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Adjacencies & Disruptions – Amazon, Armani and identifying corollaries

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Zeitgeist likes thinking about adjacencies. We’ve written about it before when looking at the art market, but it’s also prevalent in other industry sectors. Think of the UK übergrocer Tesco. The company has expanded into movie distribution – with Blinkbox – as well into banking and mobile, albeit as an MVNO. Why? To diversify its revenue streams; the grocery market is a cutthroat place of late; Morrisons recent conceding that it would be setting off another price war among its peers was hardly greeted with cheers by shareholders. How? By using the equity of trust they have built up with shoppers over the years, they are able to expand into other, similar territories, where their (claimed) competitive advantage of good value and good customer service can be similarly applied.

Amazon has been nothing if not a company constantly on the hunt for the efficient exploitation of adjacencies. A recent article in The New Yorker detailed how CEO Jeff Bezos got into books because he saw the market was ripe for disruption; he saw the Internet was the perfect platform to sell such a product:

It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. ‘It was totally based on the property of books as a product’, Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else.

Zeitgeist remembers buying his first book from Amazon back in 1999. It wasn’t long before the company expanded into music, and from there into myriad other offerings. Like Tesco, Amazon found its original industry to be a highly competitive one – at least in terms of margins. It has become a fairly ruthless behemoth in the publishing industry, acting as monopoly in its rent-seeking tactics. The Kindle was an extension of its strategy to ‘own’ the territory of books, and as a publishing company itself it has so far had mixed success, according to The New Yorker. The Kindle Fire addresses its new media offerings, principally video. Just as a recent Business Insider article identified the Xbox 360 as Microsoft’s short-term ploy to encourage a customer to funnel all entertainment through their device before the launch of its successor Xbox One, so with Amazon and its Kindle Fire before this week’s release of Fire TV. The Financial Times featured good coverage of the device here, quoting an analyst at Forrester,

It is a slightly faster Roku box combined with voice recognition to make search easier and then they have created a full Android gaming device. This puts the product into a whole class of its own.”

It will be interesting to see how the device competes with the much cheaper Chromecast, from Google, itself an exploiter of adjacencies. Google relies less on an equity of customer trust to move into new industries and more an innate belief that tech can be used to solve pretty much any problem. The search engine provides an affordable smartphone OS platform, connected glasses, globe-trotting balloons and driverless cars.

In the world of luxury, that essence of trust is treated with far greater reverence. This is principally why fashion brands have been such laggards when it has come to embracing digital communications and ecommerce solutions. tIronically, this approach, which by extension neglects a dedicated approach to holistic Customer Experience Management (or CEM) is arguably beginning to have a negative impact on how people perceive and interact with these companies. It is why adjacencies seem to happen less than temporary collaborations, an impressive recent example of which can be seen in BMW’s recent tie-up with Louis Vuitton.

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It was gratifying to see Giorgio Armani, a company that has carefully crafted diffusion lines as well as adjacencies into hotels and homeware over the years, recently buck the trend, sending out communications over its newest line, Armani Fiori. While style can be eternal, fashion can be quite ephemeral – as with flowers. It’s not clear how much of a market there is for this. That being said, the sector is not exactly brimming with ultra-premium florists. And it might provide a certain level of reassurance for the man purchasing flowers, who can rely on the brand’s prestige to assuage any feelings of whether he is picking a good bunch. Where it might prove especially successful though is in the B2B sector; the lobbies of corporate headquarters and luxury hotels could soon be awash with the fragrance of a designer flower or two.

Adjacencies tend to work best then when they start by identifying qualities inherent in the brand as it currently exists. I.e. what is our current competitive advantage? Is that scaleable or transferable to a related field? Often, as with the cases above, such acquisitions and movements arise when traditional margins are being eroded or under threat of such. Prada, a leader in the luxury sector, has as that leader borne the brunt of strong headwinds recently as the sector as a whole experiences a slowdown. Its own adjacent acquisition? Last month it bought an 18th-century Milanese pastry shop.

Tech’s impact on business and culture in 2014

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It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.

Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter's presence at the Oscars last night

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter’s presence at the Oscars last night (click to watch)

The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.

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Whatsapp’s number of active users skyrocketed to 450m in no time, outpacing both Facebook and Twitter (Source: The Economist)

The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,

“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”

One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it as well”. It this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,

“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.

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In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, on the England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.

A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see.  A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally”. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.

So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.

