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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 Piracy Pivot – A new heading for copyright enforcement?

August 7, 2013 1 comment

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Pretty much seven years ago to the month, Zeitgeist was putting the finishing touches to his Master’s dissertation. It centered on intellectual property rights, and the infringement of those rights by consumers who were downloading content they weren’t paying for. Zeitgeist conducted multiple interviews, including several with key people at studios and industry bodies in Europe and Los Angeles. It was a time when the industry were trying to curtail piracy using massive fines and jail sentences, at the same time providing few legal alternatives for content consumption online (this latter issue is still a problem today). Needless to say, there were a fair amount of heads buried in the sand. We’ve talked about piracy before, from its murky impact on the bottom line to the stricture of copyright law.

It was refreshing to see the news reported by industry trade mag Variety that Comcast – a large cable operator in the US, which also owns NBCUniversal – is investigating new methods of disrupting piracy online. Specifically, they are planning to push pop-ups to those who are downloading content illegally, providing them with links to alternative domains where the same product can be downloaded legally. There are privacy concerns here, undoubtedly. What was most reassuring about the idea though was crystallised below by journalist Andrew Wallenstein, which for Zeitgeist hits the nail on the head:

Using pirated content as a platform to drive legal transactions reflects an alternate philosophy regarding copyright infringement, one that sees the illegal activity less as a crime that requires punishment and more as lead generation to a consumer whose behavior is borne out of inadequate legitimate digital content options.

The New News – Monetising Journalism in 2013

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“What the Internet has done is made a million sources of information available. It’s only a click away… The Internet has disrupted many industries. The newspaper business has been destroyed. It’s beginning to happen, arguably, to television. Consumer behaviour is changing!”

- Henry Blodget, editor-in-chief, Business Insider

Great minds may think alike, but they’re now consuming media on a plethora of different devices. Legacy media companies have been struggling in recent years to protect old revenue streams as the onslaught of digital disruption has rendered previous business models less than adequate. Recently, though, there have been signs of hope.

In television, Hulu and Netflix are increasingly showing themselves to be lifesavers of the long-format viewing, in an era where we are being increasingly distracted with short-term fixes, evinced by the success of social gaming product from companies like King. Hulu added 1 million paying subscribers in Q1 of this year and streamed over a billion videos. Netflix, after bravely investing in producing its own content with House of Cards, recently reported it has already recouped the sizeable $100m investment it made in the first season. It’s interesting, reassuring and quite logical to note the news that when Netflix enters a new market, piracy in the region drops. Let’s hope that legacy media companies are finally recognising the oblique connection here (and ponder less the millions of dollars lost over the years to pirated content at the expense of no legitimate alternatives). Though Borders has disappeared and Barnes & Noble may be in trouble, the book business is doing well, with 2012 being a “record year” for the industry. Digital downloads were up 66%, with physical purchases down only 1%. In music, the industry is slowly embracing a future (now very much a present) that has been staring them in the face since the start of the century with Napster and its myrmidons; digital sales rose 9% last year, helping overall sales to rise for the first time in a decade (see The Economist’s chart below). In South Korea, a region traditionally awash with pirated content, startup KKBox has come up with innovative ways to get people to pay for music again. They emphasise a sense of community – much like the one users felt they belonged to on Napster – bringing subscribers “closer to the regional music scene… Users can listen in real time as music celebrities make playlists of their favourite songs. There is also a KKBox print magazine and an annual awards show and concert, and it sponsors regional music festivals”. In other words, the offering goes beyond simply providing product to be streamed; it creates a cohesive world around the product.

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In 2012, music industry sales held steady for the first time in years. Digital sales continued to grow.

This cohesive world is in vogue at the moment; it represents most business justifications for investment in social media, and on a granular level again for investing in multiple networks, be they Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. This cohesiveness also allows for the exploitation of new revenue streams, something we’ve written about before. It’s a point that’s recognised by those in the newspaper industry. David Carey, head of the Hearst Magazines empire, has stated unequivocally that today “you need five or six revenue streams to make the business really successful”. It’s why companies like Monocle, which produces a high-end cultural magazine, has started a radio service that has been “profitable from the start, since normal commercial radio stations never deliver the kinds of listeners its high-end advertisers want”. And as advertising revenue dips below subscriber revenue, as it did recently at The New York Times and will do if it has not done so already at the Financial Times (FT), these new business models need to be set up and utilised, fast.

