Month: December 2019

Most Important Story of the Week – 20 December 19: The Curious Case of CuriosityStream (And Other Subscriber Numbers)

Tis the season for subscriber numbers. DAZN has 8 million subscribers! Hallmark Movies Now has 750K! And CuriosityStream has 10 million!

Wait, what’s CuriosityStream? How can something I’d never heard off pass 10 million subscribers? Well, that mystery, and the rising importance of subscribers for evaluating success or failure combine in my “story of the week”. 

Most Important Story of the Week – The Subscriber Numbers of Smaller Streamers

Let’s get something out of the way. Subscriber counts matter. As we enter the streaming wars, how many folks will actually pay streams for their services is a direct sign of how well they’re doing as a business. The intrinsic logic of this makes sense and it’s why we celebrate Netflix for getting 60 million US subscribers.

The trouble is not all subscribers are created equal. Even with the data we do have, comparing things apples to apples is always the tricky part. So let’s see what we know.

The Data Set

Again, the big new subscriber numbers were really DAZN, Curiosity Stream, and Hallmark Movies Now. They each had leaks to the press about new subscriber milestones. Combining with some past data I’ve collected (and updated) yields this table:

Table 1 Sub Numbers

The problem is that as far as we know CuriosityStream is doing as well as Disney+. Or as Bloomberg put in its headline, it’s beating HBO Now. Which doesn’t feel right. Does it? To explain the problem, we need a quick diversion to the NBA…

The NBA Analogy

Why the NBA? Because it’s such a great testing ground for statistics. If my first rule of data analysis is: “Always show the distribution” the second may be: “Always use two variables to judge performance”.

Why two? Because one is too easy to game. Which we will see with subscriber counts. Why not more variables then? Honestly it’s because I have trouble seeing in three dimensions. Quad charts are the easiest way to reconcile these two ideas.

The NBA provides a great example for this. Take a player like James Harden. He’s a great shooter, and for those who don’t follow the NBA, we usually use percentages to describe this. Harden is a 36% three point shooter, meaning he makes 36% of the 3 point shots he takes.

The problem is if I just used percentages, well, it would look like a lot of guys are a lot better shooters than James Harden. Take Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle. He shoots 46.8% from 3. That’s 10% points better!

The problem is how many shots these guys take. (I use three point shots on purpose, since percentage is used much more than shots attempted.) Harden leads the league by taking a whopping 13 three point shots a game, whereas Thybulle shoots just 2.2. The narrative behind this data is that Thybulle can choose opportune times to shoot, whereas Harden takes and makes a lot of tough shots. 

In the NBA, the data/experience shows, the more shots you take, the harder it is to keep a high percentage. We can make a quad chart out of this, with the goal to get to the upper right:

Table 2 3PA

Using this example, the best three point shooter is actually Davis Bertans, who is splashing 46% of this threes while taking a whopping 8.6 a game. See, two variables tell a better story than either percentage or total on their own.

So which number should we pair with “subscribers”?

When it comes to streaming services, we need a similar quad chart. The question is which one?

The biggest problem we’re trying to solve for is the idea that a subscriber who pays $0 isn’t worth as much as one paying $15 a month. If we’re looking at subscribers as a proxy to customer demand, price seems super relevant; lots of folks will happily subscribe to something they pay $0 per month for.

At first, I thought this would push me towards using “Average Revenue Per User” (ARPU). This is reported, by Netflix for instance. It has a few flaws, though, especially when trying to use it to gauge customer demand. The biggest flaw is that some customers don’t actually provide the revenue. Instead, someone else pays the bills. For Netflix, this includes T-Mobile subscribers who get Netflix “on them”. In that case, T-Mobile pays Netflix for the subscribers, not really the subscribers themselves. Further, even if customers do pay, the monthly price is actually split between distributors (like cable, Amazon and Apple). Some companies can negotiate this better than others. (While still relevant for business performance, it is less relevant when gauging customer demand.)

The opposite end of the spectrum would be to just take the price a company charges. There are two problems with this method, though. First, a company could offer a wide variety of prices. Disney+ can be purchased as part of a bundle with Hulu and ESPN+, or on its own. DAZN can be purchased monthly ($20 a month) or annually ($100 a year), which is a huge gap. Netflix has multiple tiers too. Updating my table from above, you can see how complicated this is:

Table 3 Sub with Price

Worse, those prices don’t account for the folks getting promotional offers. So Apple TV+ folks who got it because they bought a phone. Or Amazon customers getting Prime Video for free. Or Verizon members who get Disney+ for free. That doesn’t say much about how willing they are to keep the service without those free offers.

If I were king of the world, I’d try to marry these two numbers. It would be “Average Price Paid per Subscriber”. This gets to how many customers are actually paying full freight. (Heck, I’d actually love a distribution by dollar amount, but that’s just dreaming.) If you could combine this with total subscribers in a quad chart, THAT would tell you who is winning the streaming wars.

Implications for Streamers

Listen, if I were amazing, I’d give you that quad chart I just described. But I don’t have that data. While I may try to calculate it in the future, it would require too many assumptions for today. Just look at that pricing table above to see how much of a mess it is.

Still, we can learn some things from this thought exercise. Especially about how little we know, but how much we can suspect that subscriber numbers a misleading us.

To start, with CuriosityStream, they went from 1 million subscribers to 10 million in just a year. Likely, that’s a combination of the low price (only $3 per month), which very few folks actually pay. CuriosityStream has a deliberate strategy to be sold in cable internet bundles, meaning they give cable companies another discount just to boost subscriber totals.

