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
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.
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.
We’ve written several times over the years about the deployment of Big Data. One of the key challenges with such tools is the seductive risk of treating the data as a catch-all answer to a question not asked. Zeitgeist in the past worked with a large client in the public sector that understood this pitfall and studiously avoided it by knowing beforehand what Big Data meant to them, and how it could be used to improve its strategy and operations.
Without such forethought, applications of Big Data can be ineffectual, if not outright harmful, as the president of eBay Marketplaces said last year in an interview with McKinsey. Governments around the world – particularly in the West – have been using Big Data for some time now to help identify extremists. The jury is still out for some as to how harmful government digital surveillance can be. The deliberate weakening of virtual systems has its root in the fact that the US government originally classified once-arcane cryptography as a munition, which when licensed abroad was watered down. “The idea of deliberately weakening cryptography in the name of national security has not gone away”, writes The Economist. An article published in The New Yorker earlier this year investigated the NSA’s uses of Big Data – specifically mass surveillance of individuals in the US and beyond over cellphone metadata, social media, etc. – and found it wanting. This appears to be partly because there is no pre-determined strategy for what they want the data to do, other than to figuratively chuck it onto the pile with the rest of the data they have, which at some point might be used. The efficacy of such a practice, according to the article, has been minimal. In all of its surveillance, the article claims there was but a single case “
“Patrick Skinner, a former C.I.A. case officer who works with the Soufan Group, a security company, told me… ‘We knew about these networks,’ he said, speaking of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Mass surveillance, he continued, ‘gives a false sense of security. It sounds great when you say you’re monitoring every phone call in the United States. You can put that in a PowerPoint. But, actually, you have no idea what’s going on.’
By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act. Two years before the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers alleged to have committed the attack, was assessed by the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. They determined that he was not a threat. This was one of about a thousand assessments that the Boston J.T.T.F. conducted that year, a number that had nearly doubled in the previous two years, according to the Boston F.B.I. As of 2013, the Justice Department has trained nearly three hundred thousand law-enforcement officers in how to file ‘suspicious-activity reports.’ In 2010, a central database held about three thousand of these reports; by 2012 it had grown to almost twenty-eight thousand. ‘The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle,’ Sensenbrenner told me. Thomas Drake, a former N.S.A. executive and whistle-blower who has become one of the agency’s most vocal critics, told me, ‘If you target everything, there’s no target.’“
This last quotation applies to strategy in general. Without anything specific to focus on as a strategic achievement or direction, one shouldn’t expect any improvement in that area.
We all seem to have less time to ourselves these days. But there seems to be more to watch – on more platforms – than ever before. What trends have led to this, and what’s the result? Much editorial ink has been spilled over the years about how our lives seem to be getting busier, with less free time to ourselves. This is somewhat of a painful irony given that many of our more intellectual ancestors thought our evolution as a species would quickly lead to a civilisation mostly consumed by thoughts of how to fill the days of leisure. In last week’s New Yorker, Harvard professor Thales Teixeira noted there are three major “fungible” resources we have as people – money, time and attention. The third, according to Teixeira, is the “least explored”. Interestingly, Teixeira calculated the inherent price of attention and how it fluctuates, by correlating it with rising ad rates for the Super Bowl. Last year, the price of attention jumped more than 20%. The article elaborates,
“The jump had obvious implications: attention—at least, the kind worth selling—is becoming increasingly scarce, as people spend their free time distracted by a growing array of devices. And, just as the increasing scarcity of oil has led to more exotic methods of recovery, the scarcity of attention, combined with a growing economy built around its exchange, has prompted R. & D. in the [retaining of attention].”
