Tag: Game of Thrones

Most Important Story of the Week – 8 November 19: Franchise Lessons from all the Game of Thrones and Star Wars News

What happens when one week has so much news and the next has very little? Well, you roll one topic over. So the “most important story” this week is last week’s runner-up. 

The Most Important Story of the Week – Game of Thrones and Star Wars Franchise Lessons

Last week began and ended with dueling Star Wars and Game of Thrones news….

– First, HBO cancelled it’s “Age of Heroes” prequel series for Game of Thrones.
– Second, HBO announced another prequel series for Game of Thrones, based on the book Fire & Blood about the Targaryens.
– Third, David Benioff & DB Weiss—the Game of Thrones showrunners—had left the Star Wars prequel they planned to make

Since HBO Max sucked up the oxygen out of the entertainment biz room last week, I didn’t really have time to examine what the big franchise moves meant for entertainment. Which is a shame; monetarily, these announcements would have been the most important story in most weeks.

Here’s why: both of these franchises are worth billions. As I’ve written extensively on here and here. And it’s not too bold to say that how HBO manages Game of Thrones and how Disney manages Star Wars will play a key role in either launching successful streaming services or failing (and losing billions).

Today, let’s look beyond how fans will feel about these announcements, to what we can learn from a business strategy perspective. Meanwhile, Marvel will keep coming up, because it’s the most well-run franchise in the game right now.

Business Issue 1: Pilots Are Great Investments

You’ve probably heard the old story that Seinfeld tested very poorly as a pilot. Development executives bring this up all the time when a pilot inevitably gets bad reviews. “Well, Seinfeld tested poorly too!” It ignores obvious counters that most pilots that test poorly ended up being poor TV series. Conversely, quality pilots are highly correlated with successful series. Take Game of Thrones. Sure, the initial pilot tested poorly, but the reshot pilot is one of the greatest in TV. The Breaking Bad pilot was similarly fantastic. 

This is why, I praised HBO for making a pilot for their “Age of Heroes” GoT prequel. You’re about to invest maybe a hundred million dollars in a TV series. Make a pilot and see if it’s good. Except then HBO went straight-to-series on their House of the Dragon prequel series. Sigh. Essentially, HBO Max made a good decision (make a pilot, it tested poorly, don’t go forward) and then made a bad decision (go straight to series). 

When it comes down to it, overall going straight-to-series is just another example of how prices are increasing for distributors without actually increasing the top line. It increases the upfront costs (full season commitments to talent) while decreasing the hit rate (no pilot data to kill duds early). HBO feels like it has no choice, though; since Netflix and Amazon are pushing everything straight-to-series, to stay competitive, everyone has to make everything straight-to-series.

Creative Issue 2: The Source of Game of Thrones Greatness

Still, there may be business logic for why HBO chose one pilot over the other here to go straight-to-series. Looking at what made Game of Thrones great, a lot of things contributed from the showrunners crafting a great story to Peter Dinklage just owning it. But if I had to pick the single biggest driver, it would be George R.R. Martin. Yes, Benioff & Weiss successfully managed a monster TV show, but at its core they wrote in an extremely fleshed out world of George R.R. Martin’s creation.

As a Game of Thrones fanatic, I’ve read everything GRRM has written on the series. Including a history book and the Targaryens Fire & Blood book (the one that is the basis for the straight-to-series order). If you asked me, what has a more fleshed out world, the Targaryen reign or the “Age of Heroes”, it’s the former by a landslide. (The Dunk & Egg books seem like a no brainer for a limited series as well.)

If that’s where you think the source of GoT’s success comes from, that makes the decision for which prequel series to order much easier. Go with the “Targaryens” every time. It has literally hundreds of pages of source material that will require much less from its showrunners than the “Age of Heroes”, which has about a dozen pages of material to draw from. 

Even in Disney’s own house, as the latest departure shows, they can’t  learn any of the lessons about leveraging your source material. Star Wars decided to toss out all it’s source material after the Lucasfilm acquisition. Specifically, the dozens of books in its “Legends” universe. (I’ve, uh, read all these too.) Instead, Kathleen Kennedy and team burned it all to the ground, and as a result had to come up with new stories from scratch. (Sometimes these stories had a vague connection to the Legends universe, but emphasis on vague.) Which makes the hit rate much lower than what Marvel is doing. It also requires A-List directors–or at least Kathleen Kennedy wants to work with A-List talent–which makes business point four below much harder.

Alternatively, Kevin Feige leaned into Marvel’s history. This source material is part of the reason Marvel has been so successful. It’s not like Kevin Feige is writing all these Marvel stories from scratch. He’s just adapting the best Marvel stories of all time, like Civil War or The Infinity Saga. 