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 4.01.09 PM

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 4.01.15 PM

I’d argue before CuriosityStream brags via Bloomberg that it’s beating HBO Now, or that it’s a winner in the streaming wars, it should tell us how much money it’s charging per subscriber.

Hulu is probably next. They just can’t quit offering promotional discounts. Even having lowered their price to $6 last January, they offered a Black Friday deal of just $2 a month. Really, all of Disney is hooked on promotional pricing as Disney offered lots of folks Disney+ at $4 a month for three years and there is that Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu bundle I went nuts for back in August.

However if any wildly inflated number deserves the most scrutiny, it’s Prime Video. Since Amazon doesn’t even release Prime subscriber numbers regularly–good job SEC!–we only rely on selective leaks and estimates, with the current number at 100 million. But according to some surveys, only 11% of customers use Prime for the video service. So it’s really hard to say Prime Video is a 100 million subscriber powerhouse if 89 million people would drop Prime if the shipping went away…

Data of the Week – That Disney+ Survey and a Disney+ Check In

Lots of the Twitter world was very upset with a Cowen and Co survey-turned-analysis that predicted taht Disney+ has a likely 24 million subscribers globally. I have my own concerns about surveys too. First, asking consumers about behaviors is rarely as good as seeing what they actually do. Second, many surveys generate statistics that are quoted out of context, which definitely happened here. Third, surveys are hard to do right! It’s why FiveThirtyEight and Nate Silver spend so much time getting it right.

I’m willing to make a slight exception to the Disney+ subscribers question, though. First, when it comes to behavioral issues, this question if fairly straight-forward: do you have a subscription to Disney+? Most consumers know what they pay for. Second, unlike the worst surveys that are one off stories or trying to get obscure results, this question is being asked fairly regularly by investment analysts. So if you take what we know/have had surveyed–including some estimates based on surveys and Apptopia download data–I get this chart, sorted by time:

Table 4 Disney Plus Numbers

(By the way, if I missed any sub estimates based on data, send them my way.)

That’s not enough surveys to do a FiveThirtyEight-esque analysis, but I’d say there is a trendline here. Throw on top that Disney+ was the most searched for term by Google in 2019, and this launch is likely well above even Disney’s estimates. Factoring in that December/January are the largest months for sign-ups, and I think Disney+ could top 30 million global subs by the next earnings report. (Remember, Disney+ is available in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand too.)

These surveys, though, have a tougher time answering the question on the other side of this coin: how many of these folks cancelled Netflix? We don’t know. So we still have something to wait for in January.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

A Peacock Check-In

At first, we had a report that Peacock may be ad-supported only, but then that was contradicted. Either way, it looks like Comcast plans to spend quite a bit on their streaming service. The biggest worry, though is that NBCU is changing up leadership teams again.

PGA Deal Sticks with traditional TV

At some point, live sports as a category will migrate to digital. But not right now, as the PGA extended their deals–at a 60% value increase–on traditional formats. Oh, and remember that even though the 60% number is a big jump, the deal price hadn’t increased for 11 years, so amortize it out.

NBA is launching NBA TV as a streaming service.

This is an old story I’ve been holding on to. Still, as long as we’re talking smaller streaming channels, they should get a mention. The biggest point I’d look at is the price point. NBA TV is $7…which is the same price as Disney+? This is NBA TV, not NBA League Pass. One of the streamers is either vastly under charging or vastly over charging. Time will tell.

Should You Release Your Movie Straight to Netflix? Part I: The basic maths

Since 2019 started, there has been a debate among the entertainment biz literati (you know who they are):

Should you keep releasing your films in theaters, or go straight to streaming?

I first saw this in January when some folks on Twitter argued Disney should release Star Wars films straight-to-streaming now that Disney+ was coming. (My rebuttal here.) Then, when Booksmart flopped, I saw this debate take over Twitter. In short, why bother looking bad releasing in theaters, when you can go to Netflix and get 40 million views?

The Booksmart-esque examples kept coming. Late Night’s flop brought Amazon to the debate. Then Brittany Runs a Marathon. It got so bad, Amazon got out of the theatrical release business altogether. (So the big-for-Amazon Aeronauts abandoned traditional theatrical in exchange for a “four wall” strategy like Netflix.)

Meanwhile, this question is on every company’s mind. Netflix doesn’t do theatrical runs; Amazon just left the business; Apple is figuring out what it wants to do; Disney, Warner Bros and Universal are leaning into theatrical, except when they aren’t as Disney did with Lady and the Tramp. Paramount is an arms dealer at its finest. Let’s not sugar coat how important this question is. It’s literally a billion dollar question, per company! 

Getting this question right is business strategy at it’s finest: so who’s making the right call?

Judging by the online narrative, the Netflix supporters say Netflix. Most “arguments” for going straight-to-streaming seem to rely on personal experience, first, and Netflix’s stock price, second. Hardly ever do I see the piece of information I love most: numbers. (Strategy is numbers!)

Before I finished my series on The Great Irishman Challenge, I would have had trouble relying on anything more than qualitative/narrative explanations too. Without a model, testing assumptions or quantifying the financial impact of these strategic implications would have been little more than guesswork. But since I have it, I think I can try to quantify some aspects of this debate better than I’ve seen before. 

