“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.
“The film market in China is like an experimental supermarket – with more and more racks but only one product… The viewers don’t care what they see as long as it’s a film. They’ll watch whatever is put in front of them.”
– Zhang Xiaobei, CCTV
LA is “a favourite place for Chinese businessmen to do business”, according to the objective opinion of China’s general counsel to Los Angeles. And that was back in 2011, before China extended its annual quota of foreign films allowed to be exhibited on the mainland. We’ve written before about the relationship between Hollywood and China, which in the two years since we wrote that piece has only deepened. It’s little wonder; EY has predicted China will be the largest film market in the world by 2020. Revenue is being squeezed in the film industry as millennials hang out on their smartphones and games consoles. When they do pay for movies, it’s more likely to be streamed rather than owned. Worse, that stream may be hosted by someone like Netflix, whose burgeoning clout makes negotiations for license fees increasingly difficult. So China provides a timely cash cow; an antidote to Western media fragmentation and fatigue. But at what cost?
China’s economic rise to superpower status has logically meant a rise in its viability as a place to invest in. From infrastructure, where cinemas screens have been springing up at the unbelievable rate of seven a day (as of May this year), to co-productions between Hollywood and homegrown Chinese outfits. These collaborations have resulted in overt references to China in storylines, such as that seen in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Karate Kid and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, or the additional scenes filmed for Iron Man 3. This also includes the more recent Transformers: Age of Extinction, which saw not only a large part of the film take place in Hong Kong, but also included local talent and featured a mind-boggling amount of inappropriate product placement from Sino brands. The few production companies in China are also expanding, looking beyond more traditional propaganda fare, as well as to foreign markets, as is the case with China Film Group.
But the film industry in China is not quite as rosy as it appears. Interestingly, there have been few efforts at US talent getting involved in Chinese productions. This may be partly due to the mess that was The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, which was reportedly little more than a propaganda piece. And from a content point of view, caution has been the watchword for studios; The producers of World War Z removed a discussion over whether the zombie apocalypse started in China; Chinese villains were edited out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Men in Black 3. Is that really necessary? And while scripts are edited to appear more appealing to China, so are balance sheets. For while Transformers 4 is now China’s highest-grossing movie of all time, according to The Hollywood Reporter, what THR don’t mention was the way the gross is measured. For, says Julie Makinen, a China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, box office revenue is arbitrarily inflated. She elaborates,
“I think everyone agrees there’s some fudging that goes on… It’s fairly common to go into a theater, say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy a ticket for Transformers,’ and they say, ‘Great,’ and they print out your ticket for a local romantic comedy. So I’m pretty sure the 20 bucks I just handed over is being counted in someone else’s basket. Things like that happen; a lot of statistics in China are suspect.”
Moviegoers aren’t being particularly discriminating yet because the act of going to the cinema as an event or experience is still a relatively new phenomenon for many. Product placement, which we referred to earlier, while an opportunity for some synergy between film and brands, risks being too commercial and overt if done without context. A recent article in the Financial Times said such promotions in Transformers 4 quickly “start flying faster than bullets from an Autobot’s wrist-mounted Gatling gun”. Apart from bringing viewers out of the fictional narrative into reality, creating a disappointing experience, inappropriate product placement can also cause ire between businesses. (We’ve written several times over the years about product placement, here.) Such an occurrence took place at the end of July when a tourism group in China sued Paramount Pictures for failing to show a logo of the park that the company had paid to be prominently displayed in the movie. The implementation of co-productions between the two countries evidently needs work too. Scenes added exclusively for a Chinese version of Iron Man 3 added little except some questionable product placement as well as the dubious plotline of Tony Stark heading to China, of all places, for medical convalescence. Lastly, the current quota of films to be exhibited in China means that many good-quality US films fail to be seen in the country. Much like bans on US games consoles and the Android app store, Google Play, the result of this has been an explosion of home-grown imitators. In this case, films in China are made that precisely mimic the formula and set-up of popular American franchises like The Hangover, which was never seen by Chinese audiences, thus the extent of emulation isn’t evident. Assuming that eventually the quota will be entirely relaxed, this type of tactic can only ever be a short-term measure.
