Category Archives: Film

Broken Windows

Fred Wilson wrote a piece on his blog today complaining about the film business’ distribution model. Fred wrote in part that:

denying customers the films they want, on the devices they want to watch them, when they want to watch them is not a great business model. . . . [Studio executives] insist that they need their windows. They argue they need to manage access to their films to extract every last dollar from the market. That just doesn’t make sense to me. If they went direct to their customers, offered their films at a reasonable price (say $5/view net to them), and if they made their films available day one everywhere in the world, I can’t see how they wouldn’t make more money.

While I have no allegiance to the current business model, I understand it. Producers of any new film hope to see it distributed in a number of distribution windows starting with an exclusive theatrical release and continuing through to wide release on multiple distribution platforms typically over the course of 12-18 months.

Wilson advocates simultaneous “streeting” across all distribution platforms. As technology improves, the lines of each traditional distribution window are blurring and will be replaced with something more akin to what Fred is advocating.

Even so, I can’t help thinking that audiences might lose something valuable in the process – maybe even movie theaters themselves. That would be ironic since movie execs sounded similar alarms when television was the disrupting technology in the 1950s. Then as now, movie theaters survived – but for how long?

What follows is most of what I wrote in response to Fred’s post with grammatical tweaking and references to other commenters omitted:

There are two . . . significant obstacles to simultaneously “streeting” movies across all distribution windows.

1. Movie theaters are a limited high-value distribution channel. There are only so many movie theaters and so many seats in those theaters. Only a small fraction of the movies produced each year get a theatrical release in the US. Foreign distributors look at a US theatrical release as a quality marker (this, despite the fact that international revenues generally account for 70% of a film’s budget). So a domestic theatrical in it of itself drives the value of foreign distribution rights up. This kicker in international revenues could not exist in its present form under a simultaneous street paradigm.

2. Allocation of marketing dollars. Movies and virtually every other product with novel elements have a distribution cycle, with demand for a well regarded/well marketed product highest at or near inception (e.g., the latest incarnation of any Apple product or Star Wars sequel). The costs of striking prints of the film – which are coming down as more theaters use digital projectors – and advertising (also called “P&A”) on a typical domestic release of a 1,000 screens or more are substantial. Studios/producers require millions in marketing dollars, sometimes in excess of the cost to make the movie, to theatrically release a movie in the United States.

The goal is to fill each and every seat of every screen in which the movie is shown to justify these marketing expenses (which, if successful, drives up the value of international revenues as noted above). That would not be possible if consumers had other, possibly more convenient choices that might dilute audience share at movie theaters. Although each exploitation window requires additional marketing spend, a successful US theatrical release can have a halo effect on subsequent windows (e.g., Titanic, the Twilight movies).

3. History of Industry Resistance to New Technologies. Lastly, the industry has always been hostile to new technologies. Silent movies were adverse to talkies which were against television which bristled to home video and so on to the present day.

The advent of on-demand viewing of movies in theatrical release is already part of an evolving theatrical release window. The industry needs time to adapt its model to the new demands of its audience. Change in the film business is inevitable even if it won’t come fast enough for the Fred Wilsons of the world.

Quantum Mechanics

Pipe Wrench courtesy of Scott Arch

Despite all of the self-help books preaching the contrary, people have a hard time living outside the moment. So, it’s difficult for them, let alone a whole industry to shake the mindset that the current ecology of the business will continue to be bleak forever. But this sour economy is just a part of a normal business cycle which will pass.

Eventually.

If we’re willing to wait. And survive while we’re waiting.

Will the business be the same? I doubt it. It will be continue to evolve as it always has in the film business. A decade ago, insurance-backed financing was all the rage. Then came sale-lease back deals from the UK, investment from German film funds and most recently, private equity and hedge fund financing. Those were good times. Good times.

However, dramatic, paradigm shifting change – the kind of change required to modify an outmoded, global business model created decades ago and move entrenched players with special interests – requires what Nassim Taleb calls a Black Swan event. Like a rare black swan, nothing less than an impropable sequence of events like limited access to credit, labor unrest, rampant piracy, the rise of the Internet and the collapse of distribution windows and the pre-sales market can bring about meaningful change to this business.