This debate has so many components, arguments and counter-arguments, that as I wrote my response, it was fairly jumbled. To organize my thinking, I’m deploying a “question and answer” format. Which I think helps. Still, before I get to that here’s my…

Bottom Line, Up Front

While very small films or historically poor performing theatrical films—think documentaries or foreign language films—may benefit from going straight-to-streaming, the vast majority of “studio films”—larger than $5 million production budgets, will make much more money for their producers by having theatrical distribution. (On average.) The “strategic” benefits of skipping the theatrical window don’t exist in practice as much as theory. So much so I call it the “straight-to-streaming trap”. 

Question: If you only had two words, why should movies avoid the “straight-to-streaming” trap?

Avengers: Endgame.

Q: Okay, explain.

Well, it made $2.7 billion (with a b) dollars in theatrical box office. Of course, Disney doesn’t keep all of that in revenue. Depending if it is US or international, Disney keeps 35-50%, and less in China. Still, I’d estimate Disney kept about $1.1 billion (and even that is low considering how powerful Disney’s bargaining power is with studios).

Assuming a $350 million production budget and a $200 million marketing budget, after just theatrical distribution, Disney has $550 million in gross profit to split with talent. In just one window! That doesn’t factor in toys, DVDs, electronic rentals or future streaming/cable value. Just one window netted over half a billion dollars. 

I honestly can’t fathom a scenario where Disney would have made more money by ignoring theatrical. (Again, that was my thesis back in January about Star Wars, but these are equivalent franchises.) That’s like having a barrel of oil and not refining the entire thing.

Q: Excuse me, oil?

Oil. Every year, one of the best things I read is The Economist’s Christmas Double Issue. Two years ago, they had a graphic about how a barrel of oil is refined into its component parts. Here’s the link for subscribers, but they had the whole thing on Google Images:

Image 1 - Economist Oil 20171223_XMC600_weblarge.png

In short, a barrel of oil is sort of like the not-quite-true aphorism that the Native American’s used every part of the buffalo. (Which was taken to another extreme by American meat packing at the turn of the century, who used every part of the pig/cow. Read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for details.)

871878e86165ef98858ea0235551942d

(Source: The Far Side cartoon. How is that not a piece of IP up for sale?)

As oil companies heat a barrel of oil, the raw material separates into different types of chemicals that are then used for everything from gasoline to diesel fuel to sulphur to countless other compounds. This is necessary because different size oil molecules have different uses. The goal for the oil company when refining oil is to extract as much value as possible from the oil they spent real money bringing out of the ground.

I love this analogy for theaters. Each window is a heavier as in greater gross margin type of oil. Netflix is essentially skipping the heaviest molecules (theaters, home entertainment) for the lightest (digital streaming). Long term, that means a lot of lost potential revenue.

Q: And can we quantify that?

Yes, and that’s what I spent a chunk of November doing. Here’s the “financial revenue” waterfall I’ve been using for theatrical films. Actually, here’s how it’s looked historically:

Image 2 - Financial Waterfall Historically

And here are my recent assumptions:

IMAGE 3 - Financial Waterfall Now

In other words, if you skip theaters, there goes 35-40% of your revenue. (While box office isn’t rising, as a percentage of feature film revenue, it is increasing because home entertainment is shrinking. By next year, it may be 40% of a film’s take.) If you skip home entertainment, that’s another big chunk of revenue. And frankly, it makes sense that theaters make so much money because it’s more expensive to go.

Q: The gross margins are higher for theaters than streaming? Do you have numbers for that?

Frankly, these are the numbers that any discussion about Netflix and Amazon have to start with. You can end up where you want, but if you ignore these numbers you’re likely using fuzzy math to justify your preexisting conclusions.

So let’s take each window into rough “per person per film hour” revenue in the United States. Just to make it explicit. Theaters have an average ticket price of call it $10. (It’s slightly lower, but I like to round my numbers.) Since each person pays that to see a film, it’s a $5 per person per film hour for the average two hour film.

Now, compare that Netflix, where the average subscription watches 40 hours of content per month. (According to past leaks/surveys.) Since a US customer pays $12, that’s $0.30 per hour. But since more than one person can watch, we can assume 1.5 customers share that viewership. Which takes it down to $0.20 per film. Which leads to this crucial note on potential revenue:

The streaming window is 8% of the total revenue of the theatrical window per person.

As I said above, theatrical is much, much more lucrative for studios than streaming. (The specific way to calculate the value to Netflix of a film is different than the usage version above—see here for those—but this is to show the potential size difference for different windows.)

Q: So let’s ask the obvious: have you quantified how much Netflix could have made releasing films in theaters this year?

Rightey-oh I have. Let’s talk upside. I took a selection of Netflix’s most noteworthy/expensive films, and asked Twitter for ideas for some quick and dirty “upside” comps for them. (I focused on the most recent films as possible, and matching rating/genre primarily.) Here’s the list I settled on:

IMAGE 4 - Netflix Film Comps

There’s your headline/nut graph/lede at the end of the article: if Netflix released its 10 (arguably) most valuable films from December 2019 to December 2020 (with Bird Box sneaking in), it could have made $750 in additional cash flow to the bottom line in just theatrical box office. If Netflix had to throw in $50 million per film on this list in additional marketing (which feels high), that’s still $250 extra million.

I’d add this list isn’t a ridiculous list of comps. A Quiet Place is definitely the same sized hit that Netflix is portraying Bird Box, so that number is reasonable. Meanwhile, I put in a couple of films well under $100 million in total gross and a lot of other solid doubles. 

So why hasn’t Netflix looked at this revenue and jumped? I’d argue sloppy financial thinking. And changing their strategy has PR implications. Others, though, would argue it’s about exclusivity for their platform. (Presumably some folks would see it in theaters, but not on Netflix.) 