It’s such thinking that has persuaded executives to invest in increasingly multi-platform, creative advertising during the Super Bowl, and to media production companies taking their wares to the likes of YouTube and Netflix. But it’s all circular , as demonstrated last week when Amazon announced it would be producing films for cinema release. The plurality of such content over different channels carries important connotations for pricing strategies. At its most fundamental, what is a product worth when it is intangible and potentially only available in digital form? It chimes with an article written earlier this month in The Economist on the customer benefits of e-commerce. Though most knee-jerk reactions would assume price is the biggest benefit to customers, recent research illustrates this is not always the case. Researchers at MIT showed on average people paid an extra 50% for books online versus in-store. This isn’t because that latest David Baldacci is sold for more on Amazon, but rather because of the long tail. Which means more products are able to find the right owner, for a price, whereas in store comparatively they go unsold. More channels have meant more availability for content, which should benefit consumers in that more content destined to be a hit now finds a home, where once it might have been lost if turned down by the major TV or radio network stations. The Economist elaborates,
“Seasoned publishers have only a vague idea what book, film or song will be a hit. A major record label can sign only a fraction of the artists available, knowing full well it will unwittingly reject a future superstar. Thanks to cheap digital recording technology, file sharing, YouTube, streaming music and social media, however, barriers to entry have been dismantled. Artists can now record and distribute a song without signing to a major label. Independent labels have proliferated, and they are taking on the artists passed over by major labels. Hit songs are still a lottery, but the public gets three times as many lottery tickets.”
So while we may have less time to consume it, more content over more channels will allow for greater chances for breakout hits, particularly with avid niche audiences. Amazon Prime video content was until recently confined to a niche audience, and the show Transparent dealt with niche subject matter. But the show has broken out into the zeitgeist and won two awards at the recent Golden Globes ceremony. (Full disclosure, we know a producer on the show and were lucky enough to visit the set on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles last summer). It is likely such a great show – recently made available free for 24 hours as a way to upsell customers to Prime – would not have found a home on traditional TV networks, and thus in people’s homes, were it not for this plurality.
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.”
We’ve written about Sony multiple times over the years, rarely in a good light. A parody Twitter account of the company’s CEO, Kazuo Hirai, often makes for entertaining reading. The company can’t seem to catch a break. Its latest financial results, released today, warned of a $2.2bn loss for the financial year, the sixth loss in seven years. For the first time since 1958, the company will not pay a dividend. Much of the blame fell to the ailing smartphone division, which generates a fifth of the company’s revenue, but other businesses hurt the conglom too. The company loses $80 on every TV sold; rumours abound they will sell the Spider-Man franchise back to Marvel for a quick payday; the one bright light, Playstation, which took the company into the black in Q2, is beginning to seem risky, as customers look beyond single-use devices like games consoles, a trend we spotted back in January last year. (Earlier this week, Microsoft continued to hint that it might spin off the Xbox business). Sony recently spun off its TV division into a subsidiary and sold its PC business. These actions in turn were supposed to bear fruit, but clearly haven’t.
Much of the difficulty Sony faces was elaborated on in detail in a brilliant profile of then-CEO Sir Howard Stringer for The New Yorker, back in 2006. Little has changed since then. In today’s FT, the newspaper outlines the longevity of Sony’s heartache.
June 1999 Nobuyuki Idei becomes chief executive. Four years later he presides over the infamous Sony “Shokku”, or shock, in which the group surprised investors with a profits warning.
June 2005 British-born Howard Stringer becomes chief executive, the first foreigner to lead Sony with a mandate to restore profitability and turn the core electronics business round.
September 2005 Sir Howard’s first major restructuring initiative outlines a plan to cut staff numbers by 10,000, or 7 per cent, and reduce costs by Y200bn. It will also close 11 manufacturing plants, streamline its number of products and generate capital from asset sales. “We must be like the Russians defending Moscow against Napoleon, ready to scorch the earth to stay ahead of the invaders. We must be Sony United and fight like the Sony warriors we are,” he says.
December 2008 A second wave of restructuring begins with plans to cut 16,000 full-time and part-time jobs in its electronics businesses around the world.
2011 Sony downgrades its net income forecasts four times.
March 2012 The group highlights its digital imaging, game and mobile units as the three core pillars of its electronics business.
April 2012 Kazuo ‘Kaz’ Hirai takes over as chief executive. Sir Howard says he will be a “tough-mind[ed]” leader. The first restructuring under Mr Hirai is outlined under the banner of “Sony will change”. Sony will shed 10,000 jobs, or about 6 per cent of its global headcount, over the next three years.
