Month: June 2019

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 28 June 2019: The Office Is Leaving Netflix

A “Most Important” column on a Thursday? What’s going on with the Entertainment Strategy Guy’s usual Friday column? Well, an out of town wedding, which means I’ll be on the road tomorrow. So enjoy an early bite at the entertainment biz apple. 

Also, next week, with a birthday, Fourth of July, and some household projects lined up, posting will be light again. However, I have a lot of fun ideas planned for July, so keep checking in.

Most Important Story of the Week – The Office Is Leaving Netflix (in 2021)

Imagine that you have a favorite restaurant. A fancy small plates restaurant with a named chef. The first time you go, the meal is incredible. Almost all the dishes are delicious. (The service is impeccable too.) And for how much food you get, well, the price isn’t too bad!

Naturally, this becomes a restaurant you visit often.

Fast forward a bit. A year or two later. The small plate place has changed its entire menu. It’s a bit more adventurous. You try a few plates, and well this time there are a few dishes that are misses. Meanwhile, your old favorites are gone. (The service is still impeccable.) Do the portions seem a bit smaller? Man, this bill is kinda pricey for what we got.

Naturally, you don’t go as often anymore. 

Since this is a business strategy site, let’s take the above two scenarios and put them in terms of the old quality drivers: the product–in this case the food–isn’t quite as good. Though part of the product–the service–is the same. Meanwhile, the price for the food (both in terms of quantity delivered and quality of dish) is much lower. Hence, you don’t go as often because it isn’t as valuable.

You see the Netflix analogy, right?

One part of Netflix’s product is just fine: the user experience. They’re way out in front of everyone else in streaming. But the prices are going up, starting in the US and expanding to the EU. These prices are going up right as the quality of the product (in terms of both size of offering and quality of individual titles) is about to potentially fall off a cliff facing. Starting about two years ago–and continuing for the next half decade or so–Netflix has lost or will lose theatrical movies from Disney and Universal, new shows from The CW, library TV content from Disney, Fox, and others (including The Office which was widely speculated about online) and more.

Let’s not pretend that losing thousands of hours of the most valuable content is nothing. You can’t lower quality while raising prices and say, “This will have no impact.” Signs are Friends and The Office are Netflix’s most valuable TV series in terms of hours viewed; I continue to believe that Disney has the most popular movies being made because…they do. (See box office.) Moreover, the biggest shows and movies aren’t just bigger by a little bit–long time readers know where I’m going with this–they are MULTIPLES more important. (Article explaining that here.)

As we move into the next wave of the streaming wars, the value of a content library will be increasingly important in separating the services. Consider this (hypothetical) situation with (made up) numbers. Netflix has a service that most customers value at a “5”. Disney offers a service most customers value at a “4”. But Netflix costs twice as much as Disney’s service…so how many keep both? How many cut the cord for Disney? What if HBO ends up with a service customers (hypothetically again) value at an “8”, but it costs even more than Netflix? What if NBC and Hulu are free…but have better content valued at “3”?

I don’t know! That’s a complex equation with too many variables to compute. Then we’ll have to repeat the exercise country by country around the world. But whereas we know one key piece in that equation absolutely—price per month isn’t a secret—we’re left guessing on how much less valuable the Netflix library will be after The Office, Friends and Disney movies (after Dreamworks movies, Fox TV series and others have already left) depart the platform. So will this hurt Netflix? Yes. How much? It remains to be seen.

(Here is where I wish I could link to my article explaining how to value content libraries (versus series, which I did here), and my take on which service has the most valuable content library. But, um, I haven’t written those yet. Yes, I’m on it. I’ll do what I can.)

Other Contenders

Kanopy Dropped by New York City Public Libraries

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 21 June 2019: Overall Deals…Explained!

Here’s a fun factoid about the news:

JJ Abrams hasn’t actually closed his deal with Warner Media for $500 million.

By the news coverage I read, I assumed he had. And by coverage, of course, I mean Twitter and Linked-In headlines. It’s only when you read Lesley Goldberg’s actual story that you find out that the deal is in “final negotiations”, not actually signed, sealed and delivered. Still, let’s call it 94% that it happens, so the biggest piece on the showrunner chess board has been officially removed, so it’s my….

Most Important Story of the Week – JJ Abrams/Bad Robot Land at Warners Bros.

Like a giant NBA trade—cough Lakers cough Anthony Davis cough—everyone wants to immediately determine if this free agent signing was a good deal.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that.

Someday, I hope to evaluate all these deals like a Zach Lowe of entertainment business, but we’re currently at an information deficit. Consider what we don’t know about the deal…


Type of projects included?

First look or true overall?

Overhead paid?

Fees for TV and Movies?

That’s a lot to not know! And while I’d love to trot out my POCD framework for all overall deals—it’s a pretty flexible framework and it fits easily here too—we just can’t determine if the price was too high without knowing what they’re paying for. Then, on the TV Top Five podcast, Lesley Goldberg even admits that the $500 million is really just an estimate.

(Here’s a good summary of who has overall and first look deals and with whom, but not price tags, lengths or type of deal by Variety. And it’s from 2018.)

Instead, I think there is still a lot of confusion about overall deals in general. So today I’m providing a mini-explainer on the key pieces of an overall deal, and how they can impact the bottom line. Let’s start with the “what” you get in an overall deal, because it differs.

