We’ve written about Sony multiple times over the years, rarely in a good light. A parody Twitter account of the company’s CEO, Kazuo Hirai, often makes for entertaining reading. The company can’t seem to catch a break. Its latest financial results, released today, warned of a $2.2bn loss for the financial year, the sixth loss in seven years. For the first time since 1958, the company will not pay a dividend. Much of the blame fell to the ailing smartphone division, which generates a fifth of the company’s revenue, but other businesses hurt the conglom too. The company loses $80 on every TV sold; rumours abound they will sell the Spider-Man franchise back to Marvel for a quick payday; the one bright light, Playstation, which took the company into the black in Q2, is beginning to seem risky, as customers look beyond single-use devices like games consoles, a trend we spotted back in January last year. (Earlier this week, Microsoft continued to hint that it might spin off the Xbox business). Sony recently spun off its TV division into a subsidiary and sold its PC business. These actions in turn were supposed to bear fruit, but clearly haven’t.
Much of the difficulty Sony faces was elaborated on in detail in a brilliant profile of then-CEO Sir Howard Stringer for The New Yorker, back in 2006. Little has changed since then. In today’s FT, the newspaper outlines the longevity of Sony’s heartache.
June 1999 Nobuyuki Idei becomes chief executive. Four years later he presides over the infamous Sony “Shokku”, or shock, in which the group surprised investors with a profits warning.
June 2005 British-born Howard Stringer becomes chief executive, the first foreigner to lead Sony with a mandate to restore profitability and turn the core electronics business round.
September 2005 Sir Howard’s first major restructuring initiative outlines a plan to cut staff numbers by 10,000, or 7 per cent, and reduce costs by Y200bn. It will also close 11 manufacturing plants, streamline its number of products and generate capital from asset sales. “We must be like the Russians defending Moscow against Napoleon, ready to scorch the earth to stay ahead of the invaders. We must be Sony United and fight like the Sony warriors we are,” he says.
December 2008 A second wave of restructuring begins with plans to cut 16,000 full-time and part-time jobs in its electronics businesses around the world.
2011 Sony downgrades its net income forecasts four times.
March 2012 The group highlights its digital imaging, game and mobile units as the three core pillars of its electronics business.
April 2012 Kazuo ‘Kaz’ Hirai takes over as chief executive. Sir Howard says he will be a “tough-mind[ed]” leader. The first restructuring under Mr Hirai is outlined under the banner of “Sony will change”. Sony will shed 10,000 jobs, or about 6 per cent of its global headcount, over the next three years.
March 2013 The group reports its first full-year net income in five years.
October 2013 Sony warns on profits.
January 2014 Moody’s cuts Sony rating to junk.
February 2014 Plans to spin out the television business and sell the Vaio PC business are announced.
May 2014 Sony warns on profits for the third time in six months.
July 2014 The group surprises the market by swinging into profit for the second quarter.
September 2014 Sony warns that its expected annual net loss will be nearly five times as big as initially predicted at Y230bn.
The videogame industry, like many of the protagonists in the games it creates, is under attack. The competition is fierce. Not only is there healthy competition amongst legacy companies – including Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft – but new devices are increasingly distracting consumers, and digital disruption elsewhere is changing the way these companies do business.
Part of the problem is cyclical; the market has gone longer than usual without a major new console launch from either Sony or Microsoft, which in turn makes game manufacturers hesitate from making new product. But the industry needs to be wary that their audience has changed, in multiple ways. Sony are now starting to talk about their PS4 (due to be released in around six months’ time), beginning with a dire two hour presentation recently that failed to reveal price, release date, or an image of the console. And the word over at TechCrunch? “A tired strategy… [O]verall the message was clear: Sony’s PS4 is an evolution, not an about-face, or a realization that being a game console might not mean what it used to mean.”
We’ve written before on creative destruction in other industries, and talked before about shifting parameters for companies like Nintendo. The inventor of NES and Game Boy is currently struggling with poor sales of its new console, while at the same the chief executive of Nintendo America recently stated that digital downloads of videogames were becoming a “notable contributor” to their bottom line. Companies like Apple are surrounded by perpetual rumours of developing their own videogame platform. New companies in their own right, such as the Kickstarter-funded company producing the $99 Ouya, is among several players shaking up the industry. The upshot of such turmoil – a “burning platform” as the Electronic Arts CEO described the situation in 2007, referring to the dilemma of holding onto the burning oil rig and drowning in the process, or risk jumping off into who-knows-what – is a loss of market share. Accenture in January published a report predicting the demise of single-use devices such as cameras and music players whose revenues would be eaten into as more and more consumers flocked to tablet and other multi-purpose gadgets. Videogame console purchase intent was not researched, but it is not hard to make the analogy.
It was enlightening and reassuring then to read McKinsey Quarterly’s interview recently with Bryan Neider, COO of Electronic Arts. Some interesting take-outs follow. First, in 2007, the company recognised there was a problem: “game-quality scores were down and our costs were rising”. The company wanted to shift from having a relationship with retailers to having one with gamers. This meant having a focus on digital delivery. This fiscal year, digital is forecast to represent 40% of the overall business. Neider recognises this closeness to the consumer makes them even more susceptible to their whims and preferences, so they’re relying far more on data-backed analysis than they have before, including a system with profiles of over 200m customers. This data is used for everything from QA to predicting game usage. Neider elaborates,
“Key metrics answer the following questions: where in the game are consumers dropping out? What is the network effect of getting new players into the game? How many people finish a game? Did we make it too difficult or too long? Did we overdevelop a product or underdevelop it? Did people finish too fast? Those sorts of things are going to be critical… However, the challenge is that parts of the gaming audience are pretty vocal—they either really like a game or they really don’t like it. The trick is to find ways to get feedback from the lion’s share of the audience that is generally silent and make sure we’re giving these people what they want.”
Interestingly, the company’s structure was changed to reflect individual fiefdoms according to franchise – be it FIFA or Need for Speed – the needs for which are managed in that line of business. Each vertical competes with the others to deliver the highest rates of return, while also being able to draw on central resources (marketing, for example). Electronic Arts, as a developer of software for other manufacturers, will to some extent always be at the mercy of which devices are in vogue and the cycle of obsolescence. It is impressive though to see that the company has recognised the need to change the way it does business. The operational and technological sides of business don’t seem to have distracted Neider from the key insight in the industry, “Ultimately, we’re in the people business“.
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.