Category: Covid-19 Impacts

Coronavirus Impact on Entertainment – Film and TV Production

Over the last few articles, I’ve avoided the “C word”. Not that one, the Covid-19/Coronavirus words. If some of you are like me, you both devour coronavirus content, but sometimes find yourself sick of reading any more of it. (Every so often I just delete all my news podcasts that mention Covid-19 or the economic impacts. I need a break.)

I’ve been trying to strike the right balance between ensuring we cover one of the most important events of American history, but also focusing on all the other stories as well. Since my column last week was mostly non-Covid-19, let’s pull out the crystal ball to ask: how will the coronavirus impact the production of filmed entertainment?

Before we get any further, you can read my two previous analyses of the future of entertainment in a post-Covid-19 world.

The Entertainment Recession
Feature Films and Coronavirus
Pay TV

Compared to many analysts, I’m very uncertain about the future. If I could predict the future accurately, I wouldn’t be writing articles. I’d be trading stocks. (Read my first article to understand my methodology and approach.)

Still, we can sketch out some details and try to separate some overreactions from the proper reactions. And since we don’t have clean “demand vs supply” issues the way other parts of the value chain have, forecasting production changes should be a bit easier. (Customers are usually the problem in forecasts.) I’ll break out my analysis into two time frames, long and short term for how Coronavirus could impact production.

(By the way, I use “Hollywood” as a stand in for all global film production in this article.)

Long Term – Somewhere Between Two Extremes

Given my uncertainty, I’ll review all the scenarios using the good old Hegelian method. I’ll explore both extremes and try to guess where the middle of “the impact on production” could land.

Thesis – Coronavirus will make “Youtube-style” the norm.

I’ve seen a narrative that since Covid-19 has enforced universal lockdowns, this somehow represents the triumph of self-produced content. In the future, we won’t need fancy set ups and teams of people to produce content. It turns out that a celebrity sitting in their home can put out a content in HD that looks pretty damn good.

Call this the “triumph of Youtube/Twitch” narrative. (Yes, I loathe narratives.)

In some cases, constraints become the style. With lots of folks watching vlogs and Youtube videos from home, and everyone staring at Zoom cameras, people are used to this style. It permeates the culture.

We’ve already this style invade traditional broadcasting. The broadcasters have mostly embraced the Youtube style for live shows. Disney’s Sing-a-longs in particular had fairly strong production quality, all from at home. Same for Saturday Night Live at Home editions. And Hollywood Game Night’s special worked really well for a remote production.

Expand this view to Instagram/Snap Chat/Tik Tok influences on video, and you could argue there is no future for traditional Hollywood-style production.

I’d emphasize why “filmed from home” productions look so good. While I’ve used the term “Youtube style”, the distribution method has nothing to do with it. Instead, the reason why filming from home looks so good is because cameras have gotten so, so, so much better than even ten years ago. Or more precisely, they’ve gotten much much smaller. 

 

This was fueled by the push to have phones on everyone’s cameras and the push to shrink the technology down. In turn, Go-Pro made fantastic cameras that are also incredibly small. And surprisingly easy to use in production. Like an actual camera. Or to mount in different places. As a result, professional cameras have also gotten cheaper and cheaper to rent or buy.

Combined with increasingly powerful home computers, anyone can shoot, edit and produce their own TV shows or films from their own home. Even do post-production work in many cases.

So that’s that. Everyone can shoot from home and it will look great.  

Antithesis – At home productions still have some key flaws.

How can you tell a production is cheaply made nowadays? Well, the sound is no good. 

For all the advances in video recording, the advances in audio have been much slower. As a result, poorly made student films tend to have bad audio, but can still look fantastic.

Some of the at home productions have solved this, but a few have run into issues. (The musical ones have also likely featured a lot of recording at home separately from the video with high quality equipment. It is fairly easy to do audio recording—ADR—at home with the right investment in equipment.) 

Lighting is another issue. Properly lit films are hard to do well, but make a genuine difference to the final quality. And folks can tell. Make-up is another hurdle. Folks just aren’t great at putting on “TV make up” and that shows up every so often.