These discussions and others were up for debate at an event two weeks ago, hosted by the Media Society at the offices of the FT, examining the effects and implications of digital disruption. On a macro level, the problem has been with trying to get people to value content that is no longer physical. From the looks of it – not least from the evidence above -this is broadly starting to be achieved in the music, book and television industries. The problem, according to Laurie Benson, formerly of Bloomberg, was that the newspaper and magazine publishers took the genie out of the bottle, and “panicked”. For, unlike television content producers that seemingly buried their hand in the sand, those in the newspaper business immediately shoved all their content online, for free, in an effort / vain hope that advertising would continue to provide. Nic Newman, who spearheaded the BBC iPlayer initiative, said companies were still fundamentally struggling with mobile, which is especially important now it is considered “the first screen”. Moreover, social media, as well as providing an opportunity to construct a cohesive environment for the product being sold, has also, said Nic, hugely changed the way we find and discover news. The irony of his statement, given at the headquarters of the Financial Times, a paper with arguably the most opaque paywall in the industry – and with a zero-sum Facebook strategy – was not lost on Zeitgeist. On that note, Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com, spoke up, saying he was “very comfortable” with the paywall as it currently was. He admitted he was “worried” about what Twitter would do to their model (the tense should perhaps be what it is doing). Rob mentioned Forbes, which is now allowing direct outside contribution. This obviously makes the platform somewhat more exciting, and certainly more accessible. But what does Forbes mean now as a publication; what is their editorial position, asked Rob. Though many interesting questions were posed, answers were few and far between at the conference, and few initiatives were proposed.

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On a more granular level, what are businesses doing now to try and maximise revenue in print? We’ve discussed recommendations for print media before. Unsurprisingly, some of the more innovative – and perhaps controversial – models are coming from those publications outside the mainstream. Business Insider, and Vice, are two such examples. Insights into both publications (although defining these companies as only publications perhaps limits the perception of their offering) were covered in the same issue of The New Yorker last month.

Ken Auletta’s article about Business Insider, and its “disgraced Wall Street analyst”-turned editor, Henry Blodget, states that the blog “draws twenty-four million unique monthly users, more than CNBC”. Overhead is one clearly one of the main areas that such companies have over their legacy rivals, whose roots are in ink and paper; Business Insider could never hope to, nor would they wish to have 1,700 full-time staff, as the WSJ does. One of the innovative, intriguing and controversial things about the editorial of BI is it’s blending of hard news – “7 signs household finances are getting stronger” – with more off-the-wall, attention-grabbing, low-brow content – “3 teeth-whitening products that actually work”, “Here’s what NBA players looked like before they had stylists” and “The porn industry has already dreamed up some awesome ideas for Google Glass“. Blodget, who continues to write many stories himself, is seemingly as comfortable writing about budget-cliff negotiations with an accompanying eighteen charts, as he is writing about the experience of flying home economy class from Davos. Andrew Leonard, on Salon, called the latter “the stupidest article to be posted to the Internet in the year 2013 – and possibly the entire century”. The content may have indeed been questionable, but it’s part of an interesting strategy to cater to multiple mindsets of the same audience; Blodget says he wants to “put the fun back into business“. The New Yorker article describes how BI produces original content through research, including how Goldman Sachs lost the chance to be the lead under-writer in Facebook’s IPO, and questioning whether previously undisclosed emails showed that Zuckerberg really had stolen the idea for Facebook from the Winklevoss twins. A lot of the time though, BI links to reported news “and then adds its own commentary, as well as reactions from others”, what Blodget calls “halfways between broadcast and print… it’s conversational”. It’s also unquestionably lazy, but provocative, which is what – along with many slideshows, with each slide on a different page – earn the blog so many clicks. 85% of BI revenue comes from advertising, a dangerous ploy in a time when rates and interest in online platforms are either slipping or more generally failing to account for costs. Most of the rest of the pie comes from paid conferences, something that other publications – incumbent or otherwise – should take note of. People pay with their time, and sometimes money, for your expertise and opinion, so expanding this engagement into other adjacent opportunities is a wise move. To this point, the company has also hired analysts to create research reports on telco trends. The New Yorker comments, “The result is something like a private magazine that several thousand individuals and businesses receive, for $299 a year”. Other companies are experimenting with various monetisation methods. Andrew Sullivan’s publication The Dish is soon to be made subscriber-only, with no ads, as $20 a year. The good news is that people are starting to willingly pay for other digital content, such as books, music and film. But aside from BI’s small subscriber-based research section of the site – an exception on blogs – the greater worry is what the type of engagement we have with content online means for the type of content that is produced in order to cater for those tastes. Are we reaching the end of an era of nuance? The New Yorker again,

“Lengthy investigative pieces are rare on all-digital platforms. They are expensive to produce and, given a readership that has an average of four minutes to spare, not likely to attract a large audience. As economically beleaguered newspapers invest less in long-form reporting, digital publications are unlikely to invest more.”

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Journalism for Vice means creating content to be reported on, rather than simply reacting to developing news

