Tag: Business

Most Important Story of the Week – 24 January 20: Why is Facebook Unfriending Scripted Originals?

The Los Angeles region, and the entire basketball universe, is reeling from the death of Kobe Bryant, the legendary Lakers basketball player. If you’re looking for the “Hollywood” connection, I have two. First, the Lakers and “showtime” basketball have always been an influential part of the entertainment ecosystem in Los Angeles. A place to go to see and be seen. Second, Kobe was an emerging film producer who won an Oscar. His contribution to his passion for film was tragically cut short.

As a long time Lakers fan–read here for some insight on this–this death is shocking and hurts.

Most Important Story of the Week – Facebook Watch Decreases Investment on Scripted Originals

This news is two-fold for Facebook Watch. First, two big series–Limetown and Sorry For Your Loss–were not renewed for subsequent seasons by Facebook. Still, cancellations happen. When you pair that news with reporting from Deadline that Facebook is generally pulling back from scripted original content, well you have a new story. 

Mostly, though, this story seemed to pass by in the night. But it’s the perfect story for my column because the significant doesn’t seem to match the coverage. 

So let’s try to explain why Facebook may be pulling back on scripted originals. And we have to start with the fact that Facebook is a tech behemoth. Facebook resembles the cash rich fellow M-GAFA titans (Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon) that throw off billions in free cash each year. Really, companies minting free cash have three options to do with it:

Option 1: Give it back to shareholders.
Option 2: Invest it in new businesses.
Option 3: Light it on fire.

Well, as Matt Levine would note, Option 3 is securities fraud so don’t do that. Of course, we could just change it to…

Option 1: Give it back to shareholders.
Option 2: Invest it in new businesses.
Option 3: Enter the original content business!

They’re the same thing anyways. Companies come in with grand ambitions, realize the cash flows in don’t match the cash flows out, and they leave the originals business (or dial back their investment). Facebook follows on the heels of Microsoft and Youtube in this regard. Heck, even MoviePass had started making original content at some point. 

The key is how the original content supports the core business model and value proposition. With that in mind, let’s explore why Facebook Watch is leaving the original scripted business, floating some theories, discarding others and looking for lessons for other entertainment and tech companies. Since I’m not a big believer in single causes, I’ll proportion my judgement out too.

Theory 1: Ad-supported video just can’t scripted content.

If this theory were true, woe be to the giant cable company launching a new ad-supported business!

Let’s make the best case for this take. The working theory is that folks just don’t want to watch advertising anymore, so they just can’t get behind a video service like Facebook Watch that is only supported by ads. With the launch of Peacock, I saw this hot take a bit on social media. 

Of the theories, I’d give this the least likelihood of being true. From AVOD to FAST to combos (Hulu, Peacock, etc), advertising is alive and well in entertainment. Despite what customers say about hating advertising, they end up putting up with quite a bit. It’s not like Youtube is struggling with viewership, is it?

Judgement: 0% responsible.

Theory 2: Scripted content is too expensive (or doesn’t have the ROI).

If this theory is true, woe be to the traditional studios getting into the scripted TV originals game.

This is the flip side of the above theory. It’s not about the monetization (ads versus subscriptions) but about the costs of goods sold (the cost to make and market content). What I like about this theory is, if you’re honestly looking at monetization, it’s not like entertainment has seen booming revenue in the US. If anything, folks pay about what they always have.

So what’s fueling the boom in original content? Deficit financing and super high earnings multiples.

Worse, deficits are financing a boom in production costs as everyone is fighting over the same relatively limited supple (top end talent) so paying increasingly more. Consider this: in 2004, ABC spent $5 million per hour on it’s Lost pilot, up to that point the historical highpoint. Most dramas cost in the low seven figures.  Now, word on the street is that Lord of the Rings, The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Game of Thrones could cost 5 times that amount. Meanwhile, each of the streamers, I’d estimate, would have double digit shows that cost $10 million plus. Did revenues increase five times over the last fifteen years? Nope. 

