Tag: Film

Most Important Story of the Week – 7 February 19: Why Timmy Failure Launching on Disney+ Spells the Death of Mid-Budget Films

With the Oscars airing on Sunday, it seems appropriate to join the crowd asking, “What will happen to the mid-budget theatrical film?” This seems to always come up this time of year as folks–usually critics–bemoan that Hollywood doesn’t “make these types of movies any more”. But what types of moveis? And for whom?

So let’s dig in.

Most Important Story – Why Timmy Failure Launching on Disney+ Spells the Death of Mid-Budget Theatrical Films

If you’re looking for the canary in the coal mine for mid-budget films–again, hold on a moment for a definition of that–don’t worry about the Oscars or Sundance. Instead, look at this:

Timmy_Failure_Mistakes_Were_Made_Poster.jpeg

Disney, not Netflix, is the place to watch for the future of movies. If even Disney abandons theaters, then all hope is lost. (They won’t; the economics don’t work as I’ve written before. Many times.) But just because Disney will keep major franchises in theaters doesn’t mean mid-budget films have the same hope. 

The traditional narrative goes that fortunately, even as mid-budget films abandon theaters Netflix will swoop into save them. Sort of like Disney+ with Timmy Failure. 

But will they? I don’t know. So let’s explore this issue fresh. I’m going to ask a few questions to myself to figure it out. (Consider this a mini-extension of this series on releasing films straight to streaming.)

Definition: What is a mid-budget film?

As a business writer, I tend to find a lot of articles about Hollywood tend to play fast and loose with definitions. Take, for example,  “independent film”. Most indie films are made or now distributed by giant studios. Which is hardly independent! Instead, we use “independent” as a catch all for “prestige” or “award-contending” films. This makes data analysis tough.

Defining “mid-budget films” has the same challenge. I can probably tell you what is too high to count, anything over 9 figures in production costs. And too low. Anything below $10 million.

But a range of $10-$99 million in production costs seems too big. And likely some films around $75-100 million are still big budget films, just slightly cheaper than others. If I had to pick a number, I’d say production budgets of $40 million is what most people are thinking of as “mid-budget”, with a range of $20-50 million. (This isn’t an exact science.)

What does the narrative say?

If you search for articles on mid-budget films, you’ll find critics or reporters saying they are dead, dying, returning or thriving. So it depends on how you define mid-budget, what you consider success and really whether or not a mid-budget film (Get Out, Knives Out) has come out recently or not to provide an anecdote for the author. 

Instead, let’s turn to…

What does the data say?

Well, I don’t have it. Why not? Because no website tracks production costs in easy to download tables. Or in ways that I trust. Wikipedia usually has estimates, but those are often unreliably sourced. Since I don’t have a data set to manipulate, I can’t figure out the answer for myself.

Sleuthing the internet, I did find one data based article by Stephen Follows. I’ve used his data before and I love this work. He used IMDb data and the answer turns out, like it often does, to be complicated. The number of “mid-budget drama” films is actually fine. He tracks the percentage of films that have production budgets between $15 and $60 million and he finds virtually no change in the percentage of mid-budget films. 

He did find, though, that drama budgets have been declining. And so have budgets for romantic comedies, action films or comedies. This–combined with lack of box office success compared to franchises, sequels and remakes–does support the thesis that mid-budget films are dying. Of course, data can only tell us what happened. For what will happen, I’d argue we need to turn to the models.

What do the models say?

Well, they do sort of make the case that studios should make fewer “mid-budget” films. By models, I mean this distribution chart of box office:

Chart 2 Movies AgainIf you learn nothing else from the Entertainment Strategy Guy, learn “logarithmic distribution”. That’s the shape of the table above. In other words, a few films earn outsized returns whereas everything else fails. On its own, though, the performance of films doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Instead, the key is the correlations between budgets and performance. Blockbuster budgets and campaigns (which means franchises, sequels and remakes) are highly correlated with higher box office. Again, look at my hit rate from my recent Star Wars series:

Table 7 PErcentage with buckets

Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to compare blockbuster franchises to comedies, dramas or rom-coms. If I did–this is based on my personal experience–I’d tell you that those other categories don’t have as high of ceilings as fantasy, sci-fi or super hero films. They just don’t.

This means—and this is what I mean by using the model–that you may as well make your comedies and dramas for as cheap as possible to get the greatest return on investment. But if this is the case, why did we have so many mid-budget films in those genres in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s?

