We’ve written about Sony multiple times over the years, rarely in a good light. A parody Twitter account of the company’s CEO, Kazuo Hirai, often makes for entertaining reading. The company can’t seem to catch a break. Its latest financial results, released today, warned of a $2.2bn loss for the financial year, the sixth loss in seven years. For the first time since 1958, the company will not pay a dividend. Much of the blame fell to the ailing smartphone division, which generates a fifth of the company’s revenue, but other businesses hurt the conglom too. The company loses $80 on every TV sold; rumours abound they will sell the Spider-Man franchise back to Marvel for a quick payday; the one bright light, Playstation, which took the company into the black in Q2, is beginning to seem risky, as customers look beyond single-use devices like games consoles, a trend we spotted back in January last year. (Earlier this week, Microsoft continued to hint that it might spin off the Xbox business). Sony recently spun off its TV division into a subsidiary and sold its PC business. These actions in turn were supposed to bear fruit, but clearly haven’t.
Much of the difficulty Sony faces was elaborated on in detail in a brilliant profile of then-CEO Sir Howard Stringer for The New Yorker, back in 2006. Little has changed since then. In today’s FT, the newspaper outlines the longevity of Sony’s heartache.
June 1999 Nobuyuki Idei becomes chief executive. Four years later he presides over the infamous Sony “Shokku”, or shock, in which the group surprised investors with a profits warning.
June 2005 British-born Howard Stringer becomes chief executive, the first foreigner to lead Sony with a mandate to restore profitability and turn the core electronics business round.
September 2005 Sir Howard’s first major restructuring initiative outlines a plan to cut staff numbers by 10,000, or 7 per cent, and reduce costs by Y200bn. It will also close 11 manufacturing plants, streamline its number of products and generate capital from asset sales. “We must be like the Russians defending Moscow against Napoleon, ready to scorch the earth to stay ahead of the invaders. We must be Sony United and fight like the Sony warriors we are,” he says.
December 2008 A second wave of restructuring begins with plans to cut 16,000 full-time and part-time jobs in its electronics businesses around the world.
2011 Sony downgrades its net income forecasts four times.
March 2012 The group highlights its digital imaging, game and mobile units as the three core pillars of its electronics business.
April 2012 Kazuo ‘Kaz’ Hirai takes over as chief executive. Sir Howard says he will be a “tough-mind[ed]” leader. The first restructuring under Mr Hirai is outlined under the banner of “Sony will change”. Sony will shed 10,000 jobs, or about 6 per cent of its global headcount, over the next three years.
March 2013 The group reports its first full-year net income in five years.
October 2013 Sony warns on profits.
January 2014 Moody’s cuts Sony rating to junk.
February 2014 Plans to spin out the television business and sell the Vaio PC business are announced.
May 2014 Sony warns on profits for the third time in six months.
July 2014 The group surprises the market by swinging into profit for the second quarter.
September 2014 Sony warns that its expected annual net loss will be nearly five times as big as initially predicted at Y230bn.
A recent essay for Foreign Affairs, “The State of the State”, criticises Western governments for failing to innovate. The authors make an unfavourable comparison with China, which, though still autocratic in nature, has at least looked abroad for ways to make the state work better (if only in a necessarily limited scope). One doesn’t need to look much farther than France to see what happens when the state fails to innovate. President Hollande has done his very best to inculcate a backward ideology of indolence among its workers, but the negative effects of over-regulation have been present in France for some time. One major step that is in drastic need of undertaking is the simplification of France’s opaque labour laws, the code for which runs to 3,492 pages, according to a recent article in The Economist. A stark and laughable example of the limits of such a code is elaborated on below,
“[The code] impose[s] rules when a firm grows beyond a certain limit: at 50 employees, for example, it must create a works council and a separate health committee, with wide-ranging consultative rights. So France has over twice as many firms with 49 staff as with 50.”
France of course also has a strong sense of state oversight and sponsorship when it comes to the media industry. L’exception culturelle has long dominated discourse about what content is appropriate and designated to be high art. Such safeguarding of domestic product has been a thorn in the side of late of the EU / US trade partnership, threatening to derail negotiations. Some have argued that such promotion of homemade productions serves not to diminish foreign imports – a love of Americana has not subsided in France – but rather only to preserve a niche. Regardless, argues a recent editorial in one of France’s national newspapers, it has left the country’s media sector susceptible to disruption.