Business and Creative Issue 3: Avoid Bad Villains

Multiple friends—all Game of Thrones fans; all unsatisfied with the finale season—complained to me about the prequel series being about the rise of the White Walkers. The logic goes, “They were dispatched so quickly and easily, I don’t want to see them in another series.” Yes, this is an unrepresentative sample size, but it speaks to very real creative issues.

If that sentiment showed up in the testing—and I believe HBO tested the latest pilot with focus groups—then that alone could explain why the prequel didn’t move forward. Doubly so if combined with the lack of source material on the “Age of Heroes”. 

There is a business lesson here too, one about coordination and intertwining storylines. If the ending of the White Walker story was more satisfying for viewers, then maybe my friends message saying, “Man, I can’t wait to see the beginning to that.” Instead, the abrupt/rushed downfall of the White Walkers in a dark episode of television fundamentally ended the ability to create another revenue stream for HBO/AT&T. 

Star Wars faces this too. The last trilogy create a brand new bad guy (Snoke), then [spoiler alert] killed him off, and is currently debating if the big bad guy–Kylo Ren–will become a good guy. Notably, in Avengers Thanos stayed bad the whole time. And now Star Wars may bring back Emperor Palpatine. In other words, after one of the best bad guys of all time–Darth Vader–Star Wars doesn’t know what to do.

Business Issue 4: Franchise Management is Hard. Really Hard.

The challenge for a network like HBO or a studio like Disney is managing not just the creative for one series, but thinking how the movements/plots in one TV series impact the larger business. Or one film impact the larger brand perception.

My current working theory is that Warner-Media doesn’t have as ingrained “franchise management” as a skill as someone like Disney. Disney has TV series and movies for Star Wars, Marvel, Disney animation and Pixar. Every character worth their salt has teams dedicated to manage that brand, building value over time. They really are experts at it and integrating it everywhere.

Compare that to GoT. Game of Thrones acts like an HBO property first and foremost. So HBO gets first crack at all the TV shows, but then nothing else happens. (Part of this is due to the fact that George R.R. Martin still owns the rights, but obviously AT&T should try to buy those.) We see the same thing with Harry Potter going the other way: lots of movies, no TV shows. (And slipping viewership.) DC probably has the most things being made, but with little connection between the movies and TV shows, just volume. (And a comic strategy of rebooting the whole thing every five or so years.)

This is likely the key issue with Lucasfilm too, in that top tier talent doesn’t want to sacrifice their creative vision for the larger universe’s needs. Which begs the question, “Why doesn’t Kennedy bring in creatives who will fulfill her vision?” That would mean not flashy names–like Benioff & Weiss–but directors who get the job done.

Really, only one person has figured out how to reliably do this right now.

The Reality: Marvel/Kevin Feige is the Best at Franchise Management Right Now

If you take all the lessons from Game of Thrones and Star Wars above, Marvel does each one well. Pilots? Feige does test shoots for controversial films to make sure they’ll work. (He did with Ant-Man, for example.) Source material? Yep, he picks the best stories and adapts them well. Good bad guys? Yep, Feige finds fresh bad guys each film. (Though arguably kills them off too quickly.) Coordination? Um, yeah we just saw that with Avengers: Endgame. (He found a set of directors who shared his vision, by the way, in the Russo brothers and gave them four huge films.)

Finally, he keeps the quality high. That’s a unique skill he has. (Unique as in one of maybe 5 folks in Hollywood.) Which is a credit to him. Marvel was barely anything when this century started. But by giving Kevin Feige the reins, his successful stewardship has created tons of value. And now he’s taking over TV whereas HBO/HBOMax is trying to figure it out and Lucasfilm fumbles for the next creative vision.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – Apple TV+ Launched

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 23 August 2019: Apple+ and The Case of the Missing Content Library

Last week, I tried to solve the mystery of who killed Game of Thrones. Well, throw on the trenchcoat and Fedora because I have another mystery. This time a missing person, er, library.

The Most Important Story of the Week – Apple’s Non-Existent Library

My theory of the case is pretty simple:

It is BANANAS to launch a streaming platform–and charge $10 a month for it–without library content.

It might be unprecedented. We’ve had subscription services launch without original content. (Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video in the early days; some movie platforms too.) But we’ve never had a service launch the opposite way. All originals–and not even that many–but no library? Truly, Apple is zagging while others zig.

But as much of a fan as I am of zagging, sometimes you can zag off a cliff. To explain, let’s retell the history of why companies have used library content.