Thus, Facebook may just be on the cutting edge–with Youtube–of realizing that scripted originals aren’t the golden goose Netflix and Amazon make them out to be. It’s not that they can’t make some money on them, just not nearly enough to support the skyrocketing budgets.

Judgement: 25% responsible.

Theory 3: Facebook Watch needed more library content.

If this theory is true, woe be to the giant device company that launched a streaming platform sans library.

The best case for this is that after you come to watch a prestige original, you need to find something else to occupy your time until the next original comes. That’s library content. While I josh on Netflix for lots of things, I do absolutely believe that Reed Hastings is right when he says he’s in a battle for folks’ time. But I’d rephrase it slightly in that you’re also battling for space in people’s mental headspace. When they decide to watch TV, they then pick a service to watch. Library content’s purpose is to keep permanent space in people’s mental headspace. Having loads of library content makes it more likely that you’re folks’ first choice to find something.

The problem is Facebook Watch doesn’t have this. Fellow ad-supported titan Youtube clearly does. It’s purpose was videos first and foremost, so there is always something else to watch. Netflix has it. Even Amazon has it. Facebook has socially generated videos, which aren’t the same ballpark as scripted video.

Judgement: 20% responsible.

Theory 4: Social video can’t support scripted content. 

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A Netflix Data Dive: What does their “annual” top ten lists reveal about their biz model?

Last December, I unveiled my theory for how big organizations use PR. Big entities—be they corporations, governments, non-profits, even news outlets—share their good information and actively hide bad information. It’s like the iceberg principle on steroids. Especially with digital companies like Netflix:

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(By the way, in government, the CIA is the absolute best at this. They have feature films like Argo win best picture, then have the gall to go on cable news and say, “You never hear about the good things the CIA does.”)

With this in mind, let’s draw some insights on Netflix’s (kinda) annual tradition to release a top ten “something”. In 2018, they released their top “binged” things. Now they’ve released for both film and TV across three lists in their most prominent territories. Sure, Netflix doesn’t give us much to work with, but I’ll interrogate these numbers to death in the meantime.

The Facts

Before the analysis, though, some facts to keep in mind. Whenever you see data, you should ask the “5Ws” of journalism. Most problems with data come from folks measuring it differently. (If you’re curious, I’ve tried to explain how to understand digital video metrics, and the distinctions, in this big article, which is one of my more popular.) If a news outlet buries these details, you should be skpetical.

– Who: Subscribers
– What: Watching 2 minutes of a given title
– When: During the first 28 days of release
– Where: Country-by-country. I’ll focus on the US, but they released it for a few major territories.
– How: Separated into content types, with all releases, by film/TV, scripted vs documentary.

Here’s a chart, with some additional details of the Top 10 Movies:

Top 10 tablesThat just leaves the why…

Thought 1: If this is the best “datecdote” Netflix could offer, that’s not great

Really, that’s what you think when you see a list that specifically changes the criteria from their previously announced metrics. Netflix had spent all of 2019 giving investors the “70% completion” metric for all their datecdotes. For this release, they dropped it down to “2 minutes of viewing completion”metric.

Using our iceberg principal above, what would the 70% threshold have told us that Netflix didn’t want to know? There’s clearly a narrative they’re deliberately trying to avoid.

Further, why not give us the “most binged” shows again as they did in 2018? Whenever someone changes the data goal posts, you should be very cautious. Yes, you see this all the time in Hollywood when development execs want to greenlight a project. If the numbers don’t look good, they change the measurements to get their greenlight. And yes, this happens all the time in business too. If leaders don’t like the numbers, change the measurements.

But it’s a bad habit.

Thought 2: This new metric doesn’t tie to Netflix’s self-stated goal for monetization.