Today’s Le Monde newspaper features a front page editorial on the arrival Monday to the country of Netflix. The company announced its plans for European expansion at the beginning of the year. It won’t have everything its own way, though. Netflix will have to adapt to a very different market environment. The Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) market is well-established, and it will see much competition from incumbents (last year annual revenues for companies based in France providing such services exceeded EUR10m). Moreover, current government policy dictates a 36-month long window from cinema release to SVOD. We’ve argued against the arbitrariness of such windows before, for a variety of reasons, but here such policy surely negatively impacts Netflix’s projected revenues. Such projections will be curbed further by stringent taxes and a further dictat that SVOD services based in France with annual earnings of more than EUR10m are required to hand over 15% of their revenues to the European film industry and 12% to domestic filmmakers, according to France24. As well as traditional competition, Netflix also faces threats from OTT rivals, such as FilmoTV. One possible way around such competitor obstacles is the promotion of itself as a complementary service. The New York Times earlier this spring elaborated,
“Analysts say Netflix, which has primarily focused on older content more than on recent releases, could also survive in parallel to European rivals that have invested heavily in new movies and television shows. Netflix in some ways serves as a living archive, with TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from the 1990s or movies like “Back to the Future” from 1985. Such fare has enabled the company in Britain, for example, to partner with the cable television operator Virgin Media, which offers new customers a six-month free subscription to Netflix when they sign up for a cable package.”
Such archive content will come in handy, particularly given that, as Le Monde points out, Netflix has previously sold the rights to its flagship series ‘House of Cards’ to premium broadcaster Canal Plus. The article hesitates to guess how much of a success the service will be in France – something Citi has no problem in doing, see chart below – instead looking to the music industry for an analogy, where streaming has become a dominant form of engaging with the medium. As in other markets, streaming services have met with increasing success, particularly with younger generations. For Le Monde, the arrival of Netflix will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers, but the paper also hopes it will blow away the cobwebs of an industry that has become comfortable in its ways; it hopes the company will provide a piqûre de rappel (shot in the arm) for the culture industry. Netflix’s ingredients – by no means impossible to emulate – of tech innovation, easy access and pricing and a rich catalogue, should be a lesson to its peers. The editorial only laments that it took an American company to arrive on French shores for businesses to get the message.
UPDATE (16/9/14): TelecomTV reported this morning that Netflix has partnered with French telco Bouygues. The company will offer service subscriptions “through its Bbox Sensation from November and via its future Android box service. Rival operators are refusing to host Netflix on their products”.
It’s no secret that the publishing industry is struggling mightily as customers shift from paying for physical newspapers and magazines to reading information online, often for free. The shift has caused ruptures among other places at that bastion of French journalism, Le Monde, with the recent exit of the editor as staff rued the switch to online. So-called ‘lad’s mags’, the FHMs and Loaded magazines of the world, have been hit particularly hard, as the family PC and dial-up internet gave way to personal, portable devices and broadband connections, which provided easier access to more salacious content than the likes of Nuts could ever hope to provide. FHM’s monthly circulation is down almost 90% from a 1998 peak, according to the Financial Times. Condé Nast have pushed bravely into the new digital era, launching a comprehensive list of digital editions of its wares when the iPad launched in 2010. More recently, the company launched a new venture, La Maison. In association with Publicis and Google, the idea is to provide luxury goods companies with customer insights as well as content and technology solutions. We’ve often written about the need for more rigorous customer insights in the world of luxury, so it’s refreshing to see Condé Nast innovating and continuing to look beyond newsstand sales. We’ve written about other ways publishers are monetising their content here and here.