Historical Reasons for Content Libraries

Going back to the dawn of television–we’re talking broadcast here–you had to have something on your channel at all times. Especially in the hours after work. If people turned on the TV, they expected to see something. As the medium matured, the broadcast networks controlled the primetime hours, but the local stations controlled the other hours. Local news was a cheap way to add value, but even then you couldn’t do all local news. So you bought old TV programs and reran them. This was cheaper than making your own shows, but still kept people on your channel.

As the cable bundle turned out to be really valuable, everyone wanted their own cable channels. These channels started as a low-cost proposition of buying old movies and TV series. It was only after years of programming like this that the cable channels eventually turned to premium scripted fare. AMC is the classic example here. Start with classic movies–which are dirt cheap–then move up the value chain. As Jack Donaghy said about another channel, “I remember when Bravo used to air operas.

In a weird twist, in the last two decades new broadcasters have emerged. Same low cost business plan. Leveraging must carry rules, broadcasters like Ion TV (launched 1998, rebranded 2007) and MeTV (launched 2005), are basically all old TV series and some films. Again, the goal is to just get some tune in in the cheapest way possible. (For the TV series, their syndication costs are super low after many previous runs.)

The streamers basically repeated this plan. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video started with old TV series and movies. Then they moved to newer movies and newer TV series and eventually started making their own. But in the beginning, the goal was eyeballs cheaply. Which meant library content. 

In each case, the logic is the same. You have the “bangers”–to steal from the British EDM scene–to get people in the door. That’s Pay 1 movies and new TV series. But to keep people watching, you need a huge volume of cheap content people already like. In short, library content provides “bang for buck”. 

So what could Apple be thinking? If they weren’t charging for these shows, I’d understand. But they may charge $10 a month for it. (More on that number later.) So I have a ton of conjectures.

Theory 1: Customers have to have a subscription to get channels.

This would be my guess if I knew it weren’t already false. Essentially, Apple+ will be a “tax” folks pay to use Apple Channels. This would resemble Amazon’s approach. You can’t use Amazon Channels if you aren’t already a Prime member. So Prime Video acts as a basis of content to the Amazon Channels line up. (Of course, Prime is 94% about free shipping, but don’t tell them that.) Looking at Apple’s website, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Moving on.

Theory 2: The Apple Bundle

Everyone seems to be assuming that Apple will offer a new bundle where the Apple+ is just added on. If you already pay for Apple Music at $10 a month and Apple News for another $10, well add on Apple+ for the whole thing for $5. Except, $5 is still too much if you don’t watch any of the new shows. Again, library content would help the bundle too. So this doesn’t explain why they don’t have any library content either. Next option.

Theory 3: They needed a library right when it got expensive.

Things escalated quickly–to quote Ron Burgundy–in the streaming wars. 

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I think at the start of 2018, a streamer could have assumed that content libraries would still be available for the right price in 2019. And Apple has been planning this launch since at least then. But then the Friends kerfluffle happened and Disney pulled all its content from Netflix and NBC is pulling all of its content. Yikes! All the content is gone, right when Apple needed a content library,. If you can’t buy a content library, well the other option is…

Theory 4: M&A is expensive, AND they don’t want it.

…buying a studio. If you bought Sony, they’d have to give you their content library. MGM or Lionsgate would be other options. Why make your number 2 a deal guy if you don’t plan to do more M&A? So why haven’t they?

Despite breathless proclamations about tech behemoths buying studios like Sony or Fox or Lionsgate or whoever, most of those tech executives have seen the history of studio acquisitions. You buy a studio to get content (cough Sony cough) and regret it within the year. AT&T and Disney may have both just overpaid to buy studios too. Why buy a studio with all the baggage and extra headcount when you can just build your own studio? Apple made it’s number a deal guy, but yet we haven’t seen any M&A. Maybe they planned to, but just couldn’t find the right deal at the right price.

And they likely said, “You know what, we can just do it ourselves!” Amazon and Netflix are.

I don’t quite buy the “buying a studio” is a worse deal than “building it”. And I have a bias towards building where possible. The challenge is speed. It turns out making TV shows is tough. Especially to do it well, on time and on budget. I’ve heard Apple has had trouble doing all three. And then going from zero shows to hundreds is even harder. So the “building a studio from scratch” plan seems much harder to execute in real life than on paper. (I should write more on this right?)

Really, the two numbers don’t make sense.

At the end of the day, the two numbers released this week don’t make sense. You can either launch a free TV service to bring people in, but then you can’t afford $6 billion in content spend. Or you can spend $6 billion on content, but you desperately need a library. One explanation is that both these numbers are wrong–which to credit reporting press–I’ve seen several arguments for that. Dylan Byers, for example, threw cold water on both numbers. So as long as we’re doubting all the anonymous numbers, let’s doubt teh whole thing.