Lizzie Widdicombe’s article on Vice magazine shows there is far more innovation to be developed in the publishing industry, as long as one is willing to stop thinking of oneself as publisher. Vice is by no-means an upstart, at least in the magazine world, but recently found itself on the global stage after having the sheer tenacity to organise Dennis Rodman to go to North Korea for an exhibition basketball game, sitting alongside the Dear Leader himself Kim Jong Un. The story ran with the headline, “North Korea has a friend in Dennis Rodman and Vice”. Immediately we see the lines between reportage and editorial, between analysing events and creating them, begin to blur considerably. The headline looked particularly careless when shortly after the ‘basketball diplomacy’, North Korea “scrapped its 1953 armistice with South Korea and threatened preemptive nuclear attack on the United States”. The Vice article detailed the “epic feast” they were treated to, which again seemed callous given the generational malnutrition that has led to stunted growth in the North Korean population. Journalism stalwart Dan Rather called the whole episode “more Jackass than journalism”. This is a very different type of journalism indeed. The company has 35 offices in 18 countries, with websites, book and film divisions as well as an in-house ad agency. Since 2002 it has operated a record label with albums from the likes of Bloc Party. The New Yorker article says “these ventures are united by Vice’s ambitions to becomes a kind of global MTV on steroids, [but] unlike MTV – which broadcasts a monolithic American vision of youth culture – [the international aim is] to ‘localise’ their sensibility”. According to Shane Smith, Vice’s CEO, ‘The overall aim, the overall goal is to be the largest network for young people in the world… to make content that young people actually give a shit about’”. Vice employees sometimes refer to the brand as “the Time Warner of the streets”.

It has made significant forays into video, with a channel on YouTube that attracts more than a million subscribers. Like Business Insider, Vice also blends the highbrow with the lowbrow in terms of content. On YouTube, the New Yorker reports, videos range from ‘In Saddam’s Shadow: 10 Years After the Invasion’, to ‘Donkey Sex: The Most Bizarre Tradition’. The company’s revenues are estimated at $175m for 2012. In 2011, Vice was valued at $200m, “and last year Forbes speculated that the company might someday be worth as much as a billion dollars“. Its newest venture is a show on HBO (owned by Time Warner), with the tagline ‘News from the edge’. The show “takes on subjects from political assassinations in the Philippines to India’s nuclear standoff with Pakistan”. It engages in what it calls ‘immersionism’, where Vice employees are sent out to these locations and more or less told to engage in practices of varying degrees of danger. The New Yorker says this type of reporting harkens back to that of Hunter S. Thompson, who pioneered “participatory journalism… Vice claims to have a similar objective. Introductions to the HBO series announce that it’s out to examine ‘the absurdity of the human condition’”. One of the reasons companies like Time Warner, News Corp (see image below) and Conde Nast have all made the pilgrimage to Vice’s offices in Brooklyn is that they are all terribly envious of the way the company has managed to engage and monetise their audience. As well as the HBO show, Vice also create supplementary material fro HBO.com that shows how the show was made. Its Internet presence is diverse, and this is where the multiple revenue streams and advertising opportunities come in, as The New Yorker elaborates,

“Web sites, including Vice.com; an ad network; and its YouTube channel… Vice makes more than 85% of its revenue online, much of it through sponsored content… Besides selling banner displays and short ads that play before its videos, Vice offers it advertisers the option of funding an entire project in exchange for being listed as co-creator and having editorial input. Advertisers can pay for a single video, or, for a higher price – $1-5m for twelve episodes… – they can pay for an entire series, on a topic that dovetails with the company’s image… At the highest end of the sponsorship spectrum are [content] verticals, in which companies can sponsor entire websites.”

North Face, for example, partnered with Vice to sponsor ‘Far Out’, where Vice employees visited “the most remote places on Earth”. CNN is attempting similar feats, in an effort to legitimise the partnership – for example with Jaeger Le Coultre – by producing content that has a connection with company’s brand values. Some of Vice’s content verticals are softer than others, so that they can be more advertiser-friendly. It is seen by some at Vice of returning to the original soap opera days, when P&G would sponsor a serial show. This has led to some longtime fans declaring the publication has become too safe – gone are the early magazine covers featuring lines of cocaine, for example. The New Yorker comments the result “can feel like a strange beast, neither advertising nor regular content but something in between”. Vice also have a Creators Project, “devoted to the intersection of art and technology”. They partnered with Intel, and content has included an article on a cinema hackathon, as well as an event where a non-profit and VFX company partnered with techies to develop new forms of “interactive storytelling”. Intel sponsored the event, the video of the event, the blog post and the entire Creators Project website. Over three years, the company has paid Vice “tens of millions of dollars annually… to fund and publicise similar projects”. It is part of Intel’s attempt to have itself perceived as more of an experience brand, a la Disney and Apple. Said the CMO, “We want to see Intel coverage in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone“. The video of the event is also put in YouTube, a company that is “crucial to Vice’s ability to expand” and which two years ago began paying Vice to make shows as part of a broader strategy to upend traditional TV – seen elsewhere in their recent Comedy Week. Such efforts from Vice form a feedback loop of good news that encourages investment from other individuals (such as former media mogul Tom Freston) and companies (such as Raine Group and advertising conglomerate WPP, a former employer of Zeitgeist). Vice is also planning a global, 24-hour news channel. Smith told The New Yorker, “Let’s say, hypothetically, you become the default source for news on YouTube. You get billions of video views, WPP monetises it. Then you are the next CNN“. This would be a dramatic shift in the way it makes its money now, from those sponsorships mentioned earlier. Quixotic efforts such as the North Korea trip, as well a recent bungling of a story on John McAfee, on the run from police, where Vice inadvertently gave his location away, would have to be curtailed. “If Vice does become a global news network, it might have to rethink some aspects of its prankster approach to reporting”.

