Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 8 February 2019: A Lionsgate/Starz Check-in

Here’s why this week’s column is late. I started writing a Tweet thread, and then it went long. So I moved it to this column. Then that went so long, so I moved it to its own post. (Fingers crossed Wednesday.) So I’m starting from scratch midway through the weekend.

What was the formerly number one topic? Last week, when I wasn’t thinking about Disney, I was thinking about the debate over “niche” versus “broad” in the media ecosystem. So much so–and with news about layoffs, profitability and the general opinions on the future of media–I had anointed it this week’s “Most Important Story”. So what second place article climbed into the top spot?

Most important Story of the Week – Lionsgate (and hence Starz) moving on from Chris Albrecht

Consider this my “check in” with Lionsgate. I haven’t written much about this once high-flying studio–late 2000s Lionsgate was the mini-major king of the world–and Albrecht leaving after some internal turmoil gave me an excuse to check back in.

To overly summarize, they faced a common challenge of movie studios since the 1990s: replacing two great franchises, after milking them for what they could. In Lionsgate’s case, they haven’t found anything that approaches the highs of Twilight and Hunger Games. With some great ROI on the Saw franchise. (Warner Bros. had a similar challenge on an even greater scale with Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter.) Lionsgate has also tried to take advantage of the boom in “prestige TV” and “peak TV”. Though, to date, it seems like their main hit has been Orange is the New Black, with not a lot of other huge hits.

Their prospects in 2019 look better than 2018–where they only did about $388 in domestic box office–but they still don’t have a billion dollar franchise, with John Wick 3 as their best bet in 2019..

If your studio isn’t flying high, of course, your strategy can always be “M&A”–reminder M&A isn’t a strategy–and so Lionsgate acquired Starz in 2016. I liked this deal at the time. It gave Lionsgate a toehold into the streaming wars. Now, Chris Albrecht leaving isn’t the end of the world–very few executive team departures are, which someday I’ll write about–but it does show the challenges incorporating even a smallish entity into a larger one. We’ll see this with Disney and the impending 4,000 to 5,000 layoffs expected there. (More on that later.)

Speaking of M&A, I still expect that Lionsgate’s long play is–and has been–to let someone else buy them after getting a big enough return. They’ve been floated to be swallowed by Amazon more than anyone, though when it comes to M&A, I think guessing on eventual suitors is usually wrong more than right. Even if M&A may not be a strategy, it is still really hard to pull off.

If I had a pitch, instead of Amazon, I could see a fit with Comcast-NBCUniversal. Hear me out (and read my predictions of a super-consolidated future for more insight onto my thinking). First, Universal as a movie studio is facing the combined Fox-Disney behemoth, and this would give it another mini-major (with Dreamworks animation) with some franchises to try to leverage. But really Comcast does this deal to get Starz. NBC-Universal has a great cable portfolio it will use for its ad-supported streaming service. But it doesn’t have an HBO like Warner or Showtime like CBS. Starz would give them a “prestige” platform as the expensive add-on to the base model in their streaming service. (And more leverage in the digital retransmission wars to come.)

Would this happen? Again, with M&A it’s tough to say. Brian Roberts likes buying things, but for that reason Comcast has a lot of debt. Also, the government may grant mergers to Disney, because the current president likes Iger and Murdoch, but has already said it may relook at the Comcast merger, possibly because MSNBC/NBC News has reported bad news on the president.

ICYMI – My Articles from The Last Two Weeks

I spent the last week going all out to finish my series on Lucasfilm. My dramatic conclusion dropped and the answer is, Disney crushed it. Here’s the best table that summarizes what I found:

Table 1 Totals

So take a read here (for building the final model), here (for my thoughts on the terminal value) and here (for my summary of the whole thing) including how much Disney would make without theme parks, Lucasfilm’s present value and the break even date. And spread the word to anyone who wants to know how to value an M&A deal beyond narratives and try to calculate the specific impact.

M&A Updates – Gimlet bought by Spotify for $230 million

This was the big headline of the week. (Getting StraTECHery coverage is my rule of thumb on this measurement.) It also pushed back slightly on the “media is dead” narrative, if you think media includes podcasts. (I’d say yes.) Spotify paid a huge price for Gimlet, but everyone seems to be pointing to the Anchor acquisition as the real win. This big deal comes on the heels of the announcement that Spotify is finally making both profit and positive cash flow, and the podcast acquisitions (with more to come) will deliver the next iteration of growth.

The challenges for me are twofold. (And yes, it is my job to be the one skeptic in entertainment business coverage of the tech companies. Read another positive take on Substack by Web here.)

First, it is a possible overpay for Gimlet. They paid an amount equivalent to all podcast revenue, which is a lot. I looked on Podtrac as a quick gauge for how well Gimlet is doingand Gimlet isn’t in the top ten. Meanwhile, the top ten list is filled with major media companies like NPR, ESPN and even independents like PRX and Wondery. Moreover, between PodcastOne, The Ringer and Radiotopia and huge independents like Joe Rogan and Hardcore History, there are quite a few companies in this space, so buying one producer may not be the edge it portends.

Which is why everyone rightly emphasized this is about the aggregation play on podcasts, emphasizing the acquisition of Anchor. My second worry is “overestimating the effect of originals”. Basically, I see this a lot where every decision from the streaming companies–mostly video–is justified by acquiring new customers. Prestige TV shows like House of Cards? Acquiring customers. Amazon spending at Sundance? Acquiring customers. Kids TV, stand up comedy, nature documentaries, event TV? Customer, customers, customers. The problem is when you add each customer up, well you may have invested too much and overestimated the customer you would acquire.

