Why Chris Dodd Stepping Down From MPAA Should Not Have Come as a Surprise

By J. Sperling Reich | May 4, 2017 12:21 am PDT
Chris Dodd of the MPAA

When Chris Dodd announced last week that he would be stepping down as President of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) later this year, it came more as a confirmation of the denouement industry insiders had begun to suspect, rather than a completely unexpected surprise.

In mid-March, when it was slipped that Dodd would not attend this year’s CinemaCon due to a scheduling conflict, speculation began to swirl that he might be leaving the organization in one way or another. Even though CinemaCon is technically a trade show produced by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), not the MPAA, why else would the head of the group representing Hollywood studios not make his traditional appearance at the start of the show? Particularly as he and both of his predecessors (Dan Glickman and Jack Valenti) had never missed speaking at CinemaCon/ShoWest any year before this.

Less concerning was Dodd’s absence at the United States Presidential Inauguration in January so that he could vacation with his family at Walt Disney World. In combination with his skipping CinemaCon, however, suspicions began to grow about Dodd’s future at the MPAA. This may be why Dodd’s truancy was the first issue raised by NATO President John Fithian, unprompted, when he addressed a room full of journalists shortly after opening this year’s CinemaCon with his “State of the Industry” speech.

“There’s been some crazy kind of speculation so I just want to set this record completely straight and then we can move on,” Fithian began, going on to explain that Dodd had committed to spending spring break with his teenage children without knowing their recess from school overlapped CinemaCon this year. Fithian assured Dodd that, “People will respect the fact that you made a commitment to be with your family and you can come back the following year and all will be good. I would just trust that our friends in the press would accept that that is the circumstance.”

Well, the press really had no other choice than to take Fithian at his word, even if their journalistic instincts made them feel as if they were being spun. It took exactly one month to the day for many of these same journalists to realize their silent hunches predicting Dodd’s imminent departure from the MPAA were accurate. Yet even if Fithian had his own doubts about Dodd’s reason for bowing out of CinemaCon this year, as did the rest of us, he could only convey what he’d personally been told

It may sound unbelievable that the MPAA wouldn’t have filled in key industry parties such as NATO on their plans, but that appears to be the case. We spoke to numerous high-level studio and exhibition executives after the MPAA’s official announcement last Friday, all of whom agreed to speak on condition of anonymity or background. The first thing they all said was how impressed they were that the MPAA – and more specifically the major studios that make up the MPAA’s members – were able to conduct an executive search for Dodd’s replacement without it going public. Though only one of those we spoke with (on the studio side) found out before the news was made public, there was apparently general agreement on the decision making process leading up to it.

Chris Dodd of the MPAA at CinemaCon in 2014
Chris Dodd, Chairman of the MPAA, at CinemaCon in 2014

It turns out there may have been a logical explanation for why Dodd didn’t notice or care that he was making family commitments that conflicted with CinemaCon or his duties with the MPAA; he didn’t think he’d still be with the organization by March of this year. It’s not that he was expecting to be shown the door by the MPAA, but rather moving on to greener pastures… literally and figuratively. Like just about every rational person on the planet, and apparently every media outlet, Dodd thought that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. Presidential election last November. With a Clinton victory Dodd, a former U.S. Senator himself, had expected to be tapped as a U.S. Ambassador, most likely to Ireland where he has familial ties.

As anyone on planet Earth is now keenly aware, Clinton’s Republican opponent, Donald Trump, pulled off a stunning electoral upset, upending the political fortunes and future plans of many. At that point, some say Dodd had already left his post at the MPAA in his own mind. In other words, his head was no longer in the game. As it stands, Dodd is in the final 18 months-or-so of his contract with the MPAA and in all likelihood would not have extended his tenure with an organization he had to be convinced to join back in 2011, when he originally took up the position. He is set to be 74 when his current contract ends and many say he was ready to leave.

Obviously, he was prepared to shed his coveted entertainment industry role already and one can hardly blame him. Dodd has been with the MPAA for six years, during a time when the business has been going through some rapid changes. Movie theatres now show films digitally, the Internet has enabled unprecedented copyright infringement and content theft, some of the studios are now owned by large telecommunication companies (or are about to be) and China has quickly become the most important (yet challenging) market in the world for Dodd’s bosses.

On more than one occasion Dodd has told the story of how when he first got the job as President of the MPAA his friend, and media mogul, Barry Diller warned him not to let the six studios all get in the same room at the same time. Though it was meant as an off-handed joke at the time, Dodd says he soon learned just how accurate Diller’s advice turned out to be. The six major studios each pay an estimated USD $20 million a year to be a member of the MPAA, yet they all have varying and often wildly conflicting agendas. As the studios’, and thus the industry’s, top lobbyist it was Dodd’s challenge to synchronize all their priorities into actionable objectives. Meanwhile, because the studios are all now part of corporate conglomerates they all have independent lobbyists with which the MPAA has to coordinate efforts.

Media outlets covering the news of Dodd’s departure from the MPAA made sure to highlight just how difficult it can be working for six different and powerful bosses, by detailing one of his more difficult moments on the job. In November of 2014, after Sony Pictures computer network was breached by what is believed to be North Korean hackers, Dodd wanted to make a public statement denouncing the act. For this to occur however all six studios would have to agree on and approve such an action. Afraid that their own networks and systems might be hacked, some studios declined and no statement was ever made. Angry at the MPAA’s inaction, Sony toyed with the idea of leaving the organization.

Another example often cited is the MPAA’s fumble with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a law making its way through the U.S. Congress at the beginning of 2012 during Dodd’s first full year as the organization’s public face. Not yet out the Senate for more than two years, Dodd was prevented from lobbying legislators directly and the controversial bill never made it out of committee. Yet even if Dodd were to have called every congressmen personally, the legislation still would have died due to widespread opposition from large tech companies and the public-at-large, all of whom believed the bill would break the Internet.

And yes, Dodd was responsible for some major victories while heading up the MPAA, such as increasing the quota of imported films China allows into the country to 34 per year. He pulled this off with some help from a former Senate colleague and then Vice President Joe Biden. That’s where having someone with the history, stature and Rolodex of Dodd really comes in handy, which is why the studios initially sought him out to lead the MPAA.

But that was in 2011, when the position at the MPAA had been empty for nearly a year after another former congressman, Dan Glickman, stepped down in 2010. Six years later, some of the studio executives who hired Dodd are either no longer around or are, as is customary, in charge of other studios. Alan Horn was the head of Warner Bros. then, though now holds the same role with Walt Disney Studios. He was replaced at Warner Bros. by Kevin Tsujihara. Jim Gianopulos, went from the chairman’s seat at Twentieth Century Fox to Paramount Pictures. Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chairman Jeff Shell didn’t even work in the film business at the time Dodd first arrived on the scene.

Ambassador Charles Rivkin
Ambassador Charles Rivkin will be the new head of the MPAA starting in September of 2017.

It was both Warner Bros. (Tsujihara) and Universal (Shell) that reportedly lobbied to bring in Charles Rivkin as Dodd’s replacement. Rivkin has both entertainment and government experience, having begun his career working his way up to the CEO slot at the Jim Henson Company before becoming ambassador to France and an assistant Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. Rivkin will take up his new post at the MPAA on September 5th and Dodd will stay through the end of the year to help with the transition. No doubt there will be both old and new challenges waiting for Rivkin when starts his job, while Dodd soon goes off to spend even more quality time with his family.

J. Sperling Reich