Time Warner is not alone then in its struggles for new ways of making money from previously flourishing revenue streams. According to The New York Times, Time Warner will be spinning off its publishing arm, Time Inc., with 90 magazines, 45 websites and $1.3bn in debt. In 2006, the article reports, Time Inc. produced $1bn in earnings, which has now receded to $370m. Revenue has declined in 22 of the last 24 quarters. This kind of move is not new. Rupert Murdoch acted in similar fashion recently when he split up News Corporation, creating 21st Century Fox. But with the publishing side of the business there were some diamonds in the rough for investors to take interest in; a couple of TV companies, as well as of course Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, which has been invested in heavily. Conversely, the feeling of the Time Inc spin-off was more one of being put out to pasture, particularly as the company will not have enough money to make any significant acquisitions. Like the turmoil at Le Monde, there have been managerial controversies, as those seeking to shake things up have tried to overcome historical divisions between the sales and editorial teams – something other large business journalism companies are reportedly struggling with – only to be met with frustration.
Setting that aside, Time Warner moved swiftly. A day later, the FT reported that the company was “finalising an investment” in Vice Media. We have written extensively about Vice previously, here. The company certainly seems to know how to reach fickle millennials, through a combination of interesting, off-beat journalism, content designed to create its own news, as well as compelling video documentaries that take an unusual look at topical subjects. Such an outlook however does not preclude it from partnering with corporations. As a millennial myself, it seems what people look for from those like Vice is authenticity, rather than the vanilla mediocrity arguably offered by others. We don’t mind commercialism as long as it’s transparent. It does not jar then when Intel is a major investor in its ‘content verticals’, or when last year 21st Century Fox invested $70m in the company. This bore fruit for the movie studio most recently in a tie-up promoting the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The sequel takes place 10 years after the 2011 film, and Fox briefed Vice to create three short films that would fill in the gaps. A great ploy, and the result is some compelling content to keep fans engaged in the run-up to the film’s release, particularly in territories where the film opens after the US market. Such activity is far beyond the purview of the traditional newspaper. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Publishers must face up to the reality that newspapers alone will not deliver enough revenue to be sustainable. Seeking other content revenue streams while engaging in strategic partnerships with other companies looks, for now, to be a winning formula.
UPDATE 08/07/14: When it comes to engaging with millennials, mobile is most definitely the medium of choice. The FT reported today on Cosmopolitan magazine’s 200% surge in web visitors, year on year in May. Fully 69% of page views were from mobile devices (compared to a 25% average for the rest of the web). The publication has also wised up to the type of content this group likes to consume, as well as create. Troy Young, Hearst’s president of digital media, said the new site is “designed for fast creation of content of all types… Posts aren’t just text and pictures. They’re gifs, Tweets, Instagrams.” Mobile will only get the company so far though. PwC thinks US mobile advertising spending will account for only 4.6% of total media and entertainment advertising outlays this year. Cosmo is looking beyond mobile though to “exclusive events or experiences”, perhaps along the same lines as those other businesses are practicing who are looking for additional revenue streams. The article suggests users might “pay to see the first pictures of an occasion like Kanye West’s and Kim Kardashian’s recent wedding”. Beggars can’t be choosers.
UPDATE 10/07/14: Have all these corporate manoeuvres on the part of Time Warner been in the service of making itself appear an attractive acquisition? As the famous and clandestine Sun Valley conference takes place this week, rumours abounded that Google or 21st Century Fox were both interested in buying TW. This according to entertainment industry trade mag Variety, which commented, “Time Warner could be an attractive target. Moreover, unlike Fox or Liberty Media, it is not controlled by a founder or a founder’s family and with a market cap of $63.9 billion it is a relative bargain compared to the Walt Disney Co. and its $151 billion market cap”.
Apple seems to be at a bit of a cross-roads at the moment. Attending a Mobile World Congress wrap-up event in Cambridge last week, Zeitgeist listened carefully to one of the key speakers, William Webb, casually toss off the following epithet; “Since Steve Jobs died, so has all innovation… Everyone was catching up with Apple, then they did and Apple ceased to innovate.”
As a brand, the company is still strong. The above TV spot is one of the more effective pieces of advertising on the box right now. As a service, the story is less clear. So much ink has been spilled over the years writing about the imminent arrival of a fully-fledged Apple TV service, that the most recent rumours with Comcast did little to raise expectations. Variety called a deal between the two companies “improbable”. Elsewhere, Business Insider said yesterday it was time for Apple to launch a music subscription service – the chart below will make tough reading for the iTunes side of the business, with negative growth in 2013.