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Murdoch and other CEOs have much to learn from Vice’s business model

It’s becoming abundantly clear then that what news publishers need to do to survive is embrace a diversity of platforms. This will be a long road for legacy incumbents. The FT now produces a great deal of video content, but it is still largely lost on the app and on the website. There is no hub where videos are categorised in any way. Few if any publications allow someone, upon purchasing a hard copy of the newspaper / magazine, to have access to that same content online, if only temporarily. These are simple but fundamental things that companies like this must do if they want to present their audience with a cohesive experience. That’s about operations and user experience. From a content perspective, journalism also faces new challenges. Fareed Zakaria, who Zeitgeist has been an avid reader of since the reporter’s days writing for Newsweek International, says Vice’s TV show for HBO has “loosened the format” of television reporting, as it tries “to get a news audience interested in the world”.

What are the implications of such a loosening? Vice CEO Shane Smith defended the company’s North Korea trip to The New Yorker, going on to say, “Is it journalism? It depends on what the definition of journalism is”. Um, well, yes, quite. If we’re to maintain any distinction between content that is supported and promoted by advertising, editorial that has a particular bent, and unbiased news rather than sensationalist reportage, we need to start having a serious conversation about what journalism is. In particular we need to discuss what the balance is between the desire to entertain and the task of informing the populace. If the onus is truly on the latter, then it becomes a genuine public good that must, at worst, be subsidised by public money. The issue The New Yorker raises in its article on Business Insider crystallises the dilemma; the medium in which people consume news has changed, thus so have their habits. They are now less likely to dedicate time to reading long articles; so writing these kind of articles is increasingly an unprofitable exercise. An end to thorough investigative journalism would surely have dire consequences. While fears over the death of journalism have been greatly exaggerated, a dramatic shift is underway, and perhaps for the worse. And that’s true no matter what your definition of journalism is.

Up in smoke: Trends in buying movies and content ownership

Like the main protagonist in The Artist, film audiences are increasingly falling out of love with physical film. A recent IHS Screen Digest webinar presented some interesting notes on home entertainment trends around the world. Most of it was far from good news for media companies.

Emerging markets are where a lot of industries are currently looking to for growth, from WPP to the Catholic church. The film industry is seeing growth here, too. China, which last year relaxed its quota on the number of foreign films it allows into the market every year, has seen record box office takings of late, with the release of Titanic being a major highlight. Russia, too, is seeing a new audience for film. On a macro level, countries like India and Brazil are seeing a significant growth in the middle classes. In other words, a group of consumers that has a larger amount of discretionary spending. Some of this spending will be allocated to home entertainment, in the form of video players, be they DVD or Blu-ray. However, this jars with the global decline in physical media spend, as viewers switch in droves to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon’s Lovefilm. Data from the IHS webinar revealed that the global growth in video players will not serve to offset the decline of spend on physical media.

As well as shifting from hard copy to soft copy products, consumers are also beginning to show a marked preference for renting over owning. This trend extends far beyond the film industry of course. Companies like Spotify spearheaded the idea in the music industry, the phrase “access trumps ownership” has long been a mantra there. The philosophy is affecting many lifestyle aspects, as demonstrated by The Economist’s recent front cover article. In Western Europe, rental is now the transactional consumption choice for digital movies. IHS data reported that the average US citizen rented 5.3 films last year. The company predicted that revenue from rentals will go up, returning to where they were in 2009, but in large part only because rental prices will go up. Dovetailing with the increasing consumer reluctance to buy physical discs is that the medium also appears “less and less attractive” for retailers. Blu-ray, which was supposed to revive the disc format, has not taken off in the way that was hoped; IHS data showed most Blu-ray owners still purchase a lot of movies on DVD rather than paying a premium for the HD version.

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The move from physical to digital formats is troubling to media companies because, IHS report, “transactional online movie spending will not reach levels of physical spend” anytime soon. Indeed, theatrical is predicted to take up an ever larger slice of the pie (see above). This is without considering relative externalities, such as piracy, which remains a huge problem in Asia. And while consumer spending on online movies will almost double in AsPac, the share in wider consumer spending on movies in the region will not move beyond the current share before 2016.

One solace could be found in cinemas, a special haven for a medium without distractions, providing ample opportunity to leverage some of the more irrational desires and behaviours of consumers. We wrote briefly about various opportunities recently, and it’s reassuring to see the news earlier this month that Digital Cinema Media in the UK, an advertising sales house jointly owned by Odeon and Cineworld, will “in the coming months” launch a mobile app that will attempt to track cinema visits in order to feed data back to advertisers. In return, audiences will get exclusive content, vouchers or free ice cream. Given that the cinema is surely one of the few areas where you can pretty much guarantee a captive audience, this sounds like a great idea. How much it will offset lost revenues from home entertainment though remains an open question.

UPDATE (30/4/13): Data gathered can sometimes be misleading of course because it fails to report things that are not being measured. Such is the case with the current trend, recently reported by The New York Times, of sharing multi-platform viewing accounts for products like HBO Go among friends and even strangers. This trend represents a threat to revenue, but also an opportunity to create further loyalty, if used wisely. Forbes questioned the legality of such activity in a follow-up article.