March 2013 The group reports its first full-year net income in five years.
October 2013 Sony warns on profits.
January 2014 Moody’s cuts Sony rating to junk.
February 2014 Plans to spin out the television business and sell the Vaio PC business are announced.
May 2014 Sony warns on profits for the third time in six months.
July 2014 The group surprises the market by swinging into profit for the second quarter.
September 2014 Sony warns that its expected annual net loss will be nearly five times as big as initially predicted at Y230bn.
How to define innovation, how has it been studied in the recent past, and what does future innovation hold for the human race?
Sometimes the word innovation gets misused. Like when people use the word “technology” to mean recent gadgets and gizmos, instead of acknolwedging that the term encompasses the first wheel. “Innovation” is another tricky one. Our understanding of recent thoughts on innovation – as well as its contemporary partner, “disruption” – were thrown into question in June when Jill Lepore penned an article in The New Yorker that put our ideas about innovation and specifically on Clayton Christensen’s ideas about innovation in a new light. Christensen, heir apparent to fellow Harvard Business School bod Michael Porter (author of the simple, elegant and classic The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy) wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. His work on disruptive innovation, claiming that successful businesses focused too much on what they were doing well, missing what, in Lepore’s words, “an entirely untapped customer wanted”, created a cottage industry of conferences, companies and counsels committed to dealing with disruption, (not least this blog, which lists disruption as one its topics of interest). Lepore’s article describes how, as Western society’s retelling of the past became less dominated by religion and more by science and historicism, the future became less about the fall of Man and more about the idea of progress. This thought took hold particularly during The Enlightenment. In the wake of two World Wars though, our endless advance toward greater things seemed less obvious;
“Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices our getting newer and newer”
The article goes on to look at Christensen’s handpicked case studies that he used in his book. When Christensen describes one of his areas of focus, the disk-drive industry, as being unlike any other in the history of business, Lepore rightly points out the sui generis nature of it “makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries”. She goes on for much of the article to utterly debunk several of the author’s case studies, showcasing inaccuracies and even criminal behaviour on the part of those businesses he heralded as disruptive innovators. She also deftly points out, much in the line of thinking in Taleb’s Black Swan, that failures are often forgotten about, and those that succeed are grouped and promoted as formulae for success. Such is the case with Christensen’s apparently cherry-picked case studies. Writing about one company, Pathfinder, that tried to branch out into online journalism, seemingly too soon, Lepore comments,
“Had [it] been successful, it would have been greeted, retrospectively, as evidence of disruptive innovation. Instead, as one of its producers put it, ‘it’s like it never existed’… Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification.”
Such were the ramifications of the piece, that when questioned on it recently in Harvard Business Review, Christensen confessed “the choice of the word ‘disruption’ was a mistake I made twenty years ago“. The warning to businesses is that just because something is seen as ‘disruptive’ does not guarantee success, or fundamentally that it belongs to any long-term strategy. Developing expertise in a disparate area takes time, and investment, in terms of people, infrastructure and cash. And for some, the very act of resisting disruption is what has made them thrive. Another recent piece in HBR makes the point that most successful strategies involve not just a single act of deus ex machina thinking-outside-the-boxness, but rather sustained disruption. Though Kodak, Sony and others may have rued the days, months and years they neglected to innovate beyond their core area, the graveyard of dead businesses is also surely littered with companies who innovated too soon, the wrong way or in too costly a process that left them open to things other than what Schumpeter termed creative destruction.
Outside of cultural and philosophical analysis of the nature and definition of innovation, some may consider of more pressing concern the news that we are soon to be looked after by, and subsequently outmaneuvered in every way by, machines. The largest and most forward-thinking (and therefore not necessarily likely) of these concerns was recently put forward by Nick Bostrom in his new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. According to a review in The Economist, the book posits that once you assume that there is nothing inherently magic about the human brain, it is evidence that an intelligent machine can be built. Bostrom worries though that “Once intelligence is sufficiently well understood for a clever machine to be built, that machine may prove able to design a better version of itself” and so on, ad infinitum. “The thought processes of such a machine, he argues, would be as alien to humans as human thought processes are to cockroaches. It is far from obvious that such a machine would have humanity’s best interests at heart—or, indeed, that it would care about humans at all”.
