“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.
A recent essay for Foreign Affairs, “The State of the State”, criticises Western governments for failing to innovate. The authors make an unfavourable comparison with China, which, though still autocratic in nature, has at least looked abroad for ways to make the state work better (if only in a necessarily limited scope). One doesn’t need to look much farther than France to see what happens when the state fails to innovate. President Hollande has done his very best to inculcate a backward ideology of indolence among its workers, but the negative effects of over-regulation have been present in France for some time. One major step that is in drastic need of undertaking is the simplification of France’s opaque labour laws, the code for which runs to 3,492 pages, according to a recent article in The Economist. A stark and laughable example of the limits of such a code is elaborated on below,
“[The code] impose[s] rules when a firm grows beyond a certain limit: at 50 employees, for example, it must create a works council and a separate health committee, with wide-ranging consultative rights. So France has over twice as many firms with 49 staff as with 50.”
France of course also has a strong sense of state oversight and sponsorship when it comes to the media industry. L’exception culturelle has long dominated discourse about what content is appropriate and designated to be high art. Such safeguarding of domestic product has been a thorn in the side of late of the EU / US trade partnership, threatening to derail negotiations. Some have argued that such promotion of homemade productions serves not to diminish foreign imports – a love of Americana has not subsided in France – but rather only to preserve a niche. Regardless, argues a recent editorial in one of France’s national newspapers, it has left the country’s media sector susceptible to disruption.
Today’s Le Monde newspaper features a front page editorial on the arrival Monday to the country of Netflix. The company announced its plans for European expansion at the beginning of the year. It won’t have everything its own way, though. Netflix will have to adapt to a very different market environment. The Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) market is well-established, and it will see much competition from incumbents (last year annual revenues for companies based in France providing such services exceeded EUR10m). These incumbents charge little or nothing for their services, relative to the $70-80 a month Americans pay to a cable company to watch television, according to The Economist, which states “Netflix struggled in Brazil, for example, against competition from local broadcasters’ big-budget soaps”. Moreover, current government policy dictates a 36-month long window from cinema release to SVOD. We’ve argued against the arbitrariness of such windows before, for a variety of reasons, but here such policy surely negatively impacts Netflix’s projected revenues. Such projections will be curbed further by stringent taxes and a further dictat that SVOD services based in France with annual earnings of more than EUR10m are required to hand over 15% of their revenues to the European film industry and 12% to domestic filmmakers, according to France24. As well as traditional competition, Netflix also faces threats from OTT rivals, such as FilmoTV. One possible way around such competitor obstacles is the promotion of itself as a complementary service. The New York Times earlier this spring elaborated,
“Analysts say Netflix, which has primarily focused on older content more than on recent releases, could also survive in parallel to European rivals that have invested heavily in new movies and television shows. Netflix in some ways serves as a living archive, with TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from the 1990s or movies like “Back to the Future” from 1985. Such fare has enabled the company in Britain, for example, to partner with the cable television operator Virgin Media, which offers new customers a six-month free subscription to Netflix when they sign up for a cable package.”
Such archive content will come in handy, particularly given that, as Le Monde points out, Netflix had previously sold the rights to its flagship series ‘House of Cards’ to premium broadcaster Canal Plus’ SVOD service Canal Play (which itself is investing in new content). The article hesitates to guess how much of a success the service will be in France – something Citi has no problem in doing, see chart below – instead looking to the music industry for an analogy, where streaming has become a dominant form of engaging with the medium. As in other markets, streaming services have met with increasing success, particularly with younger generations. For Le Monde, the arrival of Netflix will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers, but the paper also hopes it will blow away the cobwebs of an industry that has become comfortable in its ways; it hopes the company will provide a piqûre de rappel (shot in the arm) for the culture industry. Netflix’s ingredients – by no means impossible to emulate – of tech innovation, easy access and pricing and a rich catalogue, should be a lesson to its peers. The editorial only laments that it took an American company to arrive on French shores for businesses to get the message.
UPDATE (16/9/14): TelecomTV reported this morning that Netflix has partnered with French telco Bouygues. The company will offer service subscriptions “through its Bbox Sensation from November and via its future Android box service. Rival operators are refusing to host Netflix on their products”.
It’s fair to say that in the past ten years, the pace of technology has evolved at an ever-increasing rate. The way in which devices have changed, and with it our use of them, was humourously summed up in the above cartoon from The New Yorker. Digital trends have affected the way we communicate, the way we consume media, and indeed the way we consume goods and services, i.e. shop.
