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New realities of competitive advantage

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This week’s purchase of Yahoo suggests Verizon’s strategy department thinks much the same way as myriad other organisations; “size matters”. Whether it’s about minimising risk or increasing economies of scale, such logic has steered many companies to successful tenures. However, there are new trends in the marketplace that make such aphorisms more and more contentious.

It was a couple of years ago now that Rita McGrath wrote about “the end of sustainable competitive advantage”. Prior to this, the arrival of digital was, in general, supposed to have done away with such things. But perhaps the most recognisable face of the digital revolution over the past decade has been none other than Facebook. Facebook has consistently maintained competitive advantage through a savvy use of lock-in via network effects and an aggressive proclivity to buy out any competition (see Instagram, Whatsapp). Users spend about 50 minutes per day across these platforms.

What about organisations outside of TMT? For several years now, Zeitgeist has seen qual data showing the waning power of branding. As we’ve written extensively about in previous posts, this is partly to do with information asymmetry. In the early days of advertising, it wasn’t easy for an average person to be able to know much about a product like Colgate; a brand identity was a quick way to communicate what expectations a consumer should have. Nowadays, almost entirely due to the internet and digital communication, we are able to quickly ascertain what products meet our requirements (what size tube do I need), which are bullshitting (how much whiter teeth?) and which our friends use (still ranked as the most important data point for trying a new product). Companies like Colgate sit in the Consumer Packaged Goods [CPG] category, where most of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands reside. But according to research from Boston Consulting Group, between 2011 and 2015, CPG companies lost nearly three percentage points of market share in the US. Nestle has missed its sales growth targets for the past three years.

Part of what’s hitting the CPG sector is a sustained enthusiasm for “local”. Zeitgeist first saw this trend emerging in 2011 when he worked in a strategic capacity for retailers who were increasingly looking to tailor their store design and offering to the area they were in. This is happening in media too, where local content in the Chinese market is quickly adapting to the pyrotechnics and thrills of imported Hollywood fare, and reaping the rewards. Many of China’s businesses are built on being the home-grown version of x foreign product. Uber’s recent deal with Didi Chuxing is an example of this. Moreover, if you’ve decided you’re happy to pay a premium for a product, it is increasingly unlikely you’ll choose a mass produced one. A real treat would be buying a nice cheese from Jermyn Street’s Paxton & Whitfield, not from one of the thousands of Waitrose stores in the country. Deloitte report that US consumers would pay at least 10% more for the “craft” version of a good, a greater share than would pay extra for convenience or innovation.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, digital has had a profound impact on lowering barriers to entry. From The Economist,

[New entrants] can outsource production and advertise online. Distribution is getting easier, too: a young brand may prove itself with online sales, then move into big stores. Financing mirrors the same trend: last year investors poured $3.3 billion into private CPG firms, according to CB Insights, a data firm—up by 58% from 2014 and a whopping 638% since 2011.

Digital’s impact has also been to dovetail with the trends already mentioned. Consumers’ turning away from brand messaging and interest for local is a quest for authenticity in a crowded market. Rightly or wrongly, no other tactic has proved so successful to communicate a roughshod authenticity as the viral video over the past ten years. New entrants are communicating using different channels but also in different ways, that make incumbents uncomfortable. As pointed out though in an editorial from the FT this weekend, “It is tempting to see these young companies as miracles of branding. In fact, they expose outdated industry structures and offer dramatically more value to consumers.”

Large organisations, sensing the eroding advantage, are responding in different ways. P&G is increasingly focusing on its top tier brands, selling off or consolidating around 100 others. Unilever recently bought the famous Dollar Shave Club, and VC arms are popping up at companies like General Mills (think Lucky Charms) and Deloitte, which like other firms is also thinking about how to avoid disruption.

At the start of this piece we mentioned two reasons that going big could lead to sustained advantage: minimising risk and establishing economies of scale. In our eyes, the former is more at risk than ever, as firestorms on platforms like Twitter and Periscope can eviscerate a brand more quickly than ever; VW’s vast operations have not saved it from significant reputational damage. Economies of scale are also a risky proposition, as The Economist points out “Consolidating factories has made companies more vulnerable to the swing of a particular currency, points out Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets”.

But what about Facebook? At the start of the article we talked about its ongoing rule of the social world, but that definition seems too narrow for what the platform is trying to accomplish. Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming a “utility” as part of a long-term vision over the coming decades. This is interesting given this is exactly what every mobile phone network operator in the world is trying to avoid. Reflecting on Yahoo’s demise last week, the Financial Times wrote that “the Achilles heel of each new wave of technology is that it eventually turns into a utility”. Teens don’t tend to find utilities exciting, and perhaps then it is no surprise that Pew reports declining usage and engagement with the platform from this age group. For Facebook then, commoditisation is as much a risk as disruption by a new entry.

 

On new distribution strategies in film

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“Any media company is a laboratory right now. There is no established way to do anything.” Thus spoke Adam Moss recently, in his role as editor in chief of New York magazine. The publication has altered its cadence and is expanding into the worlds of cable television and live events. His comment referred to print media but it might just as well have been applied to the entertainment industry at large.

The film industry, in particular, could benefit from more experimental, “agile” thinking and delivery. Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an article that was laden with anxiety over the state of cinema-going. As with all popular past-times that have been ingrained in our culture, we have a tendency not only to sentimentalise the activity but also to remove such activities from their contextual moorings. Going to the cinema has not been a consistent experience, as A.O. Scott sagely illustrates,

“The nickelodeons of the earliest days gave way to movie palaces, which were supplemented by humbler main-street Bijoux and Roxys. In the ’30s, the major home-entertainment platforms were radio and the upright piano in the parlor, and movies offered a cheap, accessible and climate-controlled escape. And millions of people went often, less out of reverence than out of habit, returning every week to take in double features, shorts and serials, newsreels and cartoons…

In the postwar years, the rise of car culture and the growth of the suburbs planted drive-ins in wide-open spaces, while grindhouses, art houses and campus film societies flourished in the cities and college towns. Moviegoing has never been just one thing.”