To keep this article from going too long, I’m going to continue the Q&A in my next article. Essentially, I’ll lay out and debate the pro-straight-to-streaming arguments in their own place.

Most Important Story of the Week – 13 December 19: A Tale of Two Netflixes

It’s been a busy few weeks for The Entertainment Strategy Guy household as we welcomed a new member to our family. Between sleep deprivation, house cleaning and holding/changing a baby, getting back in the writing habit has been a struggle. If this column isn’t any good, blame it on that!

Wading through hundreds of newsletters and saved articles, one topic popped up the most, but I couldn’t decide if it was bad or good. So let’s do both!

The Most Important Story of the Week – For Netflix, the Best of Time and the Worst Times

If there is an overwhelming counter-argument to the Netflix “bears” of the world (a few notable investment analysts and a few notable Twitterzens), it’s that Netflix is currently the most popular “network” in America. In the 1990s, it was NBC. In the 2000s, it was CBS. Now it’s Netflix.

As a result, Netflix draws overwhelming coverage. Not only does Netflix have a ton of subscribers, they can get those subs to watch their shows and then get everyone to write news articles about it.

Yet, perusing my news feeds of the last three weeks, as befits any leader in any field, everyone is simultaneously praising and disparaging the leader. Netflix is like the Tale of Two Cities introduction. It’s been the best of times and the worst of times, sometimes within the same story. Which is the theme of the week. 

The Good: The Irishman Releases to 26.4 Million Viewers; The Bad: Was it Popular?

Nielsen beat Netflix to the punch claiming that 13.2 million folks checked out The Irishman. Netflix grudgingly admitted they had 26.4 million folks watch 70% of The Irishman in the first week, projecting 40 million in the first month. If you want the good interpretation, getting 40 million people to watch anything is a win. 

If you want the bad, well, check out my big article this week.

Going further, we still don’t have the context for Netflix releases like this. As Bloomberg pointed out, Netflix had 16% of its subscribers watch The Irishman. I’m not sure if this provides more or less context. We don’t have anything to compare the 16% to. I’ve asked this in different ways before, but think about films like Crazy Rich Asians, The Quiet Place or John Wick 3. Each was released in theaters, was popular, and then aired on a variety of cable/premium cable and streaming platforms from HBO to Starz to Netflix to even more overseas I can’t begin to keep track of. Did more folks watch John Wick 3, or The Irishman this year? We don’t know. But I’d bet on the former. 

Like the famous tree in the forest, though, if a studio doesn’t release ratings information globally, did it make a sound?

That’s why if you asked me, I’d say The Irishman lost a lot of money. It also means that even as Netflix spends more and more on blockbusters, I’m not sure they’ll ever have a monetization plan that makes up enough money at this scale. (I will explain more in my IPB series in future articles.)

The Good: Tons of Movies; The Bad: Who is Watching?

One of the common responses to my “Netflix lost $280 million on the Irishman” article was that I was looking at it wrong. I shouldn’t isolate one film from Netflix’s catalogue, but need to look at the portfolio as a whole. Right or wrong, what a large portfolio it is!

(The counter to this is that the major studios would love an approach where ignored all financial performance. Talent would hate it though.) 

The good side for Netflix is that surely they wouldn’t keep investing in more and more films if it wasn’t working. Right? Indeed, they’ve learned that with enough volume, you’ll get a surprising number of hits.

Maybe. Of course, it seems like the big bets of the last few years haven’t really paid off either. Just this week Netflix is debuting another December blockbuster. (It’s been a bit of trend with Bright in 2017, Bird Box in 2018 and now 6 Underground.) My worry for their latest is just that despite a pretty strong media blitz at the end, I don’t think 6 Underground is resonating:

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 9.48.21 AM

Also, one other piece of context. While Netflix is buying lots of movies, many are international in origin. These films likely wouldn’t get a global release but for Netflix. The reason though is a double-edged sword for Netflix: they wouldn’t have gotten released because they don’t move the needle outside their home country. Despite Netflix’s reach, I don’t think they have moved the needle with most international originals, but they do pay a lot more than usual for them.  (I hate to do this again, but I will explain more in my IPB series in future articles.)

The Good: Netflix Nabs 34 Golden Globe Nominations: The Bad: Did They Buy Those Awards?

Netflix secured 34 nominations for film and TV at this year’s Golden Globes. And while this is the easiest awards show to game in terms of winning nominations (which are all that really matter for buzz), most civilians don’t know that and hence a big, publicity hawking awards shows generates tons of buzz. This is great for Netflix’s perception they dominate culture.

The bad is how Netflix got those awards. Which is that the “gaming” process means showering reporters/critics with trips, dinners, gifts and access to celebrities. The story here isn’t that this is new, per se, just unprecedented in scale. And long term I don’t think it will actually hurt Netflix with customers who don’t follow the daily ins and outs of Netflix business news. It does, though, diminish the idea that awards are a pure expression of quality untainted by business interests.

The Good: Netflix subscribers are stable; The Bad: Baby Yoda

Bloomberg has the most explicit version of this story based on an internal leak, but most companies trying to triangulate Netflix’s subscribers/users have repeated the line that the launch of Disney+ and Apple TV haven’t yet hurt Netflix’s subscriber base. That’s good news for Netflix and it may be able to resist the dreaded customer churn. 

