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China – Tech sector and Film industry moves

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“China is at an end”. This lament was heard to echo through the auditorium of London’s Royal Opera House earlier this month, part of the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot. In it, a ruthless, hereditary ruler presides over the nation with a culture of fear, and everyone in the country appears to have a role affiliated with or subject to the state. A far cry from today then.

In this article, we will look at movements in China’s tech sector and film industry.

Tech: Much news is pouring out of China currently as it looks to accelerate its digital maturity and capabilities, prompting varying degrees of concern, particularly as state actors look to influence the strategy and restrict the processes of individual corporate entities. Apple’s concession of building data centres in China is disappointing. No less ominous is China’s continued investment in artificial intelligence. The opportunity is a potential wellspring of innovation, but one likely to be geared toward autocratic ends (e.g. the identification, if not ‘prediction’, of those not towing the party line). Having relaxed the market only in recent years to allow videogames consoles, China’s regulators are now terrified of the impact of such things on children. Tencent saw >$15bn in market value lost in one day earlier this month when they restricted playing hours on their number one game to two hours a day for 12-18 year olds. This move was anticipatory, after much government and media speculation over the game’s addictive nature. As the Financial Times reports,

“Two weeks ago a 17-year-old boy in Guangzhou suffered a stroke after playing nonstop for 40 hours. Last week state media reported a 13-year-old boy in Hangzhou had broken his legs jumping from a third-floor window after his parents stopped him from playing.”

Surely if Tencent is under pressure, no one is safe? So it seems; Weibo became the victim of over-eager government chin-wagging recently, with shares dropping 6% on the revelation that it was banned from showing user videos without the appropriate licence. As with many other social platforms, video is a key revenue medium. According to the FT, 20% of Weibo’s $170m advertising revenue in the first quarter was from video; Chinese social users dedicate 25% of their time on mobile devices to watching video.

Film: 2017 seems to be a year of reckoning for the motion picture industry in China. The market has spent over a decade providing increasingly huge amounts of revenue to Hollywood studios, gradually relaxing its annual quota of releases further as allegations over nefarious dealings had been largely ignored. At one time, China’s box office was predicted to become the biggest in the world at some point this year. That talk has now ceased. PwC recently made a more sober prediction of 2021. The last twelve months have seen:

  • A dramatic slowdown in overall box office in China
  • Domestic product reaching new lows of box office takings
  • Increased visibility of what appears to be widespread fraud at the box office, allocating ticket sales from one film to another
  • A higher share of revenue for Hollywood fare

These four things are, unsurprisingly, connected! There have long been anecdotal stories about how local exhibitors will give cinema-goers the “wrong” ticket for a movie – especially when it is a foreign film – giving the audience receipts for a local domestic film instead, in order to inflate its box office performance. Also known as fraud. There are non-illegal reasons for relatively poor performance too. Local product still tends to be technically and narratively inferior to Hollywood films, as well as often being extremely derivative. Of the top 10 selling films in the second quarter, only two were made at home; in previous years the balance between revenues from domestic and foreign films has been closer to 50-50. The addition of 9,000 screens has not budged the needle. As a result, Variety points out, “Many Chinese movies have opened strongly, but then faded fast”. The Financial Times writes that “China may still see its first drop in ticket sales in more than 20 years in 2017”. Regulators have added salt to the wound (aka opened up the market), scrapping the annual ‘domestic film industry protection month’, where only Chinese films are allowed to be shown in theatres. Hollywood studios should not celebrate their relative success too much; its tactic of vast amounts of Chinese product placement was commercially successful in the fourth iteration of Transformers; less so with the fifth (and hopefully last) iteration.

M&A in the industry has been affected by a wider clampdown on capital outflow, which has put the kibosh on large deals by companies like Wanda, which recently sought to purchase Dick Clark productions. Political tension means associations with Wanda and AMC Entertainment are under scrutiny, in an effort to de-risk opaque dealings, and explains the absence of any South Korean films at the Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this summer. Signs continue of US/China co-productions (such as Marvel’s planned creation of a Chinese superhero). But further international cooperation could be hit by the factors mentioned above, especially when mixed with economic realities. You may have noticed Alibaba Pictures gracing the opening credits of the last Mission: Impossible film. The company’s $141m loss last year may give pause before further such outings.

All this is happening while Xi Jinping is in the midst of important domestic machinations to reorder his Politburo, on the macro level, while also, at the industry-level, seeking to re-negotiate the existing film important agreement. The MPAA has brought in PwC (the dudes that screwed up the Oscars’ Best Picture result) to audit Chinese box office takings for the first time, in order to presumably provide increased leverage in negotiations. Currently, according to Variety, studios get 25% of gross ticket receipts, “half of what theaters usually cough up in other major territories”. Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at USC who specializes in China, is downbeat regarding the potential scope of the audit, “It would be interesting to see what is allowed and what is off limits. My guess is the most egregious forms of box office manipulation will not be investigated.”

 

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The “Jaws” of death? – Rethinking film industry strategy

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Steven Spielberg on-set for “Jaws”. The Leviathan gave birth to the summer blockbuster

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.

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Is M&A finally out of vogue in the Media and Entertainment sector?

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.

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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.”

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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.