MPAA Chief Chris Dodd Leaves Complicated Legacy

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Chris Dodd

The major Hollywood studios have decided to part ways with Dodd, who hasn't yet decided on his next career move: "I'll find something."

Outgoing Motion Picture Association of America chairman-CEO Chris Dodd — Hollywood's top lobbyist — was warned early on by longtime entertainment mogul Barry Diller that representing the six major studios would not be easy.

"He told me, 'Don't let them all get together in the same room,'" Dodd, who served as the Democratic U.S. Senator from Connecticut for 30 years before arriving at the MPAA in 2011, recalls to The Hollywood Reporter. "At first, I didn't understand what he meant. Then I did. The six major Hollywood studios compete with each other every hour of the day. At the same time, they have to work with each other every hour of the day. It's complicated. There are big changes. Six out of 10 movies lose money. So it's a tough business."

One of those changes now involves Dodd himself: In a major shake-up, the MPAA announced April 25 that Dodd, 73, will be leaving at the end of the year, five months before his contract is up. He'll be replaced by Charles Rivkin, 55, former assistant Secretary of State for economic and business affairs under President Barack Obama. Studio insiders say they want a fresh approach at the MPAA after a sometimes-bumpy ride for Dodd. "We needed someone who has relationships with everyone," says one executive.

Rivkin worked for nearly 20 years in the entertainment industry before departing California to serve as U.S. ambassador to France under Obama. He later joined the State Department. Rivkin will assume the role of MPAA CEO on Sept. 5. Dodd will stay on as chairman and help with the transition through the end of the year. The MPAA does not disclose salaries, but Dodd made north of $3 million in 2012, his first full year.

Looking back on his tenure — during which the Hollywood studios have had to weather increased competition from new digital players like Netflix and Amazon while at the same time they saw revenues from foreign markets increase dramatically — Dodd recalled that after leaving the Senate he was at first reluctant to take on the lobbying job, for which he was courted by Disney CEO Bob Iger.

And so Iger enlisted two of Dodd’s friends — HBO chief Richard Plepler, who had worked in Dodd's Senate office after graduating from college, and Saturday Night Live impresario Lorne Michaels — in hopes of persuading him to say yes. Over a dinner in New York City, they made their case. “They called it an intervention,” Dodd says. "They told me it was okay that I didn't know a lot about the entertainment industry, and that it wasn't brain surgery."

The job did prove complicated, though. The late Jack Valenti, who ruled the MPAA for 38 years, including founding the movie ratings system, retired in 2004 at the age of 82, leaving an enormous leadership gap. Valenti's immediate successor was former U.S. congressman and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, who served as MPAA chief from 2004-2010.

Under Dodd, the MPAA had to confront the realities of the digital age as it coordinated efforts to combat piracy around the world. Early on, Dodd suffered a major setback when the MPAA pushed for the Stop Online Piracy Act, the proposed federal law that was tabled in early 2012 after coming under fierce attack from Google and other online players. The Hollywood studio bosses had tapped Dodd because they wanted a high-profile political name, but it also meant that Dodd couldn't personally lobby on Capitol Hill for two years after his retirement from the Senate on Jan. 2, 2011, per congressional rules. Insiders say SOPA might not been derailed had Dodd been able to speak personally to lawmakers.

Piracy has remained a chief concern. Among other efforts, the Dodd-led MPAA filed lawsuits on behalf of member companies in Canada and New Zealand that led to the closing of such sites as Popcorn Time and YTS, which were distributing illegally downloaded movies. It also struck an agreement with domain name registry Donuts, which operates nearly 200 domain name extensions like .movie. And it applauded law enforcement action against major piracy sites like MegaUpload and KickAssTorrents.

Dodd is also widely credited for helping Hollywood studios open up the rapidly growing Chinese market with agreements reached in 2012 and 2015 that now let 34 Hollywood films per year into the country, a number that the studios hope will increase after a new review this year. Dodd frequently travels to China and in 2014 hosted an event there for Rivkin, who was at the State Department.

Dodd says he is leaving the MPAA in good shape, and that he's committed to helping Rivkin in the coming months.

"The transition after Jack [Valenti] didn’t work well. There was almost a year between Glickman and when I came in. I swore to myself this wouldn't happen again," Dodd says. "I've enjoyed myself immensely and am leaving the place in great shape. I also cut the MPAA budget by about $20 million, and we've made progress in fighting piracy and ensuring production credits."

Among the challenges facing Rivkin, a former member of a Democratic administration, is the fact that he will have to work with both a Republican Congress and the Trump administration. Of Donald Trump, Dodd said, “I don’t know of an administration that’s as hostile to the entertainment business as his is.”

In terms of the six studio heads, Dodd was particularly close to then-Fox film chairman Jim Gianopulos, now at Paramount, and NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer.

Dodd's relationship with Sony Pictures became frayed after the studio was hit by the worst cyber attack in U.S. history in late December 2014. Then-Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton wanted Dodd to speak out on the hack, but that would have required getting the rest of the studios to agree to a statement. Lynton — who is Rivkin's cousin by marriage — even considered pulling out of the organization, for which the six major studios pay up to $20 million in annual dues.

In recent months, discussions about new MPAA leadership commenced in earnest. Pushing hard for Rivkin were Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara and Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell, according to sources. The vote by the MPAA board to make Rivkin an official offer was unanimous.

So far, the indefatigable Dodd isn't showing any signs of being a lame duck. On Sunday, he was in Atlanta for a screening of Disney and Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where he spoke on the importance of tax credits. (Guardians Vol. 2 was shot in Georgia.) Next, he boarded a late-afternoon flight for Los Angeles, where he has arranged a meeting on Monday between studio executives and new Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Dodd also plans on attending the Cannes Film Festival later this month, and is working on announcing a new anti-piracy initiative.

Some were surprised when the MPAA announced in June 2015 that it was extending Dodd's contract by two years.

"They asked me to extend for two years with the understanding that at the end of the contract, I would be going on 74," says Dodd, who plans on spending more time with his two teenage daughters.

It is unlikely, however, that he will retire for good. "I think I'd rust if I just sit around," Dodd says. "I'll find something."