MPAA Chief on Why Trump's Tax Cuts Are Good for Hollywood

Executive Suite - Charles Rivkin - Photographed by Eli Meir Kaplan - H 2017
Photographed by Eli Meir Kaplan

"My job is bipartisan," says chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin as he discusses working with the president, fighting harassment and how to entertain in D.C.

Since Jack Valenti retired as MPAA chairman and CEO in 2004 after a four-decade rule, no one has been able to quite fill his shoes. But in April, Charles Rivkin, 55, was named to the top job, and, unlike his two immediate predecessors — former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and former Sen. Christopher Dodd — he has roots in the entertainment world as well as politics. The son of the late William R. Rivkin, an ambassador during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Rivkin worked for 15 years at The Jim Henson Co., rising in 2000 to CEO — the company's first from outside the Henson family. Next, the Chicago native ran San Francisco-based animation studio Wild Brain, which created Yo Gabba Gabba!

His career took a 180-degree turn in 2009, when, after serving as Barack Obama's California finance co-chair, the self-avowed Francophile was named the U.S. ambassador to France and Monaco. In 2013, he was picked to serve as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, including trade and piracy and U.S.-China relations.

The MPAA's budget, funded largely by dues paid by Disney, Fox, Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony, has held steady in recent years at between $90 million and $100 million, according to sources, and funds a global staff of about 200. Rivkin, who lives in D.C. with his wife, Susan Tolson, has two grown children. He sat down with THR during one of his frequent trips to Los Angeles to talk about the challenges of lobbying for Hollywood in the era of President Trump.

What do you consider the MPAA's top priorities now?

At the top of my list is fighting for protection of copyright and trademark in the U.S. and around the world. It's also opening up markets for film and television shows, including in China, and continuing to encourage incentives here in the U.S. It's tax reform, which would help our industry tremendously. It's fighting in Europe against a digital single market [without territories]. And I think we can do even better at the MPAA in terms of being a better link between Washington and Hollywood. I intend to really let people know what this industry stands for. With me, they chose a different model this time, if you will.

Have you met with President Trump yet?

Not yet, no.

Will you?

I hope so. He spent 14 years on television. President Trump probably knows this industry better than any president, maybe even Ronald Reagan, because he understands the economics of the industry. And he is pushing a jobs agenda, and this is a job-creating business. I think all things being equal, President Trump would very much support what we do.

Do any of the policies Trump's administration is pushing threaten the entertainment business?

I don't think of it that way. In fact, we were one of the first to come out in favor of the framework of the tax reform bill because we're paying, as an industry, around $20 billion in taxes. The 35 percent corporate tax rate in the U.S. is not competitive with the rest of the world. The president has also been fighting for copyright protection, so he clearly understands the importance of that. We're working very closely with the administration. My job is bipartisan.

Does it make your job hard when people like Disney CEO Bob Iger criticize the president?

I've been on the job for two months, and I've been well received in all corners of Washington.

Does the MPAA have a role to play in countering sexual harassment in Hollywood?

I was in France when the Harvey Weinstein stories broke. I immediately spoke to the French paper Le Monde about my feelings, which is that it's abhorrent, it's unacceptable, it's inexcusable and it's an abuse of power that needs to stop, period. There's no place for it in our industry — or in any industry. We can speak out, we can continue to promote good governance and support organizations that promote women in the workplace. We don't run the individual studios, but we certainly can talk about best practices and things that need to get done.

Jack Valenti was famous for his soirees that brought together lawmakers and entertainers. Do you plan to continue that tradition?

I'd like to have more screenings. Jack didn't have the same lobbying rules that I have. You cannot have a small dinner with members of Congress after watching a movie. But there's other things I can do. We can screen movies with really nice finger food. For example, you can serve mini-wieners but not a full hot dog.

Does the MPAA's movie ratings system need to be reformed?

We are coming up on our 50th anniversary of the ratings system that Jack created. The reason it's so vibrant and strong is that it's reinvented all the time. It's an extraordinary success story. Families know exactly what to expect when they walk into a movie theater because of the ratings.

Do you see China increasing the number of Hollywood movies it allows?

There are a number of people that I will meet with in China to make that possible. People project China will be the largest market in film by 2020. And if you have the largest market in the world, that obviously catches our attention. They are like-minded partners in realizing that this industry generates jobs.

How did you get the MPAA job?

I was thinking long and hard about how to continue to do what I love. And there are honestly no other jobs I could think of that combine government and business and entertainment and policy all at once. I spoke to some of my friends who are CEOs of these companies and asked what I was thinking of doing next. I said there was only one job I wanted, but it's taken. I said if it ever becomes open, it is something I want to be considered for. And then I received an offer.

What is your favorite movie?

I was asked which posters I wanted outside my office at the MPAA, and the first one I wanted was the original Muppet Movie for sentimental reasons. Jim Henson was a real mentor to me. But honestly, I probably should have asked for The Muppet Christmas Carol, which I worked on with Brian Henson. That movie was the first thing we did creatively after Jim Henson died, and it was the success of that movie that allowed us to ultimately sell the company for nearly $1 billion.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.