Frankly, it is a big ask that customers will go to Spotify exclusively for podcasts or even permanently. If there is one podcast exclusively on Spotify, maybe you only listen to it on Spotify. But maybe you skip it because, if you’re like me, you already have too many podcasts in your feed. And maybe their UX isn’t as good as your current app, which is optimized for podcasts, not all music.

For podcast producers, it still may not make sense to go to Spotify exclusively either. If it your podcast is still ad-supported–meaning Spotify isn’t paying you a license fee for it–than exclusivity to Spotify could cripple your ability to build an audience. Launching on one platform immediately limits your monetization potential by artificially shrinking your potential audience. So I have worries.

Other Contenders For Most Important Story of the Week

HBO Changing Launch Days for (some) Series

This had the longest shot to become an actual story of the week. I mean, one premium cable channel-cum-streamer moving some of its shows (a distinction some headlines didn’t convey) isn’t the biggest move on the planet. But it did get me thinking about the value of launch days in general. In some ways, Sundays being the “best” days for cable/premium launches is a “tragedy of the commons” problem in that everyone in prestige from AMC to HBO to Showtime launches on Sunday nights, so no one wins.

Yet, some of the logic behind the move was more likely about competing against yourself if you’re HBO than others. At one point, I watched four Sunday night HBO shows. (Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Veep and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) If they all come out on Sunday, well some were DVR’ed and saved for later. Moreover, for PR purposes, four of those shows demand a recap story on the Slates/Vox/HuffPo’s of the world. If all four air on the same night, they can’t all get on the front page. So that’s two compelling reasons to move the air dates of some shows. (Also, as the NY Times points out, they may have so much content they don’t have a choice.)

I can argue against this, though. Nothing in the broadcast era was more powerful than tune in viewing as people stuck around all Thursday night on NBC. Maybe some of that effect still works, even for a premium channel like HBO. (Though, yeah obviously it is shrinking.) Moreover, claiming a night for when people can expect premium TV makes sense and, according to some stats, Sunday is the most viewed night of TV of the week.

Sum it all up, and I can’t predict if this is a good move or a bad move. What I can say is it isn’t meaningless. Netflix constantly tweaks their product launches, so HBO should too to maximize impact. I’m always for tweaking a model or business to maximize your competitive advantage, and I could see the arguments for this, especially if it helps dominate the PR impact.

Woody Allen Sues Amazon

Since most of the #MeToo era started before I launched this website, I haven’t written a lot on it, though it definitely has impacted a lot of the business. Often that’s because individual stories don’t really impact the business, and fall into the category of “celebrity news” than business news. This iteration is different and I’d refer you to The Business podcast from last week for why.

There is a difference between refusing to work with someone for future projects and cancelling already signed deals. Cancelling deals could cause lawsuits. Or a studio could choose not to work with someone, but keep paying them. Paying people who have inappropriate conduct on set could cause bad PR coverage and internal moral problems. So lose lose. (Refusing to work with someone results in neither of those outcomes, unless you misjudge the PR angle, a la James Gunn and Disney.)  In short, with challenges like Woody Allen, there aren’t any good options. It’s probably a tough case for Amazon to decide, which means the courts will settle it, and as they say bad cases make bad case law.

Disney May Layoff Thousands

While I’m talking about The Business podcast, I heard this news again on THe Business this week, and for some reason it stuck with me. I need to think more on this, but I would love to figure out more of the business ramifications of layoffs of this size.

Lots of News with No News

Disney Earnings Report – Streaming will cost money

Since Disney has two different groups of fanboys (Star Wars and Marvel) in addition to a bunch of diehard fans following it–wait, does that include me?–usually the biggest stories involve random drops of trivia. So Disney repeated on their earnings call that they will keep making R-rated movies (which they had already said) and that the theme parks will come in later half of this year. The non-news financial news is that ESPN Plus has 2 million subscribers, which I’d call neither good nor bad. It just is, and we’ll see what it means.

They’re also going to lose money as they transition from sellers to streamers. Hmm.

If I were really cynical–and I am–I’d say that if starting your own streaming company loses lots of money–and we’re now 4 for 4 (Netflix, Disney, Hulu and Seeso, if not more) on data points in that regard, with a “TBD” in Amazon–then maybe we’re all investing our capital inefficiently? Or that there are “bubblish” elements where certain players are overpaying, which causes everyone to lose money, which makes these bad investments? If I were cynical though.

Super Bowl Ratings were Down

There is no smaller sample size than one.

If you understand that, then all the discussions about why the Super Bowl had low ratings feel a lot more hollow. I’d call them “narrative explanations” as opposed to data-based, because, again, it is a sample size of one. So maybe people were sick of watching the Patriots, or OTT actually showed higher ratings (it didn’t) or football is losing popularity, Or maybe the Chiefs and Saints make the playoffs and the highest ratings in history happen? I don’t know. (I explained the difference between narratives and data when Solo came out and with M&A hype.)

(Also, the TV ratings were US only. From now on, headline/Twitter headlines should include geography when numbers or effect are measured.)