Strategic clarity seems to have escaped the company of late. Are Apple’s greatest days behind it then? We say, don’t bet on it.
Last night, Zeitgeist eagerly devoured the first episode of the new season of Netflix‘s House of Cards, a series that has received lavish praise – not least from us – both for its content and its position as vanguard of a new wave of television distribution, production and consumption. The series lead, Frank Underwood, takes on his competition with a ruthless lack of morality that is unlikely to jar with those in the cutthroat television industry. The New York Times recently featured an excellent piece on the series, focusing on the showrunner Beau Willimon, the unique nature of doing such a show with Netflix, which among other things guaranteed 26 shows upfront, and the new mood of “post-hope” politics. Is traditional linear TV entering its own post-hope state?
Such talk of impending doom makes for nice editorial (which Zeitgeist is not averse to), but how true is it? To some extent, such new forms of consumption are being hampered by externalities as the platforms make the switch from early adopters to the everyday consumer. Indeed, Netflix’s sheer popularity is proving to be a thorn in its side. In November last year, Sandvine reported that the content Netflix provides now accounts for almost a third of internet traffic in the US. This staggering figure no doubt accounts for at least part of why internet speeds take such a distinct hit during primetime viewing hours (see chart below). As Quartz has the insight to point out, such issues are less to do with intentional throttling and more to do with peering agreements between ISPs and content providers.
Such issues are likely to be ever more prevalent as the notion of net neutrality continues to come under attack. At the end of last month, a federal appeals court overturned the Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet Order, which had stipulated that ISPs could not prejudice one type of internet traffic over another. The fear of any such policy being overturned has always been one of the creation of a two-tier internet, where people who can afford faster internet get preferential access, and companies are free to charge distributors differing amounts based on the type or amount of content they are delivering. Such consternation was also felt in government, where five US senators called on the FCC chairman to “act with expediency” to preserve the open internet. The news immediately caused concern for Netflix, as shareholders fretted that ISPs might start to charge the company for the traffic it takes up. CEO Reed Hastings responded categorically,
“Were this draconian scenario to unfold with some ISP, we would vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet they are paying their ISP to deliver.”
Consolidation and the narrowing of choice took a further hit on Wednesday this week when Comcast announced it would buy all of Time Warner Cable for $44.2bn. The choice on cable landscape is already limited for the US, so it will be interesting to see what regulators make the deal. Chad Gutstein, former COO of Ovation, an independent arts-focused cable channel, penned an article in Variety saying that any concerns over the deal should be restricted to the possibility of abuse of a dominant position, rather than simply market share.Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, writing in The New Yorker, rightly points out that the FCC should be approving such mergers only if they serve the public interest. He sees no such possibility in this instance, where the most pressing need for cable customers is lower prices. Last year, he writes, Comcast collected about $156 a month on average, per customer. For cable. Professor Wu contends that the merger would put Comcast in a position that would make it easier to raise prices further. This, despite the fact that conditions created via the merger would technically put the company in a position where it could create savings, both through economies of scale and more advantageous negotiating positions with programmers like ESPN and Viacom. Of course, Comcast is probably keen on preserving if not extending margins as it faces increasing competition from players like Netflix and Amazon. Cord cutting may be in vogue now, but Comcast will try to combat this by creating what is called ‘lock-in’. Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group, is quoted in the New York Times; “Comcast and the new, giant Comcast are going to do as much as they can to stop you from unbundling. In order for you to get content you like, you’re going to be pushed to pay the cable bill, too”. Such tactics will test the limits of customer inertia, but only if they have somewhere else to go as a viable alternative.
The switch to online viewing is also raising issues of policy change in the UK. Public service broadcaster the BBC has long left it unclear as to at what point requiring a TV licence is mandatory, leaving citizens to infer that simply owning a television set is reason enough. Recently though, the broadcaster finally clarified that owners can use their TV, with no fee, to play games, watch DVDs, basically do anything that doesn’t involve watching live television. For the moment, this also includes their IPTV offering, iPlayer. In an article earlier this month, The Economist said the fee was “becoming ever harder to justify”. Antonella Mei-Pochtler of the Boston Consulting Group, quoted in the article, believes the increasing trend of young people to timeshift their viewing is likely to become ingrained. Coupled with the growth of internet-connected TVs, this is bound to accelerate a shift away from traditional linear consumption. The BBC is soon to begin developing premium content for its iPlayer service in order to seek additional revenue streams that may offset a decline in fees paid. But as The Economist points out,
“[T]hat would suggest, dangerously, that the BBC is like any other optional subscription service. Folding on-demand services into the licence fee could also amplify calls for the BBC to share its cash with other broadcasters, not least because such consumption may be precisely measured.”