HMV: If you don’t fix it, you’ll end up broke…

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

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The name Margaret Anne Lake might not ring too many bells. But if you were in the UK towards the end of the twentieth century, you’ll be familiar with her alter-ego Mystic Meg.

Having made her name as an astrologer in The Sun, Meg was catapulted into the national consciousness when she was given a slot on the fledgling prime time National Lottery draw programme.

In an attempt to build excitement and pad out an event that took two minutes to complete, Meg was brought in to ‘predict’ the winners.

Her predictions were suitably vague.

The norm was something generally along the lines of “the winner would live in a house with a 3 in the number, in a town beginning with L or M and have bought their tickets from a woman.” with a sprinkling of astrological terminology for extra authenticity.

However it would seem that back in the mid-to-late 1990s Meg wasn’t the only one struggling to see what the future held. Far away from the glamour of TV, a number of well-paid businessmen were busy making decisions that would see their organisations squander their dominant positions.

And a couple of weeks ago, after struggling along for years, both HMV and Blockbuster UK, once leaders in their categories, hit the buffers and called in the administrators.

Bad Advice

The wisdom ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it‘ is relatively modern – it dates from 1977 – and was attributed to businessman Bert Lance in the May issue of the magazine Nation’s Business.

The phrase caught on, partly because it made a point in a catchy way. But like many wisdoms, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Just because something works now, doesn’t mean it always will. And those in position of responsibility have an obligation to future proof their organisation.

Back when Mystic Meg was in her pomp, the digital revolution that helped bring about the demise of both retailers was in its infancy. But signs of its potential were there, particularly for HMV.

The first was how people acquired their music.

Software that ripped files from physical storage, coupled with faster web connections, gave birth to peer-to-peer sharing. Programmes like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire removed the need for physical reproduction and distribution.

The whole entertainment industry never really came to terms with illegal downloads, opting to use legal threats and emotional blackmail, rather than adapting their businesses to meet the demand.

In reality, not all pirated content would ever  have been bought legally. Peer-to-peer applications offered users the freedom to sample new artists they would never have paid for and get digital versions of music they already owned physically, easily and without it costing them money.

One of the reasons people wanted their music digitally is the second reason the digital revolution helped bring about the demise of the likes of HMV – the way people consumed and stored music.

The emergence of the digital music player, culminating in the release of the iPod in 2001 meant that people also wanted their music in a new format. They could now store their entire collection on one machine.

When people had upgraded their vinyl to cassette, and then their cassettes to CDs, HMV had been in pole position and reaped the profits. However a digital format didn’t require physical stores and HMV didn’t react. Their model was suddenly ‘broke’, but they didn’t realise in time to fix it.

Avoiding failure

Can such demises be avoided? The future is notoriously hard to predict, but there are some guidelines that can help companies avoid suffering a similar fate to HMV.

1. Be alert to new and niche competitors

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, HMV may have considered their competition to be the likes of Tower Records, Virgin and Woolworths. When they all disappeared, it might have seemed that HMV had won the battle. In reality they were all killed by the same bullet. The game changed as companies diversified.

Back in 1981, following a dispute with Apple Corps, Apple Computing agreed not to enter the music business. Now, iTunes offers over 28,000,000 songs.

Just because someone isn’t a direct competitor now, doesn’t mean they never will be.

2. Keep an eye on the Path to Purchase

HMV didn’t suffer because people suddenly stopped wanting to buy new music or watch films. What changed was how people acquired their material.

Online downloads provided a new way to access digital music. For those who wanted physical media, Amazon et al provided an alternative way to buy CDs and DVDs. Now that nearly 80% of UK households have broadband connections, consumers can stream films at the press of a button or watch a dedicated Movies channel.

Sometimes people will still want physical media immediately, but just not often enough to sustain a business as big as HMV.

3. Understand the next generation

Many years ago, I worked in Woolworths. A large proportion of the music we sold was to youngsters spending their pocket money on their latest idol. While online might have been niche in the mid-to-late-90s, the youngsters of today have grown up with it. As a result, consumers under 35 won’t have had the opportunity to develop an engrained habit of buying their music in physical stores like HMV. Buying entertainment online is no longer an alternative, but the norm.

4. Play to your strengths

While online retailers can offer lower prices and a wider catalogue, physical retailers offer immediacy and have the opportunity to provide enhanced in-store engagement.

Shoppers want convenience, value and experience.

Browsing for and buying music, film and computer games ought to be a fun, pleasurable act. Online shopping will continue to grow across pretty much every category. Physical retailers need to understand their role in fulfilling shoppers’ needs. Sometimes it will be about delivering the product quickly and easily, but sometimes it will be making the act of shopping an enjoyable experience that merits a slight price premium.

5. Be prepared to change

Taking all of the above into account, it might be easier to spot how a business structure that is dominant now might not be so successful in the future. It is often said that defending a title is harder than winning it in the first place.

However, it can be done.

McDonalds have long dominated the fast food industry. Just over a decade ago, their restaurants were tacky red and yellow places with plastic seats.