Much has been made of Sean “Napster and Facebook” Parker’s Screening Room initiative – offering newly released films at $50 for home viewing – that has very publicly split Hollywood in two. It has been referred to as “weaponised VOD“, in tones not dissimilar from those who worried about the end of cinema back when TV arrived on the scene. Such a technology, and more importantly such a way of consuming media, is hardly new. Millions of people have been watching films in this way (i.e. at home while the film sits in scarcity-inducing cinemas) for years, just without a legal way of doing it for the most part (shining exceptions include platforms like Curzon At Home).

The unfortunate trap this article falls into is to assume that any money spent on watching films using platforms such as the Screening Room platform is money necessarily lost by exhibitors. This thinking is overly simplistic and lacks any basis on quantitative data. It is the same argument made against those, referred to above, who pirate content. In reality, data from 2014 show that “people who illegally download movies also love going to the cinema and do not mind paying to watch films“.

Current industry inertia is not merely preventing new innovative consumer products and platforms from arriving, it is also hurting existing business models. While a sizeable minority of independent films are increasingly turning to day-and-date SVOD releases, they remain a minority, in an industry where risk is baked into multi-year franchises at $300m a go, but is nowhere to be found when considering if a film might need to be released in a tailored manner. Films showing up in such fashion look more often to be those that the studio don’t mind breaking even on, rather than a film that might hit home with a demographic who would be more likely to pay a premium to stream it from home. Last week, The New Yorker wrote about the antiquated distribution strategy of “limited” and “wide” release. This is where cinema can play a proactive role: in supporting independent cinema

“Because there’s no comparable venue now, far fewer independent films get proper releases; some of the best of the past few years… are still awaiting release.”

The article points out that such definitions of release, in an era of instantly available content, is not only anachronistic but harmful to films.

There are thus several opportunities for new revenue streams to be explored in the film industry. These can be adopted with a more experimental attitude toward distributing films; the kind of attitude that gave birth to the industry in the first place. It also requires that some of the risk of potentially destabilising tentpole film franchises be redirected into exploring the potential of films to reach a much, much wider audience.

Tech frailty in 2016

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In the course of history, many smart people have been scared by the rapid progression of technology and its impact on the way we live. Forget the printing press; Socrates was concerned that even the technology of recording via written documents (i.e. writing) would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories”. One need only look at the graphic above, representing swings in market share for tech titans, to see significant change in just the past 35 years.

January has been a difficult month for the stock market, with share prices around the world taking a tumble. A lot of the liquidity in the market rests on the valuation of a growing number of technology firms, whose route to profitability varies wildly. The oft-written about “Unicorns” are seemingly due for some market correction – no bad thing for the tech sector – but what about the bastions of the industry, how are they looking?

Twitter – The firm would have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of last year, when original co-founder Jack Dorsey committed to returning to the company. There were promising sounds at first, but recently it has been mulling a move away from the 140-character limit that defines its modus operandi. It has the potential, according to Forrester, to repackage such long-form fare in the mode of Facebook’s Instant Articles. But attempting to emulate what has already been done cannot hold any hope for actually catching up with its rival. An article in The New Yorker this week derides the social network, calling out its lack of direction, and questioning its relevance in a growing pool of competitors. Twitter’s US penetration has been flat for the past three quarters, and Snapchat is nipping at its heels in terms of engagement. While overall Twitter is seeing steady growth, it’s rate of growth continues to decline

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Facebook – By contrast, Facebook is doing well, particularly concerning its financial performance. Its increasing collaboration with telcos as it explores new revenue opportunities pave the way for sizeable rewards in the medium term. And it is slowly learning from the likes of WeChat and Kakao Talk in Asian markets on how to better integrate various functionality into its Messenger app; it’s first foray is working with Uber to allow users to hire a car without leaving Messenger. (This week Whatsapp also begun to get the message, no pun intended). We commented in our last article about how the social network is fast having to adapt to an ageing user base and lower engagement, but Facebook is attempting to combat such trends with numerous tactics. Sadly, its attempt to provide free internet services in developing markets has run into obstacles. In both Egypt and India, government regulators have interceded to stop the network from running its Free Basics service, under the guise of net neutrality (which in our opinion stretches the definition, and the spirit, of net neutrality).

Yahoo – The troubles for this company are more than we can summarise in this short review. Let it suffice to say that Marissa Mayer’s wunderkind sheen has been significantly tarnished since her arrival at the company in 2012. In an editorial in the Financial Times last month, the company was described as a “blur of services and assets of different values”. As her inescapably significant role in the organisation’s lacklustre performance becomes increasingly apparent – hedge fund Starboard Value has issued an ultimatum for her to either leave peacefully or be replaced by shareholder vote come March reports are that Mayer will have to lay off around 10% of the company. The FT puts it well,

[R]ather like AOL, it is considered a service stuck in internet dark ages. It is what grandma uses to look up the weather. It is not for Snapchatting teenagers. And it is not what investors crave most of all: the prospect of growth.

Amazon – Until this week the company had been faring extremely well, and its most recent concern was not getting investors too excited about its recent profit announcement. And while it’s reporting this week of a 26% YoY rise in sales was welcome, its fourth-quarter profits of $482m were one-third lower than what Wall Street analysts were expecting; the stock plunged 13% as a result. The disparity between rising sales and profits that don’t align to such a rise are nothing new for the company, unfortunately.