What are the forces hurting mid-budget films?

I see three major forces, and they aren’t the ones usually mentioned (which is just “streaming!”:

  1. First, the death of home entertainment. Physical home entertainment had some of the best margins in the revenue stream. The rule of thumb in the 90s was a film could make it’s production budget in box office, then home entertainment could pay for the rest. While DVDs aren’t completely dead, like music they are way below their peak.
  2. Second, the decline of median incomes. Subscribe here to read my Ankler guest post, but my theory is that the stagnation of American income has stalled theatrical revenue growth.

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  1. Third, the blockbusters are getting bigger. This is because digital distribution in theaters means that a theater can now expand a movie to every available theater if its a huge, huge hit. So when Avengers: Endgame came out, it set a record for the number of theaters showing it, which means all the mid-budget films got crushed. Counter-programming sometimes works, but often doesn’t. 

The multi-billion dollar question, though, is can streaming offset all those forces? In other words, can streaming revenue replace the lost mid-budget theatrical movie. 

How does all this impact Disney/Disney+?

Which brings us to the House of Mouse. And Timmy Failure, a film very few of us probably heard got released. Unless you went to Disney+ this weekend. As with any film, I like to use “comps”, meaning a comparable film. In this case, not only can I find a kids movie that Disney released for families, I can find one about another Tim:

The_Odd_Life_of_Timothy_Green

They both are mid-budget films (Failure was $40 million; Green was $25 million), both based on preexisting IP, both targeted at families. But one went to theaters and made $53 million; the other went straight to Disney+ last week. Hmmm.

Or take films about Alaska featuring canines and aging A-List actors. Togo was a Disney film costing $40 million and it went straight to Disney+ last December. Meanwhile, Call of the Wild comes out at the end of the month. The difference? It cost $109 million.

What do I take from all this? Well, when it can, Disney is deciding that mid-budget films are going straight to streaming too. Even it has started to skip theaters. If you want to know why this is the most important story of the week, here you go. 

What about Netflix?

Who started skipping theaters altogether? Netflix. That’s why there are so many articles about how they’ve killed theaters and/or changed cinema for good

This narrative is both obviously true and frankly also unknown. On the one hand, yes they clearly decided to launch a stream of mid-budget films from their Adam Sandler films to their summer of rom-coms to Bird Box. 

On the other hand, are those mid-budget films? In some cases, I think their budgets may actually be more equivalent to low-budget films, especially the rom-coms. In other cases, say any film with A or B-List talent, I think they may blow past my $50 million threshold. (As we know The Irishman did.) So how many “mid-budget films” Netflix actually makes we don’t know. 

For a good take on this as well, and partly the inspiration of this series, here’s The Netflix Film Project on a recent Netflix mid-budget film, The Shadow of the Moon that no one is talking about. It’s cool they made a mid-budget film…but if no one sees it did it matter?

Which brings us to the crux of the issue. So Netflix is making mid-budget films? Are they working for them? Or for Disney?

The Implications (and huge worry) for Mid-Budget Films Direct to Streamers

Is anyone watching mid-budget films on Netflix? Or Disney+?

We have no idea.

A point I’ve made over and over and so has half of the journalists covering Netflix. 

But I’ll say this. My models that show that you may as well either make huge tentpole movies or small films that cost nothing has the exact same logic on streamers. If you’re going to spend $50 million making a film, you may as well spend $100 and quadruple your viewership. Or decrease spending to $10 million and get about the same viewership for a quarter the cost. What you don’t want to do is get stuck in the middle. 

As long as profit and making money don’t matter, then mid-budget films are fine to draw in talent. Why not? It’s not like Wall Street cares. If that changes though, it’s hard not to see mid-budget films as the first casualties in the content budget.

In other words, if you want mid-budget films, don’t hold your breath for streamers to be your savior. They are now, but the forces that decreased the budgets of theatrical mid-budget films (they didn’t die) are coming for streaming. At some point.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Hulu’s Big Week

Meanwhile, the biggest “event” news story was the departure of another CEO from Hulu, with the consequences that Hulu is now reporting in to Kevin Mayer at Disney. The Disney consolidation of Hulu is nearly complete and combined with Disney+ this gives Disney their both shot at disrupting Netflix globally.

When will that happen? Sometime in 2021. Disney is going to roll out Disney+ internationally, learn it’s lessons, then roll out Hulu (backed by FX content) next year. Which is a smart strategy.