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TV’s bloody disruptions

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Last night, Zeitgeist eagerly devoured the first episode of the new season of Netflix‘s House of Cards, a series that has received lavish praise  – not least from us – both for its content and its position as vanguard of a new wave of television distribution, production and consumption. The series lead, Frank Underwood, takes on his competition with a ruthless lack of morality that is unlikely to jar with those in the cutthroat television industry. The New York Times recently featured an excellent piece on the series, focusing on the showrunner Beau Willimon, the unique nature of doing such a show with Netflix, which among other things guaranteed 26 shows upfront, and the new mood of “post-hope” politics. Is traditional linear TV entering its own post-hope state?

Such talk of impending doom makes for nice editorial (which Zeitgeist is not averse to), but how true is it? To some extent, such new forms of consumption are being hampered by externalities as the platforms make the switch from early adopters to the everyday consumer. Indeed, Netflix’s sheer popularity is proving to be a thorn in its side. In November last year, Sandvine reported that the content Netflix provides now accounts for almost a third of internet traffic in the US. This staggering figure no doubt accounts for at least part of why internet speeds take such a distinct hit during primetime viewing hours (see chart below). As Quartz has the insight to point out, such issues are less to do with intentional throttling and more to do with peering agreements between ISPs and content providers.

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Download speeds happen to take a significant hit right around the time people are looking to kick back with some Netflix

Such issues are likely to be ever more prevalent as the notion of net neutrality continues to come under attack. At the end of last month, a federal appeals court overturned the Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet Order, which had stipulated that ISPs could not prejudice one type of internet traffic over another. The fear of any such policy being overturned has always been one of the creation of a two-tier internet, where people who can afford faster internet get preferential access, and companies are free to charge distributors differing amounts based on the type or amount of content they are delivering. Such consternation was also felt in government, where five US senators called on the FCC chairman to “act with expediency” to preserve the open internet. The news immediately caused concern for Netflix, as shareholders fretted that ISPs might start to charge the company for the traffic it takes up. CEO Reed Hastings responded categorically,

“Were this draconian scenario to unfold with some ISP, we would vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet they are paying their ISP to deliver.”

Consolidation and the narrowing of choice took a further hit on Wednesday this week when Comcast announced it would buy all of Time Warner Cable for $44.2bn. The choice on cable landscape is already limited for the US, so it will be interesting to see what regulators make the deal. Chad Gutstein, former COO of Ovation, an independent arts-focused cable channel, penned an article in Variety saying that any concerns over the deal should be restricted to the possibility of abuse of a dominant position, rather than simply market share.Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, writing in The New Yorker, rightly points out that the FCC should be approving such mergers only if they serve the public interest. He sees no such possibility in this instance, where the most pressing need for cable customers is lower prices. Last year, he writes, Comcast collected about $156 a month on average, per customer. For cable. Professor Wu contends that the merger would put Comcast in a position that would make it easier to raise prices further. This, despite the fact that conditions created via the merger would technically put the company in a position where it could create savings, both through economies of scale and more advantageous negotiating positions with programmers like ESPN and Viacom. Of course, Comcast is probably keen on preserving if not extending margins as it faces increasing competition from players like Netflix and Amazon. Cord cutting may be in vogue now, but Comcast will try to combat this by creating what is called ‘lock-in’. Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group, is quoted in the New York Times; “Comcast and the new, giant Comcast are going to do as much as they can to stop you from unbundling. In order for you to get content you like, you’re going to be pushed to pay the cable bill, too”. Such tactics will test the limits of customer inertia, but only if they have somewhere else to go as a viable alternative.

The switch to online viewing is also raising issues of policy change in the UK. Public service broadcaster the BBC has long left it unclear as to at what point requiring a TV licence is mandatory, leaving citizens to infer that simply owning a television set is reason enough. Recently though, the broadcaster finally clarified that owners can use their TV, with no fee, to play games, watch DVDs, basically do anything that doesn’t involve watching live television. For the moment, this also includes their IPTV offering, iPlayer. In an article earlier this month, The Economist said the fee was “becoming ever harder to justify”. Antonella Mei-Pochtler of the Boston Consulting Group, quoted in the article, believes the increasing trend of young people to timeshift their viewing is likely to become ingrained. Coupled with the growth of internet-connected TVs, this is bound to accelerate a shift away from traditional linear consumption. The BBC is soon to begin developing premium content for its iPlayer service in order to seek additional revenue streams that may offset a decline in fees paid. But as The Economist points out,

“[T]hat would suggest, dangerously, that the BBC is like any other optional subscription service. Folding on-demand services into the licence fee could also amplify calls for the BBC to share its cash with other broadcasters, not least because such consumption may be precisely measured.”