Finally, and obviously, the limitations on the number of people in one place has been stark. And no one has loved that experience. It’s still really hard to overcome issues of lag, which are functions as much from computing power as they are functions of raw physics, in some cases. So while everyone is making it work, it just works even better if two people are in a room talking to each other. Or even better a whole group of people.

It also helps to have a team of people behind the camera too. Even with the advances of camera technology, having someone behind the camera to dynamically move it just looks better. That’s why productions in many cases have stubbornly held on to teams and teams of people. Reality shows taught everyone two decades ago that you could make a show with a limited crew of a producer and some cameras. Same for independent productions that have made it by on shoestring budgets for years.

So why do armies of people still exist? Because in most cases they add value. The grips get better lighting and the sound folks record better audio. Add a camera man to free up the director. Then an AD to balance the demands of the lighting and camera. Then add another AD to organize it all. Plus makeup, costumes, sets, props, special effects, actors, craft services. And producers to you know “produce”. Suddenly, you have an army of people. 

So that’s that. Eventually traditional production will return.

Synthesis – The Longest Term Impact is Somewhere in Between

Likely, the future is somewhere in between. Which is the “aggressively moderate” take on it.

When studios can get people back together in the same room, they will. That’s a no-brainer. If studios decided years ago that they preferred smaller teams, they could have made it happen. Guerrilla filmmaking or independent filmmaking isn’t new. Again, reality TV has been making very cheap shows for two decades now for cable in particular.

Contrariwise, Hollywood can see change but not embrace it. Until it is forced to. (Example: streaming.) Will coronavirus cause a complete rethink for how many folks are really needed on set to make a TV show?

In the long term, maybe. Hollywood—and Bollywood, Nollywood, Hong Kong, European and anywhere that makes movies—production isn’t monolithic even now. My gut is this will further expand the divide between huge blockbuster productions—super hero, sci fi and fantasy films and TV series—and everything else. If dramas can be made with less people, they probably will be. Meanwhile, most reality production is probably about as cheap as it can go.

In most cases when production can go back to what it was before, it will. Broadcast multi-cam sitcoms will go back to multi-cam and single-cam will stay single-cam. All the folks making their own shows from home will continue to do so. And when it’s safe to go outside, the low-budget productions of the world will return too. And the blockbusters will be blockbusters. Some folks may try to innovate on the margins, but it’s uncertain if they’ll succeed.

Short Term Impacts on Production – Definitely Smaller Productions in the next 3-9 months

That’s the higher level impact, in the near term there will be some inescapable impacts on productions, whenever they get the green light. You’ve probably read about these impacts, here’s my take on who will benefit.

– Less shooting on location, which is good for production hubs. I don’t think talent will want to travel for fear of airplanes. While I mostly think worries about travel will be overcome quicker than folks expect, in this case, an over-abundance of caution will limit travel. (For instance, traveling on an airplane is actually a low likelihood of transmission.) This will be good for Los Angeles and New York in the short term, assuming demand returns. Potentially Montreal as well, but likely not as much for New Orleans, Georgia or eastern Europe.

– More shooting in soundstage and controlled environments, which is good for studios. If you’re not traveling, and worried about moving around, studio lots provide a controlled environment with centralized testing. While this is generally good for the studios, owning a studio lot isn’t a cash cow business anyways.

– Limited number of people on set, which is bad for support staff. Given the demands for testing everyone on a production, studios will likely limit the number of people to keep headcount down. This should limit costs slightly. (And studio execs/producers won’t be allowed to just hang out on set as much.)

– Fewer shows in front of live studio audience, which is bad for the vibe. Which you know if you watch any late night show. But shooting in front of live audiences will follow the reopening of live events. I’m more bullish on theaters, but could see studios being more risk averse than theaters. 

Bottom Line: So When Are TV Shows Coming Back? 