So it is a little surprising to many – your humble correspondent included – that we still have to put up with a film being released in one country one day, and in another months later. That we still have to wait a certain number of months for a film to amble its way from the cinema screens to our home, whether on Blu-ray / DVD or on VOD. It’s interesting to note that vertical integration isn’t a key issue; Disney recently launched the second subscription video on demand (SVOD) service in Europe, with a library of constantly refreshed titles that can be viewed on platforms ranging from TVs to Xbox to iPads. Indeed, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger announced way back in 2005 in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he foresaw a day of collapsed release windows, when a film came out the same day at the cinema as it was available to watch in the home:
We’d be better off as a company and an industry if we compressed that window. We could spend less money pushing the box office and get to the next window sooner where a movie has more perceived value to the consumer because it’s more fresh.
So there is money to be saved in such an exercise. Yet seven years later, such a situation is still mostly a fantasy for major films. Studios have undoubtedly dipped their toe in the water, and some moderate success has been seen on the indie scene, specifically with recent films like Margin Call, Melancholia and Arbitrage. The former film was released simultaneously in the cinema and on VOD (seemingly only in the US, however), eventually recording strong results, months after its initial release at Sundance Film Festival. Again, what is the justification for such a change in platform release timings? Not meeting consumer desires and addressing piracy, but simple cost savings. Variety reports:
“We’re a star-driven culture, and on a crowded (VOD) menu, what are you going to be drawn to?” posits WME Global head Graham Taylor, who adds that with marketing budgets skyrocketing, the ability to use a single campaign across closely spaced bows on multiple platforms is an important cost savings.
The whole situation is quite frustrating for any fan of film or television. It is a frustration shared by Frederic Filloux, co-author of the excellent blog Monday Note, which Zeitgeist strongly recommends to anyone with an interest in insightful thoughts and reasoning on media industry goings-on.
Their most recent post also happened to detail the author’s frustrations with such seemingly arbitrary release windows. One of the most pertinent charts displays the achingly slow rate of change in platform release changes, that is so at odds with the pace of change in other media (above). The content of the post has rational recommendations, which at first glance seem eminently appropriate and overdue for implementation. Some of the recommendations though fail to account for the fact that the film industry and its machinations are often governed by winds of irrationality.
To summarise, Filloux recommends a global day-and date, shorter, more flexible window of time between cinema and home release. There are a number of obstacles to these ideas though. Firstly, exhibitors must be placated. They hold such a sway over studios that they cannot easily be ignored. Bob Iger, in the interview mentioned earlier, mentions exhibitors as being a key obstacle. Think about it, why on earth would a cinema want their film to be available in the comfort of their audience’s home any sooner than it already is? It wants to enforce scarcity, so that when the film’s marketing machine is at its height, the cinema is the only place you can see it. As already mentioned, indie films have had some success with multi-platform releases, but even these have met with consternation from exhibitors, as a recent example in Canada shows. The consternation becomes outright war for larger films. Zetigeist reported when, in 2010, many exhibitors refused to show Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland when the studio, Disney, flirted with releasing the film to home release less than four months after its theatrical debut. After much back and forth, exhibitors eventually relented, and the film went on to gross over a billion dollars at the global box office. Exhibitors are not going to be convinced about flat release windows anytime soon. They are perhaps the largest roadblock to such a move, and the largest point of advocating a return to vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition that was the case until the Paramount Decree in 1948.
Moreover, while the argument about having flexible, shifting window releases depending upon a film’s success is logical, it does not acknowledge the existence of sleeper hits, films which do not open to huge returns but gradually accrue it over months of release (as illustrated by Margin Call, mentioned earlier). It would also be hard to define when a movie “succeeds” or “bombs”. You could use box office as a figure, but would this be without context, as a ratio of the film’s budget, or against its current peers? Using box office fails to take awards – principally Oscar – coverage into consideration, which invariably adds its own box office bump to a movie when it is nominated or wins.
The recommendation for simultaneous worldwide release is also a valid point. Zeitgeist has written before on the ridiculous prices pirated films go for in markets that have no access to the official product. To their credit, studios are moving further toward a “day and date” system. However, doing so exclusively would be dangerous. Releasing some films market by market allows the studio to gauge audience reaction, and if necessary tinker with the marketing or the film itself. Staggering release dates is also necessary for cultural events, such as the World Cup, which may be more relevant to some countries than others.
It is the last point made in the article, that of making TV shows “universally available from the day when they are aired on TV” that Zeitgeist could not agree more with. Apart from audience frustration – and recent technological development such as DVR show how the opportunity can shape viewer habits – such a move would also surely divert people from resorting to illegal downloading.
To conclude, while there are caveats and significant roadbumps to be addressed, and some progress has been made over the years, the film industry has a long way to go in a short time if it wants to catch up with consumer habits. Flat release windows should be an inevitability, and a priority. Moreover, they should not be seen purely as cost-saving measure, but as an important way of keeping an increasingly technologically and globally savvy customer base happy.