“The film market in China is like an experimental supermarket – with more and more racks but only one product… The viewers don’t care what they see as long as it’s a film. They’ll watch whatever is put in front of them.”
- Zhang Xiaobei, CCTV
LA is “a favourite place for Chinese businessmen to do business”, according to the objective opinion of China’s general counsel to Los Angeles. And that was back in 2011, before China extended its annual quota of foreign films allowed to be exhibited on the mainland. We’ve written before about the relationship between Hollywood and China, which in the two years since we wrote that piece has only deepened. It’s little wonder; EY has predicted China will be the largest film market in the world by 2020. Revenue is being squeezed in the film industry as millennials hang out on their smartphones and games consoles. When they do pay for movies, it’s more likely to be streamed rather than owned. Worse, that stream may be hosted by someone like Netflix, whose burgeoning clout makes negotiations for license fees increasingly difficult. So China provides a timely cash cow; an antidote to Western media fragmentation and fatigue. But at what cost?
China’s economic rise to superpower status has logically meant a rise in its viability as a place to invest in. From infrastructure, where cinemas screens have been springing up at the unbelievable rate of seven a day (as of May this year), to co-productions between Hollywood and homegrown Chinese outfits. These collaborations have resulted in overt references to China in storylines, such as that seen in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Karate Kid and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, or the additional scenes filmed for Iron Man 3. This also includes the more recent Transformers: Age of Extinction, which saw not only a large part of the film take place in Hong Kong, but also included local talent and featured a mind-boggling amount of inappropriate product placement from Sino brands. The few production companies in China are also expanding, looking beyond more traditional propaganda fare, as well as to foreign markets, as is the case with China Film Group.
But the film industry in China is not quite as rosy as it appears. Interestingly, there have been few efforts at US talent getting involved in Chinese productions. This may be partly due to the mess that was The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, which was reportedly little more than a propaganda piece. And from a content point of view, caution has been the watchword for studios; The producers of World War Z removed a discussion over whether the zombie apocalypse started in China; Chinese villains were edited out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Men in Black 3. Is that really necessary? And while scripts are edited to appear more appealing to China, so are balance sheets. For while Transformers 4 is now China’s highest-grossing movie of all time, according to The Hollywood Reporter, what THR don’t mention was the way the gross is measured. For, says Julie Makinen, a China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, box office revenue is arbitrarily inflated. She elaborates,
“I think everyone agrees there’s some fudging that goes on… It’s fairly common to go into a theater, say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy a ticket for Transformers,’ and they say, ‘Great,’ and they print out your ticket for a local romantic comedy. So I’m pretty sure the 20 bucks I just handed over is being counted in someone else’s basket. Things like that happen; a lot of statistics in China are suspect.”
Moviegoers aren’t being particularly discriminating yet because the act of going to the cinema as an event or experience is still a relatively new phenomenon for many. Product placement, which we referred to earlier, while an opportunity for some synergy between film and brands, risks being too commercial and overt if done without context. A recent article in the Financial Times said such promotions in Transformers 4 quickly “start flying faster than bullets from an Autobot’s wrist-mounted Gatling gun”. Apart from bringing viewers out of the fictional narrative into reality, creating a disappointing experience, inappropriate product placement can also cause ire between businesses. (We’ve written several times over the years about product placement, here.) Such an occurrence took place at the end of July when a tourism group in China sued Paramount Pictures for failing to show a logo of the park that the company had paid to be prominently displayed in the movie. The implementation of co-productions between the two countries evidently needs work too. Scenes added exclusively for a Chinese version of Iron Man 3 added little except some questionable product placement as well as the dubious plotline of Tony Stark heading to China, of all places, for medical convalescence. Lastly, the current quota of films to be exhibited in China means that many good-quality US films fail to be seen in the country. Much like bans on US games consoles and the Android app store, Google Play, the result of this has been an explosion of home-grown imitators. In this case, films in China are made that precisely mimic the formula and set-up of popular American franchises like The Hangover, which was never seen by Chinese audiences, thus the extent of emulation isn’t evident. Assuming that eventually the quota will be entirely relaxed, this type of tactic can only ever be a short-term measure.
One of the greatest opportunities the film industry in China has is in part due to one of its greatest weaknesses. Because of historically protracted release windows, and a narrow selection of films making it to cinemas, piracy has been rampant. Indeed, infringement has been widespread enough that the industry has had seemingly no choice but to innovate. We reported back in April how China has relaxed its embargo on foreign games consoles, and, more to the point, how Tencent, in partnership with Warner Bros., were making the latest 300 film available to rent, while the film was still in cinemas in the US. Such forward-thinking is welcome. As well as offsetting any losses from piracy, it also hopefully points the way to a more open business environment in China, at least for TMT companies. Such innovative thinking will need to be extended, however, to the structure of China’s film industry itself, which is reportedly a vertically integrated engine driven almost entirely at the whim of the state.
