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.

Patching Up Negotiations Redux

[Ed. Note: This is a reprint of my 10/31/09 post.] Last year, procrastination got the best of me and by the time I got around to the annual pumpkin purchase on October 30th, the supermarkets were out of all but the most damaged pumpkins. I was left with no alternative than to deal with the local Pumpkin Patch Guy (a/k/a the Christmas Tree Lot Guy).

Some might say I was merely on the wrong side of supply and demand. But sitting on his throne of hay bales, Pumpkin Patch Guy went beyond aggressive deal making. He was ripping me off.

I should of walked away but it was late and the kids were tired. Feeling like a rube, I pulled out my wallet and gave him forty bucks for a couple of sad looking pumpkins plus another ten for the carving kit. This year, I got smart and didn’t go back. I planned ahead and procured my pumpkins at a substantial discount.

Like Pumpkin Patch Guy, a rep has a fiduciary duty to maximize value. But does that always result in doing what’s best for the client? Maybe so if it’s about short term value (it’s about the upfront money, stupid!).

But what about over the long term? Pumpkin Patch Guy lost me as a repeat customer by gouging me simply because he could.

Effective negotiation and deal making often require more than selling to the highest bidder. In many cases, the parties involved have to be able to work together over the long haul (e.g., SAG and the AMPTP).

Good will and occasional restraint by the stronger party can go a long way to salve the pain of accepting unpopular deal points by the weaker player. You’re not looking for a love fest here; merely a path towards building trust over subsequent negotiations.

Pumpkin Patch Guy might have earned my continued business if he’d thrown in the carving kit or a coupon for future discounts; something, anything to make me feel better about being gouged. SAG and the studios might have been able to change the discordant tone of their negotiations by simply finding more common ground through the exchange of ego nickels. Now, months after SAG sealed its deal with the studios, there continues to be profound polarization between the two camps and their supporters.

Does negotiating an arguably more fair deal really create momentum and good will for the next or does it betray weakness in your position? Does aggressive negotiation help, hinder or have no effect on the next deal? Whatever your approach, it pays to consider whose ox is ultimately getting gourd.

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[Update: Whether it was the recession or bad business practices, Pumpkin Patch Guy was replaced by Pumpkin Patch Guy 2.0.
This year's pumpkin purchase went without a hitch.
They even threw in the carving kit!]

It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

If you want to get anywhere in any aspect of the entertainment business you need friends in high places.

But this business is a business. Friends can easily become enemies even if you make business decisions that in any other context might be appropriate.

This is true for most business cultures but it’s all the more acute where, as here, there’s a high concentration of emotionally driven, exceptionally creative (but oftentimes, profoundly insecure) people all fighting for far too few opportunities. With that kind of competition, you may feel that you need all the edge you can get; sometimes, unfortunately, even at the expense of your friends.

Sheer tenacity will get your foot in the door. Talent will keep you in the room. But the only way to succeed in this business – and be able to maintain the momentum to remain successful over the long term – is to have friends that you can count on professionally; that make you feel safe creatively; and that make it possible for you to do your best work consistently.

It takes a village.

That’s the rub.

It’s always personal.