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Holistic sector frailty – Two excellent articles in The Economist this month reveal a sector that is experiencing growing pains as the current digital era reaches a period of relative maturity. As the hype dies down, what hath such new ways of thinking, making and working wrought? The first article examines the seemingly glamorous role of a techie working in a startup firm, and the pitfalls that come with it. The article reports that “Only 19% of tech employees said they were happy in their jobs and only 17% said they felt valued in their work”. In looking at the explosion of demand for the inadequately named Hoverboard, the second article identifies that globalisation has vastly sped up a product’s journey from conception to delivery at a consumer’s home, at the expense of a proper regulatory system; it is unclear with so many disintermediated players who should shoulder the burden of quality control. The Economist sees such risk as a parable for the tricky place the sector as a whole finds itself in.

 

Media Trends 2016

the-empire-strikes-back-star-warsThe most enjoyable pieces we pen for this blog are our looks ahead to TMT trends in the next year (they also, coincidentally, happen to be our most popular articles). Do check out our 2015 and 2014 trends, too.

We’ll look at trends in the film industry, TV, telco and tech sector. These formerly discrete industries are now all blurring together. This should come as little surprise to most, after years of the word “convergence” being bandied about; AOL Time Warner was a misbegotten adventure on the back of this thesis. However, what is happening now is that these worlds are clashing. Techies push their platforms (e.g. the Amazons and Netflixs of the world), but increasingly follow in the footsteps of legacy media in creating a stable of content to offer viewers. But those legacy media players are fretting, according to the Financial Times,

According to cable industry die-hards who have the most to lose, the digital platforms have not done much to show they are appropriate guardians of media assets like these. According to cable pioneer John Malone, for instance, they do not do enough to differentiate media brands, they make it hard to get feedback about consumers (if the data are not passed on) and they are not conducive to the kind of advertising on which cable networks have long relied. The result is a giant searchable database, like Netflix.

Star Wars and the status quo

It would be difficult to write about the media sector currently without giving Star Wars: The Force Awakens at least a mention. The movie, which Zeitgeist saw last weekend, was huge fun, though we couldn’t help feeling like we were watching a re-imagining of the original, rather than a direct sequel. As fivethirtyeight notes, the prequels are out there now, and not going anywhere; this film faces a steep uphill battle if it is to redeem the franchise from the deficit of awfulness inflicted by the prequel triplets. The amount of money the film has made, and the critical caveats it has received, point to interesting trends in the film industry as a whole.

The Economist rightly points out how Bob Iger, since taking the reins of Disney from the erratic Michael Eisner in 2005, has made wise, savvy strategic moves, not least in content, through the purchases of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. But while most critics were pleased with the latest product to spring from this studio’s loins, there were some reservations. The FT, while largely positive about the film, lamented there was little in it to distinguish itself from the other tentpole films of the year:

What troubles most is that Star Wars is starting to look like every other franchise epic. Is that the cost of anything-is-possible stories set in elastic universes? I kept having flashes of The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings. The characters costumed in quasi-timeless garb (neo-Grecian the favourite). The PlayStation plots with their gauntlets of danger and games of survival.

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Recent releases are increasingly making their way onto the best-performing list, with increasing speed, too. Three films have crossed the $1bn barrier this year alone

There’s no doubt this is a problem. It’s not per se a new problem, as originality has always been something Hollywood has struggled with. Let’s be honest, art has struggled with originality too; Shakespeare’s MO was derivative, and has there been anything new to say in art since Duchamp? But the fact remains that when studios have the technical sophistication to produce any visual feat, and this is executed again and again in much the same mode, the effect on an audience begins to wane, and everything begins to look much of a muchness (if not outright neo-Grecian).

Also somewhat unsettling is the financial performance of these films. Not so much because of the people who will still turn out in droves to see recycled content, but more the pace at which records are now being broken. The new Star Wars made $100m in pre-sales – a record – and went on to make $248m in its opening weekend, beating the previous holder, all the way back in the summer, Jurassic World. The speedy gains of lucre for such fare are increasing. Titanic took three months to reach the $1bn mark at the global box office; Jurassic World took 13 days, beating the previous record holder, Fast and the Furious 7, which had opened only a few months earlier in April. In the ten years after Titanic, only three films crossed the zeitgeist-worthy Rubicon of $1 billion; since 2008, 17 films have done so (see above graphic).

Such potential return on investment ups the ante for ever bigger projects, something Zeitgeist has criticised several times in previous articles, wary of some of the huge, costly flops that have come and gone with little strategic reflection. The latest Bond incarnation, Spectre, was always going to be something of a safe bet. But with so much upfront investment, such vehicles now need to make all the more in order to recoup what has been spent. Or, as Vanity Fair puts it, “yes, 007 made obscene amounts of money. But were they obscene enough?“. Tentpoles have taken on new meaning in an era of Marvel heroes, and even Bond itself has set new benchmarks with Skyfall, which crossed the hallowed billion-dollar barrier referenced earlier. This quickly begins to seem less earth-shattering when you consider the all-in costs for Spectre have been conservatively estimated at $625m. Even with Skyfall, Sony itself made only $57m in return.

