“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.
This past week, Zeitgeist had the pleasure of enjoying a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. This adaptation was not performed at the theatre but at the cinema. It was not directed by Kenneth Branagh or any other luminary of the legitimate stage, but rather by the quiet, modest, nerdy Joss Whedon, who until a few years ago was best known to millions as the brains behind the cult TV series phenomenon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (full disclosure: Zeitgeist worked on the show in his days of youth). Whedon was picked to direct a film released last year that can, without much difficulty, be seen as the apotheosis of the Hollywood film industry; “The Avengers”. A mise-en-abyme of a concept, involving disparate characters, some of whom already have their own fully-fledged franchises, coming together to form another vehicle for future iterations. “The Avengers” became the third-highest grossing film of all time, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Moreover, to go from directing on such a broad canvas to shooting a film mostly with friends in one’s own home – as with “Much Ado…” – displays an impressive range of creative ingenuity.
Sadly for shareholders and studio executives’ career aspirations, not every film is as sure-fire a hit as “The Avengers”, try though as they might (and do) to replicate the same mercurial ingredients that lead to success. Marvel, which originally conceived of the myriad characters surrounding The Avengers mythology, was bought in 2009 by Disney for $4bn. Disney for all intents and purposes have a steady strategic head on their shareholders. They parted ways with the quixotic Weinstein brothers while welcoming Pixar back into the fold. They were one of the first to concede the inevitability of closed platforms release windows – something Zeitgeist has written about in the past – they are debuting a game-changing platform, Infinity, which might revolutionise the way children interact with the plethora of memorable characters the studio have dreamt up over the years. However, such sound business strategy could not save them from the uber-flop that was 2012’s “John Carter”, which lost the studio $200m. This summer, the rationale for their biggest release has been built on what appears to be sound logic; taking the on- and off-screen talent behind their massively successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and bringing them together again for another reboot in the form of “The Lone Ranger”. The New York Times said the film “descends into nerve-racking incoherence”; it has severely underperformed at the box office, after a budget of $250m. Sony’s “After Earth” similarly underperformed, suddenly throwing Will Smith’s bullet-proof reputation for producing hits into jeopardy.
These summer films – “tentpoles” to use the terminology bandied about in Los Angeles – are where the money is made (or not) for studios. As an industry over the past ten years, Zeitgeist has watched as these tentpoles have become more concentrated, more risk-averse and therefore less original, more expensive and more likely either to produce either stratospheric results or spectacular failures. Paramount is an interesting example of a studio that has made itself leaner recently, releasing far fewer films, and relying on franchises to keep the ship afloat. Edtorial Director of Variety Peter Bart seems to think there’s a point when avoiding risk leads to courting entropy. It’s an evolution that has escaped few, yet is was still notable when, last month, famed directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke out publicly against the way the industry seemed to be headed. Indeed, the atmosphere at studios in Hollywood seems to mimic that of a pre-2008 financial sector; leveraging ever more collateral against assets with significant – and unsustainable – levels of risk. The financial sector uses arcane algorithms and has a large number of Wharton grads whose aim should be to preserve stability and profit. Yet even with all this analysis, they failed to see the gigantic readjustment that was imminent. In the film industry, Relativity Media’s reputation for rigorous predictive models on what will make a film successful is rare enough to have earned it a feature in Vanity Fair. So what hope is there the film industry will change its tune before it is too late? Spielberg pontificates,
“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”
Instead of correcting course as failures at the box office failed to abate, studios have dug in harder. Said Lucas,
“They’re going for gold, but that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”
Such artistic ennui in audiences is admittedly sclerotic in its visibility at the moment. “Man of Steel”, another attempt at rebooting a franchise – coming only seven years after the last attempt – is performing admirably, with a position still firmly in the top ten at the US box office after four weeks of release, with over $275m taken domestically. It’s interesting to note that audiences have been happy to embrace the new version so quickly after the last franchise launch failed; though actor James Franco finds it contentious, the same has been true with the “Spider-Man” franchise relaunch.
Part of the problem in the industry, some say, is to do with those at the top running the various film studios. In “Curse of the Mogul”, written by lecturers at Columbia University, the authors contend that since 2005 the industry as a whole has underperformed versus the S&P stock index, yet such stocks are still eminently attractive to investors. The reason, the authors say, is that those running the businesses frame the notion of success differently. They argue that it takes a very special type of person (i.e. them) to be able to manage not only different media and the different audiences they reach and the different trends that come out of that, but more importantly (in their eyes) to be able to manage the talent. They asked to be judged on Academy Awards rather than bottom lines. The most striking thing in the book – which Zeitgeist is still reading – is the continual pursuit by said mogul of strategic synergies. This M&A activity excites shareholders but has historically led to minimal returns (think Vivendi or AOL Time Warner), often because what was presented as operational or content-based synergy is actually nothing of the sort. It’s a point Richard Rumelt makes in his excellent book, “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”. Some companies are beginning to get the idea. Viacom seemed an outlier in 2006 when it divested CBS. Lately, News Corporation has followed a similar tack, albeit under duress after suffering from scandalous revelations about hacking in its news division. A recent article in The Economist states,
“Most shareholders now see that television networks, newspapers, film studios, music labels and other sundry assets add little value by sharing a parent. Their proximity can even hinder performance by distracting management… they have become more assertive and less likely to believe the moguls’ flannel about ‘synergies’.”