Theory 5: There will be library content, they just haven’t announced it yet since it isn’t buzzy.

That’s actually a pretty reasonable theory, at which point just ignore this column. 

M&A Updates – Hasbro Buys Entertainment One

Hey there! Last week CBS and Viacom; this week Hasbro buys Entertainment One! The M&A tidal wave truly is rolling into town. Though, to show again how wrong those predictions about the M&A tidal wave were, here’s ANOTHER look into how M&A in entertainment peaked, if anything, four or five years ago.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 8.24.05 AM.png

Source: Bloomberg

On to this deal specifically. It probably says more about the toy industry than it does the film or TV industry. Toys have been squeezed for a couple of different reasons–not all technological, though that hasn’t helped–and the safe harbor under pressure has been licensed toys, which sell better with brand recognition. As a result, all the toy companies have been trying to launch their own IP, to varying levels of success. Hasbro basically bought the best free agent available. What comes next? Probably not too much. Despite rumors every so often, I don’t think Disney wants or can afford to buy a toy company. Mattel neither.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men Going to HBO Max; Seinfeld is Next

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A TV Murder Mystery: Who Killed Game of Thrones?

Most of the time, when Hollywood kills off one of its TV shows, we know why. The ratings had been sinking or the talent asked for too much money. (Or recently, it was produced by a rival TV network/conglomerate.)

And yet, HBO killed off Game of Thrones, a TV series that was getting more popular with every season and making its parent company billions in the process. Meanwhile, other long-running series—with worse ratings—from The Simpsons to Grey’s Anatomy to The Walking Dead march on like, well White Walkers. The corpse of Game of Thrones is now—spoiler alert—as cold as Jon Snow’s after season 5.

Why? Who had the motive? And who issued the order?

We Officially Have a Murder Mystery

Frankly, there isn’t a great explanation for why HBO cancelled this series. In the past, I’ve estimated that this series was making an estimated $300 million a season for HBO. (And potentially much more. Read the original, and my director’s commentary here, here and here.) Sure, HBO has a great (on paper) slate premiering the rest of this year and next year, but you know what helps launch a great slate? The biggest show on TV.

Have no doubts this series was growing. The number of viewers rose in every territory that I could find that releases data. Over 44 million were tuning in per episode in America alone, up from 9.3 million in season 1.

GoT Viewership

Of course, in some circles—like HBO creator circles—the story is what matters. Maybe the creators wanted to wrap it up nicely. Except most of the criticism of the last season related to the fact that the series felt rushed. Here is just a sampling of critics and fans complaining that season 8 felt rushed. More episodes and more seasons would have solved this problem, and who knows, by a hypothetical season 9 maybe 50 million people are tuning in in America each year!

Who kills off a money making show? Who are our suspects?

The Suspects

HBO

The buck stops there. So we should start with HBO. Their motive in killing this show would be simple: It’s the most expensive show on television. And since it is already insanely profitable, any additional profits have to be split with talent who are negotiating tougher and tougher deals with more and more back end. Each additional season is less lucrative for HBO, and if the marginal benefits meet the additional costs, well economically HBO should cancel the series.

George R.R. Martin

Listen, George, you’re a part of this. You probably didn’t finish the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, because if you had, you’d have published that book. Which you haven’t. Maybe you told HBO to stop the series. Or you never provided enough details to fully flesh out 3 to 5 more seasons of the show.

The Actors

When in doubt, blame temperamental actors. Am I right? “Talent” is what you bitterly mumble in Hollywood when you can’t control the situation.

The motives for these suspects—and really I’m talking the big five actors of Jon nee Kit, Cersei nee Leda, Jaime nee Nikola, Daenerys nee Emilia and Tyrion nee Peter—is pretty simple: they’re sick of working on this series. Or more precisely, as artists, they’re ready to make other movies about Greek Gods, Han Solo and Terminators. (Too far?)

Further, even if you don’t mind working on a TV show for the rest of your life—including shoots in both scorching deserts and freezing tundras—you do know how valuable you are. You can’t have a GoT without a Daenerys and Jon Snow/Stark/Targaryen. Knowing that, the actors negotiated phenomenally expensive payments per episode, over $1 million per actor. They also likely demanded higher back end percentages.

The Showrunners

If the actors are sick of this series, imagine the two people at the lonely top of the creative pyramid, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (D&D in Reddit parlance). I can’t describe adequately how insanely time consuming this series was for these two individuals. They wrote a majority of the episodes, supervised the entire production from set design to costumes and oversaw all the editing and post-production; and oh by the way (NFL announcer voice), it was the largest TV production in history. 