Trend implication: There is a glimmer of innovation in the Chinese film market, where blockbusters are being crowdfunded through WeChat. But in Hollywood, the focus of money on one type of film – and the attempt to capture only one type of audience – logically leads to a bifurcation in the market, with bigger hits, bigger misses, and a hole in the middle,which The New York Times points out is usually where Oscars are made. A large problem that will not be addressed in 2016 is the absence of solid research and strategic insight; studios don’t know when or whether they “have released too many movies that go after the same audience — ‘Steve Jobs’ ate into ‘The Walk’ ate into ‘Black Mass’, for example”. With Men in Black 4 on the way, Hunger Games prequels being mulled, another five years of Marvel movies already slated and dates booked in, look for such machinations to continue. Bigger budgets, more frequent records being broken and a stolid resistance to multi-platform releases. Even Star Wars couldn’t get a global release date, with those in China having to wait a month longer than those elsewhere to see it, more or less encouraging piracy. Let’s just pray that Independence Day 2 gets its right…

TV’s tribulations

Despite all our claims of problems with the film industry, we must concede its financial performance this year will be one for the record books (particularly with some added vim from Star Wars). The TV sector, on the other hand, has had a decidedly worse year. For while Hollywood’s problems may be existential and longer-term, television must really start fundamentally addressing existing business models, today.

The rise of OTTs such as Netflix – not to mention the recently launched premium content service from Google, YouTube Red – has no doubt contributed to a sudden hastening in young adults who have dropped (or simply never had) a cable subscription. In the US, latest data recently reported from Pew research show 19% of 18-29s in the US have dropped their TV / cable service to become cord-cutters (or cord-nevers). The pace of change is quickening, according to eMarketer, who recorded a 12.5% leap in cord-cutting activity YoY.

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Cognisant of such shifts, organisations have begun seeking remedy. In November, Fox became the first broadcast network to drop same-day ratings provided by Nielsen to the press, recognising that they “don’t reflect how we monetise our content,” and hoping to “move the ratings conversation into the future”. General Electric meanwhile, is stop advertising on prime-time television, instead keeping its budget for live events. This makes sense as it is this type of programming that typically lures large, diverse and timely audiences to content. Most interestingly, however, Disney, who seems to feature a lot in this post, is launching its own digital subscription service, aggregating its film, TV, books and music assets together. The FT notes it will be “the biggest media company yet to stream its content directly to consumers online”.

With the increasing popularity of OTT platforms, some are trying to get audiences to rediscover the joy of serendipity again. A new company, Molotov, aims to combine “the best elements of schedules, streaming and social media… Even if it does not take off, it neatly identifies the challenge facing broadcasters and technology companies: how can TV be better? And is there still life in the television schedule?“. Its UX has been compared to Spotify, allows a personalised programming guide, as well as bookmarking shows, actors and politicians. Moreover, Molotov also lets viewers know which shows are particularly popular on social media, as well as which of their Facebook friends like particular shows. “The idea”, written in the FT,  “is to be a one-stop shop for audiences by replacing dozens of apps on Apple TV, or indeed an entire cable box”. Indeed, China is struggling with the linear world of television and film, uncertain about how to regulate offensive or violent content in a world without watershed or clear boundaries for regulation beyond towing the political line. For its part, the BBC will be fervently hoping that there remains life in the television schedule. With its Charter up for review, the future of the organisation is currently in question, to the extent that anyone can try their hand at getting the appropriate funding for the Beeb, with this handy interactive graphic.

Trend implication: OTTs like Netflix will continue to gain ground as they publish more exclusive content, though there is a risk such actions lead to brand diffusion, and confusion over what audiences should expect from such properties. Business models for content are increasingly being rewritten; excited as we are that The X-Files is returning to Fox in January, the real benefactor is apparently Netflix. Like it or not (we happen to think it’s a savvy strategic move), Disney’s plan to launch a subscription service online is innovative in its ambition to combine multiple media under one roof, and illustrates the company has recognised it has a sufficiently coherent brand (unlike Netflix) that can make for competitive differentiation as it faces off against other walled gardens. Advertising revenues, like cable subscription revenues, will continue to slide; there’s not much anyone, even Disney can do about that. Such slides though are unlikelt to deter continued mergers on the part of telcos; one in five pay TV subscriptions now go to these companies. Molotov sounds like an intriguing approach to reinventing a product long overdue for a renaissance… will such a renaissance come too late for the BBC though?

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The X-Files returns to the Fox network in January, but it is Netflix that will really benefit

Tech opportunities and pitfalls

The tech sector as a whole, which continues to spit out unicorns, was deemed to be heading for a burst bubble, according to The Economist: “There are 144 unicorns valued at $505bn between them, about five times as many as three years ago. Most are unprofitable”. Equally disconcerting for the sector must have been Donald Trump, who has been consistently dismissed by mainstream media types since the summer but continues to roll on through the Republican presidential primaries. In his most recent itchy trigger-finger solution to the world’s woes, he suggested simply turning off the Internet in certain places. Apart from our understanding and appreciation of the Internet as one of the world’s liberating platforms that is one of the most tangible examples of man’s desire to communicate as one, this would apparently also be quite difficult.

Trend implication: Startup valuations do seem to be increasingly on the wild side, and there’s a good case to be made about the double-edged sword of such high valuations that dissuade companies from going public. There may possibly be a correction sometime next year; look for it to separate the wheat from the chaff. And while the idea of turning off the Internet is not without precedent, when did Iran last do something that the rest of the world thought was a good idea to emulate? Depriving people of the internet necessarily deprives people of information. On a macro level this can only be a bad thing. Its technical complexity and ethical murkiness make this an unlikely candidate for impact in 2016.

