Chris Dodd Tells CinemaCon: ‘I'm a Piracy Fighter’

NATO chief John Fithian uses his part of Tuesday's keynote to warn exhibitors: “convert to digital or die”

Welcome to Hollywood — well Las Vegas — Chris Dodd. 

In one of his first official speeches since being named the Motion Picture Association of America chairman and CEO, the former Democratic Senator vowed to get tough on piracy. 

"It is critical that we aggressively educate people to understand that movie theft is not just a Hollywood problem. It is an American problem," Dodd said in his introductory remarks at CinemaCon on Tuesday.

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The timbre of the speech was more political barnstormer than wonkish state of the industry address. The former Senate powerbroker left the impression that his tenure will draw more on the high-profile reign of Jack Valenti rather than the behind the scenes tone of predecessor Dan Glickman. 

"Going to the movies together as a community has stitched together the fabric of American society in a way that few other institutions ever have or could, providing a nation of incredible diversity with a common cultural vocabulary and a common understanding of ourselves," Dodd said. 

To preserve that tradition, Dodd told hundreds of exhibitors at Caesar's Palace that he would pressure lawmakers to crack down on websites that share illegal downloads of movies and shows. 

"We must continue to work together, pushing for stronger laws to protect intellectual property and more meaningful enforcement of those laws. We must also educate parents and students and everyone else about the real world impact of movie theft on jobs and on local tax revenues, and on our ability to make the kinds of movies and TV shows people wish to see," Dodd said.

Likewise the MPAA head said that persuading foreign markets such as China to loosen the restrictions on American films is critical to continuing the growth of an increasingly globalized movie business.

"When China limits the import of non-Chinese films to 20 a year, despite the fact that hundreds of U.S. films are produced each year – including more than 100 by the MPAA member studios – we are excluded from a market that presents huge untapped potential," Dodd said.

Hollywood's new chief lobbyist emphasized that he is familiar with Washington's corridors of power — an attribute that the moguls were looking for when they tapped the 2008 presidential contender.

"After three decades in Congress, I have some idea how to attract the attention of a Congressman or Senator," Dodd said.

Dodd's fiery rhetoric must have sounded sweet to theater owners, many of whom are concerned that the ready availability of pirated copies of films is partly to blame for the recent box office slump. Year to date, the domestic box office fell nearly 20 percent. 

To that end, National Association of Theater Owners CEO John Fithian said the recent box office downturn was a seasonal aberration — one the coming onslaught of summer blockbusters will soon erase.

"The first quarter of 2011 has been difficult. But that is a function of the movies in the market. Beginning in May, we expect those comps to improve substantially. The strength of the studio product being shown here this week demands confidence in the industry’s immediate future," Fithian said in his introductory remarks.

Moreover, Fithian argued that despite the threat of piracy, it's a good time to be in the exhibition game. Unlike other media sectors, the NATO chief noted theatrical exhibition has enjoyed sustained growth. Global box office receipts rose 30 percent over five years to $31.8 billion dollars in 2010, and domestic box office increased 15 percent to $10.6 billion.

But Fithian did have a word of caution for those theater owners slow to abandon film print for digital.

"I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business," Fithian said.

So far, 16,000 screens out of a total of 39,000 in the United States have converted to digital.