So in some ways it was of little surprise that Sony came under the microscope recently as well, part of this larger trend of scrutiny. The company has experienced dark times of late, with shares having plunged 85% over the past 13 years. The departure of Howard Stringer in 2012 coincided with an annual loss of some $6.4bn. Now headed up by Kazuo Hirai, the company has undoubtedly become more focused, with much more being made of their mobile division. Losses have been stemmed, but the company is still floundering, with an annual loss reported in May of $4.6bn. It was only a couple of weeks later that hedge-fun billionaire Dan Loeb – instrumental in getting Marissa Meyer to lead Yahoo – upped his ownership stake in Sony, calling on it to divest its entertainment division in a letter to CEO Hirai. Part of the issue with Sony is a cultural one, where Japan’s ways of working differ strongly from the West’s. This is covered in some detail in a profile with Stringer featured in The New Yorker. In a speech he gave last year, Stringer said, “Japan is a harmonious society which cherishes its social values, including full employment. That leads to conflicts in a world where shareholder value calls for ever greater efficiency”. But Sony’s film division – which includes the James Bond franchise – is performing well; in the year to March 2013 Sony’s film and music businesses produced $905m of operating income, compared with combined losses of $1.9 billion in mobile phones, according to The Economist. It ended 2012 first place among the other film studios in market share. Sony is the last studio to consistently deliver hits across genres, reports The New York Times in an excellent article. The article quotes an anonymous Sony exeuctive, “We may not look like the rest of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a painstakingly thought-through strategy and a profitable one”. Sadly the strategy behind films like ‘After Earth’ begin to look flimsy when one glances at the box office results. While Hirai and the Sony board concede that have met to discuss the possibility of honouring Mr. Loeb’s suggestion – offering 15-20% of it as an IPO rather than selling it off in full – Mr. Hirai also commented in an interview with CNBC, “We definitely want to make sure we can continue a successful business in the entertainment space. That is for me, first and foremost, the top priority”. In mid-June Loeb sent a second letter, advocating the IPO proposal and saying “Our research has confirmed media reports depicting Entertainment as lacking the discipline an accountability that exist at many of its competitors”. The question is whether selling off its entertainment assets would remove any synergies with other divisions, thus making the divisions left over less profitable, or whether such synergies even existed in the first place. For Loeb, the “most valuable untapped synergies” are still in the studio and music divisions yet after decades as one company they still remain untapped. That point won’t make for pleasant reading at Sony HQ.
Another problem is the changing nature of media consumption habits. Not only are we watching films in different ways over different platforms, we are also doing much else besides, from playing video games, which have successfully transitioned beyond the nerdy clique of yesteryear, to general mobile use and second screening. This transition – and with it a realisation that competition is not likely to come from across regional boarders but from startup platforms – is largely being ignored by the French as they insist on trade talks with the US that centre on the preservation of l’exception culturelle. Such trends are evident in business dealings. The Financial Times this weekend detailed Google’s significant foray into developing content, setting up YouTube Space LA. The project gives free soundstage space to artists who are likely to guarantee eyeballs on YouTube, and lead to advertising revenue for the platform. From the stellar success of the first season of “House of Cards”, to DreamWorks Animation’s original content partnership announced last month, Netflix has become the bête noire for traditional content producers as it shakes up traditional models. We have written before about the IHS Screen Digest data from earlier this year, showing worrying trends for the industry; as predicted, audiences are beginning to favour access over ownership, preferring to rent rather than own, which means less profit for the studio. As much due to a decline in revenue from other platforms as growth in of itself, cinemas are expected to be the major area of profit going forward to 2016 (see above chart). We’ve written before about the power cinema still has. Spielberg and Lucas pick up on this;
“You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing… [Films] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”
In a conversation over Twitter, (excerpts of which are featured above), Cameron Saunders, MD of 20th Century Fox UK told Zeitgeist that “major changes were afoot”. Such potential disruption is by no means unique to the film industry, and should come as a surprise to one. Zeitgeist recently went to see Columbia faculty member Rita McGrath speak at a Harvard Business Review event. In her latest book, “The End of Competitive Advantage”, McGrath discounts the old management consultant attempts at providing sustainable competitive advantages to business. Her assertion is that any advantage is transient, that incumbency and success often lead to entropy, unless there is constant innovation to build on that success. Such a verdict of entropy could well be applied to the film industry. The model has worked well for decades, despite predictions of doom at the advent of television, the VCR, the DVD, et cetera ad nauseum. But fundamental behavioural shifts are now at play, and the way we devise strategies for what content people want to see and how they wish to see it need to be readdressed, quickly. Otherwise all this deliberation will eventually become much ado about nothing.
UPDATE (15/4/13): Of course, context is everything. The New York Times published an interesting article today saying investing in Hollywood is less risky than investing in Silicon Valley, though the returns in the latter are likely to be greater. Neither are seen as reliable.
This issue isn’t going away. We write again about it, here.