Earnings Report Summary – Disney+ gets to 28.6 million subscribers.

This week’s buzziest story was all about the Disney earnings report. But, like Netflix, it’s really a tale of two numbers for me. The headline number is the Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu subscribers, which were all up in big, big ways. Obviously, this was driven by their aggressive pricing and discounts, but it worked:

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 1.44.49 PM(Yes, Disney+ is available in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. Even if you subtract 25% from the Disney+ total, it’s still likely Disney has more “subscribers” than Netflix by the end of the year if not the next quarter.)

If I had a caution, and it’s the same one I have for Netflix, it’s that these costs are being born by Disney in the terms of declining free cash flow. Disney in 2018 Q1 made $900 in cash; in 2019, that dropped to $292 million. In other words, they are on track to lose $2.4 billion in free cash flow this year. Just like Netflix! 

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 2.11.32 PM

Pay attention to this story as HBO and NBC join the money losing crowd this year.

Data of the Week – Youtube Earnings

I’ve long had the wish that Google would disclose Youtube’s financial numbers. Well, it must have been my birthday because I got my wish. The headline numbers are that Youtube makes $15 billion dollars a year, has 2 million Youtube Live Subscribers and 20 million Youtube Music and Premium subscribers. In other words, Youtube is the behemoth we thought it was. 

M&A Updates – 2019 Off to a Slow Start

That’s the headline of this Financial Times article and it matches the broader feeling of the landscape. I still think the fundamentals mean that M&A will likely stay slow for the foreseeable future in entertainment. (My series on M&A provides a good long term look at M&A in entertainment, without some of the hyperbole you see.)

Screen Shot 2020-02-10 at 12.52.49 PM

EntStrategyGuy Update – Checking Back in with Luminary/The Ringer

When a company launches as the “Netflix of Podcasting” you have my attention. In a negative way. I was skeptical folks would pay more than Disney+ for access to a few exclusive podcasts. (And I’m also skeptical of companies founded by the children of billionaires with access to capital.) Sure enough, Luminary has lowered their price

The biggest worry, though, has to be Spotify’s continued gobbling up for podcasting companies, the latest being Bill Simmon’s The Ringer for $250 million.

Lots of News with No News – Super Bowl Ratings Are Slightly Up

The ratings for the Super Bowl were up year over year for the first time in five years. Why is this not “news”? Because any one year’s ratings can be noisy, and despite being slightly up are still in line with the historical average. My recommendation? Check out Wikipedia for the charts that tell the best story:

Screen Shot 2020-02-11 at 3.37.39 PM

So while I’d love to tell you this means the Patriots are bad for ratings, I can’t in good faith do that. (Though I was glad I didn’t have to watch them again. Sorry Boston fans.)

The 2019 Star Wars Business Report – Part I: The Economics of Star Wars Films

If I didn’t have a little Padawan join my family in November, one of my goals was to update my massive “How Much Money did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm Acquisition?” series. That delay actually helped because I wouldn’t have been able to get that article up before Rise of the Skywalker came out. Meaning I would have had to guess on a billion dollar variable!

And since I didn’t have to guess, we know that Rise of Skywalker joined the caravan of Disney billion dollar box office film in 2010s. Still following Lucasfilm/Star Wars in 2019 had a sense of dread. For every good news story there was a bad one. So how do we truly judge—from a business sense—how well Lucasfilm did in 2019?

We use numbers. Strategy is numbers, right?

Since Disney doesn’t release franchise financials—why would they?—I have my own estimates. I last updated these in the beginning of 2019 (with films updated in 2018) so I’ll do a big update to the model to learn what we can about how well Lucasfilm did in 2019. I’ll break it into two parts. Today’s article will cover movies; next week, I’ll review the rest of the business units, TV, licensing and theme parks. Previously, I only focused on the price Disney paid compared to their performance. Today and next week’s article will instead act as a report card on how 2019 impacted Lucasfilm and Disney’s business/future.

What this Analysis is NOT

There are so many cultural takes on Star Wars, especially since The Last Jedi, that I feel it’s important to clarify what I’m NOT doing here. (A UCLA forum I follow, for example, had a 60 page “debate” on the latest two films.) 

To start, this isn’t my “fan” opinion on the franchise. My opinion is just one person’s opinion, so whether or not I “loved” the latest film, or the one before it or “the baby of the same species as Yoda” doesn’t matter. In the aggregate, Disney does and they track this via surveys and focus groups. But lone individuals online? Whether they love or hate recent moves? Not so much.

