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The “Jaws” of death? – Rethinking film industry strategy

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Steven Spielberg on-set for “Jaws”. The Leviathan gave birth to the summer blockbuster

This past week, Zeitgeist had the pleasure of enjoying a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. This adaptation was not performed at the theatre but at the cinema. It was not directed by Kenneth Branagh or any other luminary of the legitimate stage, but rather by the quiet, modest, nerdy Joss Whedon, who until a few years ago was best known to millions as the brains behind the cult TV series phenomenon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (full disclosure: Zeitgeist worked on the show in his days of youth). Whedon was picked to direct a film released last year that can, without much difficulty, be seen as the apotheosis of the Hollywood film industry; “The Avengers”. A mise-en-abyme of a concept, involving disparate characters, some of whom already have their own fully-fledged franchises, coming together to form another vehicle for future iterations. “The Avengers” became the third-highest grossing film of all time, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Moreover, to go from directing on such a broad canvas to shooting a film mostly with friends in one’s own home – as with “Much Ado…” – displays an impressive range of creative ingenuity.

Sadly for shareholders and studio executives’ career aspirations, not every film is as sure-fire a hit as “The Avengers”, try though as they might (and do) to replicate the same mercurial ingredients that lead to success. Marvel, which originally conceived of the myriad characters surrounding The Avengers mythology, was bought in 2009 by Disney for $4bn. Disney for all intents and purposes have a steady strategic head on their shareholders. They parted ways with the quixotic Weinstein brothers while welcoming Pixar back into the fold. They were one of the first to concede the inevitability of closed platforms release windows – something Zeitgeist has written about in the past – they are debuting a game-changing platform, Infinity, which might revolutionise the way children interact with the plethora of memorable characters the studio have dreamt up over the years. However, such sound business strategy could not save them from the uber-flop that was 2012’s “John Carter”, which lost the studio $200m. This summer, the rationale for their biggest release has been built on what appears to be sound logic; taking the on- and off-screen talent behind their massively successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and bringing them together again for another reboot in the form of “The Lone Ranger”. The New York Times said the film “descends into nerve-racking incoherence”; it has severely underperformed at the box office, after a budget of $250m. Sony’s “After Earth” similarly underperformed, suddenly throwing Will Smith’s bullet-proof reputation for producing hits into jeopardy.

These summer films – “tentpoles” to use the terminology bandied about in Los Angeles – are where the money is made (or not) for studios. As an industry over the past ten years, Zeitgeist has watched as these tentpoles have become more concentrated, more risk-averse and therefore less original, more expensive and more likely either to produce either stratospheric results or spectacular failures. Paramount is an interesting example of a studio that has made itself leaner recently, releasing far fewer films, and relying on franchises to keep the ship afloat. Edtorial Director of Variety Peter Bart seems to think there’s a point when avoiding risk leads to courting entropy. It’s an evolution that has escaped few, yet is was still notable when, last month, famed directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke out publicly against the way the industry seemed to be headed. Indeed, the atmosphere at studios in Hollywood seems to mimic that of a pre-2008 financial sector; leveraging ever more collateral against assets with significant – and unsustainable – levels of risk. The financial sector uses arcane algorithms and has a large number of Wharton grads whose aim should be to preserve stability and profit. Yet even with all this analysis, they failed to see the gigantic readjustment that was imminent. In the film industry, Relativity Media’s reputation for rigorous predictive models on what will make a film successful is rare enough to have earned it a feature in Vanity Fair. So what hope is there the film industry will change its tune before it is too late? Spielberg pontificates,

“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”

Instead of correcting course as failures at the box office failed to abate, studios have dug in harder. Said Lucas,

“They’re going for gold, but that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”

Such artistic ennui in audiences is admittedly sclerotic in its visibility at the moment. “Man of Steel”, another attempt at rebooting a franchise – coming only seven years after the last attempt – is performing admirably, with a position still firmly in the top ten at the US box office after four weeks of release, with over $275m taken domestically. It’s interesting to note that audiences have been happy to embrace the new version so quickly after the last franchise launch failed; though actor James Franco finds it contentious, the same has been true with the “Spider-Man” franchise relaunch.

