Nostalgia as the name of the game
Nostalgia has been the name of the game for many in the world of TMT [technology, media, telecommunications] for a couple of years now, as TV series are rebooted and eras brought back to life (think Fox’s The X-Files and Netflix’s Stranger Things, FX’s The Americans respectively), movie franchises are retooled (think Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast) and books also drag people back to the 80s (think Entertainment Weekly’s number 1 book of 2016, The Nix).
Nostalgia is almost certainly an appealing emotion for many media executives today too. In entertainment, they may look back to fond days before PwC screwed up who won an Oscar and who hadn’t; in technology, vendors are leveraging “digital detox” trends as an excuse to remake old products and in publishing many are surely screaming for the days before digital, when staff at the likes of Conde Nast were still allowed to throw “hissy fits” (to quote British Vogue’s Lucinda Chambers from the recent BBC documentary on the magazine). The empire is having to fast come to grips with a world of declining print revenue shared by all in the industry, as comprehensively covered in a recent piece by the Financial Times.
The one outlier to this trend, fortunately for them, is Viacom, which recently decided that instead of seeking refuge in the past (and in sheer scale) by re-teaming with CBS after splitting over ten years ago, it would instead streamline its operations down to six “flagship brands”. Undoubtedly the wiser move (if only based on the above cheat sheet from The Hollywood Reporter).
This article will focus on those first two issues, last weekend’s Academy Awards and last week’s Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona.
Talk about your burning platform. Last night Zeitgeist sat down to watch Deepwater Horizon, last year’s film an avoidable disaster in an event involving a lot of due diligence, seemingly little of which was executed properly.
So it was – far less catastrophically – with the 89th Academy Awards last weekend. PwC were caught out for the first time, having overseen the awards ceremony’s handing out of winning envelopes, among other things, for 83 years. In their apology, the firm explicitly made reference to the fact that a) such an incident had been foreseen b) protocols had been prepared, in case of such a rare eventuality c) these were not followed through quickly enough on the night. As with many cases of significant error, the fault appears to be with an excess of comfort.
- Firstly, PwC as a firm, it could be argued, had become too comfortable in the role of auditor. In an interview before the ceremony with one of the two partners involved, it was revealed the opportunity to be auditor for the awards had never gone out to tender. This is poor due diligence on the part of the Academy.
- Secondly, Brian Cullinan, one of the PwC partners, seemed himself to have acquired too much comfort with his role. Whether this was tweeting (hastily deleted) pictures of Emma Stone at the moment he should have been concentrating on his work (see picture above), as Variety revealed, or – as the same publication also uncovered the other day – that he wanted to have an on-stage presence, involving a skit with the host, Jimmy Kimmel.
- Thirdly, we would also add that – having worked for Deloitte in a strategy role in days gone by – PwC should never have let these two individuals stand in the limelight. Any project, however glamorous (or not), should always have only one face, that of the company as a whole, not an individual.
The eventual winner, Moonlight, was praised by The Economist (among many others) for being a wonderful film, and one that deserved to win the coveted Best Picture award. Interestingly, it noted how it had been made for “a tenth” of the budget of films that had won in the past several years. This is a worrying trend, as these prior winners were already considered to be of a small budget; minnows that did not attract the attention of the studios, who increasingly find themselves in the comic-book franchise game, rather than the Oscar race. It bodes poorly in the medium-term for the release and backing of films that try to tell human stories about real life; art that may actually have an impact on others. It is these types of films that, with current political turmoil, are needed right now.
Innovation in mobile is becoming harder and harder to come by. If, as Forrester reported recently, smartphones are in the hands of 40% of the global population (even including those people hanging out with penguins in icy tundras and running away from lions on barren plains) then such a product is in need of something new to differentiate the market for consumers. At the annual Mobile World Congress, such things were in short supply. This week’s Economist quoted Ben Wood of CCS Insight summarising the event as a “sea of sameness”.
Indeed, ZTE (as above), had a gloriously twee “fairy garden” on display, which seemed very very similar to the one we saw at MWC in 2016. From a product point of view, Nokia (yes, Nokia) seemed to generate the most buzz for its revamped 3310, a resurrected product from a bygone mobile age. A feeling of sameness hung in the air from those reporting from the ground too; cynicism was prevailing.