To follow that, this isn’t a “critical” perspective either. I haven’t been trained in the dark arts of cultural and film criticism, so my opinion again just doesn’t matter. (Does Disney care about the critics? Controversially, I’d argue not really.)

What this Analysis IS

Instead, I’ll focus on three areas per business unit for Star Wars (read Lucasfilm):

Profit from 2019 (most accurately, operating profit)

In my big series on the Lucasfilm acquisition, I was looking at a specific question about the value of Star Wars vis a vis the price Disney paid. But if you’re Disney, that deal is now a sunk cost. What matters for Disney strategists or brand managers is how much money the franchise is making now. That’s the focus.

Long term impacts on the financial model and the 2014 deal

Since I have a gigantic spreadsheet filled numbers that I can update putting this all in terms of the $4 billion (in 2014 dollars) context, I may as well update how the model has changed. Further, some decisions Disney makes now will directly impact how much potential profit they can keep making on Star Wars. So I’ll update that too.

Brand Value

This last part is the hardest part to quantify, but is crucial as well for putting the above two decisions into context. See, a brand manager doesn’t just care about making money this year, they care about making money next year and the year after and so on. And there are ways to make money in the short term that damage a brand in the long. Threading the needle of making money while building brand equity, not just drawing it down, is crucial for a brand manager. 

This is admittedly a tough section to quantify, but it still feels particularly important. (Again, the goal is not to sneak in my opinion, but use data where possible to figure this out. Though narratives will likely figure in.)

With those caveats, let’s hop into the most important business unit, the straw that stirs the blue milk, films.

Movies

As of publishing, Rise of the Skywalker grossed $1.05 billion, with a 48% US/Canada to 52% international split. In my model—which I’ll repeat is a lifetime model, meaning all future revenue streams—I’d expect Rise of the Skywalker to net Lucasfilm $798 million, nearly identical to Rogue One. (As I clarified before, my model is a bit high compared to Deadlines’ model. There are a few reasons, but mainly I calculate lifetime value.) So that’s the first building block for how Star Wars did in 2019. In my framework of films, I’d have called this a “hit”. Here’s a table with Disney’s 5 Star Wars films in the 2010s:

Table 1 - First Five Windowing ModelBut what does this mean?

Star Wars Feature Film Trend Lines

That’s where things get tricky. The key question for me is context. If we were using “value over replacement” theory, and you looked at the last Star Wars in “value over replacement film”, well it does terrific. Very few films get over a billion dollars at the box office!

However, I’d argue that’s the wrong context. This is a Star Wars film. So how did Episode IX do in “value over replacement Star Wars films” context? Not very good. To show this, I updated my giant “franchise” tracker through 2019. 

Let’s start by just charting Star Wars film performance. First by category, separating “A Star Wars Story” into their own category. Second, by release order by decade.

Chart 3 - Star Wars v03

Chart 2 - Star Wars v01

The worrying issue for Star Wars brand strategists are the trend lines. This isn’t a series trending upwards or even maintaining consistent film launches. If Disney wanted to reassure themselves, they could say it isn’t their fault, lots of franchises lose their mojo over time, like Lord of The Rings, Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean. Here is the chart I made in 2018 for franchise performance, updated through 2019 launches. They show the US adjusted box office and how series have trended over time:

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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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Most Important Story of the Week – 17 January 20: The Optimistic and Pessimistic Strategy Cases for Peacock

With that, the final major entrant of the streaming wars has called their shot. (Besides SuperCBS. Is holding on to CBS All-Access and Showtime really their entire plan?) So we didn’t have to go very far to find our…

Most Important Story of the Week – Peacock Announces Their Plan

Investor day presentations are the ultimate in needing to see through the flash for the substance. In data, it’s all about “signal versus noise”. In presentations, the noise is deliberate. It’s designed to confuse, overwhelm and mislead to get you to invest, support or buy. (Which is why I think most biz presentations internally should be in black and white. Let ideas stand on their own merits, not the quality of powerpointing.)

From that angle, I’d put Comcast-NBC-Universal’s Peacock debut above HBO Max and Apple TV+, but still lagging Disney+ (who knocked everyone’s socks off). They leaned into the “30 Rock” angle, which is smart branding. This is all the more reason we need to wear our skeptical glasses to look for what NBC-Universal didn’t tell us, or what Comcast overhyped.

