Nostalgia as the name of the game
Nostalgia has been the name of the game for many in the world of TMT [technology, media, telecommunications] for a couple of years now, as TV series are rebooted and eras brought back to life (think Fox’s The X-Files and Netflix’s Stranger Things, FX’s The Americans respectively), movie franchises are retooled (think Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast) and books also drag people back to the 80s (think Entertainment Weekly’s number 1 book of 2016, The Nix).
Nostalgia is almost certainly an appealing emotion for many media executives today too. In entertainment, they may look back to fond days before PwC screwed up who won an Oscar and who hadn’t; in technology, vendors are leveraging “digital detox” trends as an excuse to remake old products and in publishing many are surely screaming for the days before digital, when staff at the likes of Conde Nast were still allowed to throw “hissy fits” (to quote British Vogue’s Lucinda Chambers from the recent BBC documentary on the magazine). The empire is having to fast come to grips with a world of declining print revenue shared by all in the industry, as comprehensively covered in a recent piece by the Financial Times.
The one outlier to this trend, fortunately for them, is Viacom, which recently decided that instead of seeking refuge in the past (and in sheer scale) by re-teaming with CBS after splitting over ten years ago, it would instead streamline its operations down to six “flagship brands”. Undoubtedly the wiser move (if only based on the above cheat sheet from The Hollywood Reporter).
This article will focus on those first two issues, last weekend’s Academy Awards and last week’s Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona.
Talk about your burning platform. Last night Zeitgeist sat down to watch Deepwater Horizon, last year’s film an avoidable disaster in an event involving a lot of due diligence, seemingly little of which was executed properly.
So it was – far less catastrophically – with the 89th Academy Awards last weekend. PwC were caught out for the first time, having overseen the awards ceremony’s handing out of winning envelopes, among other things, for 83 years. In their apology, the firm explicitly made reference to the fact that a) such an incident had been foreseen b) protocols had been prepared, in case of such a rare eventuality c) these were not followed through quickly enough on the night. As with many cases of significant error, the fault appears to be with an excess of comfort.
- Firstly, PwC as a firm, it could be argued, had become too comfortable in the role of auditor. In an interview before the ceremony with one of the two partners involved, it was revealed the opportunity to be auditor for the awards had never gone out to tender. This is poor due diligence on the part of the Academy.
- Secondly, Brian Cullinan, one of the PwC partners, seemed himself to have acquired too much comfort with his role. Whether this was tweeting (hastily deleted) pictures of Emma Stone at the moment he should have been concentrating on his work (see picture above), as Variety revealed, or – as the same publication also uncovered the other day – that he wanted to have an on-stage presence, involving a skit with the host, Jimmy Kimmel.
- Thirdly, we would also add that – having worked for Deloitte in a strategy role in days gone by – PwC should never have let these two individuals stand in the limelight. Any project, however glamorous (or not), should always have only one face, that of the company as a whole, not an individual.
The eventual winner, Moonlight, was praised by The Economist (among many others) for being a wonderful film, and one that deserved to win the coveted Best Picture award. Interestingly, it noted how it had been made for “a tenth” of the budget of films that had won in the past several years. This is a worrying trend, as these prior winners were already considered to be of a small budget; minnows that did not attract the attention of the studios, who increasingly find themselves in the comic-book franchise game, rather than the Oscar race. It bodes poorly in the medium-term for the release and backing of films that try to tell human stories about real life; art that may actually have an impact on others. It is these types of films that, with current political turmoil, are needed right now.
Innovation in mobile is becoming harder and harder to come by. If, as Forrester reported recently, smartphones are in the hands of 40% of the global population (even including those people hanging out with penguins in icy tundras and running away from lions on barren plains) then such a product is in need of something new to differentiate the market for consumers. At the annual Mobile World Congress, such things were in short supply. This week’s Economist quoted Ben Wood of CCS Insight summarising the event as a “sea of sameness”.
Indeed, ZTE (as above), had a gloriously twee “fairy garden” on display, which seemed very very similar to the one we saw at MWC in 2016. From a product point of view, Nokia (yes, Nokia) seemed to generate the most buzz for its revamped 3310, a resurrected product from a bygone mobile age. A feeling of sameness hung in the air from those reporting from the ground too; cynicism was prevailing.