Amazon is having a rare sojourn in the black of late, with two consecutive quarters of profit. This is a rareity not because of any malpractice on Jeff Bezos’ part, rather because the mantra of the company has consistently been over the years to reinvest revenues into new development. Its brief profitability comes as the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services [AWS], become increasingly popular. As the Financial Times notes,

“In the latest quarter, [AWS profits] came to $521m on revenues of $2bn. That is roughly equivalent to the operating income of the entire core North American retail unit — a business with eight times the sales.”

Trend implication: Amazon’s growth may give some investors with a short-term eye succour for 2016 and a more profitable Amazon. But they should not be taken in so easily. Bezos’ long-term strategy remains investment for the future rather than a quick buck.

Facebook has been in the news for things positive and otherwise as it pushes the limits of innovation and unsurprisingly finds itself coming up against vested interests and the remits of regulatory bodies. It must also combat the same issues faced by other maturing companies, that of lower engagement and rising age groups. For example, 37% of users shared photos as of November, down from 59% a year earlier. In the meantime it is deploying some interesting tactical maneuvers, including more prominent featuring of events you are going to go, as well as ones you might be interested in attending. It also suggests events directly into status updates. Other timely reminders, reported in the WSJ, include “On Sept 27, it displayed an image of a crescent moon as a prompt about the supermoon lunar eclipse. In October, it worked with AMC Network Entertainment LLC to remind fans of “The Walking Dead” about the show’s season premiere”.

And while its partnership with Uber – embedding the service directly into its Messanger platform – is to be commended (WeChat’s ARPU by contrast is $7), it has struggled abroad. In India, one of several regions where it has agreed to zero-rated services with operators, net neutrality proponents are lobbying to have its Free Basic services shut down (while also raising noise about T-Mobile’s similar Binge On service in the US). Meanwhile, Whatsapp, the platform Facebook now owns, whose use has exploded in popularity in Jakarta, recently saw its service shut down for 12 hours in Brazil, affecting around 100 million people. Telco operators have been lobbying the government to label OTT services as illegal, but it seems that the government shut the service down in order to prevent gang members from communicating. This provoked much derision.

Trend implication: As Facebook’s audience continues to mature, macro engagement may continue to dip. Data on metrics such as average pieces of content shared by a user per month have not been updated since the company’s IPO. Facebook, as well as other OTT plaforms will continue to struggle in some respects in 2016, as both traditional players (e.g. telecom operators) and regulators seek to contain their plans. Operators in particular will have to increasingly lay ‘frenemies’ with OTTs that may offer value-add and competitive differentiation with the right partnership, yet at the same time eat away at their revenues. Continued security threats, whether cyber or physical terrorism, may mean, that, like Trump’s comments above, services continue to see brief disruption in 2016 in various regions. Net neutrality rulings in the US and Europe will also have an impact on the tech sector at large. It is likely to be laxer in Europe, which The Economist predicts will hurt startups.

Similarly impactful was the recent video of a drone crashing to the ground at a World Cup ski competition this week, which missed a competitor by what looked like a matter of feet and would have caused serious injury otherwise.

Trend implication: Despite such potential for grievous harm, there should generally be a quite liberalised framework for drone use. However, this needs to start with more prescriptive regulation that identifies the need for safety while recognising individual liberty

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

Trends, threats and opportunities in the film industry

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In the 1950s… 80 per cent of the audience was lost. Studios tried many ways to win back this audience, including new technologies such as Cinerama, but none of these worked. What did work was to view the entire business as basically an intellectual properties business where they optimised on as many platforms as possible. That’s the business today.”

– Ed Epstein

Strategy is something that this blog has in the past accused the film industry of lacking, particularly when it comes to issues of development (over-leveraging risk with expensive tentpoles) and distribution (a lack of progressive thinking when it comes to day-and-date openings across platforms). This piece takes a look at how, in some areas, there are kernels of hope for the industry, as well as some specific areas that are ripe for improvement.

Given our initial contention, It was refreshing to discover this gem of an illustration (see top image) from none other than Walt Disney himself that was recently recovered from the archives, according to Harvard Business Review, showing “a central film asset that in very precise ways infuses value into and is in turn supported by an array of related entertainment assets”; all that’s missing is the strategic goal. Such forethought, of complementary assets combining to drive value, is arguably a symptom of the much-ballyhoed “synergy” and convergence the industry has undergone over the past ten to fifteen years; here was Walt writing about in 1957. The HBR article contends that it is not just synergy that is important, but in identifying those areas where you possess “unique synergy”. Disney’s current state, with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm as content production houses, is an impressive pursuit of such a unique synergy, helped in no small part by having the impressive Bob Iger at the helm. The recent announcement of a Han Solo origin story, with the pair behind 21 Jump Street attached to direct, would have been to music to many a filmgoer’s ears. Unfortunately, the danger of undue risk from arranging a surfeit of tentpole releases remains, and is unlikely to be challenged while films such as Tomorrowland tank and Jurassic World soar. A brilliant piece on the evolution of the summer blockbuster, featured in the Financial Times recently, can be found here.

The film industry in China is a subject we last wrote about around a year ago. It’s a booming scene out there (last year China added as many screens as there are in all of France), which despite a quota on foreign film has proved enormously profitable to Hollywood. And while some films have had to seek opaque deals that ensure the inclusion of Chinese settings and talent in order to get the thumbs up for exhibition in China – e.g. the latest iteration of Transformers – others pay scant attention to such cultural pandering, and meet with similar success. In June, the Financial Times wrote that Furious 7 had no Chinese elements, but still managed to break “all-time box-office records since its release in China in April, taking in almost $390m”. Importantly, the figure beat the US’s taking of $348m. China is due to be the largest movie market in the world in less than three years. As we have written before, part of this is due to the cultural interest in moviegoing; people will see pretty much anything in China while the experience is still new and tantalising. While good for revenues, it does imply that content produced will be increasingly skewed – at least for a while – to lowest common denominator viewing that titillates rather than stimulates. The sheer volume of takings for such fare is ominous; of the fastest films ever to reach $1bn globally at the box office, three are from this year. China has played no small role in this development.