When we look at the market for television sets and set top boxes, the news isn’t that superb either. The curved TVs debuted at CES in January are surely little more than a distraction. Last week, Business Insider reported that Sony is to finally spin off its TV operations into a separate unit, amongst news of $1.1bn in losses and 5,000 job cuts. But while we’ve talked of consolidation and narrowing choice, we also need to recognise this is also a period of unprecedented choice for consumers. As a recent article on GigaOm points out, there are millions of channels on YouTube alone. There are growing pains. As consumption of such content moves “to the living room”, the article details various sub rosa negotiationsby retailers like Walmart with their own video market, or players like Netflix willing to pay top dollar to put branded buttons on remote controls. What is clear, with all the issues described in this post, is that consumer choice needs to be preserved in an open market with plenty of competition. Such an environment will always foster innovation. This may breed disruption, but that doesn’t have to mean devastation. The age of linear TV viewing may be at the beginning of its end, but that doesn’t mean there’s still a lot to fight for, even if it’s a scrap. Frank Underwood wouldn’t have it any other way.
UPDATE (22/02/14): The New York Times published an interesting article comparing Netflix and HBO recently, showing how the two companies are faring financially (see image above), as well as their approaches to developing content, which started off as opposing ideologies but are slowly starting to meet in the middle as they borrow from each other’s playbook. The article quotes Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer: “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
UPDATE (22/02/14): Of course, commercial network television in general is also going through a period of consternation, slowly building since the day TiVo started shipping. At the end of last year, the Financial Times reported that share of advertising spend on television is set to end after three decades. This is partly due to a proliferation of new devices and platforms – not least of which is Netflix – but also partly due to the amount of people time-shifting their viewing and skipping through the ads along the way. Thinkbox, a lobbying arm for the television industry, recently published a blog article with accompanying chart. It illustrated how many people time-shifted a particular programme depending on the genre. For example, fewer people time-shifted the news than drama shows. But one of the key points made in the article is “that there is no significant difference in the amount of commercial TV which is recorded and played back compared with BBC equivalents. To put it another way: TV is not time-shifted in an attempt to avoid ads”. This is specious reasoning at best. While it may be true that, yes, people do not discriminate between whether they time-shift a BBC show or an ITV show, it would be totally wrong to infer that those viewers are not avoiding ads when they do appear. The article’s author is guilty of confirmation bias, not to mention grasping at straws.
Are incumbent companies starting to see the light when it comes to embracing digital? Evidence is slowly starting to point in that direction.
Artists are known for embracing change and innovation, but the art market itself has been slow to adapt to changing consumer behaviour. Now mega e-tailer Amazon is selling art on its site, and venerable auction house Christie’s is pushing headlong into online-only sales, as Mashable recently reported. And while fashion designers know how to use digital to push the envelope, the fashion industry as a business has been notorious for their skittishness at investing in efficient, immersive digital experiences for their customers, so worried are they about detracting from the brand. So it was reassuring to see during Paris Fashion Week recently that French marque Chloé had gotten the message. As Zeitgeist’s dear friend and fashion aficionado Rachel Arthur details on her blog, the brand launched a dedicated microsite for their runway show. Brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton have been doing this for at least three years, so in of itself it’s nothing new. What made the experience different were two things. Firstly, the site created a journey that started before the show, and continued after it, rather than merely offering a stream of live video and little else. More importantly, it tried to make the experience one that reflected the influence of those watching. As Rachel points out,
“As the event unfolded, so too did different albums under a moodboard header, including one for the collection looks, one for accessories, another for the guests, and one from backstage. Users could click on individual images and share them via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Weibo, or heart them to add them to their own personal moodboard page.