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Is M&A finally out of vogue in the Media and Entertainment sector?

Part of the problem in the industry, some say, is to do with those at the top running the various film studios. In “Curse of the Mogul”, written by lecturers at Columbia University, the authors contend that since 2005 the industry as a whole has underperformed versus the S&P stock index, yet such stocks are still eminently attractive to investors. The reason, the authors say, is that those running the businesses frame the notion of success differently. They argue that it takes a very special type of person (i.e. them) to be able to manage not only different media and the different audiences they reach and the different trends that come out of that, but more importantly (in their eyes) to be able to manage the talent. They asked to be judged on Academy Awards rather than bottom lines. The most striking thing in the book – which Zeitgeist is still reading – is the continual pursuit by said mogul of strategic synergies. This M&A activity excites shareholders but has historically led to minimal returns (think Vivendi or AOL Time Warner), often because what was presented as operational or content-based synergy is actually nothing of the sort. It’s a point Richard Rumelt makes in his excellent book, “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”. Some companies are beginning to get the idea. Viacom seemed an outlier in 2006 when it divested CBS. Lately, News Corporation has followed a similar tack, albeit under duress after suffering from scandalous revelations about hacking in its news division. A recent article in The Economist states,

“Most shareholders now see that television networks, newspapers, film studios, music labels and other sundry assets add little value by sharing a parent. Their proximity can even hinder performance by distracting management… they have become more assertive and less likely to believe the moguls’ flannel about ‘synergies’.”

So in some ways it was of little surprise that Sony came under the microscope recently as well, part of this larger trend of scrutiny. The company has experienced dark times of late, with shares having plunged 85% over the past 13 years. The departure of Howard Stringer in 2012 coincided with an annual loss of some $6.4bn. Now headed up by Kazuo Hirai, the company has undoubtedly become more focused, with much more being made of their mobile division. Losses have been stemmed, but the company is still floundering, with an annual loss reported in May of $4.6bn. It was only a couple of weeks later that hedge-fun billionaire Dan Loeb – instrumental in getting Marissa Meyer to lead Yahoo – upped his ownership stake in Sony, calling on it to divest its entertainment division in a letter to CEO Hirai. Part of the issue with Sony is a cultural one, where Japan’s ways of working differ strongly from the West’s. This is covered in some detail in a profile with Stringer featured in The New Yorker. In a speech he gave last year, Stringer said, “Japan is a harmonious society which cherishes its social values, including full employment. That leads to conflicts in a world where shareholder value calls for ever greater efficiency”. But Sony’s film division – which includes the James Bond franchise – is performing well; in the year to March 2013 Sony’s film and music businesses produced $905m of operating income, compared with combined losses of $1.9 billion in mobile phones, according to The Economist. It ended 2012 first place among the other film studios in market share. Sony is the last studio to consistently deliver hits across genres, reports The New York Times in an excellent article. The article quotes an anonymous Sony exeuctive, “We may not look like the rest of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a painstakingly thought-through strategy and a profitable one”. Sadly the strategy behind films like ‘After Earth’ begin to look flimsy when one glances at the box office results. While Hirai and the Sony board concede that have met to discuss the possibility of honouring Mr. Loeb’s suggestion – offering 15-20% of it as an IPO rather than selling it off in full – Mr. Hirai also commented in an interview with CNBC, “We definitely want to make sure we can continue a successful business in the entertainment space. That is for me, first and foremost, the top priority”. In mid-June Loeb sent a second letter, advocating the IPO proposal and saying “Our research has confirmed media reports depicting Entertainment as lacking the discipline an accountability that exist at many of its competitors”. The question is whether selling off its entertainment assets would remove any synergies with other divisions, thus making the divisions left over less profitable, or whether such synergies even existed in the first place. For Loeb, the “most valuable untapped synergies” are still in the studio and music divisions yet after decades as one company they still remain untapped. That point won’t make for pleasant reading at Sony HQ.