When we look at the market for television sets and set top boxes, the news isn’t that superb either. The curved TVs debuted at CES in January are surely little more than a distraction. Last week, Business Insider reported that Sony is to finally spin off its TV operations into a separate unit, amongst news of $1.1bn in losses and 5,000 job cuts. But while we’ve talked of consolidation and narrowing choice, we also need to recognise this is also a period of unprecedented choice for consumers. As a recent article on GigaOm points out, there are millions of channels on YouTube alone. There are growing pains. As consumption of such content moves “to the living room”, the article details various sub rosa negotiations by retailers like Walmart with their own video market, or players like Netflix willing to pay top dollar to put branded buttons on remote controls. What is clear, with all the issues described in this post, is that consumer choice needs to be preserved in an open market with plenty of competition. Such an environment will always foster innovation. This may breed disruption, but that doesn’t have to mean devastation. The age of linear TV viewing may be at the beginning of its end, but that doesn’t mean there’s still a lot to fight for, even if it’s a scrap. Frank Underwood wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Netflix has similar revenues but lower earnings than HBO, for now.

UPDATE (22/02/14): The New York Times published an interesting article comparing Netflix and HBO recently, showing how the two companies are faring financially (see image above), as well as their approaches to developing content, which started off as opposing ideologies but are slowly starting to meet in the middle as they borrow from each other’s playbook. The article quotes Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer: “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

UPDATE (22/02/14): Of course, commercial network television in general is also going through a period of consternation, slowly building since the day TiVo started shipping. At the end of last year, the Financial Times reported that share of advertising spend on television is set to end after three decades. This is partly due to a proliferation of new devices and platforms – not least of which is Netflix – but also partly due to the amount of people time-shifting their viewing and skipping through the ads along the way. Thinkbox, a lobbying arm for the television industry, recently published a blog article with accompanying chart. It illustrated how many people time-shifted a particular programme depending on the genre. For example, fewer people time-shifted the news than drama shows. But one of the key points made in the article is “that there is no significant difference in the amount of commercial TV which is recorded and played back compared with BBC equivalents. To put it another way: TV is not time-shifted in an attempt to avoid ads”. This is specious reasoning at best. While it may be true that, yes, people do not discriminate between whether they time-shift a BBC show or an ITV show, it would be totally wrong to infer that those viewers are not avoiding ads when they do appear. The article’s author is guilty of confirmation bias, not to mention grasping at straws.

Threats and Opportunities for the Entertainment Industry in 2014

January 11, 2014 1 comment

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At the start of a new year, what to make of the entertainment sector? It depends where you look. One thing is for certain though; at the close of 2013 that old laggard the music industry upstaged its media cousins. For sheer daring and innovative nous, few initiatives could claim to beat Sony in its launch of Beyoncé’s new album. In the face of increasingly ailing streaming services, the album was released as a fixed bundle on iTunes, with no marketing behind it. The news of the release thus came as a last-minute surprise to the industry and consumers alike, creating a short but extreme burst of anticipation. The artist posted a message on Facebook saying she wanted to recreate the “immersive experience” she used to have listening to music. The album sold 80,000 copies in three hours. It is difficult to envision Columbia Pictures doing anything similar.