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However, all is not as rosy as it could be. Traditional players in the industry are wary of new entrants. Domestic companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, YoukuTudou and Leshi have either partnered with studios for exclusive distribution deals over online platforms – irking the exhibitors – or simply investing in developing their own studios and content production. The FT writes, “[c]ollectively, these internet firms co-produced or directly invested in 15 films in 2014, which earned more than Rmb6bn ($965m) at the box office last year – a fifth of total receipts… Industry participants worry that these internet giants may soon seek to cut them out of the equation altogether“.

How to respond to such disruption? Well, they might for a start take a step up in their customer engagement management, from developing more complex segmentation to encouraging retention, whether it be to a particular studio or a particular cinema. At a simple level, this might mean things like not revealing the twists of films in the trailer. At a more complex level, it might involve working with social networks, perhaps even some of the very ones otherwise considered as competitors, listed above, to gain Big Data insights that can better inform messaging, targeting and identification of high-value users. Earlier this year, Deloitte worked with Facebook to produce a piece of thought leadership that looked to do just that, helping telcos with what was defined as “moment-based”, dynamic segmentation, with initial work and hypothesis from Deloitte and their Mobile Consumer Survey correlated against Facebook’s data trove. Using different messages over innovative channels, for example on WeChat, would also likely prove fruitful. Luxury brands, long the laggards in digital strategy, have recently been making headway in customer engagement via such methods. Looking further ahead, they might also consider how their “unique synergy” will be positioned for future consumer trends. The Internet of Things is set to fundamentally change the way we go about our lives, including the relationship businesses have with their customers. How will it impact movie-going and people’s relationship with the cinema? For all the global talk on the impact of such devices, the film industry has yet to develop any coherent thinking on it. One bright area is the subject we mentioned at the beginning of our article; collapsing release windows. Paramount announced earlier this month they have reached an agreement with two prominent US exhibitor chains, Cineplex and AMC, to “reduce the period of time that movies play exclusively in theaters” to just 17 days for two specific films, according to The Wrap. It’s not clear what financial (or otherwise) incentives the theater chains received for such a deal.

So while the threat of disruption is ever-present – as it is for so many industries around the world right now – there are ample opportunities for studios and exhibitors to up their game, through better targeting, better communication, better distribution deals, and, just maybe, better product.

Imitation & Innovation in China

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It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If true, it should follow then that China are huge fans of most consumer electronics brands. We’ve written before about threats to intellectual property. The impact of such imitators is most keenly felt by the end user, and can be mixed. In India, back in 2011, counterfeit DVDs of The Dark Knight sold for over $600 a pop. In China, where a limited embargo on foreign films exists, scarcity has spurred innovation, leading to grey-market DVDs with more special features for viewers to enjoy.

Such innovation still flouts the law, however, and is nothing new. In his book A History of Future Cities, Daniel Brook writes in detail of the Westernisation of Shanghai at the end of the 19th century:

“As early as 1863, the British food company, Lea & Perrins, was taking out ads in the North China Herald to warn Shanghai consumers of ‘spurious imitations of their celebrated Worcestershire sauce [with] labels closely resembling those of the genuine Sauce’ and threatening lawsuits against anyone who dared to manufacture or sell the knockoff product”

Today, China still struggles to build powerful brands that work outside the country as well as they perform domestically. An editorial earlier this week in the Financial Times confirmed this status, with a focus on handset manufacturer Xiaomi. The editorial rightly points out Xiaomi have made good attempts at brand cultivation, including a strong social media following that cultivates a sense of belonging that results in people attending new product releases in the same uniform and plush toys (see header photo). More could be done though. Ultimately the brand can be as glitzy as you want, but without an exciting business beneath, generating excitement will be hard: “It is a sound business, but not an innovative one”. Its product specs borrow from Samsung, its product design and launch motif from Apple, albeit with some mildly diverting software additions of there own, such as a way to navigate automated phone systems.

The risk of failure in markets outside of China has potentially been heightened by the centrally planned market environment present there, which rewards and protects national incumbents while doing its best to hinder new, foreign entrants. A domestic market with over a billion people is not a bad starting place, but as the FT concludes, “If Chinese brands are going to take on their rivals around the world, they need to dazzle us with something we have never seen before, much like Sony did with its life-altering Walkman“. Sony though will feel keenly that such dazzlers do not a sustainable competitive advantage make.

Tech’s impact on business and culture in 2014

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It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.

Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter's presence at the Oscars last night

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter’s presence at the Oscars last night (click to watch)

The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.

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Whatsapp’s number of active users skyrocketed to 450m in no time, outpacing both Facebook and Twitter (Source: The Economist)

The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,

“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”

One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway, so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it”. It is this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,

“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.

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In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, one of England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.

A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see.  A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally“. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.

So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.

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Threats and Opportunities for the Entertainment Industry in 2014

January 11, 2014 1 comment

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*Our 2015 trends for the sector can be found here*

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At the start of a new year, what to make of the entertainment sector? It depends where you look. One thing is for certain though; at the close of 2013 that old laggard the music industry upstaged its media cousins. For sheer daring and innovative nous, few initiatives could claim to beat Sony in its launch of Beyoncé’s new album. In the face of increasingly ailing streaming services, the album was released as a fixed bundle on iTunes, with no marketing behind it. The news of the release thus came as a last-minute surprise to the industry and consumers alike, creating a short but extreme burst of anticipation. The artist posted a message on Facebook saying she wanted to recreate the “immersive experience” she used to have listening to music. The album sold 80,000 copies in three hours. It is difficult to envision Sony’s film division at Columbia Pictures doing anything similar.

