.TV for nearly $1 billion, and was then named president and CEO.
After EM.TV landed in financial trouble in 2001, the Henson family reacquired the company and Rivkin stepped down as CEO. One of the final deals he worked on was helping negotiate the sale of the Muppets and Bear in the Big Blue House franchises to the Walt Disney Co.
Rivkin moved on to San-Francisco-based entertainment and animation production company WildBrain in 2005, serving as CEO. He oversaw shows such as Yo Gabba Gabba! and Higglytown Heroes.
His relationship with the Obama administration began during the 2008 campaign when he became one of Obama’s top fundraisers, serving as the Southern California co-chair. He was one of only four Los Angeles bundlers to raise more than $500,000 for Obama (the other three being Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Southern California co-chair Nicole Avant, who went on to be the Ambassador to the Bahamas and is married to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos).
Rivkin served as Ambassador to France and Monaco until November 2013, where one of his key focuses was youth outreach. He invited top Hollywood names, including Samuel L. Jackson, Jodie Foster and Robert Zemeckis, to speak to disadvantaged youth in France.
Rivkin and his wife, Susan Tolson, a former money manager at the Capital Group in Los Angeles, welcomed visiting Hollywood celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen to the ambassador’s residence, hosted a visit from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and hosted one Fourth of July celebration with a Route 66 theme and Tex-Mex and Cajun cuisine that drew 2,500 guests.
In February 2014, Rivkin was named Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs for the Obama administration. In his new post that year, Rivkin spoke at a forum sponsored by the MPAA where he stated that the industry’s intellectual property rights were a major priority for him. “It is clear to me that strong intellectual property rights and open markets are critical components to developing a thriving film industry,” he said at the time.
Along with working for the Obama Administration, Rivkin was an active supporter of Democratic nominee John Kerry during his 2004 campaign, and was an at-large California delegate to the DNC. While Rivkin is associated with the last Democratic administration and will be facing a Republican Congress, the MPAA’s chair is considered a non-partisan post, and one source notes, “he’s got a lot of diplomatic experience.”
Rivkin’s father served as the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg under President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Rivkin grew up in France and Senegal, learning to speak fluent French, which came in handy when he was named ambassador to France and Monaco. He is a graduate of Yale, where he studied international relations, and earned his MBA at Harvard.
Rivkin is considered to be very knowledgeable about global economic policy, a strength that will be called upon as the U.S. entertainment industry continues to expand into global markets.
Gregg Kilday and Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.
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