Meanwhile, they had plenty of opportunities to do other things, from Star Wars to a new overall deal to ideas in their notebooks we can only imagine. If you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars (my tentative figure for D&D once they collect GoT royalties), do you want to keep spending your winters in Iceland and dealing with the most demanding fans in television history? That would be enough to say, “Eight seasons and we’re done!”

AT&T

Is there a thing that AT&T hasn’t managed to screw up since it acquired Time-Warner turned into Warner Media? Since taking over, they’ve lost the head of their movie studio, the head of HBO and plenty of other executives. Meanwhile, they named their new streaming service HBOMax, which was universally derided, and DirecTV is hemorrhaging subscribers. Oh, and AT&T is the most indebted company in America. Maybe they killed GoT to keep the losses from piling up. 

Netflix

When you discuss TV on the internet, you’re contractually obligated to mention Netflix at least once. While we give Netflix a lot of credit and blame for, they’re not involved here. 

The Evidence

Like a detective in Law & Order, it’s time to interview the witnesses. Which in this case means various articles that describes the suspect’s state of mind. Supply your own “dum dum”.

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Read My Latest at Decider: “To Binge or Not to Binge: Who Won the Battle Between Game of Thrones and Stranger Things”?

I just had a guest article published at Decider, this time asking, “Should Netflix keep binge releasing all its series?” My conclusion: not all of them. Essentially, Netflix is leaving “awareness” on the table.

Take a read and share on social media. Also, shout out to Alan Wolk, who tackled this back in the spring with Game of Thrones. I’d been toying with this idea when I read his take, and tried to update his thesis with the Stranger Things data point.

Like all long articles I write, I had two ideas that didn’t fit in the main piece. Here they are.

Has Hulu’s Weekly Release Helped?

It’s tough to say. Here’s the brutal case against it:

Image 8 - G Trends with Handmaids

Frankly, The Handmaid’s Tale is their most popular series and it is clearly the lightweight to the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things heavyweights. So let’s drop those two, and throw it up against some similar competition.

Chart 7 - Google Trends TV.png

That’s better, and you can see the same weekly interest boost that Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones had, just on a different scale. Instead, I still think that Hulu is just much, much smaller than Netflix right now. (Which, yes, isn’t breaking news.) Or about where HBO is, given that the interest almost matches something like Big Little Lies.

The counter to the binge model, though, could also be this chart. If The Handmaid’s Tale had dropped on one weekend, would Hulu even have a chance to keep it in the conversation? I don’t think so. In this case, Hulu made the right decision. This naturally leads us to ask about not just the current streamers, but the future streamers.

What Should the DAWN (Disney, Apple, Warner and NBC) Streamers Do?

Well, it depends on who you are and what your business model is, but overall, I’d be flexible. If you have a show with tons of pent up demand—like the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Amazon—consider weekly releases for the first season. Ride the potential enthusiasm to help launch weeks worth of content.

For the rest, I’d consider what type of content you have. Disney has a lot of shows that will benefit from weekly releases. Star Wars or Marvel TV series are guaranteed to drive conversation on comics and sci-f (fanboy) websites and podcasts. Weekly releases will amplify their reach from season one. For other dramas? Maybe not.

For HBO Max, they know all about launching prestige television, but HBO is about to quickly run out of days to launch all their content. In that sense, having more binge releases may make sense. Though again many of their fantasy or superhero series are destined to be stars in recap culture. For NBC, I still know so little about their platform that I won’t even speculate.

Apple may benefit the most from the binge release model. They are buying a ton of content and needs lots of buzz right from launch. Moreover, they aren’t trying to build a streaming platform per se, but a TV platform of which the content serves a subsidiary purpose. They should probably consider an approach closer to launching all series on binge, then rolling out the hits weekly for season twos.

Fine, What About Netflix?

If I were Netflix, I think they are missing something essential about how the social conversation drives a show to new heights. Right now, they have one potential mega-hit in Stranger Things. Even if they want to keep binge releases for all ten thousand other releases, they should consider carving exceptions for their biggest hits. A Stranger Things weekly release likely would have brought in new customer which they, um, need nowadays.

The key boils down to flexibility and being innovative. Innovation is not saying “Never, never, never.” It’s about understanding your customers, your business models and the attention landscape to maximize your return on assets.

How Much Money Did HBO Make on Game of Thrones – Director’s Commentary Part III: Sanity Checking the Model

Today, is the “sanity check” of my Game of Thrones article guessing how much money it made. I’ve explained where the numbers came from, the high and low cases and all my math. But does this make sense? Can we double check my work? Sure. Again, this is in an FAQ format.

Last big area. Double checking your work. Did you do that?

Yeah, I went through the model a few times. I actually woke up in the night it published in a cold sweat worried I had added or subtracted a line wrong and checked the model in the AM right before it published. I didn’t find anything.