Near the end of last year, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 5th Annual GlobeScreen Conference at London’s May Fair Hotel. Eve Gabereau, the co-founder and MD of Soda Pictures lamented “nuturing a film is not possible any more… there is less opportunity for a film to find its audience”. Word of mouth, she said, had to be very good, and happen very quickly, in order for it to have an effect. Simon Crowe, founder and MD of SC Films International, disagreed with another speaker, who asserted that filmmakers were being hampered by a lack of data, in that they did not know who they were making films for. He dismissed the need for data, and, most worryingly, stated the primary focus should not be on the bottom line. This is dangerous thinking. Films may be art, but if the medium is to continue then it needs to be profitable. So the primary focus has to be ‘how will this product turn a profit?’. Zeitgeist asked him afterward about the viability of VOD (video-on-demand) as a channel; Crowe was not optimisitic about its future as a significant revenue producer, calling films that have found success on such platforms – such as Arbitrage and Margin Call – outliers. Zeitgeist offered that Netflix had not been a significant distribution channel for a while, until suddenly it was. Did he foresee a similar situation with VOD? “Don’t know”, was his retort. It was well worth staying late to receive such gems as answers. The whole conference spoke of an ignorance of the insight data can provide, a shunning of profit-focused management, and a general yearning for bygone times when the industry – not mention the champagne and other substances – was flowing more freely.16-old-hollywood-is-dead-and-old-tv-is-dyingTo cap off 2013, Business Insider published an article entitled ‘The US 20: Twenty huge trends that will dominate America’s future’. Number 16 was ‘Old Hollywood is dead…’. It noted that inflation-adjusted box office receipts were down around 8% from their 2004 high (see chart). Industry trade mag Variety reported recently that UK box office fell 1% in 2013, which was the first drop in ten years and the biggest in more than twenty. Of course, part of the reason for this was because 2012 had a rather suave helping hand from James Bond, in the form of Skyfall. When Zeitgeist prodded Cameron Saunders, Managing Director of 20th Century Fox UK, about the news over Twitter, he was quick to leap to into the fray, noting that it was “still the second biggest box office year on record”. He also went on to concede though that “UK admissions however have flatlined, despite lots more films = fewer people seeing each movie”. The same scenario is happening in the US. China is one of the few bright spots in the world, and has seen an explosion in the number of physical screens installed in the country over recent years. But even the Chinese film industry has medium to long term challenges it will need to overcome, if, as some predict, it is to become the world’s largest film market – overtaking the US – by 2019. It is still at the mercy of a government with strict controls and vague whimsical notions about what makes for permissible content; the state is involved at almost every level of production and distribution. Moreover, though the quota on foreign releases in the market has been relaxed slightly, it is by no means open season for Hollywood. Much like the banning in China of Google’s app service and videogames consoles have led to poor knock-offs, so with film. The restrictions have spawned poor remakes of American films that didn’t see a release on China’s shores, which inspires little creativity or excitement.

It is not all doom and gloom in the cinema of late of course. Gravity continues to light up screens across the world, and seems poised to do well come Oscar night. Its only obstacles come in the form of other films that critics and audiences have been similarly impressed with this season, including 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips. But such artistic achievements can hardly make us forget what was a poor summer for the film industry. We have written before about how films in development are increasingly either mega-blockbusters or niche arthouse films. Producer Kevin Misher, talking to The Economist last month, echoed our thoughts; “Hollywood is like America: the middle class has been squeezed”. The article went on to lament the unique situation the film industry finds itself in, relying on outsiders for both ideas (“imagine if Apple or Toyota did this”) and funding.

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Will more content producers partner up with those infringing intellectual property?

The challenges extend further. Though Kodak suffered from other problems too, one of the things that prevented it from ever laying down a long-term strategy to embrace digital photography was the revolving door of executives at the top. Hollywood is similarly afflicted. In the past 18 months, according to The Economist, four of the six main studios have seen change at the top. Perhaps some longevity in senior roles would have encouraged these companies to embrace new ways of delivering films to eager customers. Instead, most films, particularly the ones glutting the summer schedule, still clung to an outdated distribution strategy of staggering releases across platforms. Studios resist doing this – save for the odd arthouse release – because it risks the ire of exhibitors. We’ve written before about the antiquated nature of such thinking. Every delay in getting to a consumer increases the chances that customer will resort to piracy. Companies like Netflix are reporting that intellectual property rights infringement dips once legal alternatives are made available to people; there are signs of hope.

Piracy is of course playing a role in television, too. In Poland, consumers have to wait months after the US broadcast for their dose of Homeland. It is thus one of the more popular shows to be pirated. Making the most of this trend, a publishing company responsible for a new book detailing Carrie’s life before the start of the series has been inserting adverts into the subtitles for the show. The MD of the publishing company told TorrentFreak, “We decided to advertise via subtitles because we wanted to show the book to all the fans of the Homeland series in Poland, no matter where they watch the show”. You can’t argue with placing a promotion for where you know your likely customers are. It will be interesting to see if any other unlikely coupling between pirates and content producers emerge. For, as amusing as this news is, it does point to a fragmentation in audiences, and thus in places for advertisers to reach them. It should have come as little surprise then when, last month, the Financial Times reported that TV’s share of advertising spend will slip this year, after three decades of uninterrupted growth. Jonathan Barnard, ZenithOptimedia’s head of forecasting, warned, “After television ad spending has grown pretty consistently for at least the last 35 years… there will be quite a lot of disruption to come over the next 10 years.”