On the other hand, Baby Yoda.

merlin_165673722_6c5257b5-e722-4a5d-b561-8373336cb499-articleLarge

If all media is a quest to be “in the conversation” this little guy. Here’s two separate articles saying how Baby Yoda shows how Disney is fighting the streaming wars. And here’s Parrot Analytics calling it the most in-demand show on TV. (I like Parrot Analytics’ work, but it isn’t perfect. It skews a bit too “genre”, but it’s correlated with success.)

In seriousness, I’d dismiss Disney’s content capabilities at your own peril. Disney scored a series as buzzworthy as anything Netflix has released in week one. Apple TV is still searching for theirs. 

Data(s) of the Week

We’ve had a great few weeks for data, so let’s point them out quickly.

First, Multichannel has a great chart on how churn looks across different subscription methods. I’d caution that established platforms like Amazon and Netflix will be lower than smaller services, but churn is still likely one of the major themes of the next few years. (HT to Parks Associates for this look.)

parks-ott-vs-pay-tv-churn

Second, Moffett-Nathanson had their annual results on content spend published on a few different outlets. These budget numbers seem to fluctuate depending on how you count, but are worth tracking. (HT to Axios/Sara Fischer.)

0

Third, this fun article calculates how much money artists earn on Spotify compared to cost of living. Spoiler: not a lot. That’s why I highly recommend everyone still purchase albums. Support your artists!

M&A Updates

Viacom and CBS Closed

File this under “lots of news with no news” as we expected this deal to close. The notable part, for me, is that ViacomCBS (“SuperCBS”) doesn’t seem to have a coherent strategy yet. Content arms dealer? Sure. Linear TV? Sure. Streaming and OTT? That too! 

This remains one of the more interesting corporate stories out there. I don’t buy that they’re too small to compete. If you ignore market capitalization, looking at revenue or cash flow, they’re big enough to compete. How they choose to do so will be fascinating.

The DoJ will Try to End the Paramount Consent Decrees

I’d emphasize try because even though the issue has been understudy for a year now, these things take time. And lawsuits will inevitably come. Moreover a new administration could come in and just as easily pause the whole endeavor.

If the walls between studios and distributors do indeed come down, we’d very likely see some M&A in this space. Who and for how much will be seen, but it would happen. 

Sprint-T-Mobile Merger Goes to Trial

Then one could be the last act of this cellular merger saga began its last stages in a federal court room as 13 state Attorneys General sued to block the merger. As usual, both sides brought their economist to debate this simple question: 

If the number of competitors dwindles, does that have any impact on the prices they charge? 

Incredibly, it seems more and more like the answer in federal courts is no. Logically, then, the next step is two cellular companies down to one single provider. As long as they convince a judge they won’t raise prices, then it isn’t a monopoly.

(Listen, 1,500 words aren’t enough to catch up with all the news. I’ll be back next week to keep the thoughts coming on everything else that happened during my three week break.)

How The Irishman Lost $280 Million: The Great Irishman Challenge Part IV – The Results

(For the last few weeks, I’ve been debuting a series of articles answering a question posed to me by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield: Will The Irishman Make Any Money? It’s a great question because it gets as so many of the challenges of the business of streaming video. Read the rest here, here, here and here.)

The biggest uncertainty in The Great Irishman Project was figuring out how well the film did with viewers in the first place. I was all set today to parse Nielsen’s estimates from last week, but doing so meant tons of estimating based on a very limited data set. So I waited.

Specifically, I had a suspicion that Netflix would feel forced to tell us something. They couldn’t let Nielsen drive the narrative for their most high profile picture of the year. Sure enough, we got the results today, as Ted Sarandos spoke at the UBS Media conference:

26.4 million subscribers watched 70% of The Irishman in its first week.
40 million are projected to watch in the first 28 days.

Huzzaw! Now we can be a lot more confident in our estimates.

Here’s today’s plan. First, I’ll given you the “Bottom Line, Up Front”. The results and my model. Second, I’ll discuss a few specific estimates and inputs I still had to make. Third, I’ll answer what I assume will be the most commonly asked questions or criticisms of my model. In Q&A format.

(Also, look for my write-up in The Ankler if you’re subscribed.)

Bottom Line, Up Front: Netflix will lose $280 million The Irishman

As I wrote in Part I, the goal was to make a scorecard, and here it is:

IMAGE 20 - Irishman Profiitability

For the full model, here you go:

Image 21 - Irishman Full Model

In other words, if this were a big budget tentpole from Disney or Warner Bros–whose flops have extremely public numbers–I think Netflix would have to write down the costs for “only” getting 40 million viewers in the first four weeks. This film was extremely expensive, and it’s already decaying fairly rapidly in viewership. Even with a bump from a Best Picture nomination, Netflix will lose money on this investment.

The Model Details

Even having built the model ahead of time, I had to make some assumptions. Here they are.

Determining US versus International Split

One of the big assumptions of my model right now is that international viewership is much less valuable than US viewership. I do this based on their reporter lower international “Average Revenue Per User” and higher churn rate overseas (from what I’ve been told/researched). As a result, the more US customers for a film (for now) the better it is financially for Netflix.

We have two data points to triangulate the split for The Irishman. First, we can look at historical box office trends of mobster films. According to all the films listed as “Mafia” in The-Numbers database, about 61% of box office comes from domestic versus international box office. For example, a film like American Hustle did $150 million in the US/Canada vs $107 million in the rest of the world. Black Mass from 2015 was even more weighted to the US: $62 million vs $36 million rest of world. (The Departed did $132 million US to $157 million rest of world.) This would imply viewership was skewed to the US.

