“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Though the brouhaha over the series House of Cards has been building steadily since its announcement almost two years ago, through rumours of budget battles between director and studio, it was upon the release of the series this week that the media meta-echo chamber really went into overdrive. The first season, with a budget far north of $100m, debuted to ebullient praise from critics. But what does it signify for the trail-blazing company’s future?
Aside from the mostly positive reviews, the series piqued the media industry’s interest for other reasons too. It is the first to be created and screened exclusively by Netflix, a company previously known for striking deals with studios to distribute and stream their content. Not satisfied solely with such (sometimes pricey) deals, the company also saw an opportunity for greater brand visibility and a separate revenue stream – assuming it eventually licenses the show regular TV networks – in fully-fledged independent production. What is also interesting is that the entire first season was made available for instant viewing, all 12 hours. By doing this the company recognised and capitalised on a trend that has been accelerating for almost a decade; people like to watch multiple episodes at once. This has never not been the case, but the weekly episodic installments of shows on network television have allowed the audience little say in the matter, and thus no room for such a habit to develop. This changed dramatically with the arrival of the DVD, specifically with affordable boxsets, as those that had missed the zeitgeists of West Wing, The Sopranos and 24 were able to quickly catch up with their obsessed brethren. Critics have often noted how the viewing of multiple episodes at once – which is how such reviews are often conducted as they usually receive a disc with several shows to consider – particularly for shows like Lost, improves the structure and narrative flow. With the arrival of boxsets, such opportunities were available to all. Indeed, marketers leveraged this enthusiasm for consecutive viewing, creating events around it. Netflix saw this with absolute clarity and allowed viewers to watch as much or little as they desired. Many, it seemed, chose to devour the whole first season in one weekend, which entertainment trade Variety covered with humourous repercussions to the viewer’s psyche, across now fewer than six stages of grief. Zeitgeist has written before about the increasing popularity of streaming, and the complementary preference that audiences have for the type of films (action, romcom, broad comedy) they like to watch when choosing such a distribution method. It is interesting to consider then just how much the viewing experience differs between a 12-hour marathon over two days, and a one-hour slice over a period of three months. As the article in Variety half-jokingly posits, “Is tantric TV viewing a thing? If it’s not, should it be?”.
Of course, Netflix aren’t alone in seeing an opportunity to delve into developing complementary products and assets. Microsoft are using the functionality of Kinect to pair with their own content development, letting children “join in” with Sesame Street, for example, and are in the process of setting up a dedicated studio for production, in Los Angeles. Amazon, which owns the streaming service LoveFilm, is also getting into the game, recently setting up Amazon Studios for original content production. At the end of last year, The Hollywood Reporter announced Amazon would be greenlighting twenty pilots, all of which were “either submitted through the studio’s website or optioned for development”. YouTube recently launched twenty professional channels on its UK website, Hulu is following suit… It really is quite startling to see such fundamental disruption and turmoil in environments where incumbent stalwarts (such as 20th Century Fox in film and Walmart in retail,) have long been accustomed to calling the shots. Could the model become completely inverted, such that the Fox network and HBO become the “dumb pipes” of the TV world, showcasing the best in internet-produced television? Maybe so, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Economist this week argue that one of the most important factors in Liberty Global’s recent purchase of Virgin Media was the avoidance of paying corporate tax for “years” to come. If content is still king though, a problem remains for those incumbents. The New Yorker astutely points out,
“An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share… When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.”
Netflix must tread carefully. Crucially, what seems like competitive differentiation and all-quadrant coverage now can quickly shift. Amazon’s ventures into content production will be backed up with a sizeable and perpetual stream of revenue that it derives from its e-commerce platform, which isn’t going away anytime soon. The BBC are publicly welcoming new entrants, and is devising its own tactics, such as making episodes available on iPlayer before they screen, if at all, on television. Interesting but hardly earth-shattering, and likely to make little difference to viewer preference. Netflix will have to do better than that if it wants long-term dominance of this market. It will have to be increasingly careful with its partners, too. Recent, though long-running, rumblings of discord with partners like Time Warner Cable, though seemingly innocuous, tend to be indicative of a larger battle ensuing between corporate titans. Moreover, though the act of providing a deluge of content seems new and sexy now, what about when everyone starts doing it? Chief content officer for Netflix Ted Sarantos told The Economist last week, “Right now our major differentiation is that consumers can watch what they want, when they want it, but that will be the norm with television over time. We’re getting a head start”. Fine, but about when that is the norm, what is the strategy for differentiation then? Netflix have made some lofty, daring, innovative moves here, exploiting consumer trends and noticing a gap in the competitive environment. But they will need firm foundations to support this move into an adjacent business area, of which they know relatively little, in the years to come. As President Bartlet of West Wing was often heard to say, “What’s next?”.
Zeitgeist was lucky enough to be a guest at the BFI Imax the other day when a select few members of the press, film industry folk, hangers-on and, yes, Trekkies, were shown footage from the Star Trek film to be released next summer, “Into Darkness”. It was a mere nine-minute clip of the film – the rest of which is still under lock and key / being edited under the watchful gaze of J.J. Abrams – but it was deemed enough to hold a Friday morning event around, with a very well-catered brunch afterward. What made the morning special was the presence of two of the stars, Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as the producer, Bryan Burk. The Q&A session, preceded by video salutations from J.J. and Simon Pegg, had many Trekkies in the audience aflutter and was a nice bit of promotion.
Regarding the footage itself, any excitement at seeing fleeting glances of futuristic shots brimming with portent were somewhat diluted by the fact that the same nine minutes were to be shown from that day before select showings of “The Hobbit”. Which of course means it was also pretty much immediately available on YouTube (if only to be removed, in an understandable but somewhat counter-intuitive move by the studio).
The status quo at the moment is one in which films often have longer life-spans than ever before (especially if more than one iteration is being shot simultaneously a la Lord of the Rings, or the studio making the film falls into financial trouble, as with the last James Bond film, Skyfall). If the production time isn’t longer, the lead-in for marketing certainly is. Disney’s Tron remake, which came out in 2010, was several years in the making. The marketing campaign was three and a half years long. One promotional tactic used was to give away free – but very scarce – tickets to select sneak peeks at the film, several months before its release, which at the time Zeitgeist took full advantage of.
This is not without drawbacks for the studio of course, as early bad press could scupper a film’s chance of commercial success. But in part perhaps recognising the need to constantly remind people of a product, in a society today that values instantaneous media and loves to second-screen, the risk is one worth taking. It’s especially appropriate if the film has a built-in, excitable fanbase, which both Star Trek and Tron do, and you can feed them occasional scraps to keep them satisfied. The TV series Lost, which invited similar nerdy inclinations – and was another brainchild of J.J. Abrams – made a similar move when the studio behind it released tantalising clips on YouTube in an effort to stir interest. Crucially, it also meant they beat the pirates at their own game. All in all it was a nice little bit of promotion by Paramount, creating coverage in media old and new as the stars gave interviews afterwards, and keeping die-hard fans on the slow-boil, ensuring the film remained top of mind while the final product remains a work in progress.