Beyond the admittedly far-off prognostications of the removal of the human race at the hands of the very things it created, machines and digital technology in general pose great risks in the near-term, too. For a succinct and alarming introduction to this, watch the enlightening video at the beginning of this post. Since the McKinsey Global Instititute published a paper in May soberly titled Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, much editorial ink and celluloid (were either medium to still be in much use) has been spilled and spooled detailing how machines will slowly replace humans in the workplace. This transformation – itself a prime example of creative destruction – is already underway in the blue-collar world, where machines have replaced workers in automotive factories. The Wall Street Journal reports Chinese electronics makers are facing pressure to automate as labor costs rise, but are challenged by the low margins, precise work and short product life of the phones and other gadgets that the country produces. Travel agents and bank clerks have also been rendered null, thanks to that omnipresent machine, the Internet. Writes The Economist, “[T]eachers, researchers and writers are next. The question is whether the creation will be worth the destruction”. The McKinsey report, according to The Economist, “worries that modern technologies will widen inequality, increase social exclusion and provoke a backlash. It also speculates that public-sector institutions will be too clumsy to prepare people for this brave new world”.
Such thinking gels with an essay in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence, titled New World Order. The authors rightly posit that in a free market the biggest premiums are reserved for the products with the most scarcity. When even niche, specialist employment though, such as in the arts (see video at start of article), can be replicated and performed to economies of scale by machines, then labourers and the owners of capital are at great risk. The essay makes good points on how while a simple economic model suggests that technology’s impact increases overall productivity for everyone, the truth is that the impact is more uneven. The authors astutely point out,
“Today, it is possible to take many important goods, services, and processes and codify them. Once codified, they can be digitized [sic], and once digitized, they can be replicated. Digital copies can be made at virtually zero cost and transmitted anywhere in the world almost instantaneously.”
Though this sounds utopian and democratic, what is actually does, the essay argues, is propel certain products to super-stardom. Network effects create this winner-take-all market. Similarly it creates disproportionately successful individuals. Although there are many factors at play here, the authors readily concede, they also maintain the importance of another, important and distressing theory;
“[A] portion of the growth is linked to the greater use of information technology… When income is distributed according to a power law, most people will be below the average… Globalization and technological change may increase the wealth and economic efficiency of nations and the world at large, but they will not work to everybody’s advantage, at least in the short to medium term. Ordinary workers, in particular, will continue to bear the brunt of the changes, benefiting as consumers but not necessarily as producers. This means that without further intervention, economic inequality is likely to continue to increase, posing a variety of problems. Unequal incomes can lead to unequal opportunities, depriving nations of access to talent and undermining the social contract. Political power, meanwhile, often follows economic power, in this case undermining democracy.”
There are those who say such fears of a rise in inequality and the whole destruction through automation of whole swathes of the job sector are unfounded, that many occupations require a certain intuition that cannot be replicated. Time will tell whether this intuition, like an audio recording, health assessment or the ability to drive a car, will be similarly codified and disrupted (yes, we’ll continue using the word disrupt, for now).
“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.
It’s no secret that the publishing industry is struggling mightily as customers shift from paying for physical newspapers and magazines to reading information online, often for free. The shift has caused ruptures among other places at that bastion of French journalism, Le Monde, with the recent exit of the editor as staff rued the switch to online. So-called ‘lad’s mags’, the FHMs and Loaded magazines of the world, have been hit particularly hard, as the family PC and dial-up internet gave way to personal, portable devices and broadband connections, which provided easier access to more salacious content than the likes of Nuts could ever hope to provide. FHM’s monthly circulation is down almost 90% from a 1998 peak, according to the Financial Times. Condé Nast have pushed bravely into the new digital era, launching a comprehensive list of digital editions of its wares when the iPad launched in 2010. More recently, the company launched a new venture, La Maison. In association with Publicis and Google, the idea is to provide luxury goods companies with customer insights as well as content and technology solutions. We’ve often written about the need for more rigorous customer insights in the world of luxury, so it’s refreshing to see Condé Nast innovating and continuing to look beyond newsstand sales. We’ve written about other ways publishers are monetising their content here and here.
