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.
The still controversial theory of evolution doesn’t just apply to living things. In any environment, failure to adapt to new circumstances can lead to extinction in an unsettlingly quick manner. A teenaged Zeitgeist’s former weekend employer Woolworths provides a recent example of how quickly a large organisation can crumble to nothing if they don’t change with the times.
Just as the printing press began a process of democratising knowledge and ultimately power, new digital platforms have upset the established forms of distributing media.
Zeitgeist has previously commented on how the film and music industries have attempted to adapt to new consumption habits, the threat of piracy and distribution.
Another industry that has become old fashioned very quickly is print media. Not so long ago, if you wanted to read a book, magazine or newspaper you had to buy one – and the public had no problem with that model.
Why buy a copy of the news as it was at 3am when you can get up to date news for free? Why buy a month-old magazine when there are many blogs and sites offering free opinion?
The old kingdoms are being forced to do battle in a new arena. Their problem in a nutshell is that as consumers move from print to online, revenues drop and barely cover operational costs – if at all. For many, the huge presses and infrastructures that previously provided an effective barrier to entry now hang around their necks like an albatross-shaped noose.
Newspapers simply need to generate more income from their online offering, as The New Yorker wrote in 2008.
One tactic that has been attempted by certain publications is the introduction of a paywall. In short this means users have to pay in order to be able to access content online. If your content is unique and special, people will pay – Zeitgeist parts with hard cash to access resources such as Mintel and Datamonitor and individuals pay to access Which? and Parkers.
The latest titles to erect a paywall are Rupert Murdoch‘s The Times and Sunday Times, which will charge £1 per day or £2 per week for access from June 1st, with The Sun and News of the World to follow soon.
Catch ’em while you can!
The theory behind paywalls is partly ideological – people should pay to access content – why should it be given away for nothing? Compared to the £1 price for the print edition, £2 for a weeks access looks like a good deal to the subscriber. Unfortunately economic models built on ideal rather than actual behaviour rarely thrive. Disappointingly for Murdoch, consumers, even those who favour The Times, will compare the £2 subscription fee with the free online access provided by the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mail, The Mirror et al or alternative news sources such as Twitter, Facebook and Google.
Times assistant editor Tom Whitwell accepts that “drive-by traffic will fall significantly”, adding that “The focus is preparing to serve a small, paying audience.”
Quite how small remains to be seen. The recent experiment by Johnston Press to build a paywall around their regional based content is rumoured to have attracted fewer than ten subscribers. The wall was quickly dismantled and no comments have been forthcoming on the failure of the project.
Recent research in the UK by KPMG doesn’t bode well either – only 10% of the people they spoke to said that they were likely to become paid subscibers to ANY media products in the next year.
Worse still, a PCI/Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2009 found that only 5% of people would pay to read their favourite newspaper online.
Even former PM Gordon Brown spoke out against paywalls stating vaguely, “People have got used to getting content without having to pay. I don’t think you are going to be able to put things behind paywalls in the way that people think.”
Nor is this a British idiosyncrasy, with a US study revealing that only 7% of Americans would continue to visit their favourite news site if they put up a paywall.
None of this has deterred Murdoch, who has enjoyed great success with his SkyTV network in the UK, which introduced Britons to the idea of paying to watch a previously free (licence fee notwithstanding) service. Arguably, the main difference is that Sky has unique content and subscribers are paying for all the channels, not for each channel individually. Replicating the model with online news is going to be very difficult to do.
So, will the future of news content provision echo the scenes of 65 million years ago as smaller agile providers succeed while the old, previously dominant organisations struggle to survive? And will paywalls delay or accelerate the decline? Let’s wait and see, there’s bound to be a free site somewhere that will report the result.