‘[We] are excited to see how you direct your own Chloé show,’ read the invite.”
The recognition of platforms like Weibo should be seen as another coup for Chloé. Too often, companies send out communications to global audiences with perfunctory links to Facebook and Twitter. Not only is there no call to action for these links (why is it that the user should go there?), but there is no recognition that one of the world’s most populous and prosperous markets are more into their Renren and Weibo.
Elsewhere, despite what seems like some niggling problems, Zeitgeist was excited and intrigued to read about Disney‘s latest foray into embracing how consumers use digital devices, this time creating a second-screen experience in movie theaters. Second Screen Live, as Disney have branded it, doesn’t immediately sound particularly logical, as GigaOm point out,
“Of all the places I’d thought would be forbidden to the second screen experience, movie theaters were near the top of my list. After all, you’re paying a premium ticket price for the opportunity to sit in a dark theater and immerse yourself in a narrative — second screen devices operate in direct opposition to that.”
And yet the Little Mermaid experience that the writer goes on to describe cannot be faulted for its attempt at innovation, at reaching beyond current thinking (not to mention revenue streams), in order to forge a new relationship between the viewer and the product. Kudos.
Lastly, Zeitgeist wanted to mention the US television network Fox as a classic example of a company that has slowly come to realise the power of working with digital, rather than against it. In years passed, companies like Fox were indisputably heavily involved in digital, but only from a punitive standpoint. Fox and others were ruthless in their distribution of takedown notices to sites hosting content they deemed to infringe on their product. Fan sites that exploded in support and admiration for shows like The X-Files were summarily threatened with legal action and closed. There was little thought given to the positive sentiment sites were creating around the product, and little thought given to the destruction of brand equity that such takedown notices brought about. Not to mention the dessication of communities that had come together from different parts of the world, their single shared attribute being that they were evangelists of what you were selling. Clips of shows, such as The Simpsons, appearing on YouTube would be treated with similar disdain. So it shows how far we’ve come in a few years that this morning when Zeitgeist went onto YouTube he was greeted on the homepage with a sponsored link from Fox pointing him to the opening scenes of the latest Simpsons episode, before it aired. Definitely a move in the right direction.
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.
This past week, Zeitgeist had the pleasure of enjoying a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. This adaptation was not performed at the theatre but at the cinema. It was not directed by Kenneth Branagh or any other luminary of the legitimate stage, but rather by the quiet, modest, nerdy Joss Whedon, who until a few years ago was best known to millions as the brains behind the cult TV series phenomenon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (full disclosure: Zeitgeist worked on the show in his days of youth). Whedon was picked to direct a film released last year that can, without much difficulty, be seen as the apotheosis of the Hollywood film industry; “The Avengers”. A mise-en-abyme of a concept, involving disparate characters, some of whom already have their own fully-fledged franchises, coming together to form another vehicle for future iterations. “The Avengers” became the third-highest grossing film of all time, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Moreover, to go from directing on such a broad canvas to shooting a film mostly with friends in one’s own home – as with “Much Ado…” – displays an impressive range of creative ingenuity.
Sadly for shareholders and studio executives’ career aspirations, not every film is as sure-fire a hit as “The Avengers”, try though as they might (and do) to replicate the same mercurial ingredients that lead to success. Marvel, which originally conceived of the myriad characters surrounding The Avengers mythology, was bought in 2009 by Disney for $4bn. Disney for all intents and purposes have a steady strategic head on their shareholders. They parted ways with the quixotic Weinstein brothers while welcoming Pixar back into the fold. They were one of the first to concede the inevitability of closed platforms release windows – something Zeitgeist has written about in the past – they are debuting a game-changing platform, Infinity, which might revolutionise the way children interact with the plethora of memorable characters the studio have dreamt up over the years. However, such sound business strategy could not save them from the uber-flop that was 2012’s “John Carter”, which lost the studio $200m. This summer, the rationale for their biggest release has been built on what appears to be sound logic; taking the on- and off-screen talent behind their massively successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and bringing them together again for another reboot in the form of “The Lone Ranger”. The New York Times said the film “descends into nerve-racking incoherence”; it has severely underperformed at the box office, after a budget of $250m. Sony’s “After Earth” similarly underperformed, suddenly throwing Will Smith’s bullet-proof reputation for producing hits into jeopardy.