Of course, disruption will come to other sectors of the entertainment industry, too. This was apparent at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Samsung and Sony, among others, held court. It wasn’t the best of showings for Samsung, where famed producer / director Michael Bay walked out seconds into a presentation on curved televisions after the autocue failed. Sony had its disruptor product to tout, a cloud TV service. Beyond the glitz and glam of such new product releases, a big question remains: Can Sony use what assets they have and combine them effectively? A great article in the FT probed deeper, asking whether all these new products and services – we would be remiss were we not to mention the PS4, currently outstripping the Xbox One in sales – can be successfully integrated into an ecosystem that Sony is desperately trying to create. The corporation dabbles in film distribution, film production, smartphones, music as well as videogames and is slowly trying to tie them all together. All this while seemingly trying to disrupt itself, with cloud gaming doing away with the need for a console and image projectors doing away with the need for physical screens (Sony loses about $80 on every set it sells currently). As the article concludes,

“[CEO] Mr Hirai is trying to pick up the pace as Sony searches for its digital destiny. But the familiar questions remain: can it execute on the plan, how fast can it move – and how much pain is it prepared to take along the way?”

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Where next for Sony?

Certainly if companies like Samsung and Sony wish to succeed in the coming years, they will have to do away with the obsession of focusing on hardware. It is plain now that, in consumer’s eyes, technology has reached a tipping point where the specifications of an object are no longer a unique selling point; they are a redundancy. This became clear at the Mobile World Congress in 2012, when PC Magazine published its event wrap-up under the headline “The End of Specs?”.

There are some companies that are embracing disruption, or at least, trying to hire those who started it in the first place. Disney, which often seems to have a strong strategic head on its shoulders, recently made the eminently sensible move of hiring the chairman of Twitter Jack Dorsey to join the Walt Disney board. This was no isolated occurrence for Disney, who had previously had Steve Jobs on the board and who have also hired Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Elsewhere, the canny Weinstein brothers, who rarely miss an opportunity to make impressive artistic works that turn a decent profit, reteamed with their old company Miramax to develop further iterations of their film library. Seeing the opportunity for increased creativity in television, as well as new channels like Netflix and Amazon, they will also be developing new television series. And while online takes away advertising spend from other channels under the promise of reaching the right people at the right time, new local television development in the UK promises to do similar as it targets localised areas. Still, the film industry as a whole seems to be outright resisting any changes to the calendar; schlock in the summer sun, followed by arty pretense come Oscar time. Repeat. A writer in the New York Times elaborates,

“And then, after the Oscars, the machine picks up speed and starts excreting ghastly product like Oz the Great and Powerful, one of the worst movies of 2013 and the eighth highest domestic grosser of the year. Then the fall hits, and we cling to movies like Gravity and insist that, really, it isn’t all bad. And it isn’t, of course, even if creating a Top 10 list is finally an exercise in exceptionalism.”

The worry is that any shift in the schizophrenic nature of film scheduling and creation will probably involve at least a short-term hit to the bottom line. And a recent dismissal hints that no such shift is underway at the moment. In October, the great James Schamus of Focus Features was let go by Universal. Schamus was instrumental in bringing director Ang Lee to the US, distributing his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before going on to make The Pianist, Far From Heaven and Brokeback Mountain, among many other extraordinary films. Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company, told the New York Times in December,

“The major media companies are so big that nothing but a blockbuster really makes sense. Say you make a low-budget comedy and it brings in $150 million. So what? That doesn’t move the needle. You make a blockbuster… You can do the sequel and the consumer products and a theme park attraction. The movie itself is almost beside the point. All Disney is going to be doing is Marvel, Star Wars and animation.”

That would be a great shame for those who like artistic diversity, as well as sensible financial returns, in their film studio output. Current business models seem to be producing diminishing returns. This is true for videogames, movies and music. Experimentation, such as that by Sony’s music division mentioned at the beginning of the article, must be more widespread to engage with new consumer habits and to rekindle jaded minds. Consumer engagement and feedback as a whole is largely missing from much of the strategy with which the entertainment industry steers itself. Shareholder returns and operational logistics occupy most of their time. A far more rigourous approach to data – collecting and analysing it – and a more open ear to one’s customer base, might prove beneficial.

“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency

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One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…

We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.

Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,

“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”

Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.

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Click to see The New Yorker’s infographic on what personal data is made available to social networks and their advertisers

Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,

“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”

The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,

“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”

Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.

Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,

“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
Morozov also questions the meaning behind such data, as Zeitgeist has done in a previous article. Such information risks becoming seen as an objective answer without providing a solution or insight.
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
Touching on similar points and themes, the most enjoyable recent article on the subject was written by famed author Margaret Atwood for The New York Times earlier this month. It had recently emerged that intelligence agencies had been using MMO games like World of Warcraft in an attempt to discover terrorists and other less enjoyable parts of the internet. Atwood has predicted just such a thing in her books, written some twelve years ago. Atwood struggles to make sense of her thoughts coming to life, wondering whether to treat it as comedy or tragedy. She elaborates, crystallising all our fears about the empty truth behind data,

“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”

Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.

