After a few weeks without a lot of news, we finally got a week with some stories to sink our teeth into. But how to choose? The late breaking story that Disney is ending it’s Disney Channel in the UK is a pretty big deal, but then what about Microsoft ceding the livestreaming battleground to Twitch? Or a whole set of TV series moving from traditional TV to streamers. Surely I could oversell the narrative that this is the end of TV?
When in doubt, ballpark the financial size of each story and compare them. Sure, Mixer is a big deal, but how much is Microsoft really spending on that per year? A couple hundred million? We know Twitch is only earning $300-500 million per year in revenue, and Mixer is multiples smaller. What about the TV shows? Well, assuming $3-5 million per episode, we’re still talking max about $100 million in costs. Even the UK Disney channels aren’t worth that much considering they have about 15 million subscribers in the UK
What does that leave us with? The potential end of theatrical filmgoing as we know it. Given that’s a $10-12 billion dollar industry in the United States alone, it’s our story of the week.
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Most Important Story of the Week – How Uno and Blockbusters Explain Why Spongebob is Skipping Theaters
The latest studio to take an animated film destined for theaters straight to video-on-demand is Paramount. And in the all too common twist, it will then transition to their streaming service, CBS All-Access. On the one hand, this is another potential tentpole abandoning 2020 for greener digital pastures. Surely, Entertainment Strategy Guy, if anything portends the death of theatrical films, it’s Spongebob too leaving theaters.
I’m still less pessimistic on theaters surviving. And I write this as cases are noticeably ticking upwards in the US and deaths (my preferred metric) remain plateaued. I’d explain this latest move as less of a portend of the future disruption of all theaters then as the logical extension of coronavirus keeping theaters shut.
Let’s explain that.
(After this column was written, news that Tenet had moved back an additional two weeks broke, which only reinforces the point of this column. You’ll see.)
Two Ideas. First, blockbuster strategy.
The big trend in feature films over the last four decades has been the move towards larger and larger blockbusters, and the hollowing out of the “middle-class” of films. The mid-tier, if you will. The magnum opus on this trend is Anita Elberse’s book, but everyone has written something about it. I wrote about mid-tier films in a column back in February, and one of my first deep dives explains the economics of blockbusters.
But there’s a related concept that is key to understanding this pressure. As more blockbusters have come to theaters, the number of weekends a film has “to itself” has shrunk. Which makes it even more important for a blockbuster to win the opening weekend. In some cases, the goal is to make most of your money on this opening weekend.
Second Idea: Uno Strategy
The second idea I’ve been tossing around is what I’ve decided to call Uno strategy. For those not familiar with the card game, you deal out cards, then toss them on the pile to match the color or number of the recently tossed out card.
The game doesn’t have a whole lot of strategy to it. Most of the time you can only play one or two cards, so it’s not like you have a whole lot of choice. If it’s a “blue 8”, and I only have a “red 8” and the rest are green or yellow, I’m playing that blue 8.
A lot of business strategy–for all our high-minded discussion of it–is usually obvious moves like this. Here’s an example for Disney+. Despite this article I wrote for them, if pushed there is really one move that would have the biggest impact on their year: finish Falcon and Winter Soldier and trust that Kevin Feige will make it great. That’s not innovative advice, but the obvious “Uno strategy” move.
So let’s apply these two ideas.
It seems clear to me that theaters will reopen soon. In some fashion. The current rise in cases delayed the July time frame, but at some point theaters will reopen. Especially if deaths don’t rise at the same rate as past outbreaks. I see calls on Twitter to cancel all theaters until a vaccine is developed, but frankly I doubt that happens. I think the theater going experience can actually be safer than a lot of other activities, especially with a few appropriate precautions.
(It’s unlikely to happen, but the current cases are definitely skewing younger. The converse is that hospitalizations have increased, but not as quickly as the first few montsh. Meanwhile, some treatments are emerging, including better diagnosis of severe cases and some moderate therapeutics. Meanwhile, better knowledge about the threat to institutional facilities like nursing homes and retirement communities has helped protect the most vulnerable. But this isn’t a Covid-19 column.)
Moreover, these trends have us headed directly for the “median case” I had forecast back in April. My best case was films releasing by July 4th and my median case was August for releases. Still, July is gone, which has implications.