I’ll add, building the high and low cases after the fact caused me to go through the model at least twice more line by line. Still no mistakes found, so the numbers add up correctly. (If you disagree with the inputs, that’s a different question.)

(Though, I could tell stories about models not adding up and really, really, really well paid executives missing it. I mean, REALLY well paid executives.)

That’s not what I meant. Is there anyway to triangulate if these numbers are right?

Ahh. As I think I mentioned elsewhere, getting actual profit participation statements from talent would be the best place to start. Some of the agencies or management companies or talent themselves would have these, and they’d give us the nitty gritty details. HBO, though, wouldn’t admit that the series drove subscribers growth in those statements. We’d need HBO’s analysis of subscribers and trends for that, but that won’t get shared outside of HBO.

To be clear, you don’t have those?

No, I don’t. (I don’t think anyone else does. At least, they won’t go on the record about it.)

What other methods could we use sanity check your model?

I tried to double check my work in a few different ways. The first was to try to find other estimates. 

One of my biggest disappointments of this process was that so few people had tried to do this similar calculation. I think the biggest hold up for journalists proper is that it requires estimating and guessing for a lot of pieces, and most websites/newspapers deal in cold hard facts. (Or other people guessing.) The best articles still tend to to talk “top line” costs, and really just say that Game of Thrones cost a lot, and sold lots of merchandise, without quantifying either. Here are some of the better examples:

2011 – The Hollywood Reporter, “Game of Thrones by the Numbers”

2012 – Slate“How HBO and Showtime Make Money Despite Low Ratings”

2014 – Yahoo, “The Burning Question: How Does Game of Thrones Thrive?” (though caution, this has the terrible “mutliply number of subscribers by months GoT is on)

2017 – The Conversation“How Game of Thrones Became TV’s First Global Blockbuster” (Also, not really answering the same question, but a great read.)

2017 – Marketplace“Let’s Do the Numbers on Game of Thrones

Also, this pops up all the time on Quora, and the answers historically are either just revenue totals or way off. (However, I’ve started hopping in some of the threads to correct the record.)

Finally, I just today found this Wikipedia article on “the most highest grossing media franchises”. Like this morning.

Was the Wikipedia article on total revenue helpful?

In some ways, absolutely. In others, not.

Let’s start with the not. This Wikipedia article cites an article that misquotes a New York Times article, confusing HBO’s annual profit with Game of Thrones profit, which is how they estimate the series earned $4 to 5 billion in subscription revenue. Also, the video games and book sales are likely on the low end, and merchandise isn’t included. However, they pointed me to The-Numbers.com for physical disc sales—a website I used in my Star Wars series—and well, I wish I had found these specific pages before. (I couldn’t find them after a bunch of searching.)

So you updated your Game of Thrones home entertainment numbers?

Oh, no. But their estimates were mighty close to mine and I think it shows both the difficulty and fun of trying to get these estimates right. (When I dive back into Star Wars—around December this year #ClickBait—I’m going to tie The-Numbers estimates to that series too.) Anyways, I pulled the last 8 years of top 100 titles sold in physical disks (Blu-Ray and DVD) and calculated how much GoT earned. For fun, here’s a few other TV titles I saw too:

Table 1 - Total DVD Sales By Year

This is another data point that Game of Thrones is just a monster across every other category. The two other arguably biggest shows in TV at the time didn’t even make it past 2013 with sales. However, to put TV disc sales in context, they’re still dwarfed by movie sales. Here’s Harry Potter and Star Wars this decade:

Table 2 Total Movie Sales

Let’s take those numbers, and compare them to my estimates, and see how close I was:

Table 3 - Initial Estimates w THe Numbers

On the one hand, my numbers get to a gross revenue about twice as high, though my exact sales figures are nearly exact. Exact! 

Huh. What happened?

Well, to start, my initial number is lower, while my decay is similar. My sales figures after season four factor raised the price too, compensating for the idea of selling box sets. Or multiple seasons. I also estimated the sales in the last year.

Moreover, The-Numbers numbers have some limitations. First, these are US only numbers. Game of Thrones, as we’ve mentioned before, is huge overseas, including the UK, Australia and Germany, and Europe has a stronger home entertainment market than the US.

Second, these are only top 100 lists. We don’t have, for example, sales of previous seasons. (They never rated high enough to make the top 100, meaning they have a ceiling of $10 million in 2015, which is pretty high when you think about it.) Also, the biggest unit sales were for individual seasons. We don’t know how many box sets were sold in any given year for past seasons.