Ski-chic Strategy – Moncler, North Face & Canada Goose

Interesting video from the FT on Moncler, above. London’s more tony neighbourhoods of Chelsea and Belgravia have seen an explosion of thick down jackets over the past three years, mostly colourful, all with the same logo on them. They are worn as much by macho Eurotrash as Yummy Mummies. The brand is seemingly reaching a tipping point, where exclusivity leads to a bling reputation, where mass acceptance is quickly followed by mass exodus. La Martina has done a good job of steering clear of such waters, as we reported on in a state of retail article. While Moncler considers its IPO and a strategy for selling hot coats in Hawaii, North Face takes a completely different tack, embracing its mass appeal while still communicating an aspirational feel by showcasing the demanding professionals who use their apparel. Canada Goose, another recent entrant into the winter sportswear / city chic market, has also seemed to have had a burst of popularity recently. Zeitgeist saw no fewer than a dozen such coats around Soho and Chelsea this past weekend. An interview with the CEO of the company earlier this year described the strategy thus: “By focusing on the made-in-Canada, used-in-Canada story behind the coats, people would clamour for them.”

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Twitter activity already points to Moncler having a ‘bling’ reputation. Investors will be hoping this can this be nipped in the bud before it is too late.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Canada Goose as it develops; whether it will try to emulate the more ritzy path of Moncler or the performance-related one of North Face. Zeitgeist doesn’t see many people in Europe on the ski slopes wearing Moncler, and doesn’t see many players on the polo field wearing La Martina (unless they are a sponsor). North Face, on the other hand, seems to have a deeply-seated place among hikers and skiiers, particularly in North America. Time – and a sound strategy – will tell whether Moncler retains its exclusive airs.

Monetising the Arts – Fundraising and cultural collisions

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A promotional still for The Met Opera’s season opener, ‘Eugene Onegin’, which debuted to a blizzard of protest and outrage.

Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:

“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”

In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?

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In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.

The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,

“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”

Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.

It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.

The Sharing Economy meets the Internet of Things

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

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This post has been reblogged by IBM and is reproduced on their Tumblr sites. The original is available below in its entirety.

Noise over what has been called Collaborative Consumption – and elsewhere The Sharing Economy – has been increasing in volume for some months now. Kickstarter, a crowdfunding business that exists to let people from anywhere in the world donate to singular projects, is a great example of this new philosophy. The company has played roles in funding films, games consoles and civic projects like the construction of bridges. Zeitgeist has made use of sites likes AirBnB and Housetrip to stay in lovely, very affordable apartments in places like Paris and New York. These diverse businesses aren’t necessarily united in a single cause to drive the sharing economy, but they are all trying to make use of what some economies, particularly in the West, excel at producing: surplus.

It’s an acknowledgment that there are physical items we own that we don’t actually need, which are eminently transferable – for a certain period of time – to others, with the market more or less dictating price (it’s this last point that removes any assertions or complaints of the idea being some sort of socialist utopia). At its root, the idea has been seen in media consumption for several years now; we’ve written often about the new customer mantra of ‘access trumps ownership’, where people prefer to stream their content rather than have it on a shelf. This is a bit of a sea-change in how we view ourselves. As a very astute article in The New Yorker pointed out earlier this month, we have often defined ourselves by what we own,

“For most of the past century, Americans have been the world’s greatest consumers. And usually consumption has meant ownership: just before the Great Recession, the average American household owned 2.28 cars, and had more television sets than people. But these days a host of new companies are trying to disrupt the paradigm… beneath all the hype is a sensible idea: there are a lot of slack resources in the economy. Assets sit idle—the average car is driven just an hour a day—and workers have time and skills that go unused. If you can connect the people who have the assets to people who are willing to pay to rent them, you reduce waste and end up with a more efficient system.

Zeitgeist believes that the increasing popularity of another evolution in business – that of connected devices – will dovetail nicely with the sharing economy. The widespread use of connected devices, known as the Internet of Things, is broadly based on the idea of having products that are intelligent enough to know what they are being used for, when they are being used, and how to make sure the user gets the most productivity out them. Connecting said product to the Internet is usually a pretty good way of doing this. At its simplest, it is the much-ballyhooed Smart Fridge, that knows when it’s running out of milk and orders more for you online without having to bother asking you. In reality, it is things like the Nest device, a (very) smart and (very) beautiful thermostat device.

