The most important thing in this time of crisis is to focus on staying healthy and being good citizens. So don’t hoard food, avoid public gatherings, and try to donate blood.
Still, the economic consequences will quickly become as real as the pandemic ones. This is really what we pay CEOs for; not how you govern in times of booming stock prices, but times of crisis.
For the next few weeks, since Coronavirus will dominate the news coverage, it will dominate this column too. I plan to run through how all the parts of the traditional and digital video value chain could be impacted.
Emphasis on the “could”, because in times of crisis there is a lot more we don’t know then do.
Most Important Story of the Week – Hollywood Pauses Production; Theaters Begin to Close
In my last weekly column, I speculated that the Coronavirus Pandemic had finally reached the “economic consequences” stage. Arguably, I was too late to make this warning very useful. But if any doubters remained, last weekend cinched it. Every big film moved out of the Q2 time period and nearly every major sporting event was cancelled. This week—I’m dating this for the 13th of March, but posting on the 17th—most major theater chains have closed.
Still, I hedged. Especially about predicting what would happen to entertainment companies.
Indeed, I tried to commit to the position that I wasn’t going to forecast the future. Why? Well, it’s impossible.
Which hasn’t stopped folks of course. Within the swarm of actual news came the opinions you’d expect, usually verging on the apocalyptic. “This is the death of theaters” being a typical example.
How do movie studios banking on theatrical releases handle that uncertainty? Well, they have quite a few strategic options. Given that theaters are the most visible part of the video value chain, we’ll start this mini-series there.
Before that, though, a rant…
Probabilistic Scenarios vs Narratives
The biggest “narrative” impacting actual stock prices goes like this…
…the impending quarantine will leave Americans (and the globe) stuck at home.
…Americans (and the globe) like Netflix.
…Therefore, they will binge a lot of Netflix.
…So Netflix wins the coronavirus sweepstakes.
Like most things “Netflix” when it comes to the narratives the only thing larger than the impact of the narrative is the stridency of the belief. Once the “Quarantine and chill” narrative started, it quickly went from “hypothesis’ to “thesis” to “inevitable outcome”.
But consider this: if all the studios have to freeze productions, and Netflix is a studio, then they will have to freeze productions. While that could definitely help Netflix’s near term cash flow, it also would kill the new content used to bring in new customers. Speaking of cash flow, if credit markets freeze up, then getting new high yield debt could be tricky.
Or consider this. With the impending budget cuts, cable MVPDs may aggressively cut prices to keep customers around in a pandemic-cause recession. They know folks are stuck at home; don’t let the recession kill your business.
Or this. Free, ad-supported streaming TV service (FASTs) may actually take up viewing. They have the same volume as Netflix for a better price: free. Or Twitch. Or Youtube. Both free too.
Which one of those scenarios will happen? I don’t know. Maybe all of them. Or none of them. We’ll need to set up good metrics to measure the signal of what’s actually happening with customers, not the noise of social media.
Which is my point. While narratives feel good, they don’t tend to make good strategy, since they tend to reinforce stereotypes and biases instead of generate insights and understanding. We need a more systematic approach. Which is what I’ll try to provide. (And I’ll get to Netflix in the streaming article.)
My Tools for Understanding Coronavirus Impacts
To try to think about Coronavirus strategically, I ended up pulling out three tools that I’ll use together.
– Supply, demand, and employment: The impacts of the coranavirus are unique in that they impact both supply and demand, making this a unique crisis.
– What we know; what we don’t: In times of crisis, it’s often good to separate what you know from what you don’t and what you believe from what you assume. Otherwise, you’re likely just building a narrative that reinforces existing and preconceived biases.
– What could change permanently versus what is temporary. This ties back to my “question of the year” I speculated before we started. The question was, “With streaming, what is the same and what is different?” This same question applies to the Coronavirus: what is a temporary change in circumstances, and what could lead to a permanent change in how we consume content and entertain ourselves?
Along the way, I’ll try to call out the biggest narratives I see emerging and I’ll conclude with my tentative strategic recommendations. These are the strategies I’d pitch to CEOs if I worked at a theater or a film studio.
Theatrical Film Going – The Narratives
Theaters hold a special place in the entertainment industry’s heart. For as much as it is being displaced by streaming it still has that “je ne sais quoi” embodied by the Oscars every year. That experience of going to a theater to see a film with a bunch of strangers on opening weekend. And for my money, big budget epics just look better on the big screen.
But how will the industry fare in the Covid-19 times?
I’ve seen a few narratives. Most prominently, is the “This is the death of theaters” theory. Theaters had merged for several years, then spent significantly to upgrade the experience (better seats; alcohol). Meanwhile, theaters have always been a low margin business even in the best of times. While those are true facts financially, the narrative piece seems to be the prediction that somehow customers will turn against theaters as an experience.
Will being stuck inside for 8 weeks really prove to Americans how little they enjoyed going to theaters in the first place?