One of the greatest opportunities the film industry in China has is in part due to one of its greatest weaknesses. Because of historically protracted release windows, and a narrow selection of films making it to cinemas, piracy has been rampant. Indeed, infringement has been widespread enough that the industry has had seemingly no choice but to innovate. We reported back in April how China has relaxed its embargo on foreign games consoles, and, more to the point, how Tencent, in partnership with Warner Bros., were making the latest 300 film available to rent, while the film was still in cinemas in the US. Such forward-thinking is welcome. As well as offsetting any losses from piracy, it also hopefully points the way to a more open business environment in China, at least for TMT companies. Such innovative thinking will need to be extended, however, to the structure of China’s film industry itself, which is reportedly a vertically integrated engine driven almost entirely at the whim of the state.
Just as China’s tastes have held increasing sway over the production of art and wine in recent years, so with film. The middling global box office performance of Pacific Rim found salvation in Asia, and that was all the justification needed for a franchise to be developed. There is certainly much to be gained from investment and co-productions in China’s films industry, especially while it is still relatively nascent, not least of which are the financial returns. How such relationships impact the content itself is another matter. Hopefully some of the approaches China is taking with regard to multi-platform releases might even trickle over to Western markets. Studios should also be wary about putting all their eggs in one basket; CNBC reports that growth in ticket sales for Hollywood films in mainland China hit a five-year low in 2013. Only three US movies made the top ten highest-grossing films in China last year, down from seven in 2012. One reason for the slowdown is a lack of variety. And yet don’t expect the blockbuster formula to change anytime soon; as much as it was born in the USA, it is also what audiences in the worldwide market love to gobble up. (Michael Bay’s films – expertly dissected in the above video – prove that point no end, and it has been particularly driven home recently as Bay himself as well as sometime employee Megan Fox have expressed nonchalance about any negative press from critics, knowing their products make millions despite nasty reviews. Specifically, actress Fox told naysayers to “F*ck off”.) There is a certain amount of momentum behind the two industries’ relationship with one another, but recent productions have shown that future projects should perhaps be treated with a little more caution, particularly as Chinese audiences tastes mature. Last month the film historian Neal Gabler was quoted in the Financial Times, in a point that usefully sums up this piece,
“The overseas market has changed the DNA of American movies… The bigger-faster-louder aesthetic is very deeply embedded in the American psyche. No one else can do it. It’s one of the reason they export so well. It’s so much a part of who we are. But we have been victims of our own success. It’s a Catch-22. The things that make our movies so popular overseas are now larger than the American market can support by itself.”
UPDATE (30/8/14): The production side of the industry continues to evolve, as China’s largest video website Youku Tudou demonstrated on Friday when it promised to produce 8 films for cinema release and 9 to premiere on the internet. Chairman and Chief Exec Victor Koo pointed out to the Financial Times that there was a gap in the market left by Hollywood, “The US film industry is highly developed. It tends to be either blockbusters or franchise films. But in China you’re talking about small to mid to large budgets…”. The logistics of creating a film for online release – more than likely to be consumed on a smartphone – must consider important limiting factors such as, according to Heyi Film chief exec Allen Zhu, smartphones in China running films get “very hot after 20 mins”. Youku Tudou’s plans may seem ambitious – particularly given it reported a $26m loss for the second quarter – but when 18 screens are erected in China every day (last year more cinema screens were added in China than the total in France), it seems a risk some are willing to take.
Zeitgeist has written before about the luxury goods company Yves Saint Laurent. Then-creative director Stefano Pilati opined, “[I]t’s such a contradiction, because we want to be luxurious and have 300 shops all around the world, but you can’t be luxurious with 300 shops around the world”. It’s always difficult to introduce dramatic innovation to a company that conversely prides itself on provenance and tradition. In trying to adhere to past methods, what starts out as a respectful outlook can lead to stagnation. It was evidently with this in mind that incoming designer for YSL, Hedi Slimane, has decided not only to personally redesign all retail environments – as he did at his last post at Dior Homme – but also to change the name of the brand itself, to Saint Laurent Paris.
It is not the first time a luxury label has grappled with a name change. “Gianni Versace” was similarly shortened some years ago to “Versace”; more recently Dolce & Gabbana’s more affordable “D&G” brand, announced it is to be shuttered due to consumer confusion over nomenclature. YSL’s name change is actually a return to tradition of course, as the brand used to be known as Saint Laurent Paris. This news was overlooked though on Twitter, where a lot of the knee-jerk reactions to the news were far from positive. The move will allow Slimane to stamp a real sense of authority on the brand, much as he did while at Dior, where many objective observers rightly claim he revolutionised contemporary menswear.