Yet they saw that their competition was no longer just the likes of Burger King, but also other food outlets and increasingly the likes of Starbucks et al who offered a more pleasant in-store experience.

Now their outlets have all been refurbished with designer furniture and offer free wifi.

McDonald's sneak preview of world-first sustainable restaurant

They also observed other trends that would impact them. From obesity to ethical sourcing of produce and packaging, they adapted their business to stay one step ahead.

Their menu still offers the old favourites, but also includes lighter options. Their burgers come from British and Irish farms and much of their packaging is made predominantly from recycled materials.

As a result, they are still thriving on the high street.

On motion picture marketing – Star Trek shows the way

December 15, 2012 1 comment

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Zeitgeist was lucky enough to be a guest at the BFI Imax the other day when a select few members of the press, film industry folk, hangers-on and, yes, Trekkies, were shown footage from the Star Trek film to be released next summer, “Into Darkness”. It was a mere nine-minute clip of the film – the rest of which is still under lock and key / being edited under the watchful gaze of J.J. Abrams – but it was deemed enough to hold a Friday morning event around, with a very well-catered brunch afterward. What made the morning special was the presence of two of the stars, Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as the producer, Bryan Burk. The Q&A session, preceded by video salutations from J.J. and Simon Pegg, had many Trekkies in the audience aflutter and was a nice bit of promotion.

Regarding the footage itself, any excitement at seeing fleeting glances of futuristic shots brimming with portent were somewhat diluted by the fact that the same nine minutes were to be shown from that day before select showings of “The Hobbit”. Which of course means it was also pretty much immediately available on YouTube (if only to be removed, in an understandable but somewhat counter-intuitive move by the studio).

The status quo at the moment is one in which films often have longer life-spans than ever before (especially if more than one iteration is being shot simultaneously a la Lord of the Rings, or the studio making the film falls into financial trouble, as with the last James Bond film, Skyfall). If the production time isn’t longer, the lead-in for marketing certainly is. Disney’s Tron remake, which came out in 2010, was several years in the making. The marketing campaign was three and a half years long. One promotional tactic used was to give away free – but very scarce – tickets to select sneak peeks at the film, several months before its release, which at the time Zeitgeist took full advantage of.

This is not without drawbacks for the studio of course, as early bad press could scupper a film’s chance of commercial success. But in part perhaps recognising the need to constantly remind people of a product, in a society today that values instantaneous media and loves to second-screen, the risk is one worth taking. It’s especially appropriate if the film has a built-in, excitable fanbase, which both Star Trek and Tron do, and you can feed them occasional scraps to keep them satisfied. The TV series Lost, which invited similar nerdy inclinations – and was another brainchild of J.J. Abrams – made a similar move when the studio behind it released tantalising clips on YouTube in an effort to stir interest. Crucially, it also meant they beat the pirates at their own game. All in all it was a nice little bit of promotion by Paramount, creating coverage in media old and new as the stars gave interviews afterwards, and keeping die-hard fans on the slow-boil, ensuring the film remained top of mind while the final product remains a work in progress.

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.

Will the Olympics be derailed by public transport?

As the clock in Trafalgar Square ticks down, so the fearful anticipation of the impact 250,000 extra people will have on London’s already struggling transport network has risen to a level not seen since the prophecies of doom surrounding the Millennium Bug.

Thirteen years ago we were warned that planes would drop out of the sky and nuclear power plants would meltdown due to antiquated software, written when the memory used up by a couple of digits was a precious resource, being unable to cope with the new millennium. As it turns out, it was either a real false alarm or people got their houses in order well in advance.

This time we might not be so lucky. How can a service for who a perfect day is an annual event be expected to cope with so many additional passengers, many of whom will be using it for the first time?

In preparation, over the last couple of weeks, commuters have had messages announcing delays punctuated by a recording of Mayor of London Boris Johnson asking us to make alternative travel arrangements and to get ready for The Big One.

So, while transport workers will get bonuses to help them cope with the stress of having to do their jobs over the Olympics, ordinary commuters many of whom have paid thousands for annual travelcards in advance will get no compensation – maybe it’s time for a Passengers Union – for not being able to get to their workplace.

A conspiracy theorist might conclude that all the warnings and scaremongering are an attempt to create a sort of tipping point for working from home whereby employers and employees who are able to use this option do so, realise how convenient it is and begin to do so more often, thus reducing the strain on the network in the long run.

When ‘on-time’ is ‘late’ and ‘good’ is ‘not good’

The recent revelation that fewer than 70% of UK trains run on time will not have surprised many who travel by rail despite train companies usually reporting much higher punctuality rates (they give themselves a larger margin of ‘lateness’).

Such fanciful redefinitions of what is ‘on-time’ do little to win the trust of travellers who must feel persecuted that when so few trains are officially late, why is it always theirs that is?

While we are setting expectations, perhaps it is also time to redefine what is meant by a ‘good service’ on the Underground.

At the moment it is exclusively based on time and staff have discretion as to when to declare delays. For example, this article from the BBC highlights that a nine minute delay could still be deemed a good service.

But ask people to describe their journeys underground and as well as tardiness, they will complain about overheated and overcrowded trains.