The question is how long these changes last. I’m more bullish in the upside case then most, but if you expect lockdowns to last for 18 months—which would ensure a depression as deep as the 1930s—then that’s how long they will last. However, like lots of things as people get used to opening up, as long as new outbreaks don’t flare up, they restrictions will gradually decrease. 

Again, this is just my read on the situation, given the huge amount of uncertainty. And studios/productions will keep innovating under restrictions to get as much done as possible.

Will this hurt content output? It’s tough to say for sure. 

Given how many different countries and how many different time frames for when lockdowns could be lifted, it’s tough to know when the slow down will end. (Everything being shut down is definitely delaying shows being made in America.) Meanwhile, other countries are figuring out how to restart production, which will encourage others to start back up.

Most Important Story of the Week – 20 March 20: Coronavirus and Pay/Linear TV…Boom or Bust?

You can tell we’ve hit peak coronavirus coverage when you see the headline “Did Disney predict the virus?” Because the film Tangled features a “quarantined” character in a town called “Corona”. Yep.

In more serious coverage, the predictions that coronavirus is “no big deal” have shifted to “we’ll be in lock down for 9 months” and folks are as confident as ever. Meanwhile, everyone is quite confident in all their predictions. 

I’m not. So my public service is to try to separate what we know from what we don’t in the entertainment business in the age of Covid-19.

Most Important Story of the Week – Linear/Pay TV…Boom or Bust?

In case you missed it last week, I picked a few tools to use to try to figure out how the coronavirus is impacting various parts of the video value chain. Including:

– Ignoring Narratives vs building out scenarios
– Demand, Supply and Employment
– What we know vs what we don’t
– And “what will change” and “what will stay the same”.

If you want a good example of how narratives can take us in the age of Coronavirus, consider Pay TV. This could simultaneously be the end of Pay TV as we know it or a boom time for live TV.

Narratives

Let’s start with the most extreme narrative: This is the death of Pay TV. Lest you assume this is the type of hyperbole only left for social media, here’s a Bloomberg headline with itScreen Shot 2020-03-22 at 3.12.58 PM.png

Note the question mark, but this still captures the feeling. The narrative goes: as consumers cut spending due to the impending recession, it will hasten cord cutting. In short, less folks will subscribe to traditional linear TV bundles than before. 

Of course, this trend was going on before the Coronavirus pandemic came to American shores. So will a widespread “quarantine” and consequent recession accelerate, decelerate or not impact the rate of various cord trimmings? What do we know and not? What are we guessing and what are we confidently estimating?

Demand

TV content falls into five rough categories: Scripted. Reality. Sports. Kids. News. I’m not breaking new ground, but that’s how I’ve always thought about it. So how does coronavirus impact demand for those five areas? 

Well, it may cause demand to go up for the first three categories, scripted, kids and reality TV. There is some evidence to support the idea that folks stuck inside turn to more TV consumption to pass the time. This includes films and peak TV series and cheesy reality shows. It will all benefit. So the first few categories should benefit from quarantine.

Given that this is a natural response to be stuck indoors, this is where the “death of pay TV” thesis starts to look shaky for me. Or at least contradictory to the other big narrative “quarantine and chill”. Especially when many folks predict both narratives simulaneously. For both theories to be true requires folks to “watch more streaming” but simultaneously “watch less linear TV”. From a strictly demand perspective, it’s unclear how linear TV doesn’t benefit from increased consumption as much as streaming. In fact, the initial data says both streaming and linear TV are both up.

Notably, it’s not up as much as you’d expect. A healthy chunk of people are still working, just from home. Another chunk have likely added other distractions or hobbies to the mix. But overall TV viewing is up, along with streaming viewing. Demand-wise, they’ve both benefited in the short term. 

Will it last? I doubt it. This doesn’t feel like a permanent viewing behavior shift to me; simply a function of not being allowed to go outside one’s home. Same with kids content: if you force a bunch of kids to skip school, parents will have them watch more TV, especially if the park is closed. When folks go back to work and kids go back to school, it feels more likely that demand returns to normal, not some permanent shift.