If you’re looking for more red flags, this is it. In the last earnings call, CEO Reed Hastings said they care more about time on site than anything else. So why not give us that? They have the hours viewed data…they even could have limited it to new releases. (Which would have excluded Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Friends and The Office.) What does the hours viewed tell us that customer counts don’t?

Or take the emphasis on acquiring and retaining subscribers. When Netflix execs speak at conferences, they downplay traditional viewership to focus on how well films bring subscribers to the platform, or keep them there. Clearly completed films would correlate more with sign-ups than only 2 minutes of viewing. (This also jives with my personal experience.)

Thought 3: Netflix Avoided Total Hours Because of Kids Content

I think Netflix avoided “total hours” for two reasons. Let’s start with kids content. Kids rewatch the most content. They don’t watch The Incredibles 2 once, they watch it a dozen times. That gives kids films an edge on viewership hours. Narratively, you don’t want to emphasize how valuable kids content is right after Disney+ launched. As Richard Rushfield has written, something like 60-70% of Netflix viewing may be on “family titles”. That’s a huge win for Disney+ if true.

It also means that if hours on site are the key metric—again as Hastings said in the last earnings call—then kids content seems even more valuable.

Insight 4: Licensed content still made it on.

Netflix also likely avoided the 70% completion metric because they wanted to downplay licensed content as much as possible. Netflix films have a dramatic marketing edge because when new seasons premiere, they get home page, search engine tinkering and top of screen treatment. This doesn’t necessarily drive completions—if shows aren’t good people don’t finish them—but it does drive 2 minute sampling. 

Still some licensed content made the list, even as it was deliberately curated out. Specifically, three of the top ten films and one of the top ten series. I’d argue this is bad for Netflix; even as they tried to weed out licensed titles a few prominent Disney films made the list.

This is more impressive than it seems because the biggest Disney films weren’t even released in 2019. Specifically, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War were 2018 releases. Meanwhile, Netflix was stuck with The Ant-Man and the Wasp—one of the lower grossing recent MCU films—and Solo: A Star War Story. Then the rest of the incredible Disney 2019 slate didn’t make it onto Netflix. 

Thought 5: Focusing on 28 days ignores films and shows with longer legs.

Licensed titles, especially big blockbuster films, also have longer legs than new releases. Don’t you think Avengers: Infinity War had some rewatching going on in the run up to Avengers: Endgame’s release? Absolutely. By focusing on 28 days as the time period, it narrows the window for licensed films to rack up viewership. (They also had a fairly crowded January 2019, with three Disney feature films being released in the same month.)

Thought 6: International Originals Still don’t play in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line, Up Front

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

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

Avengers: Endgame.

Q: Okay, explain.

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

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

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

Q: Excuse me, oil?

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

Image 1 - Economist Oil 20171223_XMC600_weblarge.png

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

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

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

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

Q: And can we quantify that?

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

Image 2 - Financial Waterfall Historically

And here are my recent assumptions:

IMAGE 3 - Financial Waterfall Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE 4 - Netflix Film Comps

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

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

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

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

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

In November, a war started. 

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

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

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

The Plan

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

2. One imaginary war per section. 

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

Easily Discarded

The Civil War (and most other civil wars)

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

The Persian Gulf War or Franco-Prussian War

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

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

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

Independence Day War

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

Closer, but Key Flaws

Punic Wars

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

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

The French Revolution

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

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

The Cold War

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

War of the Ring (Lord of the Rings)

Human-Covenant War (Halo)

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

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

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

Pretty Darn Close

Peloponnesian and Corinthian Wars

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

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

One Hundred Years War and/or War of the Roses

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

World War II

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

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

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

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

Star Wars

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

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

Runners Up – The Iraq War or Vietnam War

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

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

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

The Winners – The 30 Years War and Game of Thrones

The 30 Years War

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

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

Here’s that paragraph on the streaming wars:

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

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

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

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

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

Game of Thrones

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

 

The Great Irishman Challenge – The Specific Assumptions for The Irishman Part III

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

Tomorrow, we start to get data for the Great Irishman Challenge. Well, we don’t, but it will hit screens everywhere as Netflix releases it and presumably places it front and center on everyone’s Netflix homepage. One of our goals with this project is to set our criteria ahead of time, this way we aren’t back-fitting the results to our preconceived notions about Netflix. 