Time Warner is not alone then in its struggles for new ways of making money from previously flourishing revenue streams. According to The New York Times, Time Warner will be spinning off its publishing arm, Time Inc., with 90 magazines, 45 websites and $1.3bn in debt. In 2006, the article reports, Time Inc. produced $1bn in earnings, which has now receded to $370m. Revenue has declined in 22 of the last 24 quarters. This kind of move is not new. Rupert Murdoch acted in similar fashion recently when he split up News Corporation, creating 21st Century Fox. But with the publishing side of the business there were some diamonds in the rough for investors to take interest in; a couple of TV companies, as well as of course Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, which has been invested in heavily. Conversely, the feeling of the Time Inc spin-off was more one of being put out to pasture, particularly as the company will not have enough money to make any significant acquisitions. Like the turmoil at Le Monde, there have been managerial controversies, as those seeking to shake things up have tried to overcome historical divisions between the sales and editorial teams – something other large business journalism companies are reportedly struggling with – only to be met with frustration.
Setting that aside, Time Warner moved swiftly. A day later, the FT reported that the company was “finalising an investment” in Vice Media. We have written extensively about Vice previously, here. The company certainly seems to know how to reach fickle millennials, through a combination of interesting, off-beat journalism, content designed to create its own news, as well as compelling video documentaries that take an unusual look at topical subjects. Such an outlook however does not preclude it from partnering with corporations. As a millennial myself, it seems what people look for from those like Vice is authenticity, rather than the vanilla mediocrity arguably offered by others. We don’t mind commercialism as long as it’s transparent. It does not jar then when Intel is a major investor in its ‘content verticals’, or when last year 21st Century Fox invested $70m in the company. This bore fruit for the movie studio most recently in a tie-up promoting the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The sequel takes place 10 years after the 2011 film, and Fox briefed Vice to create three short films that would fill in the gaps. A great ploy, and the result is some compelling content to keep fans engaged in the run-up to the film’s release, particularly in territories where the film opens after the US market. Such activity is far beyond the purview of the traditional newspaper. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Publishers must face up to the reality that newspapers alone will not deliver enough revenue to be sustainable. Seeking other content revenue streams while engaging in strategic partnerships with other companies looks, for now, to be a winning formula.
UPDATE 08/07/14: When it comes to engaging with millennials, mobile is most definitely the medium of choice. The FT reported today on Cosmopolitan magazine’s 200% surge in web visitors, year on year in May. Fully 69% of page views were from mobile devices (compared to a 25% average for the rest of the web). The publication has also wised up to the type of content this group likes to consume, as well as create. Troy Young, Hearst’s president of digital media, said the new site is “designed for fast creation of content of all types… Posts aren’t just text and pictures. They’re gifs, Tweets, Instagrams.” Mobile will only get the company so far though. PwC thinks US mobile advertising spending will account for only 4.6% of total media and entertainment advertising outlays this year. Cosmo is looking beyond mobile though to “exclusive events or experiences”, perhaps along the same lines as those other businesses are practicing who are looking for additional revenue streams. The article suggests users might “pay to see the first pictures of an occasion like Kanye West’s and Kim Kardashian’s recent wedding”. Beggars can’t be choosers.
UPDATE 10/07/14: Have all these corporate manoeuvres on the part of Time Warner been in the service of making itself appear an attractive acquisition? As the famous and clandestine Sun Valley conference takes place this week, rumours abounded that Google or 21st Century Fox were both interested in buying TW. This according to entertainment industry trade mag Variety, which commented, “Time Warner could be an attractive target. Moreover, unlike Fox or Liberty Media, it is not controlled by a founder or a founder’s family and with a market cap of $63.9 billion it is a relative bargain compared to the Walt Disney Co. and its $151 billion market cap”.