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Another problem is the changing nature of media consumption habits. Not only are we watching films in different ways over different platforms, we are also doing much else besides, from playing video games, which have successfully transitioned beyond the nerdy clique of yesteryear, to general mobile use and second screening. This transition – and with it a realisation that competition is not likely to come from across regional boarders but from startup platforms – is largely being ignored by the French as they insist on trade talks with the US that centre on the preservation of l’exception culturelle. Such trends are evident in business dealings. The Financial Times this weekend detailed Google’s significant foray into developing content, setting up YouTube Space LA. The project gives free soundstage space to artists who are likely to guarantee eyeballs on YouTube, and lead to advertising revenue for the platform. From the stellar success of the first season of “House of Cards”, to DreamWorks Animation’s original content partnership announced last month, Netflix has become the bête noire for traditional content producers as it shakes up traditional models. We have written before about the IHS Screen Digest data from earlier this year, showing worrying trends for the industry; as predicted, audiences are beginning to favour access over ownership, preferring to rent rather than own, which means less profit for the studio. As much due to a decline in revenue from other platforms as growth in of itself, cinemas are expected to be the major area of profit going forward to 2016 (see above chart). We’ve written before about the power cinema still has. Spielberg and Lucas pick up on this;

“You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing… [Films] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”

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In a conversation over Twitter, (excerpts of which are featured above), Cameron Saunders, MD of 20th Century Fox UK told Zeitgeist that “major changes were afoot”. Such potential disruption is by no means unique to the film industry, and should come as a surprise to one. Zeitgeist recently went to see Columbia faculty member Rita McGrath speak at a Harvard Business Review event. In her latest book, “The End of Competitive Advantage”, McGrath discounts the old management consultant attempts at providing sustainable competitive advantages to business. Her assertion is that any advantage is transient, that incumbency and success often lead to entropy, unless there is constant innovation to build on that success. Such a verdict of entropy could well be applied to the film industry. The model has worked well for decades, despite predictions of doom at the advent of television, the VCR, the DVD, et cetera ad nauseum. But fundamental behavioural shifts are now at play, and the way we devise strategies for what content people want to see and how they wish to see it need to be readdressed, quickly. Otherwise all this deliberation will eventually become much ado about nothing.

UPDATE (15/4/13): Of course, context is everything. The New York Times published an interesting article today saying investing in Hollywood is less risky than investing in Silicon Valley, though the returns in the latter are likely to be greater. Neither are seen as reliable.

This issue isn’t going away. We write again about it, here.

On movie release windows – I love the sound of breaking glass

December 1, 2012 5 comments

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It’s fair to say that in the past ten years, the pace of technology has evolved at an ever-increasing rate. The way in which devices have changed, and with it our use of them, was humourously summed up in the above cartoon from The New Yorker. Digital trends have affected the way we communicate, the way we consume media, and indeed the way we consume goods and services, i.e. shop.

So it is a little surprising to many – your humble correspondent included – that we still have to put up with a film being released in one country one day, and in another months later. That we still have to wait a certain number of months for a film to amble its way from the cinema screens to our home, whether on Blu-ray / DVD or on VOD. It’s interesting to note that vertical integration isn’t a key issue; Disney recently launched the second subscription video on demand (SVOD) service in Europe, with a library of constantly refreshed titles that can be viewed on platforms ranging from TVs to Xbox to iPads. Indeed, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger announced way back in 2005 in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he foresaw a day of collapsed release windows, when a film came out the same day at the cinema as it was available to watch in the home:

We’d be better off as a company and an industry if we compressed that window. We could spend less money pushing the box office and get to the next window sooner where a movie has more perceived value to the consumer because it’s more fresh.