Long Read of the Week – Reality is Closing in On Netflix

Since I haven’t mentioned Netflix yet, I’m required by entertainment journalism bylaws to do so now. Check out the work of New Constructs from after Netflix’s earnings report. I love their writing in general as they apply the type of data-based analysis that is missing often in the discourse. Strategy is numbers, right? Speaking of which, they show their math in this Excel spreadsheet.

Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part XI: Disney Will Make A 107% Return on the Lucasfilm Acquisition (And Other Conclusions)

(This is Part XI of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: The Television!
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Toys, Books, Comics, Video Games and Stuff)
Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money
Part IX: Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo: Put It Together and What Do You Got?
Part X: You’ve Been Terminated: Terminal Values Explained and The Last Piece of the Model

This series has been the equivalent of an all day trip to Disneyland for me. Arriving when the park gates open, I stayed all day, walking the park and going on every ride. I’m exhausted, and now all I have to do is wait for the fire works. My feet are killing me, but I’m almost there. So yes, today is the fireworks of this process, though the rides (articles) have been great along the way.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday building our exhaustive models, so let’s  “generate insights” from the data, since insights are a hot business term. I’ll start with the big numbers. I’m going to do this as a Q&A.

What is the Bottom Line, Up Front?

Or “Bottom Line, 10 Parts Later”? 

Here it is: Disney will NOT lose money on this deal, even discounting for the time value of money. So yes, the people claiming success on behalf of Disney are indeed correct. They crushed it.

To show this, here are the totals for the deal. But, to show what “making money” means, I’ve broken my three scenarios into unadjusted, discounted for cost of capital and discounted for inflation. Again, these totals include my estimates for the last six years, the next ten years, and a terminal value for all future earnings:

Table 1 Totals(All numbers in millions, by the way.)

Here is how those values relate as a percentage of the initial price ($4.05 billion). (So subtract 100% to get the return.)

Table 2 PercentagesIf you said, pick one as “the truth”, I’d pick my median scenario—that’s what median is for, right?—and I’d chose the cost of capital line. That really is the best way to look at investing in entertainment properties, and Star Wars is as pure entertainment as you get. (It’s also what the finance text book would tell me to do.) So it is smack dab in the middle of the table.

Using that number, the only conclusion is that Disney crushed it. Disney got a 107% return over the lifetime of the deal. (A 5x deal in unadjusted terms.)

Even looking at the high and low cases, this makes sense. Even the most pessimistic scenario shows a 38% return. (Which is a 3x return in real dollars. Again, huge for a low case.). Bob Iger and Kevin Mayer made a huge bet and it still had a nice return. In the high case, Disney will make an unadjusted 9x on the asking price. That’s a great deal.

Why do you focus on the discounted numbers compared to the totals?

I ignore “unadjusted” numbers—unadjusted is my best term for it—because I can’t help myself. One of my biggest missions with this series is to remind all my readers of this key finance point. A point—leveraging the time value of money—that the New York Times made when writing about President Trump’s taxes (and which he incorrectly criticized). So it needs to be repeated: A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. Financial models need to reflect this reality.

To illustrate it, here’s an example. Disney could have take $4 billion dollars (and yes, they paid half in cash, half in stock) and put it in the S&P 500. If they had done that, they’d have earned a 10.5% inflation-adjusted CAGR from 2013-2018. So if Disney had done nothing, they’d earned 10.5% on their money. This is why the “cost of capital” exists. It accounts for the return you should expect for the risks of a given industry. If you make an investment, it isn’t just good enough to make some money, you need to beat the industry costs of investing in said industry.

Well, why did you also include inflation?

It’s easier for many folks to understand. The cost of capital is what we should judge the deal on, but “cost of capital” is a finance term that most of us don’t deal with on a daily basis. Inflation is easier to understand. It is the everyday reality that the things around us get more expensive over time. Inflation is the cost if you don’t do anything with your cash. It’s just another way to look at it. (And while it fluctuates, it’s hovered around 2% for so long that I’m using that as a placeholder.)

How does the cash flow look by time period?

Glad you asked, because I want to answer this question to keep this Q&A flowing. Essentially, this question asks how earnings flow in by our three major periods: what has happened (2013-2018), the near future (2019-2028) and the far future (the terminal value). Here are 3 tables showing this by model:

Table 3 Totals by Period

To make it easier to read, here’s that breakdown in percentage terms of the total for each line.

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Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part X: You’ve Been Terminated: Terminal Values Explained and The Last Piece of the Model

Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part X: You’ve Been Terminated: “Terminal Values Explained” and The Last Piece of the Model

(This is Part X of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: The Television!
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Toys, Books, Comics, Video Games and Stuff)
Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money
Part IX: Bibbidy-Bobbidy Boo: Put It Together and What Do You Got?

Yesterday’s article was pretty audacious, trying to estimate 6 years of past revenue and 10 years of future revenue. But the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed I left out a crucial detail:

What about the future? 2029 and beyond? Surely Lucasfilm is worth something then too?

Yes, it is. But predicting the far future is the toughest part. Which ties into one of my biggest pet peeves in valuation. I loathe business models that project near term middling performance (or even losses), but a far future of wild success. 

Usually, this wild success is summarized in an outsized “terminal value”, one of the most crucial concepts in equity valuation. It can be hyper-dependent on the growth rate. If the growth rate raises by a point, then the model’s value can shoot through the roof. (And yes, many tech valuations follow this model.)

Yet, terminal values are the best tool we have to solve this problem. If we use them properly. Today I’m adding that last piece to the model, but explaining how I got there and what it is.

