MPAA Chief Embraces Netflix in Address to Theater Owners

John Fithian Jon M. Chu Charlie Rivkin Split - Getty - H 2019
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"Here is what I know. We are all stronger advocates for creativity and the entertainment business when we are working together…all of us," Charles Rivkin said at CinemaCon.

Minutes after Jon M. Chu told theater owners at CinemaCon on Tuesday how he refused to take Crazy Rich Asians to a streamer — insisting instead on the big-screen experience — Motion Picture Association of America chairman-CEO Charles Rivkin explained why Netflix was allowed to become a member of the storied film trade org. 

"At the MPAA, each of our member companies is evolving, too. And thus, how we pursue our mission of promoting and protecting creativity is evolving. Recently, that evolution featured Netflix joining the MPAA, adding to our roster of leading global content creators," the exec said at the annual gathering of exhibitors and Hollywood studios in Las Vegas. "Here is what I know. We are all stronger advocates for creativity and the entertainment business when we are working together…all of us." 

Rivkin's speech was followed by an address from National Association of Theatre Owners CEO-president John Fithian, whose comments were briefly delayed when the widely admired Joan Graves, who is retiring as chairman of the ratings board, missed a step and fell on her side and head upon leaving the stage after a tribute ceremony honoring her long career.

Known for her graceful demeanor, Graves insisted that the rest of the presentation continue as staff hovered around her. "She is a very tough woman," Fithian said. An MPAA spokesperson said Graves is doing fine and was taken to the hospital out of an abundance of confidence. She was released after receiving a stitch. "She'll be joining us for cocktails later," Rivkin said at a noon press briefing.

In his remarks, Fithian took a different tack and urged streamers to honor the theatrical window — a major sticking point when it comes to Netflix.

"All we ask is that powerful movies of all genres made by content creators who want their work on the big screen be given the time to reach their full potential in theaters before heading to the home. Theatrical exhibition is the keystone of this industry, and there is no replacement — both artistically and commercially — for the impact of a breakout hit," he said.

CinemaCon, which runs through Thursday, comes at crossroads for the film business. Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal will be rolling out their own streaming services in the coming months in hopes of rivaling the success of Netflix and Amazon Studios.

"There’s no doubt that home entertainment consumption moves toward streaming more with each passing day. As large media companies look to establish direct relationships with consumers through streaming platforms — and the options in the home grow — competition for directors and stars who want their work seen on the big screen will only intensify," Fithian said.

"In this new climate, it’s important to ask: How does any given movie stand out among endless choices in the home? Everyone in this room knows the answer to that question: A robust theatrical release provides a level of prestige to a movie that cannot be replicated," he continued, noting that the global box office hit a record $41.7 billion in 2018, including a best-ever $11.9 billion in North America.

Chu — who sold Crazy Rich Asians to Warner Bros., despite a higher offer from Netflix — likewise fiercely defended the theatrical experience when kicking off the morning event. "We knew here was only one way to present our movie, and that was theatrically. This story would not have happened without the theatrical experience," he told exhibitors.

Disney — which has only increased its leverage with the acquisition of the 20th Century Fox film studio — has informed theater owners that it has no intention of breaking windows for its big films. Netflix, however, continues to ignore the window, although there is speculation that Martin Scorsese wants a more traditional wide release for his star-studded film The Irishman, due out later this year.

Rivkin and Fithian stressed that theaters and streamers can co-exist and even reinforce each other, citing an Ernst & Young study showing that consumers who are frequent moviegoers also tend to stream content more frequently. "Theatrical and streaming are two completely different experiences that have their time and place," Fithian said.

During the DVD boom, Hollywood studios made numerous titles directly for the home entertainment market. "We understand that some movies will continue to go straight to the home and skip theatrical. There is nothing revolutionary about that idea," he said.

Fithian and Rivkin both celebrated the success of the 2018 box office, including a number of titles that furthered diversity both in front of and behind the camera.

"Box office receipts and attendance rebounded in a big way after a lot of doom and gloom talk in 2017," said Fithian, "confirming yet again the enduring importance of moviegoing in our culture."

April 2, 12 p.m. Updated with Graves' condition.