Second, Nielsen provided their estimates that 13.2 million people watched The Irishman during its first five days of release. That’s almost exactly half of the 70% completion Netflix claims. If we assume this would increase with two more days viewership, again we get closer to 55-60% of viewership being in US/domestic.

I decided to use 62.5% US viewership for Netflix. This is pretty beneficial to Netflix, but makes sense. In all, since US viewers pay more on average for longer, this change benefits Netflix.

Changes to Best Picture Bump

My initial model assumed 25% more folks would watch on Netflix if The Irishman is nominated for Best Picture. I decided to bump this up to 25% first window revenue, since that’s a more accurate reflection of the box office bump. (That’s also a benefit to Netflix’s bottom line.)

Adding in Box Office?

I wanted to add in box office revenue, but Netflix hasn’t released any since this film wasn’t released in the traditional theatrical system. (Netflix rented out theaters and then collected the revenue themselves.) Given the limited number of theaters, I think leaving this out won’t drastically impact the bottom line. 

Frequently Asked Questions

I imagine a lot of folks have a lot of questions about this analysis. Let’s try to answer what I imagine are the most common.

What is the best case for Netflix?

Read More

The Great Irishman Challenge – Appendix: How Confident Am I?

(For the last few weeks, I’ve been debuting a series of articles answering a question posed to me by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield: Will The Irishman Make Any Money? It’s a great question because it gets as so many of the challenges of the business of streaming video. Read the rest here, here, here and here.)

On Twitter, TV journalist and friend of the website Rick Ellis of All Your Screens pointed out that my model is likely not to be accurate:

You know what, he’s right!

I don’t have leaked Netflix internal accounting and data. This means that I have to make a lot of assumptions to build my models. The more assumptions in an estimate, the more sources for error. While estimates are naturally more accurate than forecasts, they’re still estimates. Meaning they are not an exact science.

Before I publish my results for The Irishman—my next article for those waiting—it’s worth probing what type of analysis this Great Irishman Project” is. As I’ve been thinking about it, I have three analogies to explain what I’m trying to do here, ranging from a weak to strong.

Analogy 1: The Scientific Method

This is the gold standard. Arguably, the very principle that has driven human progress for the last 500 years.

And it doesn’t apply here.

I know, I know. It would be great if it did. But to apply the scientific method means starting with a hypothesis, then gathering data to prove or disprove it. That’s not my approach at all. I’m building models based on my experience and data. Which are “scientific”, but I can’t “test” them on Netflix’s releases.

The streamers specifically have reams and reams of data. They can set theories and test whether they are correct on marketing, user experience and sometimes content. (However, they often overhype their data and stretch the limits of statistical accuracy.) Unfortunately, for yours truly, Netflix and Disney and other companies will never tell me if I am right or even super close with my models, so I can’t ever test my hypotheses.

Since we’re talking scientific method, it’s also worth pointing out that lots of data analysis at technology, consulting and really all companies is “faux scientific method” too. At their best, companies can set out hypotheses, and run tests to see what works best for their customers. At their worst, companies just collect a ton of data and use the data that supports their preexisting beliefs. That’s not the scientific method. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a boss parsing a quad chart for connections that are noise, not signal.)

Analogy 2: Sports

One of my inspirations for this website was the boom in top notch sports writing. Specifically, the top tier analysts. Folks like Zach Lowe or Kevin Arnovitz on basketball, Bill Barnwell in football, Pete Zayas for the Lakers, or Chris Harris on fantasy football. These folks don’t just report the news, but analyze the what and how of sports. They provide deeper insights than just the box score, whether they use scouting, film breakdown or analytics.

I’ve tried to fill the same need in entertainment business. This industry is filled with a phenomenal amount of great reporters, but not the rigorous analysis I needed when I worked in entertainment. (There’s also a lot of great investor-side analysts, but they usually charge an arm and a leg for their work. Their focus is also less on strategy and more on stock price. Which is great for their clients, but not quite what entertainment professionals need.)

There are two huge differences between sports analysis and entertainment strategy analysis, though. First, I don’t have nearly as much data. For sports, even casual observers can now get advanced analytics, from Basketball Reference to NBA.com to Cleaning the Glass. Second, we don’t get the “results” beyond quarterly earnings reports, and even those can be woefully incomplete for streaming. Imagine how much tougher Zach Lowe’s life would be if he didn’t know the scores to games!

This analogy gets a lot closer to what I’m trying to do. Instead of breaking down how a play is run, I’m breaking down how film finances work. Then, I’m applying the data we do have to that model. Then I’m pulling insights for what that can tell us about entertainment strategy. If I had more data, I could pull even more insights.

To find the perfect analogy, we need a field where making predictions is key, but data is sparse. Well…

Analogy 3: Military Intelligence

In war you have to make predictions about what your enemy is thinking, planning and eventually doing. But the amount of information is usually extremely sparse. Even if you have tons of information, you are terrified that it’s all planted by the enemy in misdirection campaigns. Inevitably, an intelligence officer has to make assumption after assumption to project an enemy’s course of action.

As I laid out in my recent series, I used to be an intelligence office in the Army, making these types of predictions. I’m used to uncertainty when forecasting enemy actions.

That’s not a bad analogy either for companies in competitive fields. While every company professes to not care what any other company is doing, they’re lying. (All of Hollywood is obsessed with Netflix, even if they say they aren’t. And yes, Netflix is obsessed with Disney+ right now, even if they deny it.) Understanding whether your competitor is making hits or duds, burning cash or wallowing in it, and how they’re doing it, is a key piece of information for making decisions.