Implication One: A Limited Number of Weekends Cause the Cascade
The biggest impact of Covid-19 has been to compress the back half off the release calendar. Nearly every week will have a blockbuster vying to win that weekend. Just doing the simple math, if theaters had reopened in the beginning of July, that’s 26 weekends left in the year. Meaning 26 potential blockbuster releases. If that moves to August first, that’s four more weekends gone. 22 movies for those slots.
We were already in one of the most condensed calendars for a second half of a movie year.
Every weekend lost just makes it tighter.
In comes Uno strategy. The studios know where their films fit on the hierarchy of potential blockbusters. Spongebob is much smaller than Top Gun 2. Or Mulan. Or Tenet. Or A Quiet Place Part II. Hence, as the number of weekends to win shrinks, it gets pushed around the most.
Implication Two: Release or Delay?
In a way, this where the decision-making for each executive comes in. Once your film is bumped, you could move it back in the calendar, or accept that the production costs are in a lot of ways sunk. Same for a lot of the marketing costs. And since a lot of films for 2021 are already in some state of production, you can keep delaying your 2021 slate–which would cost money–or you can get what you can.
But this is where blockbuster strategy comes in. It’s not like Spongebob is “as blockbuster-y” as Mulan. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of the “straight to VOD” films are kids films. A true blockbuster is a “four quadrant film”, meaning old, young, men and women. (Yes, crude, but that’s still how studio’s look at it.) Is Spongebob four quadrants? Absolutely not. No couples are going to it for date night. Same with Trolls: World Tour.
The one strange caveat to me is the timing. Spongebob won’t hit VOD until 2021, with a premiere on CBS All-Access later that year. In this case, the studios also have the added incentive that theatrical films on streaming are going to have their biggest “bang for the buck” when streaming services are small. Hence Disney seeing huge value for putting Hamilton and Artemis Fowl on Disney+ right away.
So does the latest move mean the end of theaters? No.
Theaters will have a downright awful year. And AMC Theaters has a lot of debt that will hurt their growth prospects in the near term. But the current moves are tweaks to the schedule, not major disruptions. The biggest sign is that even though Warner Bros keeps moving back Tenet two weeks at a time, they aren’t moving it all the way to December.
(Fun bonus: Steven Spielberg is crushing the box office, which is mostly drive-in theaters. The shame is that theaters should open cautiously with more of this library fare, but they are waiting for the blockbusters.)
Entertainment Strategy Guy Update – Microsoft Shutters Mixer
I’ve never written about Microsoft’s Mixer before this, and won’t after, but I have written about livestreaming before.
Before we get to Mixer specifically, let’s start with understanding the livestreaming landscape. And correcting the most common misunderstandings I see. Take this chart from Evolution Media Capital (a good newsletter subscription by the way):
Now, your eye is drawn to the shiny object of the growth during coronavirus. But remember my magician analogy from last week. Or the Kansas City Shuffle from Lucky Number Slevin. While everyone is looking at the shiny object, the con man/magician is doing the real work where you can’t see.
My eye ignores the shiny growth and looks at the numbers preceding it. From December 2018 to December 2019, Twitch saw year-over-year growth of…1.7%!
Honestly, what unicorn has 1% growth?
Sure, the lockdown has been great for live-streaming. But in the future we’re going to call this time the “ Asterisk Extraordinaire” in every chart or graph. Meaning, things will return back to normal-ish and any analysis will have to caveat these last four months. My guess is Twitch sees a big decline in the fall when schools reopen, but not as far down as they were. In other words, they brought forward say 2-3 years of real growth due to lockdown.
Meanwhile, note too that Twitch also tends to be compared only to other gaming sites. This chart is specifically comparing all of Twitch to only Youtube Gaming. When I’m watching a live stream of an EDM show on Youtube, that doesn’t make it in this data set. Which is why I remain tentatively bullish on Youtube on livestreams long term. If the biggest network wins, they have it (and the ability to save videos forever).
Which brings us to Mixer, the story another M-FAANG practicing “innovation”, which in today’s context means shamelessly copying other business models in search of another way to spend down their huge pile of cash. (Except Netflix, which doesn’t have the free cash flow.) Meanwhile, it turns out paying for high profile talent doesn’t matter if your video service is more of a network with demand-side increased returns (see my article for an explanation) than a true channel.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
Let’s run through some smaller stories that caught my interest.