The Differences between Showrunners, Creators, Executive Producers and Development Executives

Have you ever looked at Steven Spielberg’s IMDb page? Here’s his IMDb clip for just producing for 2019 and beyond:

Screen Shot 2019-06-20 at 9.01.03 AM

Holy cow. Here’s one of the showrunners of Game of Thrones for comparison, David Benioff, for his entire producing career:

Screen Shot 2019-06-20 at 9.02.34 AM

Those two IMDb extremes capture the range of participation in a producing/overall deal. On one end of the spectrum, you have the showrunner, who is in the trenches everyday ensuring the writing gets done and the product is great. Benioff & Weiss, Michelle and Robert King’s on The Good Wife and Vince Gilligan on Breaking Bad are examples of this.

On the other end of the spectrum are famous producers who lend their name as “executive producers” to a whole host of projects. Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and the emerging Jordan Peele are all examples of famous directors who still make movies, but find time to attach their names to a host of projects as executive producers.

Understanding the differences in these titles and roles explains a lot of the value a creative can add to the final TV or film project, meaning it’s likelihood to succeed. Which reminds me of my “creative to business” spectrum. The less involved the showrunners are, the more “business” they become, and hence less value they add to the ultimate quality.Creative vs Biz SpectrumSo here are the definitions keeping that in mind:

Showrunners – A showrunner is the person who runs the day-to-day operations of a TV series. This includes managing the writing of the series–either supervising the writer’s room, or sometimes by writing all the episodes–overseeing day-to-day production, sometimes hiring of directors, and producing the show.

Value – Immense, but limited in output (about one show/film a year)

Creator – Usually, a showrunner is a creator of a given TV series. But commonly, some of the great TV showrunners launch a TV series as the creator, but then pass day-to-day showrunning to another writer, while continuing  as an executive producer. The epically prolific Greg Berlanti follows this framework. He has creator credit on most of his shows, but in many cases hasn’t written an episode in years. Shonda Rhimes also fits this mold, though with her and Ryan Murphy I don’t know their day-to-day involvement in all their shows.

Value – Big, and potentially for multiple show launches simultaneously.

Producer/Executive Producer – These are the fuzziest terms in the list of definitions I’ll give you. For this reason, the Producers Guild of America has actually worked to define the roles of producers on TV series to try to limit the list of people being called producers who aren’t actually producing something. To get the “p.g.a.” after your name on a project, you actually have to be heavily involved making a show or movie happen.

This is opposed to “executive producers”, which means an executive who oversees a project. Again, look at that Spielberg list of projects. Is he really reading the scripts of all those projects? Add the fact that some top tier actors and directors insist on EP credit (with bonus producer payments), then the value of an EP ranges from vital to totally unnecessary.

Value – A huge range, but mostly little value added to final project, besides increasing odds of initial greenlight.

Development Executives – The development executive is the person at the studio who helps pick out and shepherd projects from pitch to pilot to series and beyond. But you don’t give overall deals to development executives, so why are they included? Because the difference between a development executive and many executive producers is just a matter of perspective. In some of these overall deals, they’re really just elevated development executives.

Value – Great development execs are worth their weight in bitcoin; the rest are average, meaning interchangeable.

Additionally, some overall deals are with directors who can direct projects, but everyone knows what a director does.

When you ask, “Is the JJ Abrams deal a good deal?”, the question should be, “To do what?” How many movies is he directing? How many shows is he creating? How many is he writing? How many will he just EP and slap his name on it? I don’t know, but then it begs the next question: does Warner Bros own these projects, or just get the first look?

The Difference Between a First Look Deal and an Overall Deal

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How Can the NCAA Maximize College Baseball and Softball Revenue? My Unasked for Recommendations & Other Thoughts

As you probably know by now, when I write a long article for another website, I inevitably have some leftover thoughts that I put up on my my own website. So first, head to Athletic Director U to read my framework for looking at revenue growth and then read my first option, growing college baseball and softball. After you read those, today I’ll answer these additional questions:

– Should the NCAA invest more?

– Why did I include softball?

– What are some ideas to grow college baseball and softball?

– How would you negotiate the next round of rights?

Should the NCAA invest more in baseball?

My tentative plan is to avoid making “go or no go” decisions until after I’ve looked at 4 or 6 different opportunities. (We’ll see how long the series goes.) After I’ve evaluated that many, I’ll try to rank them by net present value and/or qualitative factors. So I don’t want to prematurely make any calls here.

But I feel pretty confident that the NCAA should lean more into college baseball. With other opportunities—take e-Sports or international growth—the learning or expertise likely just isn’t present. That means you’ll need to build institutional capabilities, which is fundamentally hard. Or, like with gambling, it may go against the organization’s charter. (And I use NCAA as a fill in for all colleges, universities and conferences.)

I don’t have that hesitation with college baseball. The NCAA can build these sports bigger, and, unlike other ventures I’ll explore, I can say the baseball investment has the smallest costs.

Why did I include softball?

Two reasons. First, philosophically I’m a big supporter of Title IX. I’m inclined to try to put women’s athletics on par with the men’s wherever possible. 

But this is a business website. So the real answer is money. College softball gets playoff ratings as big and often bigger than college baseball. Depending on whether or not the Olympics is featuring softball—and it depends, it will be back for 2020—these are arguably the best softball athletes in the world playing. And the cities/university fanbases tune in. Especially the legions of young fans who play softball. There is also some chance of synergies between the two sports and baseball and softball can benefit each other by growing, which I wouldn’t say for some other sports necessarily.