Last year, Zeitgeist found that if you didn’t have Oculus at your stand (for any reason, no matter how inconsequential), you were a nobody. You also needed to be talking about 5G (no matter how vaguely). The same seemed to be the case this year, except more so. This, despite the fact that Oculus has squandered an eighteen-month lead in the market, now with a position of third in the VR marketplace by revenue. VR in general has yet to transfer to a mainstream pursuit, to the surprise of analysts. 5G, on the other hand, saw some glacial movement. While operators in Japan and South Korea had already begun investment and deployment of the networks before standardisation, the UN’s ITU body has now set those standards, laying the way for other markets to begin upgrading their networks. Their challenge is a formidable one, and to be honest they should not expect it to be anything other than a thankless task. Their main approach to this eventuality at the moment seems to be bigging the technology up beyond all recognition, which has started a backlash of sorts among the more experienced in the sector.
“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.
“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.
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.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… TV executives’ concern over changing viewing habits is nothing new. Sports coverage continues to deliver; it’s such thinking that pushed BT to pay almost GBP900m to show some football matches. But it’s not just knowing the score as it happens that has kept audiences from time-shifting. We wrote a piece back in 2011 detailing how the industry was trying to put a renewed focus on live events. Social media have contributed to this; having a constant stream of wry comments on Twitter to snark at while watching Downton Abbey can vastly improve the viewing experience. This is somewhat lost if viewing the show later.
There was a time when live events were much more common on network TV. Back then it was other formats – radio and cinema – that were running scared from the box in the corner. Now it is television that is trying to retain eyeballs; DVRs and OTT rivals are diminishing its sway; the cable industry lost 2.2m subscribes last quarter and Fox COO Chase Carey recently conceded the cable cord was “fraying”. TV viewing in general dropped 4% last quarter, Nielsen reported on Friday. Mobile use in general seems to be the largest culprit (see chart, below). As part of a strategy to keep viewers glued to scheduled, linear TV, NBC has previously screened the live performance of Sound of Music, and recently announced plans for a live rendition of A Few Good Men. Like the latter piece on content, Peter Pan similarly began as a play, and this past week saw its own broadcast, live, on NBC. It was a fine tactic in a broader strategy. Sadly, execution, and timing, are everything. Salon saw much room for improvement. The New Yorker compared it with earlier TV adaptations (NBC did a live version back in 1955) and found it lacking. More damningly, it also saw a broader disconnection from reality, as protests swept the nation in reaction to events unfolding in Ferguson. Viewing figures were half what the network got for Sound of Music. As The Wall Street Journal points out, live events may be losing their pull; both the Emmys and MTV Music Awards saw dips in ratings this year. Meanwhile though, marketers are still willing to pay a premium for advertising during such shows. Brands are said to have paid as much as $400,000 per-30 second commercial for the telecast.
“The nature of the internet as a platform for art is double-edged. The thing that makes it attractive — the fast turnover of content produced by unusual, gifted people — may be what stops it from bringing about a Golden Age 2.0.”
– India Ross, Financial Times
Another tactic in the strategy to retain eyeballs has been to license old seasons of shows still running to OTT providers like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix. On the one hand this may cannibalise viewers who are just as happy watching old episodes as new ones. On the other, it could provide a new platform to find audiences and increase advocacy and engagement. What Nielsen has found is that both are happening. As the WSJ reports, “Dounia Turrill, Nielsen’s senior vice president of client insights, said she analyzed the results of 16 such shows and found an even split of shows that benefited and those that didn’t”. Netflix, meanwhile, closed down its public API and is seeking world domination with culturally diverse content in the form of Marco Polo. Such OTT providers have their own problems to worry about, too; their niche is becoming increasingly cluttered. Vimeo is not mentioned often as a competitor to the likes of Amazon’s services, but it too is now producing original content for streaming, in much the same way as its peers, where shows are greenlit by popular demand and creatives given full rein. An article in this weekend’s Financial Times points out the limits of such a business model, “the internet audience — vehement but fleeting in its interests — may not always know what makes the best content for a more substantial series… returns are unreliable in a marketplace where even established services suffer at the hands of a capricious audience”.
In film, new possibilities arise in the form of ticket-booking innovation. While TV is recycling old ideas of content and engagement, these new tactics look to push the industry onward. This month through January 17, New York’s MOMA hosts a Robert Altman retrospective. One of his seminal films, The Player, shows in some ways how far the film industry has come, and in others how we haven’t moved on at all. The New Yorker wrote a brief feature on the retrospective. It’s insightful enough to quote at length, below:
“In the opening shot of “The Player,” from 1992, Robert Altman makes an explicit attempt to outdo Orson Welles’s famous opening to “Touch of Evil.” He has the camera zoom in and out, track left and right, pan one way and the other, and, before a cut finally comes, pick up with most of the major characters of the film. The scene also situates “The Player”—a movie about a studio created on a Hollywood studio lot—in film history, with passing references to silent film, forties genre work, the sixties, and, finally, the Japanese, who were then moving in on Hollywood, and are seen looking the studio over.
