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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.

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

August 4, 2013 1 comment
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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.

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

December 1, 2012 4 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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