Near the end of last year, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 5th Annual GlobeScreen Conference at London’s May Fair Hotel. Eve Gabereau, the co-founder and MD of Soda Pictures lamented “nurturing a film is not possible any more… there is less opportunity for a film to find its audience”. Word of mouth, she said, had to be very good, and happen very quickly, in order for it to have an effect. Simon Crowe, founder and MD of SC Films International, disagreed with another speaker, who asserted that filmmakers were being hampered by a lack of data, in that they did not know who they were making films for. He dismissed the need for data, and, most worryingly, stated the primary focus should not be on the bottom line. This is dangerous thinking. Films may be art, but if the medium is to continue then it needs to be profitable. So the primary focus has to be ‘How will this product turn a profit?’. Zeitgeist asked him afterward about the viability of VOD (video-on-demand) as a channel; Crowe was not optimisitic about its future as a significant revenue producer, calling films that have found success on such platforms – such as Arbitrage and Margin Call – outliers. Zeitgeist offered that Netflix had not been considered a significant distribution channel for a while, until suddenly it was. Did he foresee a similar situation with VOD? “Don’t know”, was his retort. It was well worth staying late to receive such gems as answers. The whole conference spoke of an ignorance of the insight data can provide, a shunning of profit-focused management, and a general yearning for bygone times when the industry – not to mention the champagne and other substances – was flowing more freely.16-old-hollywood-is-dead-and-old-tv-is-dyingSuch anecdotal frustrations found company in the form of hard data. To cap off 2013, Business Insider published an article entitled ‘The US 20: Twenty huge trends that will dominate America’s future’. Number 16 was ‘Old Hollywood is dead…’. It noted that inflation-adjusted box office receipts were down around 8% from their 2004 high (see chart). Industry trade mag Variety reported recently that UK box office fell 1% in 2013, which was the first drop in ten years and the biggest in more than twenty. Of course, part of the reason for this was because 2012 had a rather suave helping hand from James Bond, in the form of Skyfall. When Zeitgeist prodded Cameron Saunders, Managing Director of 20th Century Fox UK, about the news over Twitter, he was quick to leap to into the fray, noting that it was “still the second biggest box office year on record”. He also went on to concede though that “UK admissions however have flatlined, despite lots more films = fewer people seeing each movie”. The same scenario is happening in the US. China is one of the few bright spots in the world of film, and has seen an explosion in the number of physical screens installed in the country over recent years. But even the Chinese film industry has medium to long term challenges it will need to overcome, if, as some predict, it is to become the world’s largest film market – overtaking the US – by 2019. It is still at the mercy of a government with strict controls and vague whimsical notions about what makes for permissible content; the state is involved at almost every level of production and distribution. Moreover, though the quota on foreign releases in the market has been relaxed slightly, it is by no means open season for Hollywood. In much the same way as the banning in China of Google’s app service and videogames consoles led to poor knock-offs, so with film. The restrictions have spawned poor remakes of American films that didn’t see a release on China’s shores, which inspires little creativity or excitement.

It was not all doom and gloom in the cinema of late of course. Gravity continues to light up screens across the world, and seems poised to do well come Oscar night. Its only obstacles come in the form of other films that critics and audiences have been similarly impressed with this season, including 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips. But such artistic achievements can hardly make us forget what was a poor summer for the film industry. We have written before about how films in development are increasingly either mega-blockbusters or niche arthouse films. Producer Kevin Misher, talking to The Economist last month, echoed our thoughts; “Hollywood is like America: the middle class has been squeezed”. The article went on to lament the unique situation the film industry finds itself in, relying on outsiders for both ideas (“imagine if Apple or Toyota did this”) and funding.

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Will more content producers partner up with those infringing intellectual property?

The challenges extend further. Though Kodak suffered from other problems too, one of the things that prevented it from ever laying down a long-term strategy to embrace digital photography was the revolving door of executives at the top. Hollywood is similarly afflicted. In the past 18 months, according to The Economist, four of the six main studios have seen change at the top. Perhaps some longevity in senior roles would have encouraged these companies to embrace new ways of delivering films to eager customers. Instead, most films, particularly the ones glutting the summer schedule, still cling to an outdated distribution strategy of staggering releases across platforms. Studios resist doing this – save for the odd arthouse release – because it risks the ire of exhibitors. We’ve written before about the antiquated nature of such thinking. Every delay in getting to a consumer increases the chances that customer will resort to piracy. Companies like Netflix are reporting that intellectual property rights infringement dips once legal alternatives are made available to people; there are signs of hope.

Piracy is of course playing a role in television, too. In Poland, consumers have to wait months after the US broadcast for their dose of Homeland. It is thus one of the more popular shows to be pirated. Making the most of this trend, a publishing company responsible for a new book detailing Carrie’s life before the start of the series has been inserting adverts into the subtitles for the show. The MD of the publishing company told TorrentFreak, “We decided to advertise via subtitles because we wanted to show the book to all the fans of the Homeland series in Poland, no matter where they watch the show”. You can’t argue with placing a promotion for where you know your likely customers are. It will be interesting to see if any other unlikely coupling between pirates and content producers emerge. For, as amusing as this news is, it does point to a fragmentation in audiences, and thus in places for advertisers to reach them. It should have come as little surprise then when, last month, the Financial Times reported that TV’s share of advertising spend will slip this year, after three decades of uninterrupted growth. Jonathan Barnard, ZenithOptimedia’s head of forecasting, warned, “After television ad spending has grown pretty consistently for at least the last 35 years… there will be quite a lot of disruption to come over the next 10 years.”