Terminal Values…Explained

What is the terminal value? Well, the last number on the spreadsheet that captures all “future” earnings. Look at my model (this is the median scenario), with the new lines added:

Table 1 - Empty ProForma wTerminal Values

In a word, the “terminal value” tries to capture the value of all future earnings after your model stops. Say you feel confident you can predict revenue out five years. Okay good enough. (I mean no one can really predict revenue, costs and hence earnings, though we still try.) But what about 10 years? 15 years? There are too many variables.

You can see the need for this in the Lucasfilm acquisition. Can I really predict what will happen with release dates of films, even two years out? I already had to remove Indiana Jones 5 from my models. Take another line of business, licensing. If you used the toy sales of 2015 to forecast the future, well you’d be much, much too high. (2015 was probably the peak of Star Wars toy sales.) Back when this deal was signed, Disney didn’t know if they were going to launch a streaming service (I assume) but they still could have sold Star Wars TV series. Possibly for even more money. Not selling to others changes the model.

Here is where the science of modeling has come back to the art. (Which isn’t a bad thing, despite current connotation. Good art is really, really hard to make. Great art even harder.) The traditional way to model a terminal value is to use the future cash flows of the last year of the model, and assume those hold steady into the future. In other words, you make a “perpetuity”, a cash flow stream that continues forever. Alternatively, if your company has a large variance in cash flows year to year, you can use a three or five year average to get the base number. To be even more conservative, you can assume instead of a perpetuity, it is an annuity, where the future revenues only last for a given period of time, say 10 or 20 years. (If you need a refresher on “time value of money”, go here.)

The Specific Terminal Value Calculations

How long will Star Wars be valuable? Davy Crockett was the Star Wars of the 1950s, and it isn’t worth $4 billion dollars. Mickey Mouse has been Mickey Mouse since the 1920s, and he’s worth well more than $4 billion dollars. Which way will Star Wars go? I’m going to assume for a long time. Essentially for decades, but with one scenario where it shrinks over time. Which I’ll control for by tweaking the discount rate. (Either having it grow or shrink.)

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Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part IX: Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo: Put It Together and What Do You Got?

(This is Part IX of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: The Television!
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Toys, Books, Comics, Video Games and Stuff)
Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money)

Many of you are interested in knowing how much money Disney made when it bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion dollars. How do I know? Well, one of the Google search terms that directs to my site is, “disney profit lucasfilm”. (And really I should be higher in that search ranking!)

This interest comes from that fact that very few people know the answer. Disney CEO Bob Iger does. Kevin Mayer (Iger’s chief dealmaker) does. Christine M. McCarthy (Iger’s CFO) does. And likely many other Disney employees. 

As for the public, though, we haven’t the foggiest. 

Few other news websites have tried to answer this question. It’s too speculative. Instead, they usually rely on some version of, “Disney has grossed more at the box office than the acquisition cost of Lucasfilm” type articles. These are so obviously wrong—a studio doesn’t collect all of box office for one; it doesn’t account for other revenue streams for two; it doesn’t discount for the time value of money for three—that many of the Disney & Star Wars super-fans want something more. So I did a bottom’s up analysis. (I’m the strategy guy and a super-fan.)

Yet, I’ve left you all wanting. I never finished the damn thing.

Today, it all comes together. Totaling over 66 pages and 30 thousand words with dozens and dozens of charts, tables and financial statements, this article series is my Ulysses. I’ve calculated all the revenues and costs to finally answer the question that started this:

How much money did Disney earn on the Lucasfilm acquisition?

Today, I’m going to walk through building my final model. I will include the final numbers for my three scenarios (through 2028), but today is really about adding in the final estimates to the model. Like a final Harry Potter film—or uncompleted ASOIAF book—this dramatic conclusion will need multiple parts. I’ll explain the model today, tomorrow I’ll calculate the terminal values and then on Thursday, I’ll draw tons of fun conclusions. That’s right, it’s a Lucasfilm week!

Calculating the Final Piece

At first, I was going to make just one model, call it the “average” and be done with it.

But that didn’t make any sense. I’ve been using scenario modeling through out, building best and worst case options where appropriate. In one case—film—I made 8 different scenarios. Scenarios are great because they account for the inherent uncertainty in predicting the future.

To add everything up, I built three versions, the traditional “best case / worst case / average case”. I’m a big fan of using three versions of a model, if they are all realistic. (If you want to goose your numbers with three scenarios, make the worst case very nearly break even.) I treat the high and low case as the equivalent of our 80% confidence interval. The average then acts as my best guess of what will happen. The final summary model looks like this:

Table 1 Empty Proforma

The shaded green cells are what we need to fill in, based on our past calculations. Sure, it looks like a lot of cells, but it is really just 11 lines. A lot of time, we act like high finance is really hard. It isn’t. All you do is add and subtract. We don’t even have to do the math ourselves since Excel does that for us.

As I was building this, I realized that in some lines of business, I forecast revenues out to 2027 and 2028 in others. Don’t ask me why I didn’t keep things uniform. For consistency, all these models will go to 2028, the next ten year estimate. Building this final summary was a good proof read of the Excel models as well.

The Final Calendar

To help build the models, early on I built a calendar that represented my best guess for the future of Lucasfilm under Disney. Remember, this deal was signed in December 2012, so I started the calculations in 2013. This calendar didn’t make sense for any individual article, so I’m putting it here, so that everyone can understand the scale of what Disney is rolling out here:

Table 2 CALENDAR of Lucasfilm

The Three Scenarios

Let’s walk through what I put in each model.

