Back in July of this year, while schoolchildren dreamt of holidays and commuters sweated their way to work, management consultancy McKinsey sat down with president of eBay Marketplaces Devin Wenig. The interview is above; we’re going to pick on some highlights below as Wenig pontificated on the future of bricks and mortar stores, the change needed in marketing, the fallacy of big data and what will make for good competitive advantage over other retailers in the months and years to come. Often with talking heads the output can be generic and anodyne. Wenig though offers some insightful thoughts.
The future of the store: “I think stores are going to become as much distribution and fulfillment centers as they are full-fledged shopping experiences… They’ll become technology enabled so that you can go to a store and see enough inventory, but you may shop “shoppable windows.” We’re building those right now for retailers around the world. You may end up hollowing out the real estate, where the showroom is a much smaller part of the footprint, and the inventory and the distribution center become more of that footprint.”
How marketing needs to change: “There are still many instances that I see where it is old-school marketing. It’s still about major TV campaigns, get people into the stores. That’s still important, and that’s not going to go away. But understanding how to engage in a world of exploding social networks, how to use search, how to use catalog, how to optimize, and how to engage—very different skills.”
Competitive advantage: “I think the answer is data… While from the merchant standpoint incredible selection may seem great, from the consumer standpoint it can be overwhelming. I actually don’t want to shop in a store with a billion items for sale, I’m just looking for this. Data is the way to connect a long-tail advantage with consumers that oftentimes want simplicity.”
Executing on strategy: “Great data is both art and science. There’s a lot of press about the science; there’s not as much about the art. But the truth is that judgment matters a lot… we bring quantitative analysis to that to say, “The right way to look at our customers is this, not this,” even though there are infinite ways we could.”
The fallacy of big data: “It’s not about big data, it’s about small data. Big data is useless… it’s about me connecting with you, my business connecting with you. You don’t want to be part of a big data set; you’re just looking to buy a shirt. And that’s about small data. That’s about understanding insights that I can glean about you that don’t feel intrusive, don’t feel creepy, and don’t feel artificial—but feel natural. That, to me, is the future. There are glimmers of success there. I wouldn’t say the industry has arrived. For all the rhetoric about data, it’s a work in progress, but a critically important work in progress.”
Merging experiences: “E-commerce [fulfills] a utilitarian function… Stores have an important element of serendipity… The future of digital commerce is trying to get the best of both… we’re trying to spur inspiration.”
“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.
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”.
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.
“[T]he big screen. That is its natural habitat—the only place, you might say, where its proud and leonine presence has any meaning. Anything more cramped is a cage, as Jon Stewart showed during this year’s Oscar ceremony. At one point, we found him gazing at his iPhone. “I’m watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ It’s just awesome,” he said, adding, “To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the wide screen.” And he turned the phone on its side. Deserts of vast eternity, reduced to three inches by two.”
– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
Film can sometimes be a mercurial medium. Especially nowadays. It encompasses multiple genres, and, like food, is meant for different occasions, for different needs. Of course, sometimes we go to bad restaurants, or order in, and the experience is terrible. Uber-flop John Carter cost Disney a cool $200m, and wasted many a precious dollar and hour for those that went to see it (admittedly few). But sometimes it’s like a great burger and fries – Die Hard springs to mind – and sometimes it’s a sumptuous 6-course meal cooked by a Michelin-starrred chef – Lawrence of Arabia, or All the King’s Men. Film can stimulate us, it can teach us, and it can be a breezy bit of consumption to pass the time, like a coffee at Starbucks. Moreover, as with food, it can be consumed in different places and circumstances. There are times when the right way to watch a certain film is on your iPad in a cramped airline seat. Pure escapism. But cinema has a crucial place too.