Most companies have blind spots into every other company the same way my models have blindspots into Netflix or Disney’s specific performance.

Just because our models have inaccuracies doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them. And doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. If you waited in war until you have perfect information, you’d be plagued by indecision. That’s really what I’m doing here: I’m providing my competitive analysis of streaming video, starting with Netflix, at the same level of accuracy I’d try if I were doing this for insurgents in Afghanistan or working in a strategic planning group in a streaming company. Even though I could be wrong, I don’t have a choice because we need these assumptions to improve our estimates.

And yes, as a bonus, these models will eventually inform my larger series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”. Essentially, the models will tell us a lot about how can and can’t make money in streaming video, and how that can impact all of Hollywood. But that’s for a future article.

If The Streaming Wars are a War…Then What War Are They?

In November, a war started. 

Fortunately, in this war, no one will die and the biggest risk is to the stock price of ViacomCBS. If the biggest war our current generation is a streaming war, then the future isn’t all gloom and doom.

Since I’m writing an “intelligence preparation of the battlefield” for the streaming wars, it sort of begs the question: if the streaming wars are a war, what kind of war are they? To prove I’m not making a straw man here, here’s a host of articles asking about the streaming wars, but no one tying them to the best comparable war.

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 10.45.42 AM

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 10.46.25 AM

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 10.47.02 AM

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 10.48.09 AM

I was a history major and in the military. I should be able to figure this out. Let’s do it.

The Plan

1. Will rank wars from “easily discarded” to “Pretty darn close”. Scroll down to the bottom to find out the winner(s).

2. One imaginary war per section. 

3. I’m fairly “American” so all of these wars will inevitably come from that bias viewpoint.

Easily Discarded

The Civil War (and most other civil wars)

The case for the Civil War—and other civil wars—is that the entertainment industry itself is like a country riven by sectarian strife. The Confederates would be the traditional studio conglomerates and cable MVPDs clinging to their profits, while upstart streamers are, I guess, the Union? Trying to impede the new movement? Or maybe switch the two and the streamers are the Confederates splitting off from the Union? See, it doesn’t really work.

The Persian Gulf War or Franco-Prussian War

The problem with these wars is they were too darn quick, each lasting under a year. The streaming wars won’t end any time soon.

Alexander the Great, The Huns or The Khans Conquer the Known World

Every so often, some military leader just up and conquered most of the known world. Four years ago, we probably would have said Netflix was set up to do just this. Yet, unlike the foes who fell under Alexander, Attila and Genghis, the traditional studios may have a fighting chance to defend their territory.

Independence Day War

This is the fictional version of massively powerful invaders taking over everything, just this time with aliens. We only have two sides in this war, where the streaming wars are multi-polar, so we’ll need some better analogies.

Closer, but Key Flaws

Punic Wars

We have our first “traditional” war where two massive powers square off for domination of, literally, Western civilization. If Carthage had defeated Rome, all of human history may have taken a different course. (Instead of Rome, the Western World would have been centered around North Africa.) If the upstart tech streamers defeat the traditional entertainment conglomerates, the results for investors may be similarly momentous.

The challenge is we’re not dealing with two united sides in the streaming wars. Disney+ is fighting for control from HBO Max as much as they are fighting Netflix and Amazon. However, if I did make this analogy, it would mean Ted Sarandos is Hannibal and his elephants are Netflix originals powered by algorithms. Which could mean Bob Iger is Scipio Africanus, but now we’re going too far.

The French Revolution

Revolutions are like Civil Wars, just without sides or uniforms. Which make it tough to compare to our streaming wars. Sure, our combatants don’t wear uniforms—well, NBC Pages do, but you know what I mean—but you have to like the symbolism of revolution. Streamings isn’t a war, but a “digital revolution” in how we receive content! 

That has an ethos of “power to the people” who are rising up and saying, “No more high cable prices, I’m cutting the cord!” Of course, the data doesn’t support that—most Netflix subscribers have cable; most cord cutters pay well below costs for content—but it sounds good.

The Cold War

If I took points from The French Revolution for not wearing uniforms, well no one wore any uniforms in the Cold War either. This war was waged via proxies, spies and nuclear stock piles. All of which I have a tough time comparing to the streaming wars. In its favor, The Cold War was a global enterprise, with battlefields from a divided Germany to Vietnam to Latin America to China to Korea to Afghanistan. The streaming wars will match that scope.

War of the Ring (Lord of the Rings)

Human-Covenant War (Halo)

Lots of science fiction or fantasy works have two sides squaring off for all the marbles just like the Punic Wars:

Lord of The Rings. This is the literary equivalent of the Punic Wars. The humans battled Sauron for literal survival. And somehow a hobbit saved humanity.

Halo. This is the video game equivalent of the Punic Wars. The humans battled the Covenant for literal survival. And somehow a super-soldier saved humanity.

Pretty Darn Close

Peloponnesian and Corinthian Wars

Now we’re getting there. While the wars between Sparta and Athens had two sides, each city state had its own power and made its own decisions. Each city state picked a side and either allied with the Spartans (Peloponnesian league) or Athenians (The Delian League). These city-states also struggled with civil wars and popular up risings, depending if they were winning or losing. That’s a lot like the streamers disrupting traditional movie studios, but each city-state still working for its own end and switching sides as needed.