Now that we have our models for valuing film explained and re-explained, it’s time to fill in the specifics. Today, I’m going to lay out what we know about The Irishman before it launches. I’ll update some assumptions on the model and revenue streams from some feedback. Then I’ll describe two key inputs for the streaming model—Customer Lifetime Value and Attribution of Subscribers. Plus, I’ll touch on how I plan to triangulate popularity after The Irishman launches, which may evolve as we get more data or potential partners. Finally, I’ll talk about the benefits for this model and how I plan to draw insights from it in December.

Assumption 1: Production Budget

Discussing with Richard, we think this is high. Super high. A pretty good summary of this is Jeff Sneider’s take on his Collider podcast a few months back (episode 11 specifically at minute 54):

“I’ve seen [The Irishman budget] figures from $125, $140, $150, $160, $175, $200 million for The Irishman. If you go on Deadline you can read an article that says the budget is $140 and then two hours later another writer is under a completely different impression and says it’s $200 million. No one is on the same page on the budget for this film. And let me tell you what that means. It means the budget is way f***ing higher than any of you are imagining.”

Gosh, that type of cynicism about PR efforts exactly matches my own. If you hear tons of different numbers that can’t seem to decide how much something cost, well the likeliest option is that it was WAY WAY WAY more. At a minimum, this is a $200 million dollar film. And I’m going to do some scenario modeling up to even $300 million. Which means I’ll split the difference and call it a $250 million dollar movie.

Is this ridiculous? Not so much when you think about it. Consider, what does it cost to get Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci (out of retirement) on a film set? Especially if you’re buying out all the backend, which Netflix had to do since there aren’t any second window revenue opportunities here. (Which is cool too because it simplifies my model.) If I told you between those four it cost $100 million in talent costs, would you blink an eye? Is $150 million too high? I’m assuming $125 million in talent costs.

Then we can add in the extra production costs. This was a very long shoot. (I saw 300 days somewhere.) And then it was as VFX-intensive as some Marvel movies due to the de-aging process, which also required extra work because initial versions didn’t work. (Sneider lays out this situation with great details in his podcast.) This film required a VFX push to get finished in time for launch at the New York film festival, meaning it ran up tons of overtime. Does that sound like $125 million in costs? Absolutely. If not more.

Assumption 2: Marketing Budget

The Irishman will have two marketing budgets. First, the initial roll out. I looked for estimates online and didn’t find a ton. That said, I’ve seen billboards, online ads and even commercial spots. Which screams definitely something, but less than a franchise tentpole roll out. I’d say it’s probably between $50-$100 million, and since I went high with the production budget, I’ll go low here.

(Also, to echo Richard Rushfield’s “see something; say something” if you know a better number for the marketing budget, shoot me a line.)

Then we have the Oscar budget, which is a little bit harder to disentangle. Already, Netflix has started their awards campaigning, but has specifically tied many of their films together, from A Marriage Story to The Irishman. We know from Richard’s reporting that Netflix likely spent over $50 million on Roma’s Oscar campaign last year. They look likely to beat that again. The question is, will they spend $50 million just on The Irishman, or split it with A Marriage Story? Both are getting rave reviews, and I think Netflix is desperate for a Best Picture win. I’m going to end up calling it about $40 million for The Irishman alone.

Assumption 3: Profit Sharing and other revenue streams

We have a few categories here, so let’s run through them.

Library Value? Yep. 