Third, this year is the year of the whole series box set. And I have 2 million units projected to sell for it this year and going forward. And even with the decline in home entertainment sales (see my later question on this), I still think it will be a thing. (I think entire Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe box sets will be a thing too.)

Would you change your home entertainment estimates then?

Probably, I would drive my base case up by a little bit. I’d use this as the base case for the US—for new series sales. Then I’d have a library sales figure with some box sets driving up the US average. Then, I’d factor in international sales. However, I think the number would get pretty close to the estimates I already have. I’d consider moving down the top estimate to as well. However, these tweaks wouldn’t drastically change the model as HBO was only keeping 20% of these sales in my model.

How has the decay in physical discs impacted this analysis?

Sure, yeah, home entreatment is declining. It still $23 billion in total retail sales, which is more than streamers are displacing. In other words, the studios and all of entertainment will feel this loss at some point. Here’s the total home entertainment sales by year:

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How Much Money Did HBO Make on Game of Thrones – Director’s Commentary Part II: The High Case, Low Case and Uncertainties

There’s a fun tidbit in this massive must-read article on Kotaku about eSports. Here’s the quote I love:

A 2017 Morgan Stanley report leaked to Kotaku claimed that, in its first year, the Overwatch League could conceivably generate $720 million in revenue, about the same as World Wrestling Entertainment. By 2022, says Goldman Sachs, viewership of pros playing competitive games…may be on par with the National Football League’s viewership today. 

Those estimates are just…nuts. Here’s the thing. I believe those reports made them. What I am more skeptical about is if those reports gave their confidence intervals. Basically, was Goldman Sachs estimating their prediction, or their best case scenario? The best case isn’t a prediction, but your hopes and dreams.

My goal is to never do that. Here’s the thing about predicting the future: it’s hard. A lot of the techno-futurists and streaming-vangelists of the world are better than me in that regard. They know how the streaming wars will end and can predict that with unerring accuracy. I’m not that talented.

Instead, I try to tell you how this business works and try to do so with some modesty. Even with my backwards looking estimates, I want to give you my 90% confidence intervals. That’s why for my big, big analysis articles (explainer here) I build multiple scenarios. (I also try to show you my math. And explain what and how I did it.)

Which brings us to Game of Thrones. In my Decider article, I had to leave out some explanations for space. I’m taking those and giving them to you now in a Q&A with myself I’m calling my “director’s commentary”. (See Part I here.)

Let’s start with uncertainty. What was the biggest variables in the model?

I have two areas that could really swing the model. First, in other revenue, home entertainment and merchandise could have been even bigger than I thought. Again, in winner-take-all, as box office regularly and reliably shows us, the winners are multiples larger than everyone else.

Then, in subscription revenue, the numbers again could be huge. And since I don’t have the actual viewership behavior, it’s really a question of attribution. As is, I had it at 57% of total revenue but there’s a real possibility that this show is even more important for HBO, especially on the international and digital sides.

What about costs? Are they certain?

The costs are pretty relatively certain. The production costs get leaked every season it seems and even marketing costs were leaked this year.

So everything else you’re very, very confident in?

Well, no I’m always wracked by uncertainty. Which in a columnist, I understand is a weakness. (If you fail to project anything less than strength, they’ll get you, like Theon getting got by the Iron Born in Game of Thrones.) At a high level, here’s my confidence in my inputs:

Table 1 - Confidence Table

As you can see, there are always lots of estimates in a model like this. And estimates are better than “guesses” but a far cry from leaks or facts. And even estimates can range from pretty high confidence like the merchandise take or studio distribution fees, to pretty all over the place like tax credits. (I’ve seen the rates for Ireland, but it’s unclear how much GoT films specifically in Ireland, so hard to know. There have been some leaks, but only selectively for certain years too.)

So the revenue estimates will provide the biggest range in the final estimate?

Yep. Oh and one more. Profit participants.

(I had called this “talent participations”, but agents aren’t talent. Shade thrown.)

Specifically, the actors and GRRM. I’m fairly confident the showrunners are getting 10% of the MAGR profits. My gut is GRRM is between 5-10% of that (either matching the showrunners or equal share to them), and the actors could be in that range. And for the initial agreements, I’m pretty confident in those guesses. But…

…what about the renegotiations?

That’s the big uncertainty. After season 4, this show is a monster hit, and HBO needs everyone on board to see it to its conclusion. That’s where the power starts to shift to the talent. And even if this show loves to kill off major characters, killing off Jon Snow or Daenarys Targaryen just seems unlikely. So how much higher did all the talent negotiate in the backend? I don’t know.

Okay, let’s get to the high and low cases now that we know the uncertainty. Can you walk us through the changes for the high case model.

From the top.