Overall, my gut take is more bullish than when I first heard of “Peacock”, with some huge lingering caveats. Reading my draft today, I found the positives more compelling than negatives, which surprised me. I’ll dive into this area in three parts: The upside case, the downside case, and implications for (selected) competitors.

The Upside/Bull/Optimistic Case for Peacock

Strategy: Zigging while others zag means becoming the “broadcast streamer”

By the time Peacock is fully launched–while April is the target date, it won’t go national until July–it will be the last streaming platform to the party. NBC’s logic seems to be, if you’re late to the party, be free. 

Not a bad plan!

Then that way all the already spent wallets still have room. Since broadcast has always been “free”, you just pay with your time, there is some justification in saying, “We’re the broadcast platform of streaming.” I’ve always felt that NBC-Universal had the most broadly appealing cable channel offering. They have sports, news, dramas, comedies, and reality. Now it’s all coming to one platform.

Really, the way to look at this isn’t that Peacock is a slow follow of Netflix, but a fast follow of Pluto/Tumi/Xumo. Since I think those companies really do fill a customer need, I like the idea. Moreover, they have a differentiator, as they themselves pointed out, Peacock is essentially the premium FAST

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 1.18.25 PMWhile I respect the “zig while others zag” approach to business, it doesn’t work if you don’t have a strategy. My initial take is Comcast has a strategy here.

Customer Targeting: Latinx viewers

A natural part of business analysis is to assume everyone is like you. Avoid this temptation. In entertainment, this means I, for example, have huge blind spots in international viewership. This even applies to the US, where I lag in coverage on Spanish language programming. Comcast has owned Telemundo for a bit now, so they don’t have this blindspot:

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 11.42.07 AMCredit to Peacock for seeing this customer need and serving this demographic. (Netflix does serve this too, and entered Latin America very early on.) The “Spanish Language Streaming Wars” are probably worth a deep dive article.

Company: A surprising willingness to be innovative.

Consider this an extension of the “zigging while others zag”, but I had a genuine worry that Peacock would end up as another clone of Disney+, Netflix, Prime Video and HBO Max. (Mostly the same product and similar content profiles.) 

Except Peacock is definitely trying out a few new things, which shows a commitment to change we don’t usually see. Specifically, the “live channels” approach, which only furthers the “fast follow of PlutoTV” thesis. If you know what you want to watch, the UX will have on-demand video. But for everyone else–or the folks who just want something on in the background–Peacock will have live/streaming channels. Will this work? Maybe, maybe not, but at least it shows some innovation. (For example, nothing in the Disney+ launch was innovative to that platform, just more streamlined than Netflix.)

Content: Pretty darn strong, especially in TV.

Peacock helpfully provided a list of the shows they plan to air. (Probably not an exhaustive list.) And it’s pretty strong. I’m as impressed as I was during the HBO Max roll out. (Also credit to NBC PR for making the document available and hence easy on journalists to absorb.) Here are some specific content pieces I think will be strengths:

The USA Network Shows: This is the bread and butter that built Bonnie Hammer’s career–former head of NBC Universal Cable Productions, she now runs content for all NBC Universal–so naturally a lot of these shows will be on Peacock including Suits, Covert Affairs, Monk and Psych. It remains to be seen if they are “exclusive” digitally, but still a good slate. USA Network is historically underrated because it’s popular in middle America, not one the coasts.

The big broadcast shows: Everyone knows about The Office, but everything from Cheers to Brooklyn 99 to Frasier to Everybody Loves Raymond to Two and a Half Men will be on Peacock. That’s a hefty dose of rewatchable series. And lots of rewatchable procedurals in Law & Order and Chicago series.

Bravo/E! tentpoles: One of the strengths of NBC-Universal, I’ve always felt, is that they have a broad reach of channels to draw content from, for example, the unscripted reality space. At first, I didn’t see these shows on the list, but a lot of them will be on Peacock. While most reality doesn’t fare well in bingeing long term, some does.

Late Night: Premiering their two Late Night shows in the primetime window is a great change for customers, such as myself who usually watch tape delayed. This feels smart to me, as more and more content gets time shifted.

Content: New categories to one streaming platform: sports and news.