Given the choice between getting somewhere ten minutes later in relative comfort or arriving earlier but having nearly melted on the way, many commuters would choose the former. Maybe we could be informed that ‘The Bakerloo line is running with a good but severely overcrowded service’ to help us pick how we want to get from A to B and to reduce the burden on overcrowded lines.

For all the fretting, there is little that can be done at this stage. We can only hope the ‘Big One’ is such an enjoyable experience that the abiding memory of the London Olympics is of athletes reaping the rewards of years of effort and not visitors suffering the consequences of years of underinvestment.

Hollywood and China

We have reported before on the quota China imposes on Hollywood films coming into the country.

Zeitgeist remembers being in a meeting while doing at stint at 20th Century Fox back in 2004, when presentations were optimistically suffixed with the potential for China to drop said limit. It was always an inevitability, and when last month DreamWorks Animation announced a pact with Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital, it was clear something bigger was on the cards. This has been the case for a while though, as US production companies have sought to get into China’s goodbooks with relevant films (witness Kung Fu Panda and the most recent iteration of The Mummy franchise).

Good news finally came to studio heads and cinema exhibitors. While the quota hasn’t been dropped, it has been dramatically extended to allow another 14 films into the market each year (from the current 20). This can only be good news for Hollywood, coming at a time when DVD and Blu-Ray revenue is slowing; Bloomberg recently reported that more films will be streamed than watched on disc this year. In China, however, views are mixed. Variety summarises,

“Theater owners are very upbeat, filmmakers are split — will this mean unnecessary competition, or a boost to moviegoing habits? — and Hong Kong industryites are watching things closely.”

The country already means big business for Hollywood, with the piece of rubbish that was Transformers 3taking in  $170mn, and Avatar making $210mn. Year on year, the number of screens in the country increased 33%. 803 cinemas opened in the past 12 months there. So the supply-demand ratio is currently extremely favourable (with Hong Kong hopefully not being a harbinger). One would have to be very naiive however not to consider the political landscape of China, which is inscrutable to say the least. Whether dealing with the electoral process in Hong Kong, or the media landscape – from TV to social media – it can be difficult to know where you sit at any time. Variety again,

“Filmmakers face… rigid – and opaque – standards of control and censorship [in China]… [I]f a filmmaker doesn’t meet those sometimes abstruse rules, it won’t be admitted.”

What the Chinese government will have some difficulty in regulating though is the black market, which should hopefully see film piracy diminish as a source of revenue. With an assumed lowering of cost per purchase of pirated film, it should mean even more Chinese get to see Hollywood product (though admittedly without compensating the studios for it, at least initially).

As well as receiving net net more money from China from its films, the deal made also allows Hollywood to receive 25% of the Chinese box office back on imported films, previously at 13%. What should be a lucrative influx of revenue for the film studios comes at a welcome time. Not only is the business shifting from discs to digital delivery – which currently is proving harder to monetise – it is also under increasing pressure to collapse its sacred windows – the time period between when a film is released in cinema, DVD, POV, TV, etc. A few weeks ago, Netflix, an increasingly powerful player in the mix as it broadens its availability to the UK, and becomes a content creator, called the windows structure “pretty archaic”.

While releasing films on multiple platforms simulataneously might produce a spike in opening weekend returns, it comes at the cost of angering a lot of cinema owners, who would not take kindly to the idea of their film being available to watch at home at the same time they are trying to charge you £12 to watch it in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers. Zeitgeist’s radical solution is to allow the windows to collapse, and then for the government to allow the film studios to vertically integrate with the exhibitors again, like in the old days. But that’s another article…

On Piracy

October 18, 2011 5 comments

The terribly dry yet fascinating Harper’s Magazine recently featured in its ‘Readings’ section an excerpted essay taken from a book, out this month, entitled Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy. The following is a summary and rebuttal of some of the key points made.

The excerpt begins in China, where intellectual property theft is, as most of us know, already rampant, and has been for several years. There are contributing factors for this. One is a market that allows around only 20 Hollywood films to be released every year. Another is the premium placed on legitimate DVDs sold in emerging economies like China. As The Economist reported in August, DVDs of The Dark Knight sell for $663 a copy in India. In China, the LA Times reports, counterfeit DVDs may have more special features than the genuine article. This last point taps into what most advocates of piracy usually tubthump; piracy gives people what they want. Not necessarily just regarding price – Zeitgeist would be hard pushed to fork out $663 for The Dark Knight – but also with regard to access and to functionality of the product. At The Future Laboratory‘s Spring/Summer trends briefing earlier this year, the emphasis was on loosening control over proprietary technology, collaborating with others in order to enhance innovation and ultimately help make the product better.

The product in question in this bazaar, however, is not DVDs; “There’s essentially just one product sold here: mobile phones.” The handsets are all knock-off, counterfeit items, playing on and abusing the brand equity of established companies with names like “Sansung”, “Motorloa” and “Sany Erickson”. It brings to mind the episode of the The Simpsons when Homer is duped by brands like “Panaphonics” and “Sorny”.