Streamers Grab a Lot of Content
It’s hard not to see a story in the stream of news that happened in rapid succession this week…
These moves are notable, for sure, but at least two are from dead or dying platforms (AT&T and Youtube Originals). Even Y: The Last Man is more notable for being stuck in development hell for ever than anything else. The point is that streamers will continue rescuing sub-par projects in the near term.
As I said in the introduction, this is a big move to get rid of a cable channel, but it’s not as big as the United States. Whereas Pay-TV has pretty widespread adoption in the US, in the UK the Disney Channel was only on Sky and Virgin, which amounted to about 15 million households. Given that Sky also offers–from what I understand–Disney+ access, this move makes a bit more sense.
(Side story for Disney+ that could be a bigger deal: Apparently customers do in fact love it. My caveat with any brand survey like this is that I think they’re fairly noisy. When you read past the headlines, you see that Disney+ has a rating of 80, and Netflix has a rating of 78. And Prime Video is a 76. Does that seem within the “margin of error” for a survey like this? Absolutely. So the most accurate conclusion is Disney+ has matched Netflix.)
Charter Seeks to Charge Net Non-Neutrality Fees to Video Streamers
Charter is calling these “interconnectivity fees” but I like “Non-Net Neutrality” fees better. A lot of folks are worried about this move, but I’m a pinch more sanguine. Who occupies the White House next January will have a lot more to say about the future of net neutrality.
The Netflix Effect Again
Netflix’s global top ten lists have been a welcome oasis of data in a desert of silence. I wish I were tracking them by country daily, but I don’t have the time, and others like Flix Patrol are on it.
For those who do have time to track, some interesting tidbits are emerging, like Josef Adalian spotting the latest “Netflix Effect”. The “Netflix Effect”–which I think Kasey Moore of Whats-On-Netflix has coined, or at least pointed out a bunch–is that when a show goes global on Netflix it gets a renewed boost in popularity. Adalian pointed this out for Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has trended in Netflix’s top ten since it premiered. Moore pointed this out using IMDb data for Community.
The only small amount of cold water I can splash on this–and this is like tapping water in the bathtub, not a cannonball into the deep end amount of splashing–is that I’m still wondering if some of the ability for Space Force, Avatar or Community to stay on Netflix’s top ten list isn’t a function of the fact that their content quality is decaying somewhat with the coronavirus. I don’t have the data yet to prove this, but my thesis is that Netflix has slowed the pace of US original releases globally, but haven’t admitted it yet. To be seen.
Data(s) of the Week
HBO Max Had 1.6 million Downloads over First Two Weeks – Sensor Tower
This data is the best corrective I saw to the narrative that HBO Max *only* had 90,000 downloads on day 1. Sure, that was probably accurate, but they also had months to add customers. And they indeed still bested previous HBO Now download records.
Prime Video Leads on Most High Quality TV Shows – Reel Good
Reelgood has a simple yet effective way to measure quality for streaming services, by just tracking which services have which number of films and series with a given IMDb rating. This method is fairly simple, but sometimes simple is pretty accurate. I’ll admit, Prime Video did better than I would have guessed on high quality movies, with the caveat that they still have the most “things” in general, which means a clunky interface problem. (And in full disclosure, Reel Good PR folks reached out to me to point out this article.)
M&A Updates – It’s as Down as You Thought It Was
If you’re right for the wrong reasons, to be clear, it doesn’t count. So I’m not taking a victory lap over my series from two years ago–wow is that date right? Two years?–where I predicted that M&A wasn’t accelerating in media and entertainment, but progressing at the same rate if not slower. (Read the whole series here, for the introduction, or here, for the conclusion.)
As I just wrote, coronavirus is the big “Asterisk Extraordinaire” for the future. Every time series graph will have a giant asterisk for this time period saying, “And then covid-19 happened.” Meaning the lessons we draw will be less confident, because coronavirus is the categorical variable that will screw up our models.
Same for mergers and acquisitions. We’ll go back to normal eventually, which means mergers and acquisitions will continue as they have for the last two decades.