What are your unasked for recommendations?

In some ways, I saved the most fun part of my exploration of college baseball for my own website. Why not include these gems in the original? Well, they’re pretty much my gut thinking on the topic. So I don’t have a lot of tables or charts or numbers to justify my thinking.

Also, as I mentioned in the introduction, I love the “marketing framework”. The key step is identifying the target segment you want to reach, then positioning the product to them. That allows you to develop the “marketing mix”, often called the 4Ps. If I want to do this right, run that analysis first.

But that takes a lot of time to do right, and I had some ideas I just wanted to get out there. 

Gamify the Baseball Experience

I love being able to take off work for the first two days March Madness. For a few years in a row, my wife and I had schedules that enabled us to do this together. It was a phenomenal experience. Nothing is more fun than constant basketball games ending in buzzer beaters. (Can you imagine if the US made the first two days of March Madness a national holiday? All our lives would be better.)

In addition to the games, though, part of the appeal is filling out a bracket and seeing how well it does. That’s right, the simple act of picking winners and losers emotionally invests me in colleges I may have never heard of. Even if UCLA isn’t playing. (Some years I fill out a survivor’s bracket too, and get even more invested in that.)

Can college baseball get to the same thing? Sure. It would be a bit tougher because the individual game match-ups are complicated by the double elimination format, but you still have the start of a massive bracket to fill out. If you can make filling out baseball/softball brackets a “thing”, that can only help ratings.

Notice, I did use the term “gamify” versus “gambling”. I think you can create the same thrill of winning various pools without having to teach all of America how to wager on college athletes. (And my initial thinking is that even as the NBA and NFL get comfortable with gambling, college sports is a different arena entirely.)

Shorten the games

This is one of those touchy subjects I’m hesitant to even type. But let’s start with a personal example.

Game 2 of UCLA-Michigan was a win or go home game. It started at 6pm. Three hours later we were just leaving the sixth inning. A few extra innings later, and it ended at 11pm in dramatic fashion. So a fun, dramatic game, but five hours is a long time. I could have gone and played a round of golf in that time. (If the sun was up.)

This seems to be the most common recommendation for improving college baseball. Both pace of play and the length of games could be sped up/shortened without really hurting the game. I’m not a baseball traditionalist, but I already complain about the pace of play in both college football and basketball, so I think all NCAA sports could be improved in this regard.

Build out from the SEC

One of the underlying themes of the evidence is that right now college baseball’s growth is being driven by the SEC. They’re the schools that are out in front in revenue and ratings in football, and apparently are adopting college baseball faster than the rest. (The gold standard is LSU.)

When in doubt, I recommend making your strengths stronger. Keep reinforcing the growth in the SEC states, and it will expand to Texas, the midwest and eventually all of the country. Whatever tactics they’re using to work, other conferences can copy. Part of the SEC’s success may just be that it’s sunny enough to play baseball during winter, which is another potential improvement. (The Big 10 schools apparently are hindered by this.)

How Would You Negotiate the Next Round of Rights?

At first, I had my sports rights recommendations lumped in with the above growth opportunities, but I realized they were a subtly different area. So I split them out.

Really, this is how the NCAA monetizes its product. Sure, gate revenue is good. And sponsorships are something. But we know that the bat that hits the ball here is the giant paychecks from ESPN. So the NCAA needs to constantly maximize the revenue from this source.

Thinking about the future negotiations—and media rights deals—is crucial for the NCAA. So here are my initial thoughts on baseball I may try to quantify in future articles.

Separate baseball and softball from the rest of the NCAA playoffs.

This is really the point when I think individual sports can justify themselves as “the third revenue generating sport”: when they can stand on their own as their own negotiated deals. 

If you can separate out college baseball and softball from the rest of the NCAA playoffs, as opposed to a total content deal, I think the NCAA could get a higher price overall. (I’d add, if you separate out college baseball and softball, you can still have women’s basketball—the third highest sport in terms of ratings—prop up the rest of the post season sports.) I have to do some modeling on this, but the idea is you can get more bidders for more sports, which increases the odds the bidders are maximizing each bid. 

Shorten the length of the contracts.

If you think sports rights are going to keep increasing in the near future—and everyone is predicting that—why would you get into decade long deals? How much money are you leaving on the table between negotiations?

I first thought of this with the Pac-12. If they had done 6 year deals with Fox and ESPN, then the Pac-12 would be getting a price boost right now, instead of in 2022. Even if the price had been subtly lower for a shorter term in 2010, that would easily be made up for right now.

Take bids from everyone, but go with biggest audience builder.

This is a topic that’s worth twelve different articles, probably, but when it comes to picking a digital partner, value the money the most, but think about growing the audience as well. This would clearly give ESPN a lead track, but consider if another channel can commit to more marketing or feature a sport even more because of its new profile. Could Fox Sports pair their MLB coverage with NCAA baseball coverage? Also, for all the hype of digital only platforms like Apple and Amazon, pairing digital with linear will maximize the total reach, even if the price is less. Again, ESPN has an advantage here.

Final question: any last piece of advice?

Don’t hire consultants to do strategy. In my opinion, 95% of the time, businesses should own their own strategy. Strategic thinking is why you pay top executives as much as you do. If you don’t have the capabilities in-house, I’d ask your highest paid executive, “Why not?” If you don’t have a team building out these models and writing these reports, save your money from hiring consultants and build a team to do it.

