Tag: Streaming

Should Disney Have Released Mulan to PVOD?: Part III of “Should Your Film Go Straight-To-Streaming?”

Last week, we figured out that Mulan was likely watched by 1.2 million Americans on its opening weekend. (Plus or minus 1-1.5 million.) We estimated this means it likely ends up with a global PVOD of $150 million.

But what I didn’t do was explain what all that data means.

Which is today’s article. As I was writing up my implications, I realized I was really writing another entry in my series on the changing film distribution landscape, “Should you release your film straight-to-streaming (Netflix)?” So here’s the latest version of that. As before (See Part I here or Part II here), I’ll be asking myself the questions.

Was the Mulan PVOD “experiment” worth it?

I’m probably too much of a stickler on language–I called out a much more influential strategic technology analyst on Twitter for mixing up aggregation and bundling this week–but I do believe terms of art have a role in setting strategy. Words have meaning and mixing them up can make for sloppy understanding.

The word “experiment” should be reserved for true experiments. Meaning scientifically rigorous processes to draw statistically significant conclusions. In business, this is incredibly hard to do. Most often, we have a sample size of “1”. Given that a company can’t split the universe into multiple alternate realities to see what happens, if they change their strategy they have only one data point to draw conclusions from. They only have the one strategy to adjust. It’s an “n of 1” as I wrote last Wednesday. Meaning we can’t draw conclusions from it.

I prefer “test” instead.

Fine, was the Mulan “test” worth it?

Probably not. Because most “tests” really don’t help refine strategy. Strategically, it’s usually a mistake to run “tests” that muddy your strategy and/or consumer value/brand proposition. In this case, Mulan was huge news. With tens of millions of dollars on the line, you shouldn’t run “tests”, but make strategic decisions that align with your long term strategy.

As it is, Disney got the data that PVOD sales didn’t match their expectations. Consider a question I’ll ask later: What if Disney had released Hamilton on PVOD? Then arguably the test would have worked! But the true difference is one film was the most popular musical of the last decade, and the other was a live-action adaptation. The track record on live-action remakes is more mixed: they’ve had a much more up and down reception. (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast did really well; Cinderella less so.) In other words, we