These wars also were bloody, inspiring later theorists to develop the concept of “total war”, when war isn’t just a show of force, but a fight for survival. Like the streaming wars: instead of shedding blood, though, the plan is to shed cash flow.

One Hundred Years War and/or War of the Roses

These two wars were the inspiration for countless fantasy novels, especially one of our “co-winners” of the streaming wars analogue crown. Like the Peloponnesian Wars, two sides squared off for power (first, in France, then in England), with the nobles switching sides and betraying each other whenever needed to stay in power. Still, as much as these previous wars resemble the streaming wars, neither quite captures the scope of conflict. We need a really big war, when the War of the Roses is really squabbling over England’s crown. Not like our next contender.

World War II

Most Americans when they think of wars, they think of World War II.

World War II is America’s favorite war, and Hollywood’s too. Just look at their regular output of Greatest Generation films. The problem for this analogy is that, well, I can’t make either side the Axis. Otherwise they’ll be horrifically offended. 

Not to mention, if this analogy were really true, it would be as if the British turned their guns on the Americans midway through the fighting. Because Disney is squaring off as much against fellow conglomerates AT&T (HBO Max) and Comcast (NBCU/Peacock) as it is Netflix and Amazon. (And those two started the price war in the first place for content.)

Finally, at the end, the Allies won partly because they developed one tremendously destructive weapon. There are no nuclear weapons in the streaming wars. Speaking of which…

Star Wars

This galactic battle was allegedly a “civil war” between two sides—Rebels versus the Empire—that each squared off in decisive battles like a traditional war. Like World War II, though, there isn’t some giant super weapon of streaming which one side or the other can destroy to win the war. I tried to imagine this as “data”, but every streamer has that. 

The best case for Star Wars is that The Force is a mysterious force that rules our lives that no one individual can master, sort of like “creative excellence” is the force that rules Hollywood that no one individual can master.

Runners Up – The Iraq War or Vietnam War

I could make a better case for these insurgencies than the civil wars of old. Where civil wars pit uniformed soldiers against each other, in Iraq, militias faced off against the traditional military against insurgent groups versus terrorists all mixed in with organized crime and genuine political parties. It’s as confusing a web of relationships as my “value web” for entertainment.

What I particularly like, too, is the role of persuasion in this type of war. Insurgencies aren’t just about defeating the enemy in the field, but persuading the population at large to support your side via propaganda, ideology, bribery or threats. Which is how AT&T plans to woe it’s customer base too. I really wanted to make one of these multi-sided insurgencies the winner but…

Again no uniforms! Or even enough cohesion to form coherent battle plans. So we need two other wars to take our crown.

The Winners – The 30 Years War and Game of Thrones

The 30 Years War

Whoa! Went off the “American only” board. Most of my readers don’t know what this war was really about, so let’s just slam off a summary from my AP Euro textbook, A History of the Modern World by R.R. Palmer:

The Thirty Years War…was therefore exceedingly complex. It was a German civil war fought over the Catholic Protestant issue. It was a German civil war fought over constitutional issues, between the [Holy Roman] Emperor striving to build up the central power of the Empire and the member states struggling to maintain independence…It was also an international war, between France and the Habsburgs, between Spain and the Dutch, with the Kings of Denmark and Sweden and the prince of Transylvania becoming involved, and with all these outsiders finding allies within Germany, on whose soil most of the battles were fought. The wars were further complicated by the fact that many of the generals were soldiers of fortune, who aspired to create principalities of their own or refused to to fight to suit their own convenience.

Here’s that paragraph on the streaming wars:

The Streaming Wars were therefore exceedingly complex. It was an entertainment civil war fought over new content distribution models, from streaming to theatrical to cable. It was also an entertainment civil war fought over technology, between new sticks, devices and UX. It was also an industry wide war, between giant tech companies striving to enter entertainment and traditional studios struggling to keep them out. It was also an international war stretching from Sweden to Japan, to Australia to Brazil. It was further complicated by the fact that many of the new entrants were deficit financing their streaming efforts to support other businesses, while all the while clinging to “data” as the raison d’être.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this war in my heart because when it finished, Europe was never the same. Arguably, the Peace of Westphalia established the modern conception of the nation-state. When the streaming wars finish, we’ll have new entertainment nation states ruling our lives. That connection was enough to make this our winner, but there are even better reasons.

This war had it all,. Like a traditional war, there were two sides, the Catholics versus the Protestants, which connects to our “entertainment” versus “tech” narrative. Like the Peloponnesian or Hundred Years war, there were also tons of city-states in the German heartland, like our various streamers, FASTs, vMVPDS and more. Plus there were giant empires funding the fighting on each side, the way Apple, Google and Amazon are funding their streamers. Plus, each side was trying to convince local populations to support their side, so you have influence campaigns like the Iraq or Vietnam insurgencies. The Thirty Years War lasted so long and covered so much territory, it fits almost any analogy.

Finally, if you factor in the size of the population at the time, this may have been the most destructive war in European history in terms of casualties. (Over 8 million by some estimates.) Bet you didn’t know that. 

If we could take a lesson, the bloodshed only ended via diplomacy. In entertainment, this means a tacit agreement to collude on price setting, as has happened in entertainment since the golden age of studios, the golden age of broadcasting, the golden age of cable and someday the golden age of streaming. Just wait.

Game of Thrones

This analogy was written perfectly by Dylan Byers in his must read piece here. Game of Thrones captures the nuances and destructiveness of the Thirty Years War in fictional form. (Even though George RR Martins says he based his epic series on the War of the Roses, the Thirty Years War fits better.)