I added library value, assuming the retention model is the equivalent of the theatrical window. Meaning it sets the “price” of the film. Then, we can our theatrical financial model to value library windows. Meaning, the “value” to Netflix for the film after the initial release. To provide an example, Bird Box got most its viewership in the first month, but folks will keep watching it out on Netflix for years. That has a value, which is the “library” value. Using my theatrical model, I’m assuming library value of 25% of first window value. (Specifically, the 10% “digital” revenue for theatrical films is about 25% of the the free, cable, syndicated TV, pay TV and digital second window buckets.)

Box Office Bump? Yep.

If a Netflix film wins a Best Picture, or even gets nominated, that will result in boost in viewership. I’ve seen that for past film and TV series for major awards series. For most Netflix films, this isn’t worth a line in the model, but for this one it is. In this case, I’ll use a 25% threshold of the initial window for the Best Picture bump. This will have a “halo” effect on the library window as well.

Second Windows? None.

Since Netflix films are exclusive to the streamer, every other potential window from home entertainment to licensing to cable channels is a zero in my model. This simplifies our model.

Merchandise? None.

Mobster films don’t really sell a lot of merchandise. Especially brand new films without fan bases or cultural cachet. 

Distribution Fees? None.

Since there aren’t second window or merchandise revenue to shield from profit participation, I don’t need to model any Netflix distribution or marketing fees.

Talent participation? Some.

Initially, I didn’t have any profit sharing, but then I got a note that Netflix for super-duper-huge stars did put a bonus system in place for feature films. Basically, if you hit a certain viewership level, you get a 20% bonus in your paycheck. So I’ve updated the model with that assumption in place, assuming that 80 million views (or “one Bird Box”) is the threshold.

Assumption 4: Calculate CLV

It’s crucial have to a good estimate for customer lifetime value. These are calculated fairly often by other people (see estimates here, here, or here). My difference is I don’t factor in content costs because I’m trying to value the content itself. If I did factor them in, I’d be double counting content costs, and that’s a huge “no-no” in accounting.

So here are my inputs for CLV. First, blended average price per month comes from Netflix’s 10Ks. Customer retention estimates come from various sources, including Second Measure. Crucially, though, I have a much lower rate for international because I’ve heard the churn machine is very high overseas. Finally, I use other estimates of Netflix’s marketing spend for customer acquisition costs. All this leads us to:

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The Great Irishman Challenge – How to Calculate the Straight-to-Streaming Film Profitability? Part II

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

On Monday, I explained the grand plan of Richard Rushfield and I plan to estimate the value of future Netflix films, starting with The Irishman, out earlier this month in limited theatrical release, but coming to the world’s biggest streamer next Wednesday. For traditionally released theatrical films with normal second windows, we have a robust model we can employ. 

What about streaming only? Well, that’s where it gets tricky.

A lot of folks do some back of the envelope math for this, and this can be a useful way to look at the problem of valuing streaming. Take Richard’s approach from a few weeks, back looking at Disney films that had been in theaters after 3 weeks (when Netflix pulls them from streaming). Of all the films, Disney earned roughly $310 million after 3 weeks of theatrical distribution. That’s the equivalent, Richard noted, of 4.3 million customers subscribing for 12 months on Disney+. If that number seems big, it should be, which shows the value of theatrical releases for studios.

Could we just take that approach and just apply it to The Irishman? Unfortunately, it has some flaws, mainly double counting subscribers. We need a different method to employ in “The Great Irishman Challenge”. Unlike traditionally released films, in steaming there are a few ways to value a given title’s performance, and each method has its own pros and cons, ranging from crippling to merely difficult to over come. 

Which I’ll (re)explain today, along with describing which ones are fine, which ones are incorrect, and which ones I prefer. At the end, I’ll explain which one we’re using.