HBO Max won’t have sports; Disney is pushing all sports to ESPN+, and Netflix refuses to even consider it. Thus, NBC steps into the breach and says their streaming platform will have sports in the same interface. (Amazon, of course, has toyed with sports for a while and offers a few sports channels as add-ons, plus one NFL game in America.) Thus, ignoring the type of content, NBC may have an advantage here. ESPN+ and DAZN remain separate apps which could decrease engagement, except for hardcore sports fans.

But we can’t ignore content forever. The question is whether English soccer, NHL and two weeks of Olympics every two years is enough to sustain sports. I don’t think so, which is why I think Comcast could be a buyer for additional sports rights, be it more NFL, NBA, MLB or college rights. (The great pitch too is that this is both digital and physical, keeping both windows. I think professional leagues are rightfully scared of a “digital only” approach that risks losing viewership/fan engagement overall.)

As for news, the best thing about news is it’s much cheaper than sports to get into. Plus, NBC has a fairly strong brand, if titled toward one side of the political aisle on cable.

The Downside/Bear/Pessimistic Case for Peacock

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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:

Slide2

(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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Most Important Story of the Week – 10 January 20: The Most Important Question of 2020

Welcome back to my weekly column. My attempt, usually, to select the story in the business of entertainment that will end up being the “most important” for leaders, strategists and companies. Not the story that is the most buzzy or interesting—though it usually is—but the story that will have true importance.

Having stepped back from writing for holidays—and mostly disconnected from the web—I’m busily digesting a stream of year-end and decade-end articles. Which I promise I’ll get to either here or in the newsletter. Instead, this week, I’ll talk about the question I’ve been thinking about for the new year.

The Most Important Question for 2020: What is the Same and What is Different?

At family gathering this holiday season, a relative used a phrase that has stuck in my head:

“in the new economy”

It’s actually so common to use nomenclature like this, that I think bolding that singular word is important to highlight its truly revolutionary implication.

Embedded in the idea that we have a “new” economy—and you could call this digital disruption, the technology revolution, or any of dozen other buzz words—is the idea that something has fundamentally changed in how the economy works. Not just that the situation is changing. That always happens. But that the economy is different; there was an old economy, now there is a new one. And fundamentally they are different.

Let’s key in on that word “fundamentally”. This doesn’t mean on the surface. But a deeper level of core fundamentals. Imagine if we had a “new physics”. Would that be the equivalent of Albert Einstein replacing Newtonian physics? Not really. Einstein didn’t dispute Newtonian physics, he provided a model that explained more than Newton’s version.

When it comes to the new economy, we’re not refining, but overturning! Futurists hyping the new world say that something has changed in the model itself. It’s as if we woke up one day and suddenly Plank’s constant had changed values. As if the speed of light raised or lowered its speed limit. As if the hydrogen molecule suddenly had a different atomic weight.

For us to truly have a “new” economy, it means that technological changes have invalidated or upended fundamental principles of economics. As if net present value, charging more for products than they cost to make, and creating value for customers are somehow no longer applicable to the business landscape.

My challenge when writing about the streaming wars is that I’m temperamentally conservative by nature. Despite futurist claims to the contrary, while things change and evolve, I don’t think they overturn core, fundamental economic principles. Technology and globalization change the situation and require adaptations, but economics is still economics. Strategy and business are still strategy and business.

But…

I do think the perceptions we are in a “new economy” illuminate the greatest challenge for business leaders (and myself) in 2020, the year the streaming wars become a hot war. Even if the fundamental principles of business, strategy and economics haven’t changed, well a lot else has. The key challenge for strategists is figuring out what has changed and frankly what hasn’t. In my opinion, the broad media—meaning everything form mainstream trades to social conversations to podcasts—does a great job at hyping all the change, and a much worse job at explaining core economic principles/fundamentals that still matter. (Even if they can seem to temporarily hibernate.)

A theory for what really divides the bears and the bulls on Netflix.

If the streaming wars have a psychological battleground, it’s debating Netflix’s future. You have the bulls on one side who see no end to the upside; and the bears fiercely contesting them on the other. Mostly on Twitter, but also spilling into the business and trade press.

Partly, the debate is so fierce and competitive because of this question. My theory is that how you feel about Netflix boils down to how you feel about what is different and what is the same in business, economics and entertainment. We don’t really disagree on the facts, we disagree on what they mean.

Take what is different. On-demand content. This is something no bear can argue is not a fundamental change to how TV is consumed. The idea of having a programming executive filling in a grid every week is gone. That part of the business has irrevocably changed. (Well, maybe. The rise of ad-supported streaming means someone or algorithm needs to program live TV!)