Read My Latest at Athletic Director U – Where should the NCAA look for growth?

When Athletic Director U asked me, “What do you think of college baseball?” I’ll be honest, I didn’t have an angle. Sure, it could grow, but how much? And compared to what? Then, I read an article about eSports. Apparently the NCAA–technically a consultancy hired by the NCAA–was exploring whether to bring eSports under the NCAA fold. I thought, “Huh, baseball or eSports?”

That’s a fun challenge, thinking about growth and deciding between opportunities how to think about growth. So in true “Entertainment Strategy Guy idea spiral fashion”, I didn’t just write an article about college baseball, but developed the idea to write a series on how the NCAA could look at generating revenue. The goal is to explain my approach to looking at new businesses and to explain some business frameworks along the way.

Over the next few months, I’ll look at college baseball, international growth, eSports, women’s basketball (and other rising sports) and maybe a few more topics. But before I do that, I needed to explain my approach. It’s a framework that isn’t unusual for my regular readers—see my Game of Thrones articles here—but I wanted to explain it again.

Check it out over at Athletic Director U, “Where Should the NCAA Look for Growth?”

And if you’re new to my site, follow me on Twitter, Linked-In or subscribe on WordPress for regular updates. My goal is to explain the business of entertainment, using fun examples like Star Wars or college sports. If you’d like to reach out, my contact information is on a page up top.

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 14 June 19: AT&T-Time-Warner Approval Decision Turns One

This week, The Starters (an NBA talk show and wildly popular podcast) was cancelled by…well we don’t know who. The Washington Post identified a few potential suspects. It could have been Turner or NBA TV–for the usual ratings reasons–or it could have been their corporate overlord, AT&T, mandating cuts across all businesses to pay off debt. (For a good read on how influential The Starters are, Business Insider has the story.)

Just because I’m a huge fan of these guys doesn’t mean this is the most important story of the week. But it does remind us that AT&T may still have no idea how to build brands in the streaming wars. You’re trying to launch a platform…which needs to acquire a lot of new subscribers…and you’re cancelling a cheap show with a devoted fan base that amplifies it on social media? Gotcha.

In another sense, it’s just a small ramification among all the huge ramifications of AT&T/Time-Warner merger had on entertainment. Which was approved a year ago this week by one (unelected) judge (legislating from the bench). (That’s me being slightly cheeky on politics.) Let’s reflect on that massive story with a bit of distance, focusing on the true consequences of that merger.

Most Important – AT&T and Time-Warner Merger and the Ramifications

Let’s be clear on the official, Entertainment Strategy Guy take, on this issue: the decision to allow these two companies to merge was huge. It was big. Not unprecedented, but big. (I mean, Comcast and NBC-Universal was unprecedented, though Comcast had tried to buy Disney in the early 2000s.) Though the impact it had on future mergers was much smaller than anticipated, as I’ve written a ton on.

First, it caused Disney to pay more for 21st Century Fox.

This is one of those instances where you just have to marvel at what happened. As soon as the dust settled, Comcast genuinely saw a greenlight to grow. So Comcast put in an offer on 21st Century Fox that eventually forced Disney to increase their bid to $71.3 billion, an increase of about $20 billion dollars.

This boost likely turned the deal from a no-brainer win for Disney to an open question. The economics lesson is the “winner’s curse” in auctions. Meaning, if the value of something is an unknown future value of X, but each bidder has a different value on that X, the more bids you accept, the more likely someone is to overpay to win the auction. Did Disney have to overpay to win the deal?

Maybe. At $50 billion, I think they make up the value even if they don’t launch a game-changing streaming platform.  At $70.3 billion? Well, that’s $20 billion in free cash flow–discounted over time–that you need to add. That’s a tougher sell. Even if Hulu allows them to launch a transformational subscription service, they still could have done a version of that without Fox. But the raising in price made Disney worried about debt. So…

Second, after it raised the price on Disney, Comcast bought Sky.

Bundle this with “another merger that was in process that Comcast hopped in on”. Fox was looking to expand its stake in Sky, and Disney was hoping keep Sky in the deal. Then Comcast came in still looking to buy something. Without the AT&T verdict that caused Disney to increase its asking price, this deal doesn’t go through.

Though, after swallowing this additional piece Comcast now has enough debt that it can’t do anything else. I mean, it had to spend another 26 billion pounds to buy Sky. And as has been written, the debt loads of all of entertainment conglomerates are now so heavy that this has weighed down future M&A. Of course, not for AT&T exactly…

AT&T Buys the Rest of Otter Media.

As the dust settled from the merger, conveniently AT&T bought out the rest of its stake in Otter Media–a collection of OTT brands–from The Chernin Group. Arguably, Otter was really valuable to AT&T since it has subscription video know-how and brands to throw together with Warner Media. And now that the heads of Otter Media are in charge of all the streaming video, well that little move mattered. That didn’t stop AT&T, though, from cleaning house…

AT&T Cancels a Bunch of OTT/Video Services.

Film Struck? Gone.

Drama Fever? Gone.

Super Deluxe? Gone.

Machinima? Rebranded and repurposed.

I applauded these decisions at the time for a larger corporate behemoth, though few customers loved it. In my mind, this strategic decision made sense because as I counted up once, AT&T had over 20 streaming services and was planning to launch more, including DC Universe. So between DirecTV-Now, HBO Now, and everything from Otter Media, well AT&T needed some focus. Maybe they will have that…

AT&T/Warner-Media Announced a New Streaming Service.