These summer films – “tentpoles” to use the terminology bandied about in Los Angeles – are where the money is made (or not) for studios. As an industry over the past ten years, Zeitgeist has watched as these tentpoles have become more concentrated, more risk-averse and therefore less original, more expensive and more likely either to produce either stratospheric results or spectacular failures. Paramount is an interesting example of a studio that has made itself leaner recently, releasing far fewer films, and relying on franchises to keep the ship afloat. Edtorial Director of Variety Peter Bart seems to think there’s a point when avoiding risk leads to courting entropy. It’s an evolution that has escaped few, yet is was still notable when, last month, famed directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke out publicly against the way the industry seemed to be headed. Indeed, the atmosphere at studios in Hollywood seems to mimic that of a pre-2008 financial sector; leveraging ever more collateral against assets with significant – and unsustainable – levels of risk. The financial sector uses arcane algorithms and has a large number of Wharton grads whose aim should be to preserve stability and profit. Yet even with all this analysis, they failed to see the gigantic readjustment that was imminent. In the film industry, Relativity Media’s reputation for rigorous predictive models on what will make a film successful is rare enough to have earned it a feature in Vanity Fair. So what hope is there the film industry will change its tune before it is too late? Spielberg pontificates,
“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”
Instead of correcting course as failures at the box office failed to abate, studios have dug in harder. Said Lucas,
“They’re going for gold, but that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”
Such artistic ennui in audiences is admittedly sclerotic in its visibility at the moment. “Man of Steel”, another attempt at rebooting a franchise – coming only seven years after the last attempt – is performing admirably, with a position still firmly in the top ten at the US box office after four weeks of release, with over $275m taken domestically. It’s interesting to note that audiences have been happy to embrace the new version so quickly after the last franchise launch failed; though actor James Franco finds it contentious, the same has been true with the “Spider-Man” franchise relaunch.
Part of the problem in the industry, some say, is to do with those at the top running the various film studios. In “Curse of the Mogul”, written by lecturers at Columbia University, the authors contend that since 2005 the industry as a whole has underperformed versus the S&P stock index, yet such stocks are still eminently attractive to investors. The reason, the authors say, is that those running the businesses frame the notion of success differently. They argue that it takes a very special type of person (i.e. them) to be able to manage not only different media and the different audiences they reach and the different trends that come out of that, but more importantly (in their eyes) to be able to manage the talent. They asked to be judged on Academy Awards rather than bottom lines. The most striking thing in the book – which Zeitgeist is still reading – is the continual pursuit by said mogul of strategic synergies. This M&A activity excites shareholders but has historically led to minimal returns (think Vivendi or AOL Time Warner), often because what was presented as operational or content-based synergy is actually nothing of the sort. It’s a point Richard Rumelt makes in his excellent book, “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”. Some companies are beginning to get the idea. Viacom seemed an outlier in 2006 when it divested CBS. Lately, News Corporation has followed a similar tack, albeit under duress after suffering from scandalous revelations about hacking in its news division. A recent article in The Economist states,
“Most shareholders now see that television networks, newspapers, film studios, music labels and other sundry assets add little value by sharing a parent. Their proximity can even hinder performance by distracting management… they have become more assertive and less likely to believe the moguls’ flannel about ‘synergies’.”