The “Average”: Status Quo Continues

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 1 February 2019: Goodbye Ultraviolet, Hello Movies Anywhere

Two weeks ago, we had a topic that demanded immediate attention. Last week, we could leisurely stroll through video game data. This week we can both react to news and gaze at the future of home entertainment. That, plus a rant on bad data, a VERY long read of the week and more in this week’s column.

Most Important Story of the Week – Goodbye Ultraviolet, Hello Movies Anywhere

Here’s a true story about my experience with the “Movies Anywhere” app. I had bought The Muppets Christmas Carol on iTunes because I couldn’t find it on streaming or on linear TV. Then when I went to send it to my Google Chromecast…oh, it turns out Apple doesn’t support that functionality.  (Here come the device wars!)

A friend who was over recommended the Movies Anywhere app. That does broadcast to Chromecast and soon we had the Muppets and Michael Caine in our living room, celebrating the holidays. (Yes, we were distracting a toddler while we played board games.)

But I’ll admit it: when I first looked at the Movies Anywhere application, I would have bet anything this was a fake application designed to hack into my iPad and sell all my data to Ukrainian troll farms.

Well, I learned this week, it used to be called, “Disney’s Movies Anywhere”. This is a Disney app! Run by Disney! I trust Disney. So all is good.

That’s a branding point, though. I work in entertainment, but with the deluge of new applications and services–how many FASTs are there just in this last year? How many digital titans allow you to buy movies? How many ways can you stream music?–I missed that Disney had launched a home entertainment application. And looking at the application, I didn’t really trust it. (Even though that application is tied in with four other studios and the big digital players like Apple, Google, Vudu and Amazon.)

(I shouldn’t feel too bad, though. With only 6 million accounts, that’s the equivalent of 2% of the US population. Not many of us are using it. Oh, and that’s if the 6 million accounts are US only, not global. Please journalists, always clarify global versus US numbers.)

That new Disney app, though, is responsible for the news of the week, that UltraViolet, an  industry collaboration to build digital storage for owning movies, is shutting down. I want to draw some lessons from this week. (UltraViolet was buzzy when I was in b-school, too.) Lessons about how “owning” things still fits in the entertainment ecosystem. (If you want to learn more about Ultraviolet shutting down, Janko Roettgers has it covered.)

Value Proposition 1: Customers still want to own things.

That’s blunt. But given that I read a lot of techno-futurists promising that 2018 foretold of a future where buying things is obsolete, it is worth repeating. People will always want to own things. Especially things they love. I imagine some future “all subscription world” where the subscription folks try to take a child’s favorite teddy bear. That’s as silly as a world of common ownership of the means of production.

Of all the things they buy, people love entertainment the most. People define themselves by what they watch, and they don’t just “like” what they watch, they love it. They love what they listen, too. So, inevitably there is a desire to not just watch it once, but to own it forever. That’s the pitch of the Disney vault back in the day: buy it now and you’ll own a treasure for the rest of your life.

Which isn’t to say that the balance between owning, renting and “free” (with advertising) won’t change over time. Subscriptions are on their way up. Owning on its way down. But people still want to own things. If people want something, you can make money off it.

Value Proposition 2: Forever doesn’t mean forever.

For adults of my age, The Little Mermaid started a trend of “must own” VHS for households. This VHS was the first of a run of incredible Disney animation (going through Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King). There was a thought, if you buy these, well you got them forever. You owned this classic film. That’s how I felt at the time.

Then DVDs came along. So we upgraded. The picture was clearer and didn’t get fuzzy over time.  If you had kids, you bought a new Little Mermaids DVD. Or, in my case, I bought new Star Wars DVDs. Then Blu-rays tried to replace those. Then digital tried to replace those. (The same process happened in music with vinyl to tape to CD to mp3, and iTunes/Amazon/Google each with separate platforms.)

In other words, even when we “own” things, it turns out these aren’t antiques we can store and have appreciate in value. So as much as we want to own things, forever doesn’t mean forever.

Value Proposition 3: Who do we trust in the future?

The pace of replacement technologies is, if anything, accelerating. Even if we believe Google, Amazon and Apple will survive for decades, will their services survive for as long? Google habitually shuts down under-performing applications and websites. I’ve always wondered what would happen if Apple spontaneously shut down iTunes. (And is that outrageous? If subscriptions services take off, it’s not impossible.)

This finally brings us back to UltraViolet. As it gets shut down, the 30 million customers who put their trust in it–despite their worries probably–were proven wrong. Everyone else who never trusted it are vindicated. And now as you look at Movies Anywhere–and surely other applications to come along like it, or any of the Apple/Amazon/Goolge electronic sell through merchants–you have to wonder, if I go all in on this, what will happen in five or ten years, if technology changes? Maybe we’ll all transfer our digital files to WeChat once it enters America and takes over.

So what is the future?

I love the TVRev feature to summarize, “What does this mean for you?” in their weekly column and I wish I could do that for “electronic ownership” but I can’t. Customers want to own things, but kind of know they can’t, and therefore the trust is broken. This process may be accelerating.

Honestly, I don’t know how to solve this problem. For example, maybe Disney can integrate selling into its streaming? But won’t that be confusing and possibly misleading, like Amazon’s offering? See it’s complicated. If I had any advice, I’d say, start with the customers and what they want. If you know that, you can offer a great product (and make money off it).