Now that you have all this content in one place, AT&T’s master plan was unveiled to launch its own Disney+/Netflix style streaming service. Since then, the price and the content and the number of tiers and the launch date and the distribution plan have all been up in the air. Or have changed multiple times. And whether or not it shuts down more OTT services or bundles them together.

Everyone Left Warner-Media.

Does Richard Plepler leave HBO if AT&T doesn’t buy Warner-Media? Probably not. What about David Levy? Does Bob Greenblatt come in? Likely no to both.

So AT&T’s acquisition started a parade of executives that has only continued, with more HBO executives and then the head of Warner Bros. (Fine, that last one probably would have happened anyways.) Some executives will always leave after a merger; all of the top executive team, though? That seems like too much.

Add this all up: How big was this?

Huge. Monumental in the industry, and some of the ramifications are yet to come.

(This very long read from Nilay Patel at The Verge is still worth reading even a year later.)

Other Candidates For Most important Story of the Week

Lionsgate Does a Library Output Deal with Hulu AND FX

This is the type of synergy we were looking for when Disney swallowed the Fox. As a deal, it finely threads the needle in keeping value in the traditional linear channels, while also helping boost the streaming platform. Of course, the juiciest number–the dollar value–still hasn’t been revealed. (Meanwhile, you also have to wonder how valuable the Lionsgate catalogue will be, coming in as the sixth or seventh best studio recently in box office terms and this doesn’t even include the John Wick films…)

Sky Plans to Double Its Original Content Investment

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How Much Money Did HBO Make on Game of Thrones – Director’s Commentary Part III: Sanity Checking the Model

Today, is the “sanity check” of my Game of Thrones article guessing how much money it made. I’ve explained where the numbers came from, the high and low cases and all my math. But does this make sense? Can we double check my work? Sure. Again, this is in an FAQ format.

Last big area. Double checking your work. Did you do that?

Yeah, I went through the model a few times. I actually woke up in the night it published in a cold sweat worried I had added or subtracted a line wrong and checked the model in the AM right before it published. I didn’t find anything.

I’ll add, building the high and low cases after the fact caused me to go through the model at least twice more line by line. Still no mistakes found, so the numbers add up correctly. (If you disagree with the inputs, that’s a different question.)

(Though, I could tell stories about models not adding up and really, really, really well paid executives missing it. I mean, REALLY well paid executives.)

That’s not what I meant. Is there anyway to triangulate if these numbers are right?

Ahh. As I think I mentioned elsewhere, getting actual profit participation statements from talent would be the best place to start. Some of the agencies or management companies or talent themselves would have these, and they’d give us the nitty gritty details. HBO, though, wouldn’t admit that the series drove subscribers growth in those statements. We’d need HBO’s analysis of subscribers and trends for that, but that won’t get shared outside of HBO.

To be clear, you don’t have those?

No, I don’t. (I don’t think anyone else does. At least, they won’t go on the record about it.)

What other methods could we use sanity check your model?

I tried to double check my work in a few different ways. The first was to try to find other estimates. 

One of my biggest disappointments of this process was that so few people had tried to do this similar calculation. I think the biggest hold up for journalists proper is that it requires estimating and guessing for a lot of pieces, and most websites/newspapers deal in cold hard facts. (Or other people guessing.) The best articles still tend to to talk “top line” costs, and really just say that Game of Thrones cost a lot, and sold lots of merchandise, without quantifying either. Here are some of the better examples:

2011 – The Hollywood Reporter, “Game of Thrones by the Numbers”

2012 – Slate“How HBO and Showtime Make Money Despite Low Ratings”

2014 – Yahoo, “The Burning Question: How Does Game of Thrones Thrive?” (though caution, this has the terrible “mutliply number of subscribers by months GoT is on)

2017 – The Conversation“How Game of Thrones Became TV’s First Global Blockbuster” (Also, not really answering the same question, but a great read.)

2017 – Marketplace“Let’s Do the Numbers on Game of Thrones

Also, this pops up all the time on Quora, and the answers historically are either just revenue totals or way off. (However, I’ve started hopping in some of the threads to correct the record.)

Finally, I just today found this Wikipedia article on “the most highest grossing media franchises”. Like this morning.

Was the Wikipedia article on total revenue helpful?

In some ways, absolutely. In others, not.

Let’s start with the not. This Wikipedia article cites an article that misquotes a New York Times article, confusing HBO’s annual profit with Game of Thrones profit, which is how they estimate the series earned $4 to 5 billion in subscription revenue. Also, the video games and book sales are likely on the low end, and merchandise isn’t included. However, they pointed me to for physical disc sales—a website I used in my Star Wars series—and well, I wish I had found these specific pages before. (I couldn’t find them after a bunch of searching.)

So you updated your Game of Thrones home entertainment numbers?

Oh, no. But their estimates were mighty close to mine and I think it shows both the difficulty and fun of trying to get these estimates right. (When I dive back into Star Wars—around December this year #ClickBait—I’m going to tie The-Numbers estimates to that series too.) Anyways, I pulled the last 8 years of top 100 titles sold in physical disks (Blu-Ray and DVD) and calculated how much GoT earned. For fun, here’s a few other TV titles I saw too:

Table 1 - Total DVD Sales By Year

This is another data point that Game of Thrones is just a monster across every other category. The two other arguably biggest shows in TV at the time didn’t even make it past 2013 with sales. However, to put TV disc sales in context, they’re still dwarfed by movie sales. Here’s Harry Potter and Star Wars this decade:

Table 2 Total Movie Sales

Let’s take those numbers, and compare them to my estimates, and see how close I was:

Table 3 - Initial Estimates w THe Numbers

On the one hand, my numbers get to a gross revenue about twice as high, though my exact sales figures are nearly exact. Exact! 