Even so, the fundamentals of the film business remain. People like good movies, especially those with good stories and high production values. And there remain untapped distribution channels in emerging markets and emerging technologies. Where there’s a demand for something, there will always be a business.

Bill Mechanic, a key player in the studio world and now, the independent movie business put it best in his keynote at the IFTA’s annual Producer’s Conference back in September:

The independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the studios, doesn’t have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the same. Maybe costing a little less than the majors, but they want what the studios want, or in Fight Club-speak, they want copies of a copy.

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In that way, Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.

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The next 2-3 years will be even worse, not because of the flood of new releases, since that is already abating, but rather due to the effect the over saturation has had combined with the economic downturn. New money is going to be hard, if not impossible to find. Ad sales are down, so TV networks around the world, other than cable, aren’t buying. Add in a confused video market, and it’s going to be tough. To my mind, the next few years will be about survival.

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. . . [A]lot of waste is going to be cleared from the marketplace. Excess product will go away, the people who don’t take the business seriously will go away. Hopefully those who make crummy movies will also go away, but that may just be a personal wish.

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[The film business] is a game for winners. And those who win today will win to an even greater extent than at almost any point in the past. . . . Those who will win will be smart about what they make and how they sell their films. They will hopefully make good films but perhaps even more key they will make unique films that stand out, which means they will not have to compete against the bulk of the films for talent. They won’t look like all the other films so they won’t have to spend as much money marketing them.

It’s not that the buyers aren’t there. Consumers, TV outlets, retailers and, yes, even pirates want what works. Don’t believe me? Ask Summit about Twilight. Ask Searchlight about Slumdog Millionaire. Ask Screen Gems about District 9. Ask Focus about Coraline.

The takeaway? To get through this down period, be good, be different and as Tim Gunn says, make it work!

To read the complete transcript of Bill Mechanic’s keynote speech and some really informative reader comments click here to Nikki Finke’s blog.

Waiting For The Dough

"Commute, N Judah" courtesy of Heather

I decided not to attend the Cannes Film Festival back in May because of the dismal economy and what I expected to be a poor showing there. I learned things were even worse than expected when my colleagues in distribution reported from the near-empty beaches of the Cote d’Azur that the bottom had fallen out of the pre-sales market.

The Toronto Film Festival was supposed to be different. Four months after Cannes, with the banks flush with TARP funds and individual investors reportedly swapping oil and gas investments for classic cars, surely an uptick in motion picture finance had to be right around the corner.

I thought that Toronto would present a sea change in the degrading economics of the business; that the credit markets would thaw; and the cash equity of retired Silicon Valley and Wall Street insiders, the Chinese, the Indians and institutional investors would make the trek up to Canada in droves.

But Toronto felt like a bad dream about a big party that everyone attends but the host forgets to cater. People took meetings, did lunch, partied, went to screenings and generally did the things one does at a film market except buying, selling and investing in films. All of the elements for a successful market were there except cash. The money, it turned out, stayed at home.

Looking back at it now, I was overly optimisitic but hardly alone in my rosey outlook.

Yes, there were well-publicized exceptions to the lack of a market at the market. However, to the rank and file independent producer, the prospects remained bleak. Although the independent film business has been subject to business cycles in the past, many I spoke with in Toronto believe that business won’t bounce back to pre-recession levels.

The Internet is the double edged sword at play in any recovery. On the one hand, the Internet provides new sources of distribution revenues through streaming and digital downloads. On the other hand, the Internet’s ability to stream content is eroding traditional exploitation windows and risks shortening the profitability period for the typical commercial motion picture.

Still, the credit markets continue to thaw, albeit slower than many anticipated. New distribution models are rapidly evolving and with it, new deal points in the licensing of distribution rights.

And . . . the American Film Market is less than two months away. Maybe, just maybe then, producers will finally be able to get the money shot that they’ve been waiting for.