When it came out, “The Player” was regarded as a scorching attack on greedy and unimaginative Hollywood: in the film, the industry’s shining past surrounds the executives at the studio and shames many of them. Twenty years later, the huge profits from big-Hollywood movies—digital fantasies based on comic books and video games—have washed away that shame. The executives in “The Player” have stories pitched to them constantly by writers, and then they say yes or no. They don’t consult the marketing division on what will sell in Bangkok and in Bangalore. The thing that Altman may not have anticipated was that one would be able to look back at the world of “The Player” with something almost like nostalgia.”
“The film market in China is like an experimental supermarket – with more and more racks but only one product… The viewers don’t care what they see as long as it’s a film. They’ll watch whatever is put in front of them.”
– Zhang Xiaobei, CCTV
LA is “a favourite place for Chinese businessmen to do business”, according to the objective opinion of China’s general counsel to Los Angeles. And that was back in 2011, before China extended its annual quota of foreign films allowed to be exhibited on the mainland. We’ve written before about the relationship between Hollywood and China, which in the two years since we wrote that piece has only deepened. It’s little wonder; EY has predicted China will be the largest film market in the world by 2020. Revenue is being squeezed in the film industry as millennials hang out on their smartphones and games consoles. When they do pay for movies, it’s more likely to be streamed rather than owned. Worse, that stream may be hosted by someone like Netflix, whose burgeoning clout makes negotiations for license fees increasingly difficult. So China provides a timely cash cow; an antidote to Western media fragmentation and fatigue. But at what cost?
China’s economic rise to superpower status has logically meant a rise in its viability as a place to invest in. From infrastructure, where cinemas screens have been springing up at the unbelievable rate of seven a day (as of May this year), to co-productions between Hollywood and homegrown Chinese outfits. These collaborations have resulted in overt references to China in storylines, such as that seen in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Karate Kid and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, or the additional scenes filmed for Iron Man 3. This also includes the more recent Transformers: Age of Extinction, which saw not only a large part of the film take place in Hong Kong, but also included local talent and featured a mind-boggling amount of inappropriate product placement from Sino brands. The few production companies in China are also expanding, looking beyond more traditional propaganda fare, as well as to foreign markets, as is the case with China Film Group.
But the film industry in China is not quite as rosy as it appears. Interestingly, there have been few efforts at US talent getting involved in Chinese productions. This may be partly due to the mess that was The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, which was reportedly little more than a propaganda piece. And from a content point of view, caution has been the watchword for studios; The producers of World War Z removed a discussion over whether the zombie apocalypse started in China; Chinese villains were edited out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Men in Black 3. Is that really necessary? And while scripts are edited to appear more appealing to China, so are balance sheets. For while Transformers 4 is now China’s highest-grossing movie of all time, according to The Hollywood Reporter, what THR don’t mention was the way the gross is measured. For, says Julie Makinen, a China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, box office revenue is arbitrarily inflated. She elaborates,
“I think everyone agrees there’s some fudging that goes on… It’s fairly common to go into a theater, say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy a ticket for Transformers,’ and they say, ‘Great,’ and they print out your ticket for a local romantic comedy. So I’m pretty sure the 20 bucks I just handed over is being counted in someone else’s basket. Things like that happen; a lot of statistics in China are suspect.”
Moviegoers aren’t being particularly discriminating yet because the act of going to the cinema as an event or experience is still a relatively new phenomenon for many. Product placement, which we referred to earlier, while an opportunity for some synergy between film and brands, risks being too commercial and overt if done without context. A recent article in the Financial Times said such promotions in Transformers 4 quickly “start flying faster than bullets from an Autobot’s wrist-mounted Gatling gun”. Apart from bringing viewers out of the fictional narrative into reality, creating a disappointing experience, inappropriate product placement can also cause ire between businesses. (We’ve written several times over the years about product placement, here.) Such an occurrence took place at the end of July when a tourism group in China sued Paramount Pictures for failing to show a logo of the park that the company had paid to be prominently displayed in the movie. The implementation of co-productions between the two countries evidently needs work too. Scenes added exclusively for a Chinese version of Iron Man 3 added little except some questionable product placement as well as the dubious plotline of Tony Stark heading to China, of all places, for medical convalescence. Lastly, the current quota of films to be exhibited in China means that many good-quality US films fail to be seen in the country. Much like bans on US games consoles and the Android app store, Google Play, the result of this has been an explosion of home-grown imitators. In this case, films in China are made that precisely mimic the formula and set-up of popular American franchises like The Hangover, which was never seen by Chinese audiences, thus the extent of emulation isn’t evident. Assuming that eventually the quota will be entirely relaxed, this type of tactic can only ever be a short-term measure.