Huh. What happened?

Well, to start, my initial number is lower, while my decay is similar. My sales figures after season four factor raised the price too, compensating for the idea of selling box sets. Or multiple seasons. I also estimated the sales in the last year.

Moreover, The-Numbers numbers have some limitations. First, these are US only numbers. Game of Thrones, as we’ve mentioned before, is huge overseas, including the UK, Australia and Germany, and Europe has a stronger home entertainment market than the US.

Second, these are only top 100 lists. We don’t have, for example, sales of previous seasons. (They never rated high enough to make the top 100, meaning they have a ceiling of $10 million in 2015, which is pretty high when you think about it.) Also, the biggest unit sales were for individual seasons. We don’t know how many box sets were sold in any given year for past seasons.

Third, this year is the year of the whole series box set. And I have 2 million units projected to sell for it this year and going forward. And even with the decline in home entertainment sales (see my later question on this), I still think it will be a thing. (I think entire Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe box sets will be a thing too.)

Would you change your home entertainment estimates then?

Probably, I would drive my base case up by a little bit. I’d use this as the base case for the US—for new series sales. Then I’d have a library sales figure with some box sets driving up the US average. Then, I’d factor in international sales. However, I think the number would get pretty close to the estimates I already have. I’d consider moving down the top estimate to as well. However, these tweaks wouldn’t drastically change the model as HBO was only keeping 20% of these sales in my model.

How has the decay in physical discs impacted this analysis?

Sure, yeah, home entreatment is declining. It still $23 billion in total retail sales, which is more than streamers are displacing. In other words, the studios and all of entertainment will feel this loss at some point. Here’s the total home entertainment sales by year:

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 7 June 19: The Trade War Moves to Hollywood

This week felt important for the news. Sure, we didn’t have any official announcements of new streaming services or any giant mergers, but between censorship, antitrust and trade wars, the world of politics is smashing (back) into the garden of media/tech. And the biggest government intervention was far away from Hollywood…

Most Important Story of the Week – The Trade War Moves to Hollywood

If you want a flippant response, “This is how you trade war.” For the catch up, China is surreptitiously telling distributors to avoid booking US films into the Chinese market. China has tight control over their film industry and this is their latest salvo in response to President Trump’s trade war. Here’s the key quote in Variety (but read the whole thing):

Industry insiders stress that there is nothing in writing – no officially published decree – putting a freeze on U.S. content. The Chinese government tends to exercise such controls internally and unofficially, which allows it to publicly deny the existence of any restrictions and to make exceptions when it suits them. Three years ago, when China blocked South Korean films, pop bands and other cultural exports out of anger over Seoul’s decision to deploy U.S.-made missiles, it took six months before Beijing publicly acknowledged the policy.

Frankly, it’s a smart move. Movies really aren’t as high stakes in total dollar value as something like oil or finance, but customers care way more about them. And some powerful people who are friends with the President will be directly impacted (Bob and Rupert). But the ramifications extend from there.

Franchise Movies

This headline from Scott Mendleson sort of explains it all:

Avengers: Endgame Grossed Less Of Its Money In America Than Any Marvel Movie (Box Office)

And that’s Marvel’s highest grossing film of all time in the US. Yet, overseas is even bigger, including at least $600 million from China. As the studios make more and more franchises and more and more animated films, they rely on this overseas gross, and frankly that support is bolstered by China. 

As the article makes clear, the big tentpole franchises like Spider-Man, Secret Life of Pets 2 and others will likely slide through the de facto ban. There is too much money at stake for both sides. However, the challenge–if China does want to hurt the major studios–is to just make it harder to collect money from China, which is already hard. Studios collect a smaller percentage of box office than other countries (25%) and China sometimes make it hard to take capital out of the country. They could add in a few new taxes, and this could hit bottom lines, even if they films do air in China. So even as box office grosses climb, the actual revenue coming back to California stays flat.

Independent Studios

Instead, these are the type of films who will feel the pinch. China is growing in importance not just for the huge franchise films, but even smaller pictures. In some cases, they presell China foreign sales rights, so that becomes a key source of funding. If China starts restricting films like this, well that’s just another economic headwind for independent and middle budget films to content with.

Other Movie Industries

China will still need foreign films. China has a cap on “revenue sharing” films at a loose 34 per year. (And there are some ways to make co-productions with Chinese backing or talent or locations that can get around these quotas.) Of course, China is also feuding with Australia, Canada and the UK, so they will not be easy replacements for US films. So my gut is that Bollywood, Japan and South Korea could have an advantage here.

China’s Film Industry

Or you know what? Just make more movies at home. And they need it since apparently they’ve been in a slump since actress BingBing was arrested on tax avoidance charges and the industry. This move by China could just be good ol fashioned protectionism than anything else. I’m still curious when we have our first break out Chinese film in the American market. (The biggest Chinese language film was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, according to Box Office Mojo.)