It was interesting today, when Zeitgeist went to see a movie, that it was preceded by an announcement showing an empty cinema, covered in cobwebs and dust, bemoaning the death of the medium at the hands of pirates. Its aim was to take the audience on a guilt trip: ‘Why are you illegally downloading films?’ ‘Why aren’t you coming to see more films at the cinema?’ it pleaded. There are a couple of things strategically wrong with this approach. Firstly, what is the principle problem here? Alright, people are not going to the cinema as often as we would like. Zeitgeist remembers in a brief stint working for Fox several years ago that people went to the cinema 1.8 times a year in the UK. The Economist reports that the share of Americans who attend cinema at least once a month has declined from 30% in 2000 to 10% in 2011. The assumption is that people are instead pirating films at home, thereby depriving studios of money (ignoring research that suggests those that pirate are often avid cinema-goers, and optimistically equating every film downloaded to ticket revenue lost). Well, one quick way to address this is to make films legally available – at a sizeable premium – on multiple platforms day and date. We’ve argued this before, and entertainment trade Variety has used our argument for a lead editorial. It should be recognised, that, although the most prominent face of the film industry, cinema is not what makes the studio money; for years the bulk of profits have been made in home entertainment consumption. Furthermore, there are two fallacies here. One is that cinemas make most of their profit from the snacks people buy at the cinema, not the films themselves. If you want to increase margins, there should be a much more prominent focus on food options, and that means offering a wider, more tempting range of food to be eaten, which is then promoted more effectively. The way such snacks are currently promoted – “Let’s all go the lobby” – has not altered for a half century. Lastly and most egregiously, the communication is completely misdirected, talking to the very audience who is already doing what the ad asks them to do. The ad is shown nowhere but the cinema, therefore only people who go to the cinema will be subject to this guilt trip. To avoid feeling guilty, one can avoid the ad by avoiding the cinema. The logic is completely twisted. Negative communications have been shown to be much less effective in influencing behaviour than positive affirmation. So let’s think about a way to promote cinema that goes beyond a highlight reel of what movies are on in a particular season. More robust revenue streams will have to be found soon. Less people are turning out to the cinema, and in foreign markets, which are doing relatively well, a far smaller chunk of box-office receipts go to the studios.
What also played during the reel before the film started was a short film by Disney Animation that has been nominated for an Academy Award, called Paperman (see trailer above). Zeitgeist had watched the short some days ago on his iPhone after coming across it on Twitter, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was exciting and convenient to be able to consume something so quickly after hearing about it. Moreover, it was instantly shareable with the 400-odd people who follow our tweets when we retweeted the link. Seeing it in the cinema today though really reinforced the power of the big screen; the detail you couldn’t see on the iPhone, the great sound, and the shared laughter and enjoyment from those around you. “Grandeur is a far from simple blessing”, writes Anthony Lane in the same article quoted at the beginning of this post, in The New Yorker back in 2008. The pleasure of watching something in the cinema is ultimately an irrational benefit, which can be hard to quantify, but even harder to ignore.
UPDATE (06.12.13): The Economist featured a good article on how cinemas are seeking new revenue streams around the world, here.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Though the brouhaha over the series House of Cards has been building steadily since its announcement almost two years ago, through rumours of budget battles between director and studio, it was upon the release of the series this week that the media meta-echo chamber really went into overdrive. The first season, with a budget far north of $100m, debuted to ebullient praise from critics. But what does it signify for the trail-blazing company’s future?