Interdependence Day

"118/365/year2 marionette" courtesy of "Riot Jane" aka Bethany

There’s been quite a bit of up-selling of independent pictures in Hollywood.

With the box office success of Slumdog Millionaire, indie films are the new darlings of the movie business after decades of being relegated to the wilderness of limited theatrical distribution and even more limited marketing budgets.

Seeking to capture greater market share, the majors absorbed distributors like New Line Cinema and Miramax years ago.

However, the studios never expected that their independent labels might produce pictures that would threaten to cannibalize their tent-pole productions.

Patrick Goldstein recently wrote in The Big Picture blog about Slumdog’s surprise performance and its likely chances of getting an Academy Award here. [Ed. Note: Goldstein’s post has since been removed but can now be found here].

After all, the irony of all ironies is that after giving “Slumdog” the bum’s rush, Warner Bros. spent millions running a best picture campaign for “The Dark Knight,” the highest-grossing film of 2008, which still ended up being largely ignored by Oscar voters, who failed to give it a best picture, best director or even a best original screenplay nomination.

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The sad truth is that most studios today don’t have the patience, the artistic desire or the skilled manpower to release a film like “Slumdog.” My guess is that Warners, having unloaded all of its specialty divisions, both Picturehouse and WIP, eyed its little gem (made for a paltry $14 million) and said–even if we put in months of painstaking work, it’s at best a double (industry parlance for a modest hit). Like most studios today, Warners is an assembly line, built to swing for the fences, eager to make mega-hits like “The Dark Knight” or “Harry Potter,” which not only make far more money but feed the studio’s valuable ancillary markets.

Warners is not alone. 20th Century Fox has little in the way of artistic ambitions, preferring to hire no-name directors, leaving the Oscar game to its Searchlight subsidiary. The same goes for Disney, which is happy to let Pixar take home a best animated film statuette and let its tiny Miramax subsidiary, which spends a fraction of the money it did when Harvey Weinstein was at the helm, play in the awards sandbox. Even Sony, which used to avidly pursue awards, has largely given up, preferring to pursue more commercial goals.

It’s a great article and I was with Goldstein until he wrote:

Of this year’s best picture nominees, only two were made at major studios: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” co-financed by Paramount and Warners, with Paramount distributing, and “Frost/Nixon,” which is distributed by Universal Pictures. “Slumdog,” along with “Milk” and “The Reader,” were financed outside the studio system or by specialty companies. More importantly, if you look at the recent best picture winners, they are invariably made by fiercely independent filmmakers who rarely take their cues from the studio system.

The Coen brothers, who directed last year’s winner, “No Country for Old Men,” are so leery of Hollywood that producer Scott Rudin had to cajole them into even coming to town for a few glad-handing events. The same goes for Martin Scorsese, a lifelong New Yorker who directed “The Departed,” the winner in 2007. Paul Haggis, who directed “Crash,” the 2006 winner, lives here, but as a director operates just as far away from the studio system as Scorsese or the Coens. Clint Eastwood, who won in 2005 with “Million Dollar Baby,” is the ultimate outsider, making his movies with the same crew in the same quiet fashion, brooking little interference from any studio suit.

While I am pleased to see that American (and global audiences) are demanding more sophisticated fare, I demurred in the comments section of my client, Jonathan Wakeham’s blog on film @ mastersvo.com. I wrote that:

Although it may be true that these pictures were independently financed, such financing was likely based on the producers having US theatrical distribution in place prior to principal photography. US theatrical distribution essentially drives the value of foreign distribution rights up increasing the likelihood of financing a project.

For all their laudable (and at times, edgy) works, Scorsese, Rudin, Eastwood and even Haggis are part of the Hollywood establishment. Their involvement in a project can easily (relatively speaking) drive financing of a project. Saying that these pictures are truly independently financed . . . is like calling a wolf in sheep’s clothing a ewe.

While Slumdog is not a litmus test of what truly independent projects can accomplish given meaningful theatrical distribution and a real marketing budget, it does prove that audiences have a big appetite for original stories in an industry that insists on being increasingly derivative and increasingly risk-adverse.

And that’s a pretty happy ending in itself.