So there is money to be saved in such an exercise. Yet seven years later, such a situation is still mostly a fantasy for major films. Studios have undoubtedly dipped their toe in the water, and some moderate success has been seen on the indie scene, specifically with recent films like Margin Call, Melancholia and Arbitrage. The former film was released simultaneously in the cinema and on VOD (seemingly only in the US, however), eventually recording strong results, months after its initial release at Sundance Film Festival. Again, what is the justification for such a change in platform release timings? Not meeting consumer desires and addressing piracy, but simple cost savings. Variety reports:

“We’re a star-driven culture, and on a crowded (VOD) menu, what are you going to be drawn to?” posits WME Global head Graham Taylor, who adds that with marketing budgets skyrocketing, the ability to use a single campaign across closely spaced bows on multiple platforms is an important cost savings.

The whole situation is quite frustrating for any fan of film or television. It is a frustration shared by Frederic Filloux, co-author of the excellent blog Monday Note, which Zeitgeist strongly recommends to anyone with an interest in insightful thoughts and reasoning on media industry goings-on.

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Their most recent post also happened to detail the author’s frustrations with such seemingly arbitrary release windows. One of the most pertinent charts displays the achingly slow rate of change in platform release changes, that is so at odds with the pace of change in other media (above). The content of the post has rational recommendations, which at first glance seem eminently appropriate and overdue for implementation. Some of the recommendations though fail to account for the fact that the film industry and its machinations are often governed by winds of irrationality.

To summarise, Filloux recommends a global day-and date, shorter, more flexible window of time between cinema and home release. There are a number of obstacles to these ideas though. Firstly, exhibitors must be placated. They hold such a sway over studios that they cannot easily be ignored. Bob Iger, in the interview mentioned earlier, mentions exhibitors as being a key obstacle. Think about it, why on earth would a cinema want their film to be available in the comfort of their audience’s home any sooner than it already is? It wants to enforce scarcity, so that when the film’s marketing machine is at its height, the cinema is the only place you can see it. As already mentioned, indie films have had some success with multi-platform releases, but even these have met with consternation from exhibitors, as a recent example in Canada shows. The consternation becomes outright war for larger films. Zetigeist reported when, in 2010, many exhibitors refused to show Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland when the studio, Disney, flirted with releasing the film to home release less than four months after its theatrical debut. After much back and forth, exhibitors eventually relented, and the film went on to gross over a billion dollars at the global box office. Exhibitors are not going to be convinced about flat release windows anytime soon. They are perhaps the largest roadblock to such a move, and the largest point of advocating a return to vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition that was the case until the Paramount Decree in 1948.

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Studios can only flatter exhibitors for so long

Moreover, while the argument about having flexible, shifting window releases depending upon a film’s success is logical, it does not acknowledge the existence of sleeper hits, films which do not open to huge returns but gradually accrue it over months of release (as illustrated by Margin Call, mentioned earlier). It would also be hard to define when a movie “succeeds” or “bombs”. You could use box office as a figure, but would this be without context, as a ratio of the film’s budget, or against its current peers? Using box office fails to take awards – principally Oscar – coverage into consideration, which invariably adds its own box office bump to a movie when it is nominated or wins.

The recommendation for simultaneous worldwide release is also a valid point. Zeitgeist has written before on the ridiculous prices pirated films go for in markets that have no access to the official product. To their credit, studios are moving further toward a “day and date” system. However, doing so exclusively would be dangerous. Releasing some films market by market allows the studio to gauge audience reaction, and if necessary tinker with the marketing or the film itself. Staggering release dates is also necessary for cultural events, such as the World Cup, which may be more relevant to some countries than others.

It is the last point made in the article, that of making TV shows “universally available from the day when they are aired on TV” that Zeitgeist could not agree more with. Apart from audience frustration – and recent technological development such as DVR show how the opportunity can shape viewer habits – such a move would also surely divert people from resorting to illegal downloading.

To conclude, while there are caveats and significant roadbumps to be addressed, and some progress has been made over the years, the film industry has a long way to go in a short time if it wants to catch up with consumer habits. Flat release windows should be an inevitability, and a priority. Moreover, they should not be seen purely as cost-saving measure, but as an important way of keeping an increasingly technologically and globally savvy customer base happy.

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