Listen, Europe, I don’t want to tell you how to run your trade wars. And you made nice with President Trump after the last trade war talk, and you’re just waiting until he leaves office. This little maneuver with China won’t really impact your box office. I mean, Europeans don’t care if Chinese moviegoers can see the latest Star Wars. But if President Trump spur of the moment changes his mind on his trade war with Europe (the way he just did with Mexico), here’s my unasked for advice: adopt China’s tactics.

But not with movies–again, you’re too small for that to matter–but for streaming video.

Europe secretly bristles that Netflix and Amazon and other streamers are all foreign owned, hence the law requiring European content on the streamers. Well, if Trump puts unilateral tariffs again, announce tariffs on streaming video for Amazon, Netflix and Youtube. Sure, that hurts Silicon Valley, not the heartland, but it will hurt the US stock market more. (You may ask for the logic or rationale for this, but it’s a trade war started by an irrational actor. Logic doesn’t matter.)

Speaking of the streamers…


Here’s the thing about Netflix’s growth: None of it is in China. That’s kinda crazy when you think about it. They’re adding 9 million subscribers every month, but none are in the world’s biggest market. Amazon has been similarly stymied in the Middle Kingdom. (I’m not sure about Youtube and Twitch.) If China is ready to block US movies, you better believe they’ll take the same approach to the streamers. Which isn’t a change from the status quo, but a trade war won’t help their long term prospects.

Mergers and Acquisitions

The biggest casualty of the trade war may be the desire of massive conglomerates to get even bigger. As Tara Lachapelle asked, “Would you do a mega deal in this environment?” Not if the market is ready to tank at the next sign of a slowdown. Moreover, with all the China-America squabbling, that takes one huge potential source of money off the table. A few years back, the cool thing was to grab Chinese money (Legendary, STX, Relativity). This obviously complicates that or makes it impossible.

Long Read of the Week – Esports

When I used to read the LA Times as a paper back in the 1990s, as a child, I felt like “extreme” or “action” sports–everything from skateboarding to BMX bikes to anything else on wheels–was the hot new sport. I can’t prove this strawman with links because the internet doesn’t work so great for articles that long ago.

But my inherent skepticism of people touting the next thing that will kill the NFL (and other leagues) starts with the memory of breathless predictions about the inevitable conquest of extreme sports over the NFL. That was a thing in the 90s. So when I hear that esports will kill the NFL, I think maybe not.

Listen, esports is clearly a growth industry. However, when valuations start to get frothy, and investors drop tens of millions on negative cash flow businesses, well, then I naturally revert to bear status. I think esports will be a fixture of entertainment going forward, but I can believe that and believe that 1. The NFL won’t die and 2. An Overwatch team isn’t worth $50 million dollars.

So I loved this article from last week by Cecilia D’Anastasio about esports. Read the whole thing, but here are my key takeaways.

Measurements Are Still All Over The Place

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How Much Money Did HBO Make on Game of Thrones – Director’s Commentary Part II: The High Case, Low Case and Uncertainties

There’s a fun tidbit in this massive must-read article on Kotaku about eSports. Here’s the quote I love:

A 2017 Morgan Stanley report leaked to Kotaku claimed that, in its first year, the Overwatch League could conceivably generate $720 million in revenue, about the same as World Wrestling Entertainment. By 2022, says Goldman Sachs, viewership of pros playing competitive games…may be on par with the National Football League’s viewership today. 

Those estimates are just…nuts. Here’s the thing. I believe those reports made them. What I am more skeptical about is if those reports gave their confidence intervals. Basically, was Goldman Sachs estimating their prediction, or their best case scenario? The best case isn’t a prediction, but your hopes and dreams.

My goal is to never do that. Here’s the thing about predicting the future: it’s hard. A lot of the techno-futurists and streaming-vangelists of the world are better than me in that regard. They know how the streaming wars will end and can predict that with unerring accuracy. I’m not that talented.

Instead, I try to tell you how this business works and try to do so with some modesty. Even with my backwards looking estimates, I want to give you my 90% confidence intervals. That’s why for my big, big analysis articles (explainer here) I build multiple scenarios. (I also try to show you my math. And explain what and how I did it.)

Which brings us to Game of Thrones. In my Decider article, I had to leave out some explanations for space. I’m taking those and giving them to you now in a Q&A with myself I’m calling my “director’s commentary”. (See Part I here.)

Let’s start with uncertainty. What was the biggest variables in the model?

I have two areas that could really swing the model. First, in other revenue, home entertainment and merchandise could have been even bigger than I thought. Again, in winner-take-all, as box office regularly and reliably shows us, the winners are multiples larger than everyone else.

Then, in subscription revenue, the numbers again could be huge. And since I don’t have the actual viewership behavior, it’s really a question of attribution. As is, I had it at 57% of total revenue but there’s a real possibility that this show is even more important for HBO, especially on the international and digital sides.

What about costs? Are they certain?

The costs are pretty relatively certain. The production costs get leaked every season it seems and even marketing costs were leaked this year.

So everything else you’re very, very confident in?

Well, no I’m always wracked by uncertainty. Which in a columnist, I understand is a weakness. (If you fail to project anything less than strength, they’ll get you, like Theon getting got by the Iron Born in Game of Thrones.) At a high level, here’s my confidence in my inputs:

Table 1 - Confidence Table

As you can see, there are always lots of estimates in a model like this. And estimates are better than “guesses” but a far cry from leaks or facts. And even estimates can range from pretty high confidence like the merchandise take or studio distribution fees, to pretty all over the place like tax credits. (I’ve seen the rates for Ireland, but it’s unclear how much GoT films specifically in Ireland, so hard to know. There have been some leaks, but only selectively for certain years too.)