Aside from the mostly positive reviews, the series piqued the media industry’s interest for other reasons too. It is the first to be created and screened exclusively by Netflix, a company previously known for striking deals with studios to distribute and stream their content. Not satisfied solely with such (sometimes pricey) deals, the company also saw an opportunity for greater brand visibility and a separate revenue stream – assuming it eventually licenses the show regular TV networks – in fully-fledged independent production. What is also interesting is that the entire first season was made available for instant viewing, all 12 hours. By doing this the company recognised and capitalised on a trend that has been accelerating for almost a decade; people like to watch multiple episodes at once. This has never not been the case, but the weekly episodic installments of shows on network television have allowed the audience little say in the matter, and thus no room for such a habit to develop. This changed dramatically with the arrival of the DVD, specifically with affordable boxsets, as those that had missed the zeitgeists of West Wing, The Sopranos and 24 were able to quickly catch up with their obsessed brethren. Critics have often noted how the viewing of multiple episodes at once – which is how such reviews are often conducted as they usually receive a disc with several shows to consider – particularly for shows like Lost, improves the structure and narrative flow. With the arrival of boxsets, such opportunities were available to all. Indeed, marketers leveraged this enthusiasm for consecutive viewing, creating events around it. Netflix saw this with absolute clarity and allowed viewers to watch as much or little as they desired. Many, it seemed, chose to devour the whole first season in one weekend, which entertainment trade Variety covered with humourous repercussions to the viewer’s psyche, across now fewer than six stages of grief. Zeitgeist has written before about the increasing popularity of streaming, and the complementary preference that audiences have for the type of films (action, romcom, broad comedy) they like to watch when choosing such a distribution method. It is interesting to consider then just how much the viewing experience differs between a 12-hour marathon over two days, and a one-hour slice over a period of three months. As the article in Variety half-jokingly posits, “Is tantric TV viewing a thing? If it’s not, should it be?”.
Of course, Netflix aren’t alone in seeing an opportunity to delve into developing complementary products and assets. Microsoft are using the functionality of Kinect to pair with their own content development, letting children “join in” with Sesame Street, for example, and are in the process of setting up a dedicated studio for production, in Los Angeles. Amazon, which owns the streaming service LoveFilm, is also getting into the game, recently setting up Amazon Studios for original content production. At the end of last year, The Hollywood Reporter announced Amazon would be greenlighting twenty pilots, all of which were “either submitted through the studio’s website or optioned for development”. YouTube recently launched twenty professional channels on its UK website, Hulu is following suit… It really is quite startling to see such fundamental disruption and turmoil in environments where incumbent stalwarts (such as 20th Century Fox in film and Walmart in retail,) have long been accustomed to calling the shots. Could the model become completely inverted, such that the Fox network and HBO become the “dumb pipes” of the TV world, showcasing the best in internet-produced television? Maybe so, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Economist this week argue that one of the most important factors in Liberty Global’s recent purchase of Virgin Media was the avoidance of paying corporate tax for “years” to come. If content is still king though, a problem remains for those incumbents. The New Yorker astutely points out,
“An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share… When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.”
Netflix must tread carefully. Crucially, what seems like competitive differentiation and all-quadrant coverage now can quickly shift. Amazon’s ventures into content production will be backed up with a sizeable and perpetual stream of revenue that it derives from its e-commerce platform, which isn’t going away anytime soon. The BBC are publicly welcoming new entrants, and is devising its own tactics, such as making episodes available on iPlayer before they screen, if at all, on television. Interesting but hardly earth-shattering, and likely to make little difference to viewer preference. Netflix will have to do better than that if it wants long-term dominance of this market. It will have to be increasingly careful with its partners, too. Recent, though long-running, rumblings of discord with partners like Time Warner Cable, though seemingly innocuous, tend to be indicative of a larger battle ensuing between corporate titans. Moreover, though the act of providing a deluge of content seems new and sexy now, what about when everyone starts doing it? Chief content officer for Netflix Ted Sarantos told The Economist last week, “Right now our major differentiation is that consumers can watch what they want, when they want it, but that will be the norm with television over time. We’re getting a head start”. Fine, but about when that is the norm, what is the strategy for differentiation then? Netflix have made some lofty, daring, innovative moves here, exploiting consumer trends and noticing a gap in the competitive environment. But they will need firm foundations to support this move into an adjacent business area, of which they know relatively little, in the years to come. As President Bartlet of West Wing was often heard to say, “What’s next?”.
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.
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.
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.