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Zeitgeist was at London’s Bloomberg HQ earlier this week for Social Media Week, a series of events usually dominated by a great deal of hot air. Fortunately this was not the case with the Internet of Things event. It quickly became clear that without the Internet of Things, collaborative consumption would plateau very quickly. There were fascinating projects like Pachube, which relied on crowdsourcing data in real-time via Twitter from an aggregation of sensors, allowing them to communicate with one another and at the same time. This information is not only not proprietary, it is meant to be built upon. It was used during Japan’s Fukushima disaster for crowdsourcing radiation data. 2000 feeds were set up after 10 days; Android apps, SMS alerts were built, all by different people, a great example of product and information being shared and being improved by being open to collaboration. On a more humorous level, Zeitgeist was also privy to hearing about Addicted Toasters, where the toaster is not just connected to the owner’s smartphone, or to the Internet, but also to other toaster’s in the network. If it sees that others are toasting more bread, it gets ‘jealous’. By which we mean of course that if it decides it is being under-utilised, it will decide it is time to go to the next person on the waiting list who wants to use a toaster. It does this by dialling into the FedEx API and getting itself shipped to that next person in line. The speakers, Usman Haque, said this was not just about “remote monitoring or control, but participation with others in how people make sense of local environments and how products are shared”. While the Addicted Toaster may be smart, and ostensibly aware of a network of other toasters, many aren’t holistically connected with a wider infrastructure. The driverless car, which companies like Tesla and Google are road-testing as I type, is set to bring about this next evolution, as described last week in an excellent article in the Financial Times. If we do come to a time when – as was suggested at the Bloomberg event – every product has its own IP address, then it means that every product is a lot more easy to track, and necessarily a lot more easy to lend to others. For, if a device is unique and ‘intelligent’, it should hypothetically recognise your own needs when you need it, and another’s when someone else has need of it. A world with fewer items can be pretty cool, too, if pretty small, as entrepreneur Graham Hill demonstrates with his New York apartment that is one room, or eight, depending on how you look at it.

All this sharing undoubtedly has positive implications for sustainability; a lot less produced means a lot less waste. There are potentially huge lifestyle impacts as well, which may not be as comforting. The New Yorker, again:

“It isn’t just companies and regulators who will have to be flexible, though. Workers will, too, since the sharing economy requires people to function as micro-entrepreneurs… They are all independent contractors, working for themselves and giving the companies a cut of the action. This has certain attractions: no boss, the ability to set your own hours, control over working conditions. It also means no benefits, no steady paycheck, and the need to always be hustling; in that sense, it fits all too well with the free-agent nation we’re increasingly becoming. Sharing, it turns out, is often a hell of a lot of work.”

The New Normal of the Internet of Things

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The subtle alternative to the tin foil hat

In the wake of PRISM, New York Times takedowns and spying London rubbish bins, people on the Internet don’t feel that secure any more… at all. Business Insider published an article recently saying the days of truly private email conversations are over. A new trend in “countersurveillance fashion” has sprung up (see above image), and New York’s New Museum is opening a ‘privacy gift shop’ for September.

One of the clients Zeitgeist works for is about to get heavily involved in Machine to Machine (M2M) communication, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Intel were making themselves heard last month at an event in London’s Spitalfields Market on the subject. And earlier this month, the exemplary blog GigaOm published an article entitled “How can we design an internet of things for everyone (not just alpha geeks)?”. This new development, which includes self-driving cars, fridges ordering milk for you when you run out without being asked, potentially brings with it ideas of a utopian world of interconnected devices that do your bidding.

But such potential is now seen in a different light, post-PRISM. The first two user comments, screengrabbed below, were a grim reminder of the new normal, where such a utopian future has already been tarnished by abuses before it even arrives.

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The likes of PRISM and xKeystroke have arguably completely reversed the libertarian premise of the Internet

The next ‘Ishtar’: Is the film industry nearing “implosion”?

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“A legendary disaster… a cascade of dysfunction”; can the film industry avoid future Ishtars?

This post serves as a companion piece and extended update to our previous article on rethinking film industry strategy, which can be found here.

“For me, the business of tentpoles is about generating franchises. The more tentpoles that are being made, the more risky the first installment of a potential franchise is going to be. That’s why I think everybody needs to be asking hard questions about what is a real tentpole and what is a faux tentpole.”