The competitive advantage for these products over their authentic brethren is the price. With no need for an R&D budget, the price of a “pirated Nokia N73 [is] $85, a fifth the cost of a real N73″. The author predicts sellers get an “extraordinary” 100% return on the initial investment. This, then, is big business. Big in the terms of holistic number of customers, returning multiple times, and big in the sense of the amount of profit it turns, and the number of people employed in such activities.

“The International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition… predicts that, with hundreds of thousands of industrial workers still facing unemployment and dislocation from the global recession, China will allow more piracy in order to prop up employment and avoid potential civil unrest.”

The author contends that this kind of behaviour is entrenched in society, and owes its debt to Bernard Mandeville, who argued for liberalising the market to the extent that things like tax-dodging, piracy and overcharging were “good for society”. The pamphlet in which he extolled his virtues became extremely well-known because pirates quickly got a hold of his six penny publication and distributed it in half penny sheets. This obviously made Mandeville no profit, but it raised his profile no end and, according to the author, “gave him the opportunity to publish a new edition”. Keeping as many people employed as possible, no matter the scrupulousness of their work, he argued, would lead to a better society than one dominated with excessive rules and regulations. And it seems, prima facie, that selling pirated goods allows access to consumers who can’t afford to pay full price. The difficulty, however, lies in whether the consumer can’t afford to or whether they just don’t want to. Whether someone whom a company would initially attempt to covet and convert to a prominent customer at a later age is instead lost to a world of pirated goods, which, not being subject to the same standards as the genuine article, ultimately disappoints the buyer and pushes them away from the brand entirely.

In a tale similar to that of Mandeville, the author Neuwirth suggests similarly that were it not for piracy, Shakespeare himself would also be confined to the realms of anonymity. During production of his plays, piracy allowed for other productions to run different versions – “King Lear was remade with a happy ending”, for example. In 1709, publisher Jacob Tonson bought the rights to the complete works, publishing them at a premium every fourteen years,  “enough to secure his perpetual copyright”. When one upstart pamphleteer threatened to sell the plays in sets for a fraction of the price, the argument that ensued resulted finally in Tonson flooding the market with plays sold at a penny.

“Shakespeare’s plays were suddenly available all over London at rock-bottom prices – something that had never been true even in the playwright’s lifetime. A century after his death, piracy helped make William Shakespeare a household name across social classes.”

Without deep research it is hard to dispute this intriguing interpretation, except to say that some of the adaptations of the plays may well have fallen under today’s terms of ‘fair use’, and that perhaps what this example really demonstrates is the need for a regulatory environment, one that stipulates that culture be accessible to all, rather than leaving it to excessive price gouging. Similar stories occur in the present-day as Neuwirth moves on to illustrate the situation in Peru, where “more books are sold in pirated editions than official versions”. The price for a legitimate copy of a book is too steep for most people to afford; thus the piraters are the ones that undertake market research, attend book fairs, etc. This is a dramatic fault with the publishing industry in Peru, which clearly has missed business opportunities here by not aliging prices sufficiently with customer demand. This again, then, is an example where regulators should be stepping in to correct market deficiencies. It is not necessarily an excuse for piracy to be celebrated. An absence of morality is not an imprimatur for immorality.

The Business Software Alliance affirms that in 2008, piracy cost software companies $53bn. The author rightly challenges this, writing that the BSA “assumes that every pirated program represents a lost sale at full retail price”. With relatively high prices for products like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, this thinking by the BSA is indeed questionable. In some cases, initial access to a pirated copy, much in the same way a legitimate trial version works, might well help incentivise the consumer to purchase the full, legal product. Interestingly, the author quotes a note, hidden away in the BSA’s results,

“‘Business, schools and government entities tend to use more pirated software on new computers than ordinary consumers do’. The government – the same entity that the industry calls upon to police piracy – is actually one of piracy’s largest patrons.”

This revelation is startling as it turns the notion that it is consumers who are the wrongdoers, consumers who need the educating, on its head.

The notion of piracy contributing positively to business turnover is a tough one though. The author contends that in the world of fashion, going from a world of ‘planned obsolescence’ (a term used for things like when BMW will decide to release their new version of the 7 series), to “induced obsolscence”, where piracy “spurs demand for new styles”. This may be so in some sort of roundabout way, but the presence of piracy can surely be said to do little for the customer trying to differentiate between the legal and the illegal product, and little for the brand. Louis Vuitton et al. have surely suffered considerable losses over recent years, and invested significant amounts of time and money on combatting piracy. Though an anonymous executive of a “major sneaker manufacturer” might concede piracy doesn’t really impact the bottom line, it is debatable as to whether this is the case for those in the high-fashion world.

Ultimately, while the rise of pirated goods allows consumers more options, it also requires them to be increasingly savvy about the products they are purchasing. An over-regulated environment may stifle innovation; collaboration among multiple entities has been proven to sometimes enhance the development of a product. Quality of craftsmanship is necessarily going to be harder to discern when purchasing a pirated good, though. The trick is to create a legal framework that allows businesses to thrive, to provide their customers with a product at the right price, and to employ people who are protected under laws that they would otherwise not be granted under illegal outfits.

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