One of the greatest opportunities the film industry in China has is in part due to one of its greatest weaknesses. Because of historically protracted release windows, and a narrow selection of films making it to cinemas, piracy has been rampant. Indeed, infringement has been widespread enough that the industry has had seemingly no choice but to innovate. We reported back in April how China has relaxed its embargo on foreign games consoles, and, more to the point, how Tencent, in partnership with Warner Bros., were making the latest 300 film available to rent, while the film was still in cinemas in the US. Such forward-thinking is welcome. As well as offsetting any losses from piracy, it also hopefully points the way to a more open business environment in China, at least for TMT companies. Such innovative thinking will need to be extended, however, to the structure of China’s film industry itself, which is reportedly a vertically integrated engine driven almost entirely at the whim of the state.
Just as China’s tastes have held increasing sway over the production of art and wine in recent years, so with film. The middling global box office performance of Pacific Rim found salvation in Asia, and that was all the justification needed for a franchise to be developed. There is certainly much to be gained from investment and co-productions in China’s films industry, especially while it is still relatively nascent, not least of which are the financial returns. How such relationships impact the content itself is another matter. Hopefully some of the approaches China is taking with regard to multi-platform releases might even trickle over to Western markets. Studios should also be wary about putting all their eggs in one basket; CNBC reports that growth in ticket sales for Hollywood films in mainland China hit a five-year low in 2013. Only three US movies made the top ten highest-grossing films in China last year, down from seven in 2012. One reason for the slowdown is a lack of variety. And yet don’t expect the blockbuster formula to change anytime soon; as much as it was born in the USA, it is also what audiences in the worldwide market love to gobble up. (Michael Bay’s films – expertly dissected in the above video – prove that point no end, and it has been particularly driven home recently as Bay himself as well as sometime employee Megan Fox have expressed nonchalance about any negative press from critics, knowing their products make millions despite nasty reviews. Specifically, actress Fox told naysayers to “F*ck off”.) There is a certain amount of momentum behind the two industries’ relationship with one another, but recent productions have shown that future projects should perhaps be treated with a little more caution, particularly as Chinese audiences tastes mature. Last month the film historian Neal Gabler was quoted in the Financial Times, in a point that usefully sums up this piece,
“The overseas market has changed the DNA of American movies… The bigger-faster-louder aesthetic is very deeply embedded in the American psyche. No one else can do it. It’s one of the reason they export so well. It’s so much a part of who we are. But we have been victims of our own success. It’s a Catch-22. The things that make our movies so popular overseas are now larger than the American market can support by itself.”
UPDATE (30/8/14): The production side of the industry continues to evolve, as China’s largest video website Youku Tudou demonstrated on Friday when it promised to produce 8 films for cinema release and 9 to premiere on the internet. Chairman and Chief Exec Victor Koo pointed out to the Financial Times that there was a gap in the market left by Hollywood, “The US film industry is highly developed. It tends to be either blockbusters or franchise films. But in China you’re talking about small to mid to large budgets…”. The logistics of creating a film for online release – more than likely to be consumed on a smartphone – must consider important limiting factors such as, according to Heyi Film chief exec Allen Zhu, smartphones in China running films get “very hot after 20 mins”. Youku Tudou’s plans may seem ambitious – particularly given it reported a $26m loss for the second quarter – but when 18 screens are erected in China every day (last year more cinema screens were added in China than the total in France), it seems a risk some are willing to take.
Having studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).
Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.
Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.
Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,
“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”
Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,
“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”
While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.
The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.
UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.
This post serves as a companion piece and extended update to our previous article on rethinking film industry strategy, which can be found here.
“For me, the business of tentpoles is about generating franchises. The more tentpoles that are being made, the more risky the first installment of a potential franchise is going to be. That’s why I think everybody needs to be asking hard questions about what is a real tentpole and what is a faux tentpole.”
