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On new distribution strategies in film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When. Cinema. Works.

February 19, 2013 2 comments

“[T]he big screen. That is its natural habitat—the only place, you might say, where its proud and leonine presence has any meaning. Anything more cramped is a cage, as Jon Stewart showed during this year’s Oscar ceremony. At one point, we found him gazing at his iPhone. “I’m watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ It’s just awesome,” he said, adding, “To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the wide screen.” And he turned the phone on its side. Deserts of vast eternity, reduced to three inches by two.”

– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

Film can sometimes be a mercurial medium. Especially nowadays. It encompasses multiple genres, and, like food, is meant for different occasions, for different needs. Of course, sometimes we go to bad restaurants, or order in, and the experience is terrible. Uber-flop John Carter cost Disney a cool $200m, and wasted many a precious dollar and hour for those that went to see it (admittedly few). But sometimes it’s like a great burger and fries – Die Hard springs to mind – and sometimes it’s a sumptuous 6-course meal cooked by a Michelin-starrred chef – Lawrence of Arabia, or All the King’s Men. Film can stimulate us, it can teach us, and it can be a breezy bit of consumption to pass the time, like a coffee at Starbucks. Moreover, as with food, it can be consumed in different places and circumstances. There are times when the right way to watch a certain film is on your iPad in a cramped airline seat. Pure escapism. But cinema has a crucial place too.

It was interesting today, when Zeitgeist went to see a movie, that it was preceded by an announcement showing an empty cinema, covered in cobwebs and dust, bemoaning the death of the medium at the hands of pirates. Its aim was to take the audience on a guilt trip: ‘Why are you illegally downloading films?’ ‘Why aren’t you coming to see more films at the cinema?’ it pleaded. There are a couple of things strategically wrong with this approach. Firstly, what is the principle problem here? Alright, people are not going to the cinema as often as we would like. Zeitgeist remembers in a brief stint working for Fox several years ago that people went to the cinema 1.8 times a year in the UK. The Economist reports that the share of Americans who attend cinema at least once a month has declined from 30% in 2000 to 10% in 2011. The assumption is that people are instead pirating films at home, thereby depriving studios of money (ignoring research that suggests those that pirate are often avid cinema-goers, and optimistically equating every film downloaded to ticket revenue lost). Well, one quick way to address this is to make films legally available – at a sizeable premium – on multiple platforms day and date. We’ve argued this before, and entertainment trade Variety has used our argument for a lead editorial. It should be recognised, that, although the most prominent face of the film industry, cinema is not what makes the studio money; for years the bulk of profits have been made in home entertainment consumption. Furthermore, there are two fallacies here. One is that cinemas make most of their profit from the snacks people buy at the cinema, not the films themselves. If you want to increase margins, there should be a much more prominent focus on food options, and that means offering a wider, more tempting range of food to be eaten, which is then promoted more effectively. The way such snacks are currently promoted – “Let’s all go the lobby” – has not altered for a half century. Lastly and most egregiously, the communication is completely misdirected, talking to the very audience who is already doing what the ad asks them to do. The ad is shown nowhere but the cinema, therefore only people who go to the cinema will be subject to this guilt trip. To avoid feeling guilty, one can avoid the ad by avoiding the cinema. The logic is completely twisted. Negative communications have been shown to be much less effective in influencing behaviour than positive affirmation. So let’s think about a way to promote cinema that goes beyond a highlight reel of what movies are on in a particular season. More robust revenue streams will have to be found soon. Less people are turning out to the cinema, and in foreign markets, which are doing relatively well, a far smaller chunk of box-office receipts go to the studios.

What also played during the reel before the film started was a short film by Disney Animation that has been nominated for an Academy Award, called Paperman (see trailer above). Zeitgeist had watched the short some days ago on his iPhone after coming across it on Twitter, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was exciting and convenient to be able to consume something so quickly after hearing about it. Moreover, it was instantly shareable with the 400-odd people who follow our tweets when we retweeted the link. Seeing it in the cinema today though really reinforced the power of the big screen; the detail you couldn’t see on the iPhone, the great sound, and the shared laughter and enjoyment from those around you. “Grandeur is a far from simple blessing”, writes Anthony Lane in the same article quoted at the beginning of this post, in The New Yorker back in 2008. The pleasure of watching something in the cinema is ultimately an irrational benefit, which can be hard to quantify, but even harder to ignore.

UPDATE (06.12.13): The Economist featured a good article on how cinemas are seeking new revenue streams around the world, here.

Hollywood and China

We have reported before on the quota China imposes on Hollywood films coming into the country.

Zeitgeist remembers being in a meeting while doing at stint at 20th Century Fox back in 2004, when presentations were optimistically suffixed with the potential for China to drop said limit. It was always an inevitability, and when last month DreamWorks Animation announced a pact with Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital, it was clear something bigger was on the cards. This has been the case for a while though, as US production companies have sought to get into China’s goodbooks with relevant films (witness Kung Fu Panda and the most recent iteration of The Mummy franchise).

Good news finally came to studio heads and cinema exhibitors. While the quota hasn’t been dropped, it has been dramatically extended to allow another 14 films into the market each year (from the current 20). This can only be good news for Hollywood, coming at a time when DVD and Blu-Ray revenue is slowing; Bloomberg recently reported that more films will be streamed than watched on disc this year. In China, however, views are mixed. Variety summarises,

“Theater owners are very upbeat, filmmakers are split — will this mean unnecessary competition, or a boost to moviegoing habits? — and Hong Kong industryites are watching things closely.”

The country already means big business for Hollywood, with the piece of rubbish that was Transformers 3taking in  $170mn, and Avatar making $210mn. Year on year, the number of screens in the country increased 33%. 803 cinemas opened in the past 12 months there. So the supply-demand ratio is currently extremely favourable (with Hong Kong hopefully not being a harbinger). One would have to be very naiive however not to consider the political landscape of China, which is inscrutable to say the least. Whether dealing with the electoral process in Hong Kong, or the media landscape – from TV to social media – it can be difficult to know where you sit at any time. Variety again,

“Filmmakers face… rigid – and opaque – standards of control and censorship [in China]… [I]f a filmmaker doesn’t meet those sometimes abstruse rules, it won’t be admitted.”

What the Chinese government will have some difficulty in regulating though is the black market, which should hopefully see film piracy diminish as a source of revenue. With an assumed lowering of cost per purchase of pirated film, it should mean even more Chinese get to see Hollywood product (though admittedly without compensating the studios for it, at least initially).

As well as receiving net net more money from China from its films, the deal made also allows Hollywood to receive 25% of the Chinese box office back on imported films, previously at 13%. What should be a lucrative influx of revenue for the film studios comes at a welcome time. Not only is the business shifting from discs to digital delivery – which currently is proving harder to monetise – it is also under increasing pressure to collapse its sacred windows – the time period between when a film is released in cinema, DVD, POV, TV, etc. A few weeks ago, Netflix, an increasingly powerful player in the mix as it broadens its availability to the UK, and becomes a content creator, called the windows structure “pretty archaic”.

While releasing films on multiple platforms simulataneously might produce a spike in opening weekend returns, it comes at the cost of angering a lot of cinema owners, who would not take kindly to the idea of their film being available to watch at home at the same time they are trying to charge you £12 to watch it in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers. Zeitgeist’s radical solution is to allow the windows to collapse, and then for the government to allow the film studios to vertically integrate with the exhibitors again, like in the old days. But that’s another article…