Let’s dig in.
What we know: Supply gets hit in two ways. First, theaters themselves are now closed in Los Angeles and New York. This will likely spread to other states and cities. Obviously, if folks can’t go to theaters, they can’t see films in those theaters. As of this writing, most major chains have gone dark and most films scheduled for Q2 have been postponed or moved to VOD.
As for release calendars, we know that studios are now getting creative. Some films have moved back to later in the year, some to 2020, some up to VOD and some indefinitely. As a result, we can say that the end of 2020 and start of 2021 will likely be fairly crowded release calendars.
What we don’t know: How long theaters will have to stay closed. As of two weeks ago, it looked like April was gone. Then last week, most would have predicted though the end of May. Now June and July and beyond are on the table. But this crisis is moving quickly, so if by the end of April cases start declining, who knows? Maybe June is available.
The bigger unknown is what happens to the release window now. While Universal has “broken” the theatrical window with Trolls and The Hunt, they have a pretty damn good explanation: theaters are literally shuttered. It’s not breaking a window that doesn’t exist. Some studio chiefs likely would like to experiment with smaller theatrical windows like NBC, while others, especially Disney, like things the way they are. I personally wouldn’t be confident predicting the future of the window in either direction.
As for release calendars, even these are pretty unknown. A few weeks back Richard Rushfield wondered aloud if any big budget films would venture to streaming. There are big financial differences between VOD—which has great unit ecnomics—and straight-to-streaming, which doesn’t. But more than anything none of these moves sets a precedence.
Meanwhile, studios will be desperate to get films in theaters. Especially blockbusters. Studios make roughly $5 billion from domestic releases alone. You can’t remove $5 billion and expect the same level of production. Globally tosses in another $15-20 billion. And remember, the economics are much better in theaters than even VOD.
What we know: Honestly? That folks like going to big budget movies. But we also know that America is afraid and as a result no one is going to the theaters.
What we don’t: How folks will feel about movies in the future. This is a classic narrative you can build to support both sides. Maybe the Coronavirus creates a new normal where Americans decide to permanently live sheltered in their homes. Streaming satisfies all their filmgoing needs.
Or maybe after a two month quarantine, stir crazy Americans flood back into theaters to escape their home. Maybe the theater experience really does have something to it. (Most theater attendees have Netflix right now!) That feels more likely to me. But when and how and if this can happen we don’t know. And how theater attendance fares in a potential extended slump is another unknown.
Meanwhile, if theaters do go bankrupt in the quarantine, the impact on demand could be felt in the death of super hero films. Frankly, without home entertainment and theatrical releases powering billion dollar grosses, major studios will have to cut special effects driven films. What type of content will replace those films, if anything? Will folks miss super hero content when the next round of streaming series don’t have quite the same budgets?
What we know: Well, theaters employ lots and lots of people. From staff taking tickets to contractors cleaning the theaters. If there are no show times, there are no jobs to be had. And unlike sports teams which could choose to keep salaries going for the foreseeable future, theaters run much tighter margins.
What we don’t know: What happens to these workers in an extended slowdown.
My strategic recommendations
Since I started writing this column last Friday, things have already changed. The headline of headlines being that Universal broke the theatrical window.
1. Get creative. The Troll World Tour move to VOD makes a lot of sense. (I’m honestly surprised the price isn’t higher.) I’d recommend this for lots of films that are in this window; triage for what can go to theaters later, what can go to streaming now, and then theaters later and what will go to VOD never to emerge.
2. Be prepared for a “summer snap back”. If the virus is under control, I think August could shatter records as folks desperate for distraction seek entertainment out doors. This requires a lot of things going right, but seems on the table.
3. Assume a government intervention. Or reach out directly. Part of the reason I don’t think the window is irrevocably broken is that thousands of theaters going out of business would put tens of thousands of folks out of work, which would exacerbate the impending recession. If you can get a bail out for lost blockbuster revenue, VOD seems more attractive.
Well that was the big story, but some other new stories were there too.
Netflix Biz Model Keeps Evolving
First, Netflix ended 30 day free trials in Australia. If I had to speculate? Well, churn is the name of the game. Second, Netflix is expanding their very cheap $3 plan to new territories. If I had to speculate? Subscribers are the name of the game.
Pixar’s Onward Stumble
If I’d gotten this column out on time last week, I would have noted the soft weekend opening of Onward. The most obvious explanation? It was Covid-19 worries. But the film felt like it had soft buzz even before it came out. Why is this big news? Well, I’m monitoring Disney Animation/Pixar for the first sign of stumble post-Lasseter exit and that was Onward. One is a data point, so we’ll look to Soul for a trend.
Fox Sports Brings Back Written Content
The “pivot to video” may be the worst strategic decision universally adopted by media since the dawn of the internet. And no surprise Fox has slowly reversed itself. Now if only ESPN would make their website more functional to read their great writers.