– Jean-Luc De Fanti, managing partner at Hemisphere Media Capital
Since our last post a few weeks ago on the need to rethink film industry strategy, when Steven Spielberg publicly predicted an “implosion” in the industry, the subject remains in the zeitgeist. As we referenced in our last post, Mr. Spielberg has some familiarity with the industry’s modus operandi, having created the blockbuster phenomenon way back in the 70s with Jaws. Like a mutant in a film of that genre though, the nature of blockbusters has changed since then. Jaws, were it made today, would look very different (i.e. terrible). Despite Mr. Spielberg’s warnings, studios presumably took some comfort in an animated sequel – Despicable Me 2 – becoming, in the words of NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke, “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios”, more than E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. Not only did it paint a picture of an industry continuing to grow (though presumably the figure did not take inflation into consideration), it must have also quietened any further calls for originality, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty lowbrow sequel that had triumphed.
The caveat is a large one though, that any proponents of summer blockbusters need to pay close attention to. Despicable Me 2 has made £437 million so far, with a production budget of just £50 million. While on the surface then Despicable Me 2 seems to prove how successful and profitable summer movies can be, it actually provides a lesson in what commercial success can look like with a small-budgeted film. Instead, the rule of thumb during the summer is more likely to involve investing some $200m+ in a film that fails spectacularly – think The Lone Ranger. Though this Disney production is the most visible disappointment of the season, it is by no means alone. The New York Times count “six big-budget duds since May 1“. It is interesting to note that Now You See Me, “the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing”, after costing $75m to make.
Those responsible try to spread the blame. Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer absolved themselves of wrongdoing for their involvement in The Lone Ranger by blaming the critics. Said Depp, “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that”. Yet it is easy to see how one might assume the film – created at such expense, with ripe intellectual property to be exploited, with talent involved in the phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – had all the appropriate ingredients to make it a blockbuster. Studios meanwhile harp on about Twitter, which lets people instantly share their thoughts on a film and is now considered a worrisome bellwether for box office potential. But this is a reaction to poor filmmaking, not a reason why a bad film exists in the first place. They also cite a tight calendar. As The New York Times elaborates, “One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience”. Again, this is no one’s fault but that of the industry. The idea of launching films in a specific time window, when consumers now enjoy time-shifting and device-shifting with their content, is antiquated. It is just as irrelevant in winter, when back-to-back “prestige” films clutter cinemas, desperate for Oscar attention. It is overwhelming for audiences, reduces choice, and in the case of the winter season implies that the voting member of the Academy have no long-term memory.
The summer product is so derivative that evidently audiences are pushing back, showing indifference to the “clones” that feature so prominently at Comic-Con. Films are either direct sequels / reimaginings, or strongly resemble other recent projects. Again, The New York Times has an excellent article on this, elaborating,
“Studios showcased another Amazing Spider-Man, another Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, another Avengers, another Thor and another Captain America… In addition to Godzilla, remakes teased here in recent days included RoboCop… and Riddick,… Even many of the original movies introduced at Comic-Con this year had a been-there-done-that feeling to them, notably Legendary’s sword-and-sorcery picture Seventh Son, which co-stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Ben Barnes. In thundering snippets of footage shown on Saturday, the movie at times resembled Clash of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”
Cheering news for Sony came last week when it announced a $35m profit in the last quarter, but turbulence lay beyond that. In our last post, we mentioned the imbroglio that Sony found itself in as investor Daniel Loeb – whose hedge fund owns roughly 7% of Sony – continued to urge Sony to spin off its entertainment assets. Last week, he wrote a third letter to Sony – the most aggressive yet, with the Financial Times calling it “blistering” – comparing the film division’s two recent duds After Earth and White House Down to Ishtar and Waterworld (two of the floppiest flops to ever flop). He wrote that the CEO, Kazuo Hirai was sitting by complacently while the film division remained “poorly managed, with a famously bloated corporate structure, generous perk packages, high salaries for underperforming executives and marketing budgets that do not seem to be in line with any sense of return on capital invested”. It was with some interest then that, this past Friday, Zeitgeist saw that none other than George Clooney had stepped into the fray, calling Loeb an “activist” who “knows nothing about our business”. He lambasted the hedge fund industry in general, saying “if you look at those guys, there is no conscience at work”.
Clooney added that the “climate of fear” Loeb was creating would lead to even more risk-averse productions. It is creative, rather than financial risk, that Hollywood is sorely in need of. Art doesn’t engage audiences when it is timid and derivative. It inspires people when it is innovative, daring and different. Usually such creative thoughts do not spring forth from the mind of a hedge fund manager. Such new thinking – involving a review of a market research firms say is suffering from “overcrowding” – will require a significant course correction, one that is not going to come anytime soon. The summer slate for 2015 currently includes a Terminator sequel, an Avengers sequel, a Smurfs sequel, Independence Day 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5.