Four Ways to Value Streaming Video and One Way NOT To

I’ve previously valued streaming video in two articles. First, back in January, I looked at Disney’s decision to keep theatrical windows for Star Wars films. Second, back in May, I explained streaming video models in order to put a value to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Today’s article will explain all the models from those two articles and add a new method I figured out how to calculate last month. (I had employed this method at a previous employer, but needed a key piece of data, as you’ll see.)

For each of these methods, I’m going to assume that Netflix had a feature film that was seen by 40 million subscribers in the first 28 days, divided evenly between the US and international. The film cost $115 to make and Netflix spent $50 million to market it. As for box office? Let’s say it had $120 million in the US and $80 million globally.

Sub-Optimal Method #1: Multiply Customers by Month by Price

This is the most common method of “back of the envelope” valuations I’ve seen for Netflix films. Usually, you hear folks do a version of this on podcasts, and I’ve seen it for Lord of The Rings on Amazon a few different times. Also, you could do “customer years” the way Richard did above. Here’s how the model for this approach would look:

IMAGE 7 By Viewers per Month

The problems? First, this is one-quarter of Netflix’s subscriber base attributed to a film in one month, which would probably be one-third of their active users. In other words, if Netflix had two other properties getting similar ratings, then every other film released that month would “financially” be a net loser. Second, this approach doesn’t account for “customer lifetime value”, which is really the better approach to valuing customers, versus the one month or 12 month view. Third, this approach doesn’t distinguish between films and TV series total hours of viewing (because it is just subscribers) so it’s tilted towards films, which are shorter and easier to finish.

Still, you can use this to ballpark how long a film would need to make its money back. It’s just sub-optimal because of double counting.

Sub-Optimal Method #2: Attribute Customers by Usage

One of the interesting ways to look at content is to think about what percentage of viewership a title makes up of all the viewership on your platform. If 10% of all hours watched are your platform are Friends, that has to mean something. The challenge is knowing how much people actually watch on Netflix. Netflix has helpfully told us twice (twice!) that they stream about 100 million hours daily in the United States. That means I can calculate potential usage of a TV series or film! That would look like this:

IMAGE 8 by Usage

The problems? First, getting the usage data is really tough. For films, we’d have a pretty easy time, but for TV series, we really don’t know how many people watch how many episodes. And getting usage numbers for Amazon or Hulu may be nearly impossible. Second, it also doesn’t factor in “customer lifetime value”. Third, it over-weights TV library content because there is just a lot more to watch, hence it’s “usage” is much higher, if you can get that viewership data. 

Still, you can use this to compare the usage of various shows and movies. It’s just sub-optimal because it’s tilted to shows with much longer runs.

The Bad Method: Multiplying Subscribers by Customer Lifetime Value

I’ve seen this mentioned in places, though running them down is tough on Twitter. So this may be a strawman, but it’s worth pointing out in case it hits anyone to do. Twice, I’ve criticized valuation methods because they don’t use customer lifetime value. You may be tempted, then to just take the number of subscribers and multiply by CLV instead. Like this:

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The Great Irishman Challenge – How to Calculate Feature Film Profitability? Part I

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

Chatting with the esteemed Richard Rushfield a few months back—we share sensibilities on Hollywood and the (hashtag) streaming wars—he pitched me a straight forward question. Could we build a model that can answer this deceptively simple challenge:

Did The Irishman make money for Netflix?

It’s a good question because the buzz for The Irishman from critics has been so positive. From what I can tell—based on “film Twitter” reactions—this would be the greatest film ever made by man, except that with this masterpiece Martin Scorsese has elevated from mere mortal to filmmaking demigod.

It would be cool to know if Netflix made any money off it.

Which is pretty tough. I mean, we don’t even know the ratings for Netflix films…how can we determine if they are profitable? It will be hard, but to quote a famous president, we write these articles not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

So you know what? Richard and I are taking the law into our own hands. Yeah, we paint houses, with financial models and data hacks! 