Just as China’s tastes have held increasing sway over the production of art and wine in recent years, so with film. The middling global box office performance of Pacific Rim found salvation in Asia, and that was all the justification needed for a franchise to be developed. There is certainly much to be gained from investment and co-productions in China’s films industry, especially while it is still relatively nascent, not least of which are the financial returns. How such relationships impact the content itself is another matter. Hopefully some of the approaches China is taking with regard to multi-platform releases might even trickle over to Western markets. Studios should also be wary about putting all their eggs in one basket; CNBC reports that growth in ticket sales for Hollywood films in mainland China hit a five-year low in 2013. Only three US movies made the top ten highest-grossing films in China last year, down from seven in 2012. One reason for the slowdown is a lack of variety. And yet don’t expect the blockbuster formula to change anytime soon; as much as it was born in the USA, it is also what audiences in the worldwide market love to gobble up. (Michael Bay’s films – expertly dissected in the above video – prove that point no end, and it has been particularly driven home recently as Bay himself as well as sometime employee Megan Fox have expressed nonchalance about any negative press from critics, knowing their products make millions despite nasty reviews. Specifically, actress Fox told naysayers to “F*ck off”.) There is a certain amount of momentum behind the two industries’ relationship with one another, but recent productions have shown that future projects should perhaps be treated with a little more caution, particularly as Chinese audiences tastes mature. Last month the film historian Neal Gabler was quoted in the Financial Times, in a point that usefully sums up this piece,
“The overseas market has changed the DNA of American movies… The bigger-faster-louder aesthetic is very deeply embedded in the American psyche. No one else can do it. It’s one of the reason they export so well. It’s so much a part of who we are. But we have been victims of our own success. It’s a Catch-22. The things that make our movies so popular overseas are now larger than the American market can support by itself.”
UPDATE (30/8/14): The production side of the industry continues to evolve, as China’s largest video website Youku Tudou demonstrated on Friday when it promised to produce 8 films for cinema release and 9 to premiere on the internet. Chairman and Chief Exec Victor Koo pointed out to the Financial Times that there was a gap in the market left by Hollywood, “The US film industry is highly developed. It tends to be either blockbusters or franchise films. But in China you’re talking about small to mid to large budgets…”. The logistics of creating a film for online release – more than likely to be consumed on a smartphone – must consider important limiting factors such as, according to Heyi Film chief exec Allen Zhu, smartphones in China running films get “very hot after 20 mins”. Youku Tudou’s plans may seem ambitious – particularly given it reported a $26m loss for the second quarter – but when 18 screens are erected in China every day (last year more cinema screens were added in China than the total in France), it seems a risk some are willing to take.
It’s not quite as cool as Bond in his Tom Ford suit leaning on his wonderful Aston Martin while he plots his next move to unseat some despot. All the same, Germany’s recent apparent spate of typewriter purchases points to a renewed sense of fear of being overheard and compromised in an era of digitally pervasive content, vulnerable networks and indelible conversations. Spying and intelligence concerns coalesced with subject matter we’ve previously written about – including online privacy, governance, security and the internet of things – in a special report in last week’s The Economist, which produced eight articles on the subject of security in a digital landscape. Some highlights:
- Cybercrime is costly. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates the annual global cost of digital crime and intellectual-property theft at $445 billion – a sum “roughly equivalent to the GDP of a smallish rich European country such as Austria”.
- Focus on prevention rather than reaction. As with many things, the best way to make sure cyberattacks aren’t too damaging to your business is to make sure they never happen in the first place. It’s more difficult (and costly) with digital security because the process can easily feel like a Sisyphean struggle; businesses invest in new technology only to see it circumvented by more hacking, perhaps exposing a different loophole or vulnerability. But an iterative approach is better than leaving the door open and spending more money after the fact.
- Honesty is the best policy. After being hacked, a company can find it hard to admit it. This is understandable. Not only is it somewhat embarassing, it admits to customers and shareholders that the company is vulnerable, but it also suggests that their data is not safe with said company; perhaps they should shop elsewhere. However, transparency in such a situation is paramount if others are to learn how to combat such attacks. One suggestion is that the US government “create a cyber-equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates serious accidents and shares information about them”.
- Who to complain to? The perpetrators of cybercrimes are no longer limited to the teenaged hackers of yesteryear. Though ideological groups like Anonymous serve as a disruptive influence, often the biggest problems are caused by the governments charged with protecting things like individual privacy, security and freedom of speech. From the US to China, authorities “do not hesitate to use the web for their own purposes, be it by exploiting vulnerabilities in software or launching cyber-weapons such as Stuxnet, without worrying too much about the collateral damage done to companies and individuals”.
- External trends point to a worsening of the problem. The Internet of Things as a trend will have billions of devices connected to each other via the Internet over the next few years. With one of the fundamental ideas being that the user isn’t really aware of the connection, the likelihood of spotting a hacked device becomes all the smaller. This isn’t a huge problem in cases like a connected fridge receiving spam email, but it becomes more of a problem when hackers can gain remote control of your car. One of the barriers to improved security for everyday devices is that the margins are razor-thin, as are the chips to connected to the devices, in order to keep the product small. Any added security software or hardware and the cost and size of the product increases.
Zeitgeist believe the risk to IoT devices will be one of the key areas that businesses and regulators will need to focus their efforts in the future. Because it is still a relatively fledgling sector, the issue is not being discussed yet in many places. Deloitte, in association with the Wall Street Journal, recently reported on the nature of cyberrisks and how companies can help mitigate them. Well worth a read.
Having studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).
Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.
Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.
Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,
“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”
Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,
“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”
While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.
The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.
UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.