So in some ways it was of little surprise that Sony came under the microscope recently as well, part of this larger trend of scrutiny. The company has experienced dark times of late, with shares having plunged 85% over the past 13 years. The departure of Howard Stringer in 2012 coincided with an annual loss of some $6.4bn. Now headed up by Kazuo Hirai, the company has undoubtedly become more focused, with much more being made of their mobile division. Losses have been stemmed, but the company is still floundering, with an annual loss reported in May of $4.6bn. It was only a couple of weeks later that hedge-fun billionaire Dan Loeb – instrumental in getting Marissa Meyer to lead Yahoo – upped his ownership stake in Sony, calling on it to divest its entertainment division in a letter to CEO Hirai. Part of the issue with Sony is a cultural one, where Japan’s ways of working differ strongly from the West’s. This is covered in some detail in a profile with Stringer featured in The New Yorker. In a speech he gave last year, Stringer said, “Japan is a harmonious society which cherishes its social values, including full employment. That leads to conflicts in a world where shareholder value calls for ever greater efficiency”. But Sony’s film division – which includes the James Bond franchise – is performing well; in the year to March 2013 Sony’s film and music businesses produced $905m of operating income, compared with combined losses of $1.9 billion in mobile phones, according to The Economist. It ended 2012 first place among the other film studios in market share. Sony is the last studio to consistently deliver hits across genres, reports The New York Times in an excellent article. The article quotes an anonymous Sony exeuctive, “We may not look like the rest of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a painstakingly thought-through strategy and a profitable one”. Sadly the strategy behind films like ‘After Earth’ begin to look flimsy when one glances at the box office results. While Hirai and the Sony board concede that have met to discuss the possibility of honouring Mr. Loeb’s suggestion – offering 15-20% of it as an IPO rather than selling it off in full – Mr. Hirai also commented in an interview with CNBC, “We definitely want to make sure we can continue a successful business in the entertainment space. That is for me, first and foremost, the top priority”. In mid-June Loeb sent a second letter, advocating the IPO proposal and saying “Our research has confirmed media reports depicting Entertainment as lacking the discipline an accountability that exist at many of its competitors”. The question is whether selling off its entertainment assets would remove any synergies with other divisions, thus making the divisions left over less profitable, or whether such synergies even existed in the first place. For Loeb, the “most valuable untapped synergies” are still in the studio and music divisions yet after decades as one company they still remain untapped. That point won’t make for pleasant reading at Sony HQ.
Another problem is the changing nature of media consumption habits. Not only are we watching films in different ways over different platforms, we are also doing much else besides, from playing video games, which have successfully transitioned beyond the nerdy clique of yesteryear, to general mobile use and second screening. This transition – and with it a realisation that competition is not likely to come from across regional boarders but from startup platforms – is largely being ignored by the French as they insist on trade talks with the US that centre on the preservation of l’exception culturelle. Such trends are evident in business dealings. The Financial Times this weekend detailed Google’s significant foray into developing content, setting up YouTube Space LA. The project gives free soundstage space to artists who are likely to guarantee eyeballs on YouTube, and lead to advertising revenue for the platform. From the stellar success of the first season of “House of Cards”, to DreamWorks Animation’s original content partnership announced last month, Netflix has become the bête noire for traditional content producers as it shakes up traditional models. We have written before about the IHS Screen Digest data from earlier this year, showing worrying trends for the industry; as predicted, audiences are beginning to favour access over ownership, preferring to rent rather than own, which means less profit for the studio. As much due to a decline in revenue from other platforms as growth in of itself, cinemas are expected to be the major area of profit going forward to 2016 (see above chart). We’ve written before about the power cinema still has. Spielberg and Lucas pick up on this;
“You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing… [Films] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”
In a conversation over Twitter, (excerpts of which are featured above), Cameron Saunders, MD of 20th Century Fox UK told Zeitgeist that “major changes were afoot”. Such potential disruption is by no means unique to the film industry, and should come as a surprise to one. Zeitgeist recently went to see Columbia faculty member Rita McGrath speak at a Harvard Business Review event. In her latest book, “The End of Competitive Advantage”, McGrath discounts the old management consultant attempts at providing sustainable competitive advantages to business. Her assertion is that any advantage is transient, that incumbency and success often lead to entropy, unless there is constant innovation to build on that success. Such a verdict of entropy could well be applied to the film industry. The model has worked well for decades, despite predictions of doom at the advent of television, the VCR, the DVD, et cetera ad nauseum. But fundamental behavioural shifts are now at play, and the way we devise strategies for what content people want to see and how they wish to see it need to be readdressed, quickly. Otherwise all this deliberation will eventually become much ado about nothing.
UPDATE (15/4/13): Of course, context is everything. The New York Times published an interesting article today saying investing in Hollywood is less risky than investing in Silicon Valley, though the returns in the latter are likely to be greater. Neither are seen as reliable.
This issue isn’t going away. We write again about it, here.