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.
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.
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.
If Content is King, then last week saw the gentry discussing how best to serve their master. The other day Zeitgeist watched a fascinating roundtable from the TechDisrupt conference, where talking heads with varied interests discussed how content would be created, distributed and consumed in the future. The below are some of the more pertinent and interesting things we managed to peel from the chat.
Sarah Chubb, president of Condé Nast Digital, noted that Apple was lending a helping hand to the sales of the publishing empire’s magazines. Since the launch of the iPad (recently revealed to have sold 2m units in 59 days), Chubb states that the device has played a significant role in boosting sales. Regarding the iPhone / iPad split, she says 60% of GQ readers are accessing the publication through their iPad, 40% through the iPhone. For Vanity Fair, fully 90% is from the iPad, which is incredible after such a recent release and given that the iPad was only released outside the US in the last week or so. In related news, it was announced today that The Financial Times “iPad app has registered three times more downloads in its first two weeks since launch, than its iPhone app managed”.
Fred Davis, founding partner of Code Advisors, ruminating on how people perceive content now, makes the declaration, “It’s not about owning, it’s about accessing”. This is crucial. This is ‘I want my MTV’ for the next generation. As we have moved away from purchasing tangible goods like CDs – and to an increasing extent DVDs and books – the pleasure of owning content dissapates. People, however, still want to be able to use that content, and use it immediately. This is where, helpfully, cloud computing comes in. Perhaps this new type of demand makes the iTunes model – when compared to Spotify et al. – antiquated. Buying a track on iTunes is about owning content. It can be bought quickly and easily over your phone via a Wifi or 3G signal, but once purchased, the song is on your phone, it is not kept in the cloud somewhere for you to access at any time from any device. It is not easily shareable.
John Hagel of Deloitte talks of companies of the future having to make a choice between what they want to excel at: product development or customer relationships. In other words, product profitability or audience profitability. Is the company’s USP going to be “Come to us because we know your product” or “Come to us because we know you“? Zeitgeist ponders whether a company, GE for example, might not be able to manage both.
The IPTV service Boxee recently signed a deal with Google to make use of its Android OS, linking with Google TV. In related news, units that the OS operates on outsold iPhone for the first time this quarter. The CEO of Boxee, Avner Ronen, was also one of the speakers present at the conference. Taking an optimistic stance, Ronen stated that one of the benefits of increased fragmentation and availability of content was that, in a free market mindset, the more content published, the more competitive the environment and thus the better the content.
Of course, piracy is an enormous factor, and Davis pointed out that there is still a problem with people not equating downloading a song illegally off of Limewire with shoplifting from WalMart. Perhaps it is now too late for any efforts at education in this matter, as the MPAA seem to have singularly failed to educate the public. Chubb countered that people were now willing to pay for things in mobile that they wouldn’t normally pay for otherwise. This dovetails with the idea of paying not for the content itself, but for the instant access to it. The film industry, in particular, has combatted the threat of piracy in other ways. Now that international box office accounts for some 65% of a film’s total gross earnings, release windows are being narrowed for simultaneous releases. “Iron Man 2″ was released at the end of April here in London, a full week before the US launch. The world premiere was supposed to have taken place in Leicester Square, but sometimes even savvy film execs come up short, especially against volcanic ash.
Ultimately, the way we interpret ownership is undergoing significant change. What we used to be possessive of, with the arrival of the mp3 we suddenly felt inclined to share. Increasingly we do not have need of the physical product, merely the ability to use it when we wish. This might easily be linked to the continuing vogue for ephemeral clothing that is besetting the fashion industry, where cheap clothing is made to be worn once then tossed aside like New York Times stock. Zeitgeist thought it fascinating to watch these people prognosticate on the future of content; they may all be completely wrong, of course, but then that’s the interesting thing about the future, isn’t it?
There was much more discussed, and you can see the whole video here.