Most importantly though, the renaming should help move the brand away from the vestiges of any remaining cheap associations (evinced by the above person wearing a YSL polo shirt). In the 1980s, the company sold licenses to use its name to over 200 different companies, which led to poor-quality clothing being produced under the YSL marque, and a significant erosion of brand equity. A similar situation befell ’70s doyen Halston. Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Paris has the opportunity to breathe new life into the company, while still maintaining a distinct sense of style that the eponymous designer would have been proud of.
Contention, Controversy and Criticism, the three Cs that no brand wants to hear (unless they’ve intentionally brought it upon themselves in an incredibly well-orchestrated way). The Gap recently tried this, in an effort that Brandchannel called a “Gapocalypse”, i.e. not well-orchestrated. Mea culpas followed hard upon.
Last month, the Daily Mail reported that Dior was being similarly torn apart; “slammed” for its apparently racist imagery. The images in question, shot by Quentin Shih as part of the ‘Shanghai Dreamers’ campaign commissioned for the new store opening in the eponymous city, show a woman draped in Dior finery, surrounded by Chinese people who all look exactly alike. The campaign has been called racist, but Mr. Shih says, “I wanted to show the power of Chinese people standing together and a kind of socialism in Chinese history (only in Chinese history not China now)… The Chinese models are not people. They are symbols of Chinese history between the 1960s and 1980s.” According to the article, The Guardian’s Jenny Zhang wrote “[They] should have sent Chinese models for Shih to shoot, and should understand that the modern Chinese Dior customer will not recognise herself or himself in these photographs.” Dior could be forgiven though for playing on the well-known admiration that the Chinese have for luxury, exotic Western brands. Actress Marion Cotillard was similarly used in an international campaign for Dior recently, highlighting China’s rising prominence.
The ‘Shanghai Dreamers’ photos, intentionally glazed to give the appearance of those family photos from bygone days, remind Zeitgeist of old school photos… just not theirs. As always, your thoughts and raging tirades are always welcome on what you think of this campaign, and how well it treads the line of being at the cutting edge – which is what haute couture fashion is all about; pushing boundaries – while maintaining cultural sensitivity.
From the Winter 2009 Zeitgeist…
“Even in the face of tyranny, people insisted that the world could change.” So said President Obama at the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both Obama and the destruction of the Wall demonstrate the power of the populous. Weʼve seen time and again that when people have come together, online, to demand action over something, they have precipitated change. From Facebookʼs accession to Canuck privacy requirements, to HSBC changing their policy for student customers, social networks can help upset the order of things.
When more is at stake than the reinstating of an erstwhile chocolate bar, what then? Horace wrote some time ago “The mountains will be in labour; a ridiculous mouse will be born.” Thousands spoke out online in protest at the rigged Iranian elections – Afghanistan, with only 25% mobile and 1% fixed-line penetration, didnʼt stir similar attention–demonstrating a heart-warming solidarity with the Iranian people. But did it achieve anything substantial? CNN said Twitter and Facebook posts provided the US with “critical information in the face of Iranian authorities banning Western journalists from covering political rallies.” However, the camaraderie was not terribly helpful for Iranians. Despite months of protests on the streets, Ahmadinejad is still in power, and those caught face harsh punishment.
This past week has seen an event of potentially similar import in Denmark. Representatives of the developed and developing world alike attended the COP-15 summit in Copenhagen, debating how best to combat climate change. Ogilvy Earthʼs Hopenhagen campaign, charged by the UN, is designed to give people from all over the world a chance to show their desire for action to be taken. The 6.2m petitions may have played a part in the ensuing (albeit diluted) accord reached.
As Zeitgeist composes this article in the rugged environs of a remote WPP outpost, a radio station is playing Bachʼs Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. If intelligent life were to ever intercept the Voyager spacecraft jettisoned into space all those years ago, this piece of music would be the first thing they would hear. Though we can only hope for something to come of that mission, there are
pressing things on our planet that do require immediate action. Sometimes all that is necessary is to speak up and be heard. The alternative, as Niemöller pointed out, is surely far worse:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.