Arguably, if supply constraints weren’t present, we’d see a ton of demand of the fourth category too. If sports were available (see supply), that’d be a huge amount of viewing right now. A “not cancelled” March Madness would have shattered records if they could have held it with all 300 million Americans stuck at home. In other words, demand for sports hasn’t abated, just been shifted to other topics. (And meanwhile, most streaming doesn’t have sports programming.) As it is, sports channels have seen ratings plummet:

(My big curiosity? Does some of the sports/demand for competition get shifted to pseudo-competition series as in reality game shows? Top Chef is coming back to the air. Survivor is in mid-season. Even MTV’s The Challenge is coming back in April. Maybe they grab some of that demand for competitive sports.)

As for news? Well, this is the big area that streamers just can’t compete. (For now.) If you want to hear the latest Los Angeles or New York City public announcement on Covid-19, you have to turn to a local station. Frankly, a cable subscription is the easiest way to do that. And the initial data suggests that folks are indeed watching more news content than before. (And I’d expect this too to revert back to “normal” after Coronavirus worries subside.)

Add it up? Well, on the demand side there seems to be plenty in favor of linear TV in “raw demand” terms. Obviously, though, actual sales are a function of price compared to demand. Does a pending recession obliviate pay TV?

Maybe. A recession crunches wallets, which in turn forces high priced luxuries to go by the way side. “High priced luxury” is a pretty good description of cable TV at this point compared to other digital options. So will folks continue to pay outrageously high cable and satellite bills as they get laid off? Maybe. Especially with the proliferation of other options. We know cord cutting is coming. The statistics back that up.

But to make this prediction implies a pretty substantial prediction about the impending recession. And how deep it will be. And whether the cable companies offer cheaper bundles in lieu of losing subscribers or stick to the current business model. In other words, a host of variables (that few folks can predict). 

(Not to mention cord cutting is a misnomer as many more folks “cord shift” or “cord shave”. Turns out cord trimming is complicated.)

I’d flag all this as a big “we don’t know.”  If the recession continues through the end of the year, absolutely that could accelerate cord cutting, though it may be taken up by cord shifting. If the recession is short? Well, the desire to keep things the same may not have the same impact.

Supply

Again, with coronavirus, the pandemic is unique in that it can wallop both demand and supply. 

Coronavirus started by hammering the TV production industry. If groups of more than 10 people can’t get together, well you can’t make a TV show. Period. Right now, nearly every television production is on hold.

The question is how this plays out over the next few months. An extended shut down means that TV will mostly go to reruns or shows—like many reality shows—that were mostly already recorded. However, by June, if production hasn’t resumed on some basis—I imagine at least reduced staffing for the foreseeable future—than linear channels may run out of content.

How long does this last? Well, I’ve seen predictions from 6 weeks to 9 months of shut down. That’s a huge range.

Moreover, it violates the most common mistake in economic forecasting, which is that actors adapt to their surroundings. Productions are shut down because they can’t film in groups of more than 10. But at a certain point, you’d have to imagine that studios and production companies will get creative with how they shoot TV shows or ask for exemptions. Or figure out ways to screen employees. Yes, it may be a while before things are back to “normal”, but shows could return faster than you think. 

I’d apply this to the other big supply constraint, the lack of live sports. Honestly, sports could have the quickest rebound of all TV content. Yes, while it’s unlikely that 10,000 people will get together to watch a game in the next couple of months, to film a basketball game all you need is 12 players on each side, two coaches and the referees. And camera crews. Yes, that’s a lot of people, but way less than 10,000. Could the NBA ask for exemptions with strong testing to get games in front of folks? I imagine so.

Will they? Will TV productions get creative? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is one other huge supply constraint that is honestly the biggest threat to linear TV, and it’s usually the area that soothsayers predicting the demise of Pay TV ignore: advertising. If a recession comes in and comes hard, one of the first areas every business cuts is the promotion and advertising budgets. This could hurt everyone from social media to Google to linear TV.