Take what is the same. Losing money is bad. This is something that even the bulls know needs to change for Netflix. The question is how much money they can lose and for how long.

Everything else is up for debate. This is what makes the debate and coverage of Netflix so difficult. On one hand, Netflix is a binge-releasing, algorithmically driven, streamer up-ending business models. Disruption! On the other hand, they are still just making a bunch of TV shows and movie and distributing them to customers who pay by subscriptions. Traditional!

How you feel about Netflix is about these edge cases and asking, is this the same or different? Is skipping theaters revolutionary, or foolishly passing up revenue? Is binge releasing content revolutionary, or needlessly avoiding building anticipation? Does Netflix’s data really help them program the channel, or do they still have teams of development executives doing the same jobs they always have, just with bigger check books? Or lots from column A and B?

The Streaming Wars

I could apply this to the entire streaming wars. What do you think has fundamentally changed in the entertainment business? Technology, certainly. Digital distribution means new ways to send consumers content. But the business models themselves…are still business models. And the same rules apply.

Sure a bunch of traditional entertainment companies are launching their own (money losing) streaming platforms. They need to catch up with Netflix and Amazon and the others who disrupted their business. The question for streaming, really, is what is truly revolutionary, and what isn’t. At the end of the day, collecting subscription revenue from customers is something cable companies and premium channels have been doing for decades.

Anyways, welcome to the new year! We’ve got a lot to explore, understand, explain, discover and more and I’m happy to have you along for the ride.

Other Candidates for Most Important Story of the Week

College Humor Laying Off Employees

The demise of the early generation of video websites such as College Humor and Funny or Die is, in my opinion, directly tied to the rise of Facebook and Google as an advertising duopoly. Potentially advertising share that should be going to publishers is getting captured by them. In total, this decrease in competition is bad for customers and consumers in the long run. And the whole economy, really.

Twitch Doesn’t Make a Lot of Money

Priya Anand of The Information is out with the scoop that Twitch—Amazon’s live TV service—made a whopping…

$300 million 

In 2019. And only $230 million in 2018. 

Those numbers are…bad. For context, just CBS TV network earned $6.1 billion in 2018. Just CBS. You can imagine the rest of cable TV and even Youtube. Likely Twitch isn’t profitable for Amazon, which means that five years in Amazon has only gone further into the $1 billion whole. Assuming just a 15% cost of capital, for tech that’s not bad, and they’re going to need to dramatically scale to make back the investment. That’s my gut thinking on the deal.

The challenge for observers of digital platforms is that we don’t hear the details of companies like Twitch, just gaudy user numbers that have been and are inflated by bots, fake views, and a host of other issues. As a result, advertisers clearly don’t trust the platform and there really isn’t as much money being made as it seems like it should.

I’d be especially worried for those hyping esports leagues. (Which is subtly different from folks making money by being celebrities on Twitch.) Most esports leagues have gaudy projections and financial numbers. But if all of Twitch can only generate $300 million per year, that’s a small pie to split a dozen or so different ways.

Data of the Week – Scripted Series Grows to 532

According to FX’s John Landgraf. To get a sense of all these titles, and the deluge of reality and children shows, I recommend All Your Screen’s running tally. The NY Times has a good visualization of FX’s data. Also, Variety used their insights platform in December for a similar look. My one other caveat is I’ve never seen a good clarification on whether or not this includes  international originals, which I feel is slightly misleading, as those TV series were always being made, just not in the United States. 

Lots of News with No News

The Golden Globes

The Ankler probably blew up this annual awards show best. When nominees can and do invite the entire voting body to their house for a birthday part, well, that’s tough to take the results seriously. Meanwhile, as a driver of buzz, the Globes success. It does generate publicity for the streamers, the question is whether the juice (buzz) is worth that squeeze (awards campaign costs). 

As for the Oscars, if the Globes, guild award and BAFTAs are a sign, I think we’re still on track for a moderately unpopular Academy Awards best picture field. Not the worst, since Joker and Knives Out did well, but not as good as it could be if they had nominated the deserving super hero movie of the year, Avengers: Endgame.

Quibi, Quibi, Quibi

Quibi had a big presentation at CES, which was covered everywhere. Besides a specific launch day and confirmation on price ($5 with ads and $8 without), I’m not sure there was a lot of other news here.

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.)

871878e86165ef98858ea0235551942d

(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.