“The film industry was born here, and it really is a reflection of our society and, in some ways, a reflection of the American soul.”
Ambassador Charles Rivkin, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History on March 7, 2019. Edited for clarity by the National Museum of American History, November 8, 2019.
“Movies have been magical for me my entire life.”
I’ve always loved the movies. And, in fact, I grew up in Chicago, and in the summers, we went to a small town nearby in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. I remember lying out when I was 9 or 10 years old at drive-in movie theaters, and we would lay our blankets on the ground and watch on a hot summer night. Movies have been magical for me my entire life. When I think about what movies influenced me—I was born in 1962, and so the movies of the ’70s really hit home with me because I was in my early teens and an avid moviegoer, movies like Star Wars, of course, but also One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, Jaws, A Clockwork Orange, American Graffiti. I loved Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Close Encounters [of the Third Kind], The French Connection, The Sting. These movies were magical, and I couldn’t wait to get to the theater to see them.
On media and diplomacy
I visited more than 40 countries when I was assistant secretary of state, and almost every country that I visited wanted to create a Hollywood. We sell to 130 countries around the world, and we are in surplus with every single trade relationship. We export four times what we import. So people want to create a Hollywood, and the reality is, it isn’t that easy to create. A lot of people have tried. Some are getting better at it.
The magic of this industry: it was born here, and it really is a reflection of our society and, in some ways, a reflection of the American soul. I had run a number of entertainment companies before I became ambassador to France. I served in France for four and a half years between 2009 and 2013. Before I went to post, I knew that then-President Sarkozy loved America. I had listened to a speech he gave in 2007 in front of a joint session of Congress, and he said [something to the effect of], “One of the reasons I love this country is Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne—all the icons of American culture who projected an image around the world of greatness; who made me believe, made me ambitious, made me have a love of life. In fact, I was so inspired by their values and their core, that that impacted me forever.”
So before I came to France, I went to Sony Pictures, which was the home, in the old days, of Rita Hayworth. And I got an unreleased Rita Hayworth poster that I had framed in an Art Deco frame, and I had it sent to the Élysée Palace before I arrived. So when I went to the Élysée to present my papers as ambassador, [President Sarkozy] came up to me, and he grabbed me by the shoulders, and he said, “I love that picture. That photograph is in my house.” And so, in a way, everything good that the president of France loved about America, he got to wake up every day and look at because of the movie industry. And that to me is the essence of diplomacy.
“Jim Henson was trying to solve for world peace.”
Jim Henson was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known in my life and I considered him, in some ways, a surrogate father, having lost a father at a very early age. And I remember Jim Henson used to say, “Media, if used properly, could be an enormous source of good in the world.”
And he’s right. You look at Sesame Street. You look at how it raised the level of preschool education across the country and taught people how to count. You look at the fact that no Muppet ever dies in the Muppet movies; the good guy always wins. But more importantly, it reflected a positive optimistic view of the world and of society and of ourselves. A show like Fraggle Rock—people don’t really realize it, but the Doozers and the Gorgs and the Fraggles, they all didn’t get along with each other, and yet they’re living in the same space, and they were interdependent. They needed each other in order for their society to exist.
Jim was trying to solve for world peace subtly. Think about who the Muppets are. The family of Muppets that you have here at the Smithsonian from Sam and Friends all the way through Jim’s career: they are different colors; they are different shapes and sizes; they’re different races, if you will, and they’re interspecies, all living together as a family. Just the existence of the Muppets shows that type of peace and harmony, but without beating you over the head with it. That’s what they are.
On the role of the Motion Picture Association
The Motion Picture Association [MPA] is the leading voice and advocate for the film, television, and streaming content industry. We advocate for our members and fight piracy. We promote production. We promote creativity and First Amendment rights. We are there to advance our members’ business by lowering barriers abroad, and also helping to explain to people the power of this industry.
One of the big parts of my job running the Motion Picture Association is to promote free speech and to make sure to avoid government censorship, and we certainly would never do government propaganda. There are other nations who are using their film industry to do that, but that’s not what we do. We reflect American culture as it is and present it to the world. And people are inspired by it. The more that our creativity and our innovation is on display, the more the world can see what America has to offer.
One of the issues that we spend a lot of time on at the MPA is piracy because, unfortunately, an enormous amount of value is lost by people who choose to steal our product either digitally or otherwise. We are working with law enforcement agencies around the world. We created an organization called ACE, the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, which is our six studios, you know, Disney, Fox, Warner [Bros.], Universal, Sony, Paramount, and we have Netflix and Amazon added to that, and then 22 other companies. And we are a global force to make sure that our product isn’t stolen. And the reason it matters is 2.6 million Americans wake up every day in all 50 states to work in the film and television industry. When our stuff is stolen, then the studios make less of it. There’s less employment as a result because the money is finite.
We are constantly trying to work with foreign nations as well as U.S. states to create production incentives and draw movies and television productions into those communities. For example, in the United States, if a major film is made there, that movie pumps $250,000 a day into the local economy and about $2.7 million a week for a television series. And think about what that pays for. This is the local caterers, the restaurants; these towns have enormous business as a result of it. So the movie and TV industry is another one of our greatest exports, but it’s an incredible job creator as well.