Yet, linear TV also has all those eyeballs and an election on the way. Still, its the biggest “supply” constraint to watch for TV. How do linear advertising payments shift? I don’t know which way it will go, but it will likely have the biggest impact on the future of this industry.

Employment

In some ways, linear TV will have less employment impacts than theaters. Theaters have a mass of low wage employees out there every day. Networks have a lots of people, but not like that. 

Still, the economic impact on the below-the-line workers will likely have the biggest impact. They are the economically most vulnerable and will stay so in a recession.

I’d add: I can see remote productions have even more trouble in the future, which could help Hollywood. If actors don’t feel like boarding airplanes for film/TV shoots, the natural location is old-fashioned Hollywood.

Strategic Recommendations

1. Begin quarantines for sports and talk show staffs, if possible. If folks are quarantined together, they can’t share the disease, but they can generate content. “Getting creative” is always my go to advice for companies. And there are ways to get SNL, the Late Shows and other comedies back on the air in an age of “reduced quarantine”. It requires thinking how to do it and figuring out creative ways to house employees early.

2. If I’m cable, get more aggressive with skinny bundles. Cut the fat, and blame it on coronavirus. Folks will still want news and sports. Fortunately for the cable/satellite bundles, the streamers don’t have any real sports or news capability. So skinny linear bundles can fill that need.

3. I see an edge for vMPVDs too. Really, those are just the nu-cable bundles. (vMVPDs like Hulu Live TV or Youtube TV). They can also offer the sheer tonnage of scripted/reality shows that folks want along with sports and news. So price discounts for those will make a lot of sense. 

4. Lean in to reality when the quarantine ends. That’s the quickest way to get lots of content back on the air, while getting scripted series back on the air.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Quibi!!!

It’s no secret I’m hugely skeptical of Quibi. At the core, it’s because they are avoiding an entire method of distribution, which is living room TV. For all the growth in mobile, I just don’t think you can be viable without TV sets in your arsenal. The latest news is that Quibi is offering a 90 day free trial, which will the longest in the industry. We’ll see if it works. I’m still more bullish on HBO Max and Peacock with their huge libraries. Especially in an age of quarantine.

Crowded VOD

Last week, Universal was moving some films to VOD early. This week it became a flood with Onward joining Rise of Skywalker joining Emma (and then Lovebird went straight to Netflix via Paramount). On the one hand this shouldn’t be too surprising, since these films weren’t going anywhere in theaters. (Variety has a good list of how everything has moved.)

But part of me thinks this is still pretty shortsighted. If we are in for a long lock-down, come May a studio could really benefit by having these VOD launch weekends all to themselves. Crowded weekends aren’t good for film, TV or VOD. In the long run, will this be a huge impact? No, but I think some of the studios are rushing.

Most Important Story of the Week – 13 Mar 20: Love (Films) in the Time of Coronavirus

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. 

Image 7 Video Value WEb

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.

Um, maybe?

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. 

Supply

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.

Demand

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?

Employment

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. 

Other Stories

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.

 

Most Important Story of the Week – 6 March 20: Coronavirus and the Entertainment Recession?

In times of crisis, it’s important to thread the line between adequately explaining a crisis and avoiding exacerbating the worry about that crisis. Enter the “coronavirus” (or Covid-19), the global pandemic–even if it hasn’t been called that yet–that is impacting economies from China to America, and whose full impact won’t be known for years.

If you want the “panic” side, well look at the market. Is this panic or warranted? Well, as I look at the industry I follow closest, the worry seems warranted. The impacts of Covid-19 will be particularly acute in the entertainment industry. Let’s explain why.

Most Important Story of the Week/Context Update – Coronavirus Impacts on Entertainment and the Economy

Before I explain my worries, let me iterate the caveat that all speculation about the economy should be taken with heaping grains of salt. One of my bibles for making predictions is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, and he devotes a chapter to how bad economists are at forecasting growth or retraction in the economy. 

