Tag Archives: distribution windows

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.


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.

Box Office

The Coen Brother’s Burn After Reading starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt is an awful movie that, despite being awful has been critically acclaimed (for the most part; my opinion notwithstanding). The budget for the picture was $37 million and as of this writing, has already grossed over $57 million during its theatrical release. The picture stands to make substantially more when (and if) it goes into wider theatrical release internationally and through ancillary exploitation on video and pay/free TV.

This disconnect of a mediocre film doing well at the box office got me thinking of my UK client Fred Hogge’s post on his blog cinelogic about how box office success builds audience interest regardless of the merits of a particular motion picture. With respect to the interest in the latest Batman sequel, Fred said:

The Dark Knight, just won big. Sure, it helps that they opened on over 4000 screens, but people are excited to see it. The reports coming back from those that have are overwhelmingly positive. So more people will go. And this is regardless of all the side-bar hype, largely focused on the late Heath Ledger, his death having, sadly, been turned into a marketing tool.

I responded that:

The general public follows weekend B.O. performance like a Wall Street stock index for one simple reason. People like horse races and the weekend box office is just that. This isn’t about quality pictures; it’s about “who’s winning now.” B.O. stats used to be restricted to Variety and other trade publications. Now they’re found in virtually every major news source around the world (at least those in countries that distribute motion pictures from the West).

To be sure, more people will buy tickets to a movie based on a horse race mentality because they “heard” the movie was good (just based on the initial B.O.). The fact that the horse race might be a fiction or, to be more charitable, of limited use as a barometer of [sic] quality picture is largely irrelevant to most of them.

There really is no accounting for taste. Which is why bad movies with “bankable” stars are easier to finance and distribute than high quality, material-driven pictures with little or no recognized talent attached. Indeed, that why Beverly Hills Chihuahua was – as Variety put it – “top dog at the box office” this weekend.

Then again, it might be really, really good despite the bad reviews. I’ll have to see it and get back to ya on that.