On technology and changes in the film industry
I think people don’t fully understand that our business is a technology business, and it’s not just about how distribution works. It’s not about Netflix, who’s our newest member, and how people see the product. It is about the level of technology required to make a major motion picture today. Imagine the special effects that went into Black Panther. Imagine when a movie is shot to look like it’s in space—as a number of them recently were—what it takes to actually produce that on film. The digital effects are beyond extraordinary, and without incredibly complex technology our business couldn’t exist. [Then] you add in the new streaming services like Netflix and the very concept of what a film actually is, is in debate.
I’m proud to be the first chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association to welcome a new member in decades, and that new member was Netflix. And the reason we did that is Netflix is spending, it’s reported somewhere around 13 or so billion dollars a year, on making extraordinary content. And Netflix recently released a statement saying how much they love movies. They love movies, but they also love movies to be seen by people who are in areas of the world that can’t go to the movies and people who can’t afford to go to the movies, and people that want to watch movies everywhere they are, wherever they are.
A movie, in their mind isn’t defined by whether you see it in a theater. It is defined by its content. There are others who disagree with that, but at the end of the day all of the major legacy studios are creating direct to consumer services. So our business models are moving more towards Netflix as Netflix moves towards our members. It seems to make a lot of sense that anybody who creates a wonderful film and TV product should belong in the MPA, and the more people we have in and the more powerful players that are part of the Motion Picture Association, the more we can advance this industry’s interests here in Washington and around the world.
“The more that we reflect the audience that is viewing our films, the better the films will do and the better they are for society.”
There’s been some amazing, amazing films at [the 2019] Oscars [which] also showed an enormous diversity and inclusion on display, which is a huge priority for us as well. I went to the premiere of Black Panther . . . and the audience was on its feet cheering during this movie. It was more than a superhero film. It was more than the idea that people thought no superhero movie could have an all-black cast. It was the fact that it was a story of pride that had never been seen, and the audience was reacting to it.
It was conventional wisdom in Hollywood that no movie can have an all-Asian cast. That’s why nothing had been done since The Joy Luck Club, until Crazy Rich Asians showed people that that wasn’t true. “A superhero movie can’t star a woman. How could that be? No way. No one’s going to go to see it.” Until Wonder Woman showed up. And I think that Hollywood is pushing the envelope with that and showing a lot of courage but also showing that diversity sells. And the more that we reflect the audience that is viewing our films, the better the films will do and the better for society.
The world needs heroes, and sometimes movies can play that role, but they are also a reflection of the American soul in so many ways. For example, having lived abroad, I was proud to show that America isn’t afraid of making a movie about a controversial topic, like about Vietnam, about parts of our recent and even distant past—even slavery—that were problematic. And we tell a story about it. We’re not afraid to continuously seek a more perfect union. Not all societies do that. Not all of them have the freedom or the courage to tackle issues, no matter how sensitive. That’s the power of American film.
On Louis B. Mayer’s Academy Award, the ruby slippers, and the Muppets
When I see Louis B. Mayer’s Academy Award, I think of the people who created our industry. And this industry a hundred years ago was literally created out of whole cloth. It didn’t exist, and it was technology that effectively created this business and evolved with the business. But it’s uniquely American.
The ruby slippers . . . I was expecting a bright, bright red pair of gem-filled slippers. And when I saw a darker version of sequined slippers . . . that’s Hollywood. I learned from [the National Museum of American History] about how [it was necessary] to do that because of the technicolor requirements at the time. Those are stories that most people don’t know. So it is absolutely fascinating.
The Muppets that you showed me—Jim Henson was, as I said, an amazing person. And legend has it that the original Kermit is actually made out of his mother’s felt coat. How amazing that his incredible, unique, and creative creatures, if you will, now live in a place that captures the soul of America here in the Smithsonian.
When Jim Henson died, he caught the world by surprise. He wasn’t meant to go. He was 53 years old. I’m 56 now. He was a gentle giant, but he had so much left in him, and he would have thrived in this technology age today. They had a service for him at Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and I was there in the audience. And on the chairs, the Muppet Workshop had created these Muppet butterflies, which were effectively a long wire with felt in the shape of a butterfly on the end. And all of a sudden Harry Belafonte gets up to speak, and the cathedral is jammed.
And Belafonte with his sonorous voice, speaks over the cavern of the cathedral. And [in essence] he says, “I’m an ambassador for UNICEF, and I’ve been places in the world that people in this audience may not be able to imagine. I’ve seen the darkest corners of the earth. And sometimes when I’m in these places, I see people huddled around a small television screen in the corner of a room with very little light. And they’re laughing improbably. And they’re laughing because they’re watching some of the creations that Jim Henson made.” And almost as though on cue—but there was no cue—the entire cathedral lifted their butterflies in unison. And there was this undulating sea of color with Belafonte’s voice dancing on top of that ocean. And it just showed you the impact that one person can have. And, in this case, a person who literally was a force for good in the world.