Later this week, in The Ankler newslettersubscribe here for the must read newsletter—Richard will explain our purpose, reasoning and goals to start this project early. Today, I’m going start explaining how we’ll develop a “Feature Film Profitability Score”. In previous articles, I’ve pretty much built the models needed for this analysis. Now, I’m just combining them with a little special sauce. 

Moreover, we’re doing all this ahead of time. We’re not judging The Irishman based on preconceived notions, but based on its actual performance. Moreover, once we build this capability, we can leverage it for future releases on many streaming platforms.

Here’s what today’s article will explain:

– The specific profitability score we’re creating.
– The four models of film release in the streaming era.
– A quick review of the traditional film model.
– Some notes on competing theatrical film models.

The “bottom line up front” is that combining my methods for valuing theatrically-released films and streaming video, we can make a model of success depending on either box office results or streaming popularity. While the last seems unknown, using some publicly available data—mainly Google Trends, potentially other third party survey data, or even Netflix datecdotes—we can make guesses on popularity.

The Goal: A “Feature Film Profitability Score”

At the end of the day, the goal is to keep this project simple. So Richard asked if I could boil this down to one (1!) number for every film—streaming or theatrical—that determines, “How profitable was this?”

Well, I failed, but I have this down to 2 numbers. Let me explain why. The obvious start is that a film can make a lot of money. This is good. Making nearly $2 billion dollars on Avengers: Endgame, Avatar, or Titanic matters. That’s a lot of money. 

But you don’t just want raw totals. If it costs $1 billion to make $1.5 billion, that’s not as good of a value for investors as making a film for $200 million that makes $700 million. Same raw total, but one required less up front capital. This is a quick definition of ROI, by the way. The Joker is currently the ROI golden child of the trades. The all-time ROI club is films such as Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, or Saw that still fill the dreams of indie horror producers everywhere. 

If you wanted a quad chart of success, you could see this:

IMAGE 1 Profitability Quad ChartEssentially, films in the upper right are living the dream. Films in the lower right made a lot of money, but not a great return on investment. Films in the upper left made some money (they aren’t all negative), but had great ROI, meaning they were likely cheap but just not as big as some other films. And don’t be in the lower left—though most films are—which means you aren’t making money period. The majority of films in the current climate end up there. Combining these two numbers—with other metrics I’ll explain—brings us to this scorecard we’ll give The Irishman:

Ankler Image - Feature Film Profitability ScoreBeside the two promised numbers, I have four “breakeven numbers” for streaming films in particular. That’s because “breakeven” is easy for feature films (make more money than you cost), but with streaming the challenge is “what is making money”. I’ll explain those in the last section, but before we get there, we have to explain why I needed to build a new model in the first place.

The Four Models of Film Distribution in the Streaming Era

It’s no surprise that film distribution is changing. And commonly, we say, “Hey Netflix is skipping theaters.” That’s decision number one: to go to theaters or not; Netflix opts not; Amazon (formerly) and traditional studios opt in. Financial modeling wise, that’s an easy decision to calculate.

The tougher part to keep track of—and it is neglected in the media coverage—is the second window and beyond distribution plan. (I’m calling everything from home entertainment to Pay Per View to TVOD/EST to linear licensing to streaming licensing “second windows” for simplicity.) See, a new streamer like Apple is going to put its movies in theaters, but then—from what I understand—release it to Apple TV+ directly, exclusively and forever. Amazon too from now on. In other words, all these windows get condensed into this one:

IMAGE 3 - Traditional Second Window vs StreamingThe cool thing is that all the companies I think of make these two choices, meaning we have only need four models for films:

IMAGE 4 - Future of feature Film dist(Two quad charts in one article? Probably my favorite article of the year. Well, after this one.)

The one variable is Apple TV+. I believe they are doing streaming only, but haven’t confirmed yet. With that understanding, let’s build our models. I’ll need a model for theatrical and streaming only to evaluate the Irishman.

My “Traditional” Theatrical Model 

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