Data of the Week – Cord Cutting Surveys and Debunking from TVRev

Normally, I don’t put the data stories this high up, but this week’s “data” of the week was a survey so poor and awful, and so widely repeated despite this, that it belongs up here.

I’ve had a joke with my friends that the great thing about football this season is that the “Dr. Pepper guy” is no longer a thing. I also have said I love the Progressive commercial that spoofs those annoying GM commercials which keep tricking civilians. You know which ads I’m talking about?

Of course, I never watch ads. No sir. I DVR all my shows and fast forward through all ads. Even live sports.

But wait, how did I know about those Dr. Pepper commercials if I never watch ads? I don’t get it. Where is this knowledge coming from?

Well, it turns out the “me” that thinks I don’t watch ads is really uninformed about how many ads I actually watch. It turns out humans are terrible at describing our own behavior and predicting our future behavior. (And I can hear you out there saying, “Well I didn’t know what ads you were talking about. Maybe I am good about it.” Just stop.)

The worst current example may be surveys about cord cutting and streaming services. Essentially, a survey company asks consumers, “Are you a cord cutter?” and takes the answer and writes a report which treats it as gospel. This report is then widely shared by news outlets. I’ve been sitting on this great article by Alan Wolk on TV Rev that addresses exactly how it happens. (I was waiting for a slow news week to share.) In his part one, Wolk identifies some of the deficits surveys have regarding cord cutting: they ask for opinions, not actual behavior and in some cases, their sample size is biased in favor of cord cutting. Wolk also points out that switching to a vMVPD isn’t really cutting the cord, but cord-shifting, which shows how tricky definitions are.

But this week everything went to eleven. Another survey emerged with an even larger number, “60% of Americans have already cut the cord.” This is frankly ridiculously large, and not supported by the data. In his “Part Two” update, Wolk identified an SEO marketer behind the campaign, that was used to boost a consultancies page ranks. And many media outlets fell for it. Unfortunately, many news outlets reported it without ever fact checking the basic details.

I have simple advice when it comes to surveys: Ask “what is the sample size is?” Ask “Is the sample is biased?” Ask, “what is the confidence in the segmentation?” And finally ask, “What is the motivation of the people behind it?” I should write this up in an article, but for now, keep those questions in mind for any survey you read.

ICYMI – My Articles from The Last Week

The Most Popular Oscars Ever? Nope.

I made dozens of charts and tables to evaluate the Oscars and a question which seems simple, “How popular are these films?” but is surprisingly tricky to answer. Already, I’ve been planning my update post for after the TV ratings come in. (I need to update some data in my initial August post as I had some years misaligned, and it actually reinforces the thesis that popular films equal popular awards show.) I also conclude with my pitch to the Academy: add a selection committee.

Prediction Time: Forecasting the Effect of Netflix Price Increase on Subscribers

Netflix made a lot of news two weeks ago with its earnings report. I dug into some of the numbers to try to forecast the key number we’re all hinting at, Netflix subscriber growth.

Meanwhile, I’m working on my series on the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and I am hoping to have it up next week, with possibly my first entertainment articles in other outlets. Stay tuned.

Other Contenders For Most Important Story of the Week

Sundance wasn’t so bad!

It seems like the initial predictions that this wouldn’t be a big market were proven wrong. Even some of the articles speculating that new streamers (like Apple) would help boost the market weren’t correct. Instead, Amazon spent big again ($41 million on three films). So the new boss there seems to be aping at least some of the old boss’s strategy. HBO bought some projects, like always. New Line had an eight figure deal. And Hulu had a bunch of other deals. I didn’t see any Apple or Disney deals, unless Hulu counts. Meanwhile, the psuedo-independents spent small seven figures like usual.

DirecTV Now Loses Subscribers

AT&T faced another bad earnings report as DirecTV Now, one of AT&T’s dozens of different streaming options, lost subscribers in the last quarter. Like 11% of subscribers. This was obviously “suboptimal” to use my favorite euphemism. Likely many of the subscribers were on very cheap deals and only went to DirecTV now to get off the phone with a rep while they tried to cancel their satellite service. And AT&T ran promotions to lower the price. So AT&T pitched this as returning to profitability with customers.

The main lesson is about the seductive pull of price discounts. Once you start playing with the price, customers begin to expect that, and when you try to normalize, they drop out. This should be a lesson to other digital players. Oh, there is also probably a lesson with AT&T that “M&A isn’t strategy” but we’ll save that for a future article.

(Very) Long Read of the Year – The Economist World in 2019

One of my annual traditions is to read two Economist issues every year, whether or not I have a subscription. The first is the Holiday Double Issue, that features bonus articles on a range of topics not usually covered by the Economist. The second is The World in 2019. If you want a good view of the forces that will be impacting lives across the globe, this latter issue is THE issue to read. I’d argue the value in forcing yourself to read it from cover to cover, as I did over the last four weeks, will provide more value than ten times as much time on Twitter. This will build both your “deep work” reading skills and provide a much broader view of global trends. This year was light on media & entertainment, but still great.

(Also, the Steven Pinker article is probably the best guest column as it refutes a lot of commonly held assumptions.)