So the revenue estimates will provide the biggest range in the final estimate?

Yep. Oh and one more. Profit participants.

(I had called this “talent participations”, but agents aren’t talent. Shade thrown.)

Specifically, the actors and GRRM. I’m fairly confident the showrunners are getting 10% of the MAGR profits. My gut is GRRM is between 5-10% of that (either matching the showrunners or equal share to them), and the actors could be in that range. And for the initial agreements, I’m pretty confident in those guesses. But…

…what about the renegotiations?

That’s the big uncertainty. After season 4, this show is a monster hit, and HBO needs everyone on board to see it to its conclusion. That’s where the power starts to shift to the talent. And even if this show loves to kill off major characters, killing off Jon Snow or Daenarys Targaryen just seems unlikely. So how much higher did all the talent negotiate in the backend? I don’t know.

Okay, let’s get to the high and low cases now that we know the uncertainty. Can you walk us through the changes for the high case model.

From the top.

Home Entertainment

My working theory is that Game of Thrones is the biggest TV series in terms of units sold this decade, and maybe this century. But is that over a billion dollars in retail sales, as I’ve heard? Again, I heard a rumor around 2016 that Game of Thrones had already earned a billion dollars for HBO. That’s through just six seasons. Of course, I didn’t ask the source if that was gross retail sales or net receipts. But that’s my starting point for a high estimate. 

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Who is a “creative” in Hollywood? My Creative-to-Business Spectrum

When I worked at a studio, I found it funny that we referred to our development execs as the creatives. Not that they were creating the shows, but compared to finance or strategy folks, development execs were way more creative. They read scripts all day, took tons of pitches, provided story notes and helped decide who to cast in the show. That’s pretty creative work, when you think about it. 

So I had to cut them some slack if they couldn’t quantify everything; they’re creatives!

I say funny, because along the way I heard some talent on one of our shows—a showrunner, so the top writer/producer—refer to our development executives as the “suits” at our studio. And, they weren’t wrong?

I’d never considered the development execs the suits, but if your only point of contact with our studio is a development exec, then they seem like the business side of the house, don’t they?

It all depends on your point of view for who is a creative, doesn’t it? The director probably seems like a suit to an actor—an authoritarian bossing them around—while that same director drives the producer crazy with their creative demands. Meanwhile, the production folks are just trying to get shows made, which makes them seem like creative types to the finance folks just trying to get everyone paid. 

As I was starting my website—writing the first articles and sketching out a business plan—I set about to define my target audience. I knew I wanted to target the business side of Hollywood, but thinking about “what is business versus creative?”, I realized there isn’t just two sides on the “creative vs business” battle, but it’s a spectrum. 

Here is that spectrum that I jotted down and eventually turned into a Powerpoint slide.

Creative vs Biz Spectrum

For the most part I think everyone on this line would call everyone to their right a “suit”. Which means business. So I like this spectrum.

Some quick insights


A lot of this depends on what I define as “creative” versus “ business” in the first place. I used those terms since that seems to echo the jargon in the industry. I debated calling this left brain-right brain, though I’ve never liked that terminology since apparently the science behind it isn’t great. I also debated some other definitions (see below), but this worked best.

And the reason I think it works is it captures two inherent tensions, in my mind. First, who cares most about making the product? The closer you get to it, the more you are talent, actively crafting the final product. A creative. On the other side, who cares most about the bottom line? Well, the business folks. If you want a rule of thumb, ask this question, “Who would care the most about going over budget?” The more you care, the more “business” you are.

I debated calling this the “qualitative versus quantitative, but that doesn’t work either.

Or you could call it the “gut versus data” debate. But that doesn’t get at the difference between the business folks and the creatives, really. Some business folks eschew numbers, sort of like the development execs I mentioned above. That’s a pretty qualitative group of people—in my experience—though they are more business than screenwriters.

Creativity is the pretty clear driver on the left. And the opposite of creativity isn’t data. Data analytics and math actually require a lot of creativity. Not that business should be the death of creativity, but it’s what we all assume.

Not Included Jobs

These jobs aren’t left out because they don’t deserve a spot, but because I ran out of space. And for some, I didn’t know where to fit them in. As is, this was a pretty clean line of the people involved in getting a piece of content out there in the world. 

I did want to get in the below the line folks—like set design and make up and wardrobe—but again couldn’t get them to fit neatly. They would be on the more creative side, though to the right of some talent because they start and end with a budget. Precisely where, I’m not sure.

I had no idea where to put production assistants. Probably near the directors—which is where many want to end up—but they aren’t really creatives, just following orders. Programming folks balance both and are probably in the middle. Script readers are likely on the creative end, as they are usually aspiring screenwriters themselves.

Did the spectrum help with the website?

Definitely. I knew my goal was to skew towards the business end of the spectrum, but this helped put what jobs are in that side of the spectrum. And how close or far they are from the creative end. While I think everyone in Hollywood could learn something from my website, the business side could probably apply the most.

And it helped convince me this is a niche I could grow. There is a gap, in my opinion, between investor-focused publishers, who mainly parse 10Ks for stock price information, and the Hollywood trades, who focus on the who is cast in what.