Tag: Star Wars

Most Important Story of the Week – 15 November 19: Disney+ “Sparks Joy” in Customers. What Are the Business Ramifications?

Is content is king?

After this week, how could anyone doubt it? Disney+ showed what having the biggest movies of the last few decades can do for a streaming launch.

But that’s not all! Apple landed one of the biggest free agent producers in former HBO chief Richard Plepler, for a deal whose terms aren’t disclosed. Nor even his role. But we can’t look past Disney can we? Nope. In fact, we’re giving a triple shot of Disney: first, the strategic implications; second, the competitive ramificaitons; third, the numbers.

[Programming note: Starting next week, I’ll be on paternity leave for the birth of my child. I have some articles mostly finished to keep posting, but the weekly column will be on hold until December.]

Most Important Story of the Week – Disney+ and Its Customer Value Proposition

When in doubt, we should default back to the “value creation” model for every business. Is a company capturing value or creating it? 

Disney+ Value Creation Model

I’m going to use my personal example to get at where I see the customer value proposition here. Specifically why me—and apparently 10 million other folks—rushed to sign-up or log-in on day one. Marie Kondo—the famed personal organizer—has a simple test for whether or not you keep something in your house. When you look at it, “Does it spark joy?”

That’s how I personally felt about Disney+.

For once, every Disney film my daughter loves was in one location. Every Marvel and Star Wars film I love was there too. Along with hidden joys like the Swiss Family Robinson or The Journey of Natty Gann. Or the X-Men Animated Series! And Gargoyles! Seeing those films brought visions of how I will binge TV for the next few weeks. 

As I was scrolling through the interface—I didn’t have any troubles—Kondo’s phrase hit me, “Spark joy”. 

It’s fairly incredible a streaming video service can evoke that level of emotion. But that’s the best way to describe the initial experience. Caveat galore that this is just my anecdote. But to judge by my texts and social feeds, the majority of the Disney conversation was celebrating all these films that were previously divvied up between FX, USA, TNT, Starz, Netflix and DVDs into one easy location. By a few reports, some folks even stayed home from work for the launch. That’s the type of devotion only major sporting events or, um, Marvel/Star Wars movies can evoke. 

(Yes, plenty of people gave it an “eh” online too.) 

To put this into the “value creation model”, if my price is $4 a month, the difference between the amount I would pay and $4 is the “consumer surplus”. Right now, I have to imagine that for hardcore fans like me, even an HBO level price would probably make sense, if the shows stay at the quality of The Mandalorian. 

Critically for this analysis, just because the price is so low now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Disney—like Netflix, Hulu and likely every streamer—is definitely underwater from a pricing perspective. Lots of folks locked in at $4 a month, and to produce even the new content will likely be more expensive than that. The key for Disney is figuring out how quickly they can make the price exceed costs. (Yes, as my big series of the year goes on, “An IPB of the Streaming Wars”, I’ll try to quantify this more exactly.)

Then the question is: at profitability, is Disney capturing value (just pricing below costs) or truly creating it? Given that Disney boosted my WTP for a streaming service, I’m leaning towards the latter. Moreover, Disney+ as a platform may drive some value beyond the access to its incredibly popular films. In other words, the whole of Disney+ may be greater than the sum of its parts. And these are valuable parts. (The biggest driver of entertainment WTP is simply having hit shows and movies.) 

So let’s explore the upside theories for Disney+’s value-added future. Since I’m never satisfied, I have some concerns too about some of their strategy.

Upside Theory: The Simpler User Interface – Decluttered

Let’s stay on Marie Kondo idea for a moment. Mary McNamara wrote an article in the LA Times not too long ago making the case that Netflix needs a Marie Kondo-style clean up. She’s not wrong. The reason—as emphasized by AT&T in their recent inventor presentation—is that it takes customers 7 minutes to find a show to watch. (Using a DVR, conversely, takes about 30 seconds…) Netflix is filled with lots and lots of shows and films, many of them “sub-optimal” from a customer perspective. Which makes finding shows difficult.

Well, the Disney+ app is made for McNamara (assuming she likes Disney movies!). Disney+ has a fairly limited interface—reminiscent of the HBO Go application—organized by the various content families. Within each section are the cream of the crop movies at the top, with the rest down below. In other words, the service doesn’t overwhelm you, and what is left will will “spark joy”. This is the best case for Disney+.

Downside Theory: The Nostalgia Factor Wears Off

Credit for this one goes to a Twitter conversation about how quickly “nostalgia” will wear off from the devoted fans. My answer is that in some cases, it never will. Those are the hardcore fans who go to D23. They aren’t enough, though, to build a media business.

For the rest, this is the biggest risk. Sure, I’ve had joy sparked at launch. How long does that last? How much does my daughter actually use the application? (We actually don’t let her watch alone on the iPad.) Especially for the older TV shows. Do they need more TV series to drive adult viewership, as I speculated here? I may find it cool to watch Duck Tales (1980s version), but do I actually binge the entire thing? Nostalgia may get folks in the door but a compelling offering will need new content to keep folks engaged.

Upside Theory: I Was Wrong about The Vault (It’s All Here)

Disney proved my August theory about missing films completely wrong. In the 11th hour they went out and got them all. Which is probably pricey, but helped the value proposition. Since they have all these movies, Disney+ would has something like 20% of the box office demand of the last decade on its service. That’s incredible compared to rival services. I was wrong and they have the entire vault for the most part. Here’s the box office films from the last four years:

image-5-disney-last-five-years.png

But this isn’t all good news. They likely had to pay huge amounts to other distributors to facilitate bringing all these films over. Will this immediate launch help pay that off? Absolutely, but they are deficit spending to make it happen.

Downside Theory: Why Did Disney+ Launch with Avengers Endgame?

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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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