(Shorter) Long Read of the Week – Why Law and Order Isn’t Streaming by Joe Adalian

Joe Adalian of Vulture went to solve the mystery of why Law and Order isn’t streaming. The culprit ended up being right in front of us the entire time, but I recommend going to Vulture to read the whole thing. This is an excellent example of understanding and explaining the business economics, so take a read.

 

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 25 January 2019: Video Games Revenue is Up! (Or Down)

Early last week, I thought, “I really hope there aren’t any new streaming launches because I’d love to find a longer view article for this week.” The closest risk was Hulu raising and lowering prices, so phew, we made it. Then, when I saw multiple descriptions of revenue in the video game industry, well I had my topic…

(Sundance and NATPE thoughts? Next week. Maybe.)

Most important Story of the Week – Video Game Revenue is Up! (Or Down)

How are video games doing as an industry?

Head over to “Byer’s Market” newsletter from 23-January, and you see just fine: the U.S. video game industry generated $43.4 billion in revenue in 2018, the same amount of revenue the US film industry generated in 2017. The difference? According to Byers, “The video game industry is growing by 18% annually, whereas the film industry is growing by just 2.2%.”

Then you head over to Bloomberg, and see that one analyst in London is forecasting that global video game revenue may drop year-over-year for the first time. (They also call it a $136 billion industry.) It may shrink by 1%. (Check out the chart in Bloomberg to see how the various categories are divided, between PC, Console, Mobile etc. I won’t steal the chart because I respect people making good nee great charts.) In the Economist World in 2019, they see a smaller $89 billion global revenue industry, according to Statista.

So what do we make of this? The reality is somewhere in between. And a case of definitions. Films make $43.4 billion globally, where video games are do $43.4 billion in revenue the US. Meanwhile, film revenue doesn’t include TV or network revenue, as far as I can tell, and probably Bloomberg/Economist are counting different parts of video games (for example, including or excluding mobile).

Moreover, the huge growth in video game revenue may be due to entirely to Fortnite. Video games are even more reliant on huge hits than movies. Let’s use that idea as a jumping off point into some thoughts on video games, with the caveat that this is an industry I know less well then filmed entertainment:

Thought 1: Video game success is logarithmically distributed.

I have been trying to make a chart showing logarithmic distribution of returns in video games for months now. The problem is most industry sources are behind paywalls. So I don’t have the “proof” in that I don’t have a clean data set of all games produced in a given year, but you can see the signs of the power law at action here.

Basically, every few years, a monster hit become “a thing”. In the late 2000s, the Rock Band/Guitar Hero trend helped boost console revenue. Last year, Fortnite did the same thing. In 2016, Pokemon Go took over mobile screen time. Add MarioGoldenEye, Halo, Call of Duty and Candy Crush at various points to this trend. And yes, those are all US examples. In China, League of Legends is the tops. Meanwhile, thousands of games come and go and are never heard from again.

So yes, if I had a data set of all video game sales–by revenue or by units–broken down by category (mobile, console, etc), we’d see a logarithmic distribution of returns.

Crucially, two trends may be maximizing the gap between haves and have nots. First, mobile makes the barriers to entry for new games even lower. This means mobile game makers can enter even more games into the lottery to get a hit. That’s why the app store has so, so many games you’ve never heard of. And so, so many derivatives of successful games. The effects of “winner take all” are even more extreme in mobile. Not to mention, mobile gaming has opened up new consumer demographics that weren’t previously counted as “gamers”.

Second, in-app and in-game purchases make the revenue upside for winning games even higher. GoldenEye was one of the biggest games for a generation of video gamers (like me). Yet, once we bought the game, that was it. Now, the biggest game in the US is Fortnite, and you can buy all sorts of additional things within the game. That means that the revenue potential is multiples higher. So both the user base and revenue per user are higher, meaning the returns are multiple multiples bigger than the console games of the 1990s.

Thought 2: China is huge.

Another key sticking point in these bearish predictions seems to be China, which had slowed the pace of new, international games from entering under a new censorship regime. Like many fields, video games in China is a huge market. U.S. firms need China for growth, but China has clear strategic goals to support their domestic video game makers. Listen, I don’t have a great take for you should do about China from a strategic perspective. I don’t know enough and would be guessing. But much like feature films, a lot of future growth is in China, and that’s a tough market to crack.

Thought 3: Fortnite is a competitor…to Netflix? (Actually, all of filmed entertainment.)

This was the big quote from Netflix’s earnings report. Of course, I scoffed a bit. While companies should absolutely try to define the “competitors” broadly, they don’t get to define them exclusively. DisneyPlus (spelling) should worry Netflix, especially since they provide so much valuable content to Netflix, even if Netflix wants to win the PR war by denying this reality.

Netflix isn’t wrong, though. On a theoretical level, video games are an excellent substitute for streaming video viewing. And as Twitter follower @JacksonWharf noted, I could put Fortnite into my Google Trends data and would see…

fortnite trends

…that Fortnite is generally more popular than any individual TV show I mentioned. So yeah. They are competing.

My caution? Well, all of entertainment needs to think about this. Not that Disney, for example, isn’t. They’ve repeatedly tried to get into the video game world and repeatedly failed at finding an acquisition that integrates and succeeds. Warner Bros. has also gotten into the gaming space to varying degrees of success, though nothing like Fortnite. Of course, not even traditional video game studios had Fortnite. Or Pokemon Go. Both were independetly made. So yes, Netflix is competing with Fortnite, but should they buy a video game studio? Not necessarily.