Take last year. Everyone worried about a recession. Sure enough, the fundamentals stayed relatively strong. Employment dropped to lows and median income growth actually started growing. This chart from Derek Thompson on Twitter captures the bullish case for the economy:

Thompson is right that the economy finally started turning around in 2015, and incomes have been rising. But the pessimists out there worry that if a deep recession starts right now due to Coronavirus, then middle America will likely be worse off than post 2009 great recession. That’s a terrible result for America, particularly lower income workers who just started to see income growth.

Frankly, I think the Coronavirus could cause a recession on its own, and it would start (partly) in the entertainment industry. We saw the contagion start as conferences were cancelled. But then, for entertainment specifically, this:

Most Important 14Mar

Recessions accelerate when consumers change their behavior. Specifically, restrict spending. All signs point to consumers restricting travel and avoiding large gatherings due to the global pandemic. Here’s an example that’s stuck with me since high school, when explaining why recessions/depressions start:

Farmer Fred has a bad crop due to weather. This means he can’t sell as much wheat at the market as he did the year before. As a result, he doesn’t buy a new pitch fork to replace his broken one. Since he doesn’t buy a new pitch fork, Store Owner Sally can’t replace her broken roof. So Roofer Ralph misses out on a job he thought he would have in the fall. Roofer Ralph starts spending less at Grocery Gina’s store. As a result, the next year even as Farmer Fred’s crop comes in, Gina can’t buy it.

The moral? A decrease in spending in one part of the economy can spiral out and cause a recession. Usually, this is really hard to predict. Hence why Nate Silver said economists are bad at it. (Matt Stoller has made this case too.)

But…isn’t it pretty obvious we’re headed for the recession scenario at this point? Here are the entertainment industry specific examples that feel fairly obvious are about to happen:

Theater Terry, Concert Carla: Folks decide not to leave their homes to avoid being out in public.

Conference Carl, Theme Park Tom – Folks don’t want to leave their home, and they don’t want to travel. 

Producer Paul: If gatherings of individuals or travel is restricted, studios may have to decrease production.

Expand that list to sporting events, airlines, hotels, tourism, travel, car rentals and more and you get an idea of the potential scope. The best thesis for a recession right now, is that this is a “human capital freeze” the way the Great Recession was a credit freeze. That freeze is hurting revenue, and hence profits. If all those industries see reduced revenues in the range of 10-25% (or even more), then layoffs will obviously happen. As The Indicator pointed out, travel and leisure makes up 13% of the work force. 

Those layoffs mean less spending–especially if unemployment insurance isn’t adequately deployed–and that turns this into a recession. Once a recession starts, then companies restrict advertising spending, and that only exacerbates the entertainment industry’s worries. 

So all the signs seem there. At this point we face a choice: do we want to wait to know for sure we’re in a recession to respond, or begin deploying countermeasures now?

I’d say now. Notably, the country American politicians most fear–China, our latest boogeyman–fully believes in Keynesian economics. Thus, as soon as they began experiencing supply shocks, China began encouraging banks to avoid defaults and started pumping money to keep their economy moving. America needs to do the same thing, and encourage a global response that includes fiscal as well as monetary stimulus.

The challenge for America is that our economic crisis is as much a supply problem as a consumer spending problem. America fortunately started on the right foot and the emergency spending measure just passed includes $7 billion in spending on small business loans. That’s great, but I’d recommend more. Specifically, measures designed to shore up consumer spending from the 90th income percentile on down.

Step 1 – Provide $500 to every tax payer in America. Via check in the mail. This would cost $70-100 billion dollars. And is inspired by this talk by Matt Yglesias and Claudia Sahms. The “Sahm rule” says to employ this as soon as the rolling three month job losses are over 0.5% of the last twelve months. Frankly, this is a lot better than waiting six months for two quarters of retraction. If anything, I wouldn’t wait for to trigger the rule since all the news says this is coming.

Step 2 – Do Trump’s payroll tax cut. This would cost another $50-100 billion. While Step 1 is more effective, this will help lots of employers.