Last year, Zeitgeist found that if you didn’t have Oculus at your stand (for any reason, no matter how inconsequential), you were a nobody. You also needed to be talking about 5G (no matter how vaguely). The same seemed to be the case this year, except more so. This, despite the fact that Oculus has squandered an eighteen-month lead in the market, now with a position of third in the VR marketplace by revenue. VR in general has yet to transfer to a mainstream pursuit, to the surprise of analysts. 5G, on the other hand, saw some glacial movement. While operators in Japan and South Korea had already begun investment and deployment of the networks before standardisation, the UN’s ITU body has now set those standards, laying the way for other markets to begin upgrading their networks. Their challenge is a formidable one, and to be honest they should not expect it to be anything other than a thankless task. Their main approach to this eventuality at the moment seems to be bigging the technology up beyond all recognition, which has started a backlash of sorts among the more experienced in the sector.
It’s sequel season. While the Mission: Impossible franchise looked set to continue unabated – with, in Zeitgeist’s opinion, a superb Rogue Nation – others were not so fortunate. The revival of the Fantastic Four franchise by Fox saw far less solid returns and though it publicly remains committed to the franchise, it does have several directions it can now go, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Two of this year’s – and of all time – uber-franchises are of course Star Wars and James Bond. Slated for release at the end of the year (December and November, respectively), trailers for the films are already out in the wild; the Star Wars second trailer set a Guinness World Record. Incidentally, both franchises have made a home out of Pinewood studios in the UK, where a mix of highly-skilled labour and tax incentives are a potent attraction. Both franchises, with roots going back decades, will look to exploit a popular desire for nostalgia that is also playing out in television with the arrival of reboots like Twin Peaks and The X-Files. Recently, however, both franchises have faced existential questions; one over how to promote a film that for many already has high awareness, while managing equally high expectations; the second over ownership.
How to market Star Wars?
Last month’s Comic-Con, a densely-packed meeting place for mega-nerd and studio exec alike, would have been, one would think, a superb place for some exclusive footage, interviews or other filmic crumbs from the Star Wars reboot to be shared to the salivating masses. However, as The New York Times reported, the presence of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was “strangely invisible”, while films as far away as 2017 adorned many a banner or trolley cart. It was not until the end of the week that J. J. Abrams emerged, refusing to divulge any plot details. Much as with knowing the ideal time to start the promotional blitz so that a film remains in an Academy voter’s mind come Oscar voting time, Disney does not want to risk creating excitement in the marketplace too soon, only to have such buzz die down by the time the film is released. Eagle-eyed fans will also be on the lookout for the equivalent of a Jar-Jar Binks in this franchise, something that will immediately turn them off. These fans don’t want to be left out in the cold either, as they very much felt they were when George Lucas tinkered with the original trilogy to add new digital elements (i.e. “Why was I not consulted?”).
Disney have played this long game before. Five years ago we wrote about the careful marketing activity behind the sequel to Tron – another franchise with a long history and a rabid fan base that formed part of a nerd’s cultural pantheon. All in all, the marketing activity spanned three and a half years. Adding to the difficulty of the long lead time is the industry’s second biggest market, China, where Star Wars was never theatrically released. Different tactics for raising awareness might be needed here, but in full knowledge that any materials will quickly make their way online and around the world.
Until now, prominent activity has been otherwise limited to a Vanity Fair cover article and a Secret Cinema screening of Empire Strikes Back that has had most of London’s 20-30somethings raving all summer. It will be difficult to gauge how much or little the marketing activity has to do with the latest iteration of such a powerful icon of culture and film; Disney must do its best to ensure its fans are kept happy but craving until December.
Skyfall, released in 2012, was Bond’s most successful offering to date. But this year’s outing, Spectre, will be the last before a deal ends between Sony Pictures and MGM / EON, the latter being the rights owners, who plan to shop distribution rights to a different studio. This would be a significant hit to the brand equity of a studio that has seen too few box office successes of late, arguably too many Spider-Man reboots, and the too-sorry tale of a cyberattack that exposed painfully frank emails, budgets, and salaries. Its stable of franchises is low compared to its peers; Universal finds itself with a newly-rejuvenated cash cow in the form of Jurassic World; Warner Brothers has its DC Comics franchise.
Outside of the brand though, the financial impact could be limited. While Sony had a 50% equity stake in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, according to the FT this was reduced to 20% for Skyfall and Spectre. “While it’s a good piece of business the financial upside or downside is not significant on either end”, a person close to the studio told the paper.
Likely suitors look to be 21st Century Fox – which has enjoyed a long relationship with MGM as its home entertainment distribution partner for a decade – or Warners, which distributed MGM’s Hobbit trilogy. Furthermore, the FT reports that “Kevin Tsujihara, the Warner Bros chairman, is a close friend of Gary Barber, his opposite number at MGM. The two have invested in several racehorses together, including Comma to the Top, which they bought for $22,000 and which had career earnings of more than $1.3m”. As with all things, timing will be everything as MGM ponders an IPO, which might see a higher valuation with a new studio deal in the offing.
“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.