(Also, I was trained to think of the world in the “3Cs”: company, competitors and customers. I’ve begun to shift competitors to “competitors and potential partners”. In a world of zero sum, sure, it’s all about competitors. In a world of mutually beneficial growth, everyone could either be a partner or a competitor.  That’s a gut reaction of mine opposing Trump-era zero sum thinking. Though CPP doesn’t fit in the acronym.)

Thought 4: Whither VR?

Four years ago, I saw a lot of huge projections for VR. I mean, big numbers with monster CAGRs. Look at the chart in Bloomberg and you see that the pace of integration is slower than some of those initial projections.

M&A Update: Viacom Buys Pluto for $340 million.

We had our first big deal of the year, though by the new standards of mergers this isn’t even a mega-deal. If you aren’t over a billion dollars, than it’s hard to even get noticed in today’s M&A landscape. That said, even for a small deal, I like this deal for Viacom.

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The Most Popular Oscars Ever? Nope. (Why The Academy STILL Needs Fixes to Make the Oscars More Representative)

Records have nearly been smashed! After decades in the doldrums, in this year’s Oscar’s telecast—for achievement in the year 2018—popular movies made a comeback. Here’s Todd VanDerWerff explaining for Vox:

For the first time since 2012, the total domestic box office of the eight films nominated for Best Picture topped $1 billion — and that’s without box office receipts for the 10-times-nominated Roma…Indeed, the $1,260,625,731 pulled in by the seven films we have data for is the biggest total for a Best Picture lineup since 2010, when the 10 films nominated (led by Toy Story 3) made $1,357,489,702…the average box office haul of the nominated films we have data for, the number becomes even more impressive: $180,089,390. Though their combined take falls slightly behind those of 2011 and 2010, the average is well ahead of those years ($135,748,970 for 2010; $170,512,813 for 2009), since 10 films were nominated in both those years.

(I changed Vox’s years to the year prior to match the rest of this article.)

This would seem to refute my thesis from last August; I predicted—based on the data—that the Oscars are nominating fewer and fewer popular films. 

So let’s check back in on those metrics I developed now that we have a new year to add to our dataset. But I’ll go above that simple mandate: I want to make an argument for popular films. I think the Academy has a chance to get higher ratings with more popular films and more importantly, I think this would better represent the state of film each year. Let’s start with defining the problem. Before one can solve a problem, one must understand it. Otherwise the solution probably won’t work.

The Problem: The Academy is Nominating Fewer Popular Films

Collecting the Data

This is true. But it’s complicated. My “rule of thumb” when you have a complicated issue that can be measured in multiple ways—like Oscar voting—is to just measure it as many ways as possible, to see where the trends lead you. If most or all the measurements roughly align directionally—meaning one or two measures could be an outlier—then you can generally trust the trend.

(This process is my refutation to the worst quote every about lies and damned lies. Mark Twain did more to set back statistics than anything._

Some definitions before I use the metrics. First, I’m calling critically acclaimed/awards-focused films “prestige” going forward. In olden times, we called these films “independent” but most independent films now have major studio distribution, so that doesn’t make sense. I’m defining “popular” films as films grossing over $100 million dollars in ticket-price adjusted terms. I’m defining “blockbusters” as films grossing over $250 million. That makes that category very, very small—usually fewer than 10 films per year—but that’s the point of the blockbuster category. Finally, I’m adjusting all ticket prices to 2018 box office, since that’s what my data set used in August. 

With that out of the way, to the charts and tables. Before we start, know that the Academy nominates a different number of films each year for Best Picture depending on the voting totals. This year it was 8 films, where 2017 and 2016 featured 9 films. 2014 and 2015 featured 8 films. And 2009 and 2010 filled out ten slots each year. We need to account for that.

(Oh and I’m assuming “box office” is correlated with “popularity”. But feel free to disagree with that, somehow.)

Let’s start with “average box office” per film. This is the metric VanDerWerff quoted above. Crucially, Vox used the the mean (or arithmetic) average. With mean averages, you run the risk of one huge outlier skewing the results. (In finance, see the “Bill Gates walks into the bar, everyone is richer, on average” scenario.). Avatar did this in 2009; Black Panther is doing it now. (Also, Black Panther box office haul is divided by fewer films (7) compared to Avatar’s fellow ten films.) 

One outlier should not mean the films as a body are more popular. To account for this, I calculated both the mean and median average. I wish I had thought of this back in August, but I’m updating it now. Check it out:

box office unadjusted

So by mean average, yes we’ve done it! The most popular Oscars of all time!

But the “median average” shows a huge split. This is evidence that overall, these films aren’t that popular compared to years past, with one tremendous outlier. As I said though, we could look at this in both adjusted and unadjusted terms. Adjusted box office is the equivalent to accounting for inflation in economics: it’s something you should ALWAYS do. Time value of money, and what not. This won’t lower this year’s average, to be clear, but raise past years. So I included both below, with again both the mean and median averages:

box office adjusted v02

The trend lines are the same, but a little even more decline in popularity. However, one of the purposes of nominating the films is to have multiple popular films. Even one blockbuster isn’t enough to get lots of people interested. That’s why I liked counting the number of popular and blockbuster films. (Last time, I included these in both percentage terms and adjusting for inflation, but I think the story is roughly the same without those views.)

counts

This looks a little bit better, though arguably we have been flat at 3 popular films per year. (If you use percentages, it may even look a bit better.)

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