- Jean-Luc De Fanti, managing partner at Hemisphere Media Capital

Since our last post a few weeks ago on the need to rethink film industry strategy, when Steven Spielberg publicly predicted an “implosion” in the industry, the subject remains in the zeitgeist. As we referenced in our last post, Mr. Spielberg has some familiarity with the industry’s modus operandi, having created the blockbuster phenomenon way back in the 70s with Jaws. Like a mutant in a film of that genre though, the nature of blockbusters has changed since then. Jaws, were it made today, would look very different (i.e. terrible). Despite Mr. Spielberg’s warnings, studios presumably took some comfort in an animated sequel – Despicable Me 2 – becoming, in the words of NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke, “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios”, more than E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. Not only did it paint a picture of an industry continuing to grow (though presumably the figure did not take inflation into consideration), it must have also quietened any further calls for originality, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty lowbrow sequel that had triumphed.

The caveat is a large one though, that any proponents of summer blockbusters need to pay close attention to. Despicable Me 2 has made £437 million so far, with a production budget of just £50 million. While on the surface then Despicable Me 2 seems to prove how successful and profitable summer movies can be, it actually provides a lesson in what commercial success can look like with a small-budgeted film. Instead, the rule of thumb during the summer is more likely to involve investing some $200m+ in a film that fails spectacularly – think The Lone Ranger. Though this Disney production is the most visible disappointment of the season, it is by no means alone. The New York Times count “six big-budget duds since May 1“. It is interesting to note that Now You See Me, “the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing”, after costing $75m to make.

Those responsible try to spread the blame. Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer absolved themselves of wrongdoing for their involvement in The Lone Ranger by blaming the critics. Said Depp, “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that”. Yet it is easy to see how one might assume the film – created at such expense, with ripe intellectual property to be exploited, with talent involved in the phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – had all the appropriate ingredients to make it a blockbuster. Studios meanwhile harp on about Twitter, which lets people instantly share their thoughts on a film and is now considered a worrisome bellwether for box office potential. But this is a reaction to poor filmmaking, not a reason why a bad film exists in the first place. They also cite a tight calendar. As The New York Times elaborates, “One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience”. Again, this is no one’s fault but that of the industry. The idea of launching films in a specific time window, when consumers now enjoy time-shifting and device-shifting with their content, is antiquated. It is just as irrelevant in winter, when back-to-back “prestige” films clutter cinemas, desperate for Oscar attention. It is overwhelming for audiences, reduces choice, and in the case of the winter season implies that the voting member of the Academy have no long-term memory.

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Just how many times can we see the White House being blown up?

The summer product is so derivative that evidently audiences are pushing back, showing indifference to the “clones” that feature so prominently at Comic-Con. Films are either direct sequels / reimaginings, or strongly resemble other recent projects. Again, The New York Times has an excellent article on this, elaborating,

“Studios showcased another Amazing Spider-Man, another Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, another Avengers, another Thor and another Captain America… In addition to Godzilla, remakes teased here in recent days included RoboCop… and Riddick,… Even many of the original movies introduced at Comic-Con this year had a been-there-done-that feeling to them, notably Legendary’s sword-and-sorcery picture Seventh Son, which co-stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Ben Barnes. In thundering snippets of footage shown on Saturday, the movie at times resembled Clash of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

Cheering news for Sony came last week when it announced a $35m profit in the last quarter, but turbulence lay beyond that. In our last post, we mentioned the imbroglio that Sony found itself in as investor Daniel Loeb – whose hedge fund owns roughly 7% of Sony – continued to urge Sony to spin off its entertainment assets. Last week, he wrote a third letter to Sony – the most aggressive yet, with the Financial Times calling it “blistering” – comparing the film division’s two recent duds After Earth and White House Down to Ishtar and Waterworld (two of the floppiest flops to ever flop). He wrote that the CEO, Kazuo Hirai was sitting by complacently while the film division remained “poorly managed, with a famously bloated corporate structure, generous perk packages, high salaries for underperforming executives and marketing budgets that do not seem to be in line with any sense of return on capital invested”. It was with some interest then that, this past Friday, Zeitgeist saw that none other than George Clooney had stepped into the fray, calling Loeb an “activist” who “knows nothing about our business”. He lambasted the hedge fund industry in general, saying “if you look at those guys, there is no conscience at work”.

Clooney added that the “climate of fear” Loeb was creating would lead to even more risk-averse productions. It is creative, rather than financial risk, that Hollywood is sorely in need of. Art doesn’t engage audiences when it is timid and derivative. It inspires people when it is innovative, daring and different. Usually such creative thoughts do not spring forth from the mind of a hedge fund manager. Such new thinking – involving a review of a market research firms say is suffering from “overcrowding” – will require a significant course correction, one that is not going to come anytime soon. The summer slate for 2015 currently includes a Terminator sequel, an Avengers sequel, a Smurfs sequel, Independence Day 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

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