Of course, disruption will come to other sectors of the entertainment industry, too. This was apparent at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Samsung and Sony, among others, held court. It wasn’t the best of showings for Samsung, where famed producer / director Michael Bay walked out seconds into a presentation on curved televisions after the autocue failed. Sony had its disruptor product to tout, a cloud TV service. Beyond the glitz and glam of such new product releases, a big question remains: Can Sony use what assets they have and combine them effectively? A great article in the FT probed deeper, asking whether all these new products and services – we would be remiss were we not to mention the PS4, currently outstripping the Xbox One in sales – can be successfully integrated into an ecosystem that Sony is desperately trying to create. The corporation dabbles in film distribution, film production, smartphones, music as well as videogames and is slowly trying to tie them all together. All this while seemingly trying to disrupt itself, with cloud gaming doing away with the need for a console and image projectors doing away with the need for physical screens (Sony loses about $80 on every set it sells currently). As the article concludes,

“[CEO] Mr Hirai is trying to pick up the pace as Sony searches for its digital destiny. But the familiar questions remain: can it execute on the plan, how fast can it move – and how much pain is it prepared to take along the way?”

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Where next for Sony?

Certainly if companies like Samsung and Sony wish to succeed in the coming years, they will have to do away with the obsession of focusing on hardware. It is plain now that, in consumer’s eyes, technology has reached a tipping point where the specifications of an object are no longer a unique selling point; they are a redundancy. This became clear at the Mobile World Congress in 2012, when PC Magazine published its event wrap-up under the headline “The End of Specs?”.

There are some companies that are embracing disruption, or at least, trying to hire those who started it in the first place. Disney, which often seems to have a strong strategic head on its shoulders, recently made the eminently sensible move of hiring the chairman of Twitter Jack Dorsey to join the Walt Disney board. This was no isolated occurrence for Disney, who had previously had Steve Jobs on the board and who have also hired Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Elsewhere, the canny Weinstein brothers, who rarely miss an opportunity to make impressive artistic works that turn a decent profit, reteamed with their old company Miramax to develop further iterations of their film library. Seeing the opportunity for increased creativity in television, as well as new channels like Netflix and Amazon, they will also be developing new television series. And while online takes away advertising spend from other channels under the promise of reaching the right people at the right time, new local television development in the UK promises to do similar as it targets localised areas. Still, the film industry as a whole seems to be outright resisting any changes to the calendar; schlock in the summer sun, followed by arty pretense come Oscar time. Repeat. A writer in the New York Times elaborates,

“And then, after the Oscars, the machine picks up speed and starts excreting ghastly product like Oz the Great and Powerful, one of the worst movies of 2013 and the eighth highest domestic grosser of the year. Then the fall hits, and we cling to movies like Gravity and insist that, really, it isn’t all bad. And it isn’t, of course, even if creating a Top 10 list is finally an exercise in exceptionalism.”

The worry is that any shift in the schizophrenic nature of film scheduling and creation will probably involve at least a short-term hit to the bottom line. And a recent dismissal hints that no such shift is underway at the moment. In October, the great James Schamus of Focus Features was let go by Universal. Schamus was instrumental in bringing director Ang Lee to the US, distributing his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before going on to make The Pianist, Far From Heaven and Brokeback Mountain, among many other extraordinary films. Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company, told the New York Times in December,

“The major media companies are so big that nothing but a blockbuster really makes sense. Say you make a low-budget comedy and it brings in $150 million. So what? That doesn’t move the needle. You make a blockbuster… You can do the sequel and the consumer products and a theme park attraction. The movie itself is almost beside the point. All Disney is going to be doing is Marvel, Star Wars and animation.”

That would be a great shame for those who like artistic diversity, as well as sensible financial returns, in their film studio output. Current business models seem to be producing diminishing returns. This is true for videogames, movies and music. Experimentation, such as that by Sony’s music division mentioned at the beginning of the article, must be more widespread to engage with new consumer habits and to rekindle jaded minds. Consumer engagement and feedback as a whole is largely missing from much of the strategy with which the entertainment industry steers itself. Shareholder returns and operational logistics occupy most of their time. A far more rigourous approach to data – collecting and analysing it – and a more open ear to one’s customer base, might prove beneficial.

“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency

December 28, 2013 1 comment

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One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…

We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.

Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,

“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”

Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.

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Click to see The New Yorker’s infographic on what personal data is made available to social networks and their advertisers

Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,

“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”

The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,

“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”

Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.

Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,

“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
Morozov also questions the meaning behind such data, as Zeitgeist has done in a previous article. Such information risks becoming seen as an objective answer without providing a solution or insight.
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
Touching on similar points and themes, the most enjoyable recent article on the subject was written by famed author Margaret Atwood for The New York Times earlier this month. It had recently emerged that intelligence agencies had been using MMO games like World of Warcraft in an attempt to discover terrorists and other less enjoyable parts of the internet. Atwood has predicted just such a thing in her books, written some twelve years ago. Atwood struggles to make sense of her thoughts coming to life, wondering whether to treat it as comedy or tragedy. She elaborates, crystallising all our fears about the empty truth behind data,

“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”

Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.

Monetising the Arts – Fundraising and cultural collisions

Eugene Onegin CROP

A promotional still for The Met Opera’s season opener, ‘Eugene Onegin’, which debuted to a blizzard of protest and outrage.

Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:

“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”

In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?

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In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.

The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,

“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”

Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.

It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.

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