Home Entertainment

My working theory is that Game of Thrones is the biggest TV series in terms of units sold this decade, and maybe this century. But is that over a billion dollars in retail sales, as I’ve heard? Again, I heard a rumor around 2016 that Game of Thrones had already earned a billion dollars for HBO. That’s through just six seasons. Of course, I didn’t ask the source if that was gross retail sales or net receipts. But that’s my starting point for a high estimate. 

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How HBO Made Billions on Game of Thrones – Director’s Commentary Part I

One of my guilty pleasure TV series to watch is Forged in Fire on the History Channel. Like Making It, there is something really enjoyable about watching people make things, but especially when they do it really well. Especially in a positive atmosphere, which is what Forged in Fire and Making It emphasize.

Well, if I had a version of that hobby, it would be making business models in Excel. Especially bespoke models for brand new businesses. 

I just love it. I love taking a blank spreadsheet and figuring out how to fill in every line. More importantly, figuring out the data behind each number to get a model to be as accurate as possible. That’s my favorite part of the job. I’d do it even if no one was paying me to do it. If I can do that for things I love—like Star Wars, the Pac 12 or Game of Thrones—even better. 

These models don’t come cheap in terms of time required to build. Weeks of work usually. And the final result of even 4,000 plus words explaining them still usually don’t capture all the insights I think a well-built model provides. So—as I did with the Pac 12—today is the first article diving into all my extra thoughts on my Game of Thrones profit model.

I’ll dust off the FAQ format for it. If you have any questions, hit me up on Twitter, Linked-In or email (see the contact page) and I’ll answer those too.

First, can you remind me what your conclusions were?

Sure. In case you haven’t read the model, here is. It’s 35 lines and ten columns, so it’s small. (If you want the actual Excel, email me and I’ll consider sending. I’d have to clean it up first, though.)

Table 4 Final Estimate

The conclusion again is $2.28 billion is my estimate for how much GoT made from this series. That’s what I’d call my “median” estimate if I were running scenarios on this. And again, it is an estimate, not “truth”.

What do you mean by “not truth”?

Most numbers reported by the entertainment press, in my experience, come from one of three sources: the companies (via earnings reports or leaks), bad surveys or an investment bank releasing their analysis. My estimate would best fall in that last category; this is my estimate of the future.

But estimates are just that “estimates”. Since I don’t have every input—what I’d call “the actuals” in an internal document—I had to make a ton of assumptions. Still, estimates like these can be damn useful training for anyone in business. Unless you employ an industrial espionage firm—and I’m not a lawyer but I’d recommend you don’t do that—you don’t have your competitor’s numbers either.

I expect there is a chance some people who are “more in the know” than me can get someone in HBO to give them the real accounting sheets. Though, as Michael Ovitz’ autobiography testifies, there are quite a few people in H*Wood willing to tell you they know something for certain, even when they have no idea.

Let’s get into the model. Starting with the subscribers section. Explain the difference between accounting profit and your projected profit

Well, the key is that HBO (and all TV producers of wholly-owned series) think of a show in two ways. First, what is the “accounting” profit. That’s the amount they need to pay talent. That is usually made in an agreed upon definition called a “Modified Adjusted Gross Receipts” (MAGR). The people who work at the agencies have this knowledge as does HBO’s finance team. If it was leaked to me, we could make these estimates way more precise.

(Same with Star Wars. Feel free, readers, to leak me any info you want.)

MAGR, though, doesn’t come close to capturing the true value of the series. The MAGR definition usually ties the first run license fee (sometimes called imputed license fee) to the production costs. This gets nowhere near the true value of a TV show. It’s so “sub-optimal” that in my articles on subscription revenue, it didn’t even get its own “not-explanation”. I just dismissed using costs as a stand-in for value. Here’s this demonstrated for Game of Thrones.

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 4.36.34 PM

To quickly explain, to truly get at how “profitable” Game of Thrones had been for HBO, I needed to know how much subscriber value it added. Since this isn’t a hard and fast amount of cash—the way say theatrical box office or home entertainment sales are—networks like HBO usually set an agreed upon amount before the show airs. As you can see, it’s tied to the production budget of a series, usually at some percentage. Historically, 70% if the show can be sold to other windows.

As this table shows, though, if HBO had to pay off the actual subscriber value, then the talent collectively would have made something like $400 million more off the series. In other words, HBO was able to keep about $1.5 billion in profits from being shared with talent. 

Is this a bad deal for talent?

I mean, not as much as it seems. Estimating the value of subscribers is pretty complicated, and if you let lawyers into that calculations, it would get messy pretty quickly. Arguably this only comes up for the biggest hit TV series anyways, of which there are less and less.

How did you come up with your percentage for the imputed license fee?

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