Step 3 – Do Richard Neal’s infrastructure plan, but not the way he’s thinking. For some reason, the leading Democrat wants to do an infrastructure project in response to the financial crisis. Unfortunately, infrastructure is slow and would likely not happen until after the crisis has started. My proposal is to use the low interest rates in the treasury to build solar panels. This would help add money into folks pockets long after the recovery has started and fight climate change. Win, win, win.

Step 4 – Provide banks/high income earners a bail out. (The Fed already did that by cutting interest rates.)

My four steps provide a range of stimulus, but importantly, everyone gets to partake in the gains. Consumers win; employers win; infrastructure fans get their win. And banks have already got what they want. I will add the biggest hurdle is the lack of trust between both parties and the desire not to work together. The best way to ensure cooperation is to guarantee that any stimulus will be continued under a Democratic administration.

What Do You Do if You’re a Studio

Well, don’t panic. That’s first. 

Second, ask for government bail outs. As long as we’re providing stimulus, the government should provide targeted bail outs to all those industries most impacted by the pandemic.

After that, while I’d love to have detailed recommendations for each part of the entertainment value chain, I just can’t provide that. Recessions are tough to predict. Generally, I’m skeptical when folks say they can forecast who will win a recession. It can be easy to say who will lose–because we see that directly–but the winners are usually the folks who develop smart, recession proof strategies quickly. Sometimes that’s who you think it is; other times you don’t know.

So if you do run a company, that’s how I’d think about it. Your customers are about to worry about a financial crisis: how do you create value for them? How do you make and deliver content to folks under huge emotional and financial stress? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it is the most important.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – Judge Judy is a Free Agent

Judge Judy is one of the most watched television shows. Period. Not just in syndication or in daytime, but every day period. (And yes this includes streaming shows.) So when that iconic show ends, it matters.

And Judy Sheindlin will launch another show called Judy Justice. That was fast. As for where it will go, we don’t quite know. Hence, the free agency.

Last point. Judge Judy has always been an excellent case study in how in certain situations talent can extract almost all the value for their creations. Syndication is a fairly well understood marketplace. Since Sheindlin is Judge Judy, she’s almost the entire value of the show. For a good explanation on this, see the latest PARQOR newsletter.

M&A Updates – FASTs on the Block

Here’s a fun question: are FASTs the new MCNs?

In the early 2010s, MCNs were growing rapidly and got snatched up by traditional studios just as quickly. With Maker Studios to Disney, Machinima to Warner. Awesomeness TV to Dreamworks. Fullscreen to Otter Media and then AT&T. And so on. They’ve since almost all been dissolved or written down.

FASTs–the free, ad-supports streaming TV services–have seen a similar boom. ViacomCBS started the trend by buying PlutoTV. Amazon launched IMDb TV, Roku has Roku TV and Walmart bought Vudu (and added a FAST element). Just last week Comcast bought Xumo and NuFox (the channel business) is rumored to be in talks with Tubi.

The big difference is that FASTs have a bit more control over their business model than MCNs, that relied 100% or more on Youtube. However, the FASTs do have a big dependency on the DVBs (digital video bundlers). If you can’t get on a Roku device and get prominent placement, it’s a lot harder to survive. Meanwhile, if every service is fiercely competing for ad-supported eyeballs, that makes every part of the business harder.

Related: IMDb TV Paying $500K Per Episode

Lot of sites/newsletters I follow called out that IMDb TV is reportedly paying $500K per episode for IMDb TV original series. My only response? That’s peanuts in today’s landscape. Few buzzy dramas come under the $5 million per episode tag nowadays, especially if there aren’t additional revenue opportunities. That’s cheap reality content on cable budgets, not scripted cable budgets.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Update – More Apple Worries

Two stories that cause me to worry about Apple TV+. First, an executive left Apple to go to 20th Century Fox TV. We’re so used to traditional execs leaping to streamers, not the other way around. Second, another Apple TV+show–Shantaram–is indefinitely delayed.

Third, Steven Spielberg helmed Amazing Stories dropped on Friday and had zero buzz, and negative reviews. That’s bad.