MPAA chairman and chief executive Chris Dodd talks to Liz Shackleton about Japanese audiences, China’s quotas and the impact of digital distribution on the film business.

Chris Dodd

MPAA chairman and chief executive Chris Dodd recently attended the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), where MPA Asia Pacific held a workshop for local filmmakers.

Dodd and Lord David Puttnam were the key speakers at the workshop, held in partnership with Digital Hollywood University (DHU), which also included mentoring and a film pitching competition. MPA Asia Pacific holds similar events in Busan, Beijing, Shanghai and several other Asian cities. In Tokyo, Hayato Sakuta was awarded first place for his comedy Virgin Mafia Boss, winning a place on a five-day film immersion programme in Los Angeles.

Following the workshop, Dodd sat down with Screen International to discuss the MPA’s outreach programme in Asia, Japanese audiences, China’s quotas and the impact of digital distribution on the film business.

What is the major aim of the production workshops that you hold across Asia?

It’s a wonderful way of connecting with the next generation of filmmakers – of becoming engaged with emerging filmmakers in disparate markets. It’s a tremendous opportunity for these kids to have David Puttnam teach a class – to hear him talk about the history of the industry and his involvement in it. And from a selfish standpoint, I’m a great believer that if you can grow markets and build audiences everywhere in the world, then that’s my audience too potentially.

Here in Japan, audiences are becoming more focused on local content, and there are many new (non-theatrical) platforms competing for their attention. How do you win back audiences for Hollywood films in this kind of environment?

Yes there are new and exciting platforms coming along – but there is also that exhibition space that involves surround sound, large screens and other people. The audience is not an insignificant player in the experience of theatrical exhibition. The experience of watching a film alone on your iPad is a very different emotional experience to watching it in a theatre. You can see Gravity on your iPhone if you want, but you wouldn’t ask Michaelangelo to paint postcards. You have to respect the artist who wants to paint for that kind of experience. Theatres won’t be the only setting for the audiovisual experience – that’s been the case for a long time anyway – but everyone has a kitchen and a good restaurant still does pretty well.

China is obviously a different case with a huge increase in cinema-going over the past decade. How do you feel the relationship between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry and government is developing?

I would love to see a Chinese film that can play in Connecticut – that doesn’t scare me at all – because I believe they’re only going to grow the industry for us globally. I like the fact that they want to rebrand themselves internationally. They want to be thought of differently. And they’ve seen the advantages we had in the US in the 20th Century that helped us to produce a pretty good product. For one thing, we weren’t attacked, whereas Europe suffered as an industry. China would like to have that kind of opportunity and I have no problem with that at all.

So, apart from issues like quotas, blackout periods and double-dating and all those other things we talk about, the overall thrust is that it’s a great direction we’re going in. I’m doing everything I can to grow and nurture and be respectful of that.

Do you think we’ll see more US-China collaborations like Transformers 4 – or are these kinds of co-productions a passing fad?

They will continue – the wonderful thing is that you’ve got a great audience in China, a sophisticated audience. Without naming names, there are places in the world where every film has to tick a certain box, but its not like that in China. Inception was a great success in China and there are many places in the world where you can’t really show Inception. But then they also loved the Transformers thing, they loved Finding Mr Right. They are pretty sophisticated and you can’t just dial in one formulaic approach.

Do you see any movement on issues such as quotas and blackout periods in the near future?

Well there are no limitations on co-productions, although sometimes defining a co-production can be somewhat elusive, but nonetheless it’s there. We’ve had good conversations and I think we’ve developed a pretty good relationship with the leadership – conversations have been very good and frank. I start every conversation by asking “when are you going to lift the quotas?” And they laugh, but they know it’s on the agenda.

We’re almost done in longform with the WTO agreement [MOU signed February 2012, see full story here]. We’re down to a couple of issues to resolve and will probably just about get it done when that MOU expires and we have to start all over again to some degree. But I’ve sensed a change in my meetings with these people. As of today we’re heading in a direction where that relationship is only going to improve and ultimately we will get more product in. They’re becoming more sophisticated and I think at some point they’ll end up with a ratings system, which they’ve been hesitant to have, but they’re growing to understand the value of that.

The quotas issue is up for discussion again in 2017. Do you think they’ll be widened again then?

We’ll be knocking on those doors. Technology is changing so fast in China – look at Alibaba – and I think the government realises it’s in their interest to be bending with these trends in opening up more opportunities because, for one thing, they’re not going to be able to stop it anyway. They want to be seen as supportive of this next generation coming along. They want to be on that side of the equation. That doesn’t mean they’re throw the doors open, but they’ll be a lot more receptive to a lot of these ideas than they have been historically.

Where else do you see opportunity in Asia for MPA’s studio members outside of China and Japan?

Almost everywhere. We have a presence in markets like Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia, which are all growing, and we’re doing well in Australia, which historically has been a great market for us. Even in India, we are working on issues with the companies there – there is great growth potential. If you ask me the same question about other parts of the world, I would be more restrained in my answer, but there’s a whole other world out there where the theatre-going experience is still pretty novel. The world is still a pretty exciting place for exhibition, but it’s myopic to only think about Europe and North America.

So you’re not worried about the impact that digital distribution might have on feature-length content?

The opportunities to access content are growing, but the assumption that, because you can see something on you iPad, you won’t walk back into a theatre again, is just terribly naïve. I’m a big advocate of a decentralised ecosystem for the internet, but the internet has to work for everyone. So we as content providers need to provide as many legal access points for our content, at a price point that is attractive to audiences, as we can.

In 2013, we had 6 billion legal downloads of film and 56 billion legal downloads of TV episodes. Me and my studios need to do more of that. The ISPs, ad brokers, payment processors and search engines need to do more of that. We all have a responsibility to make this system work and reduce the amount of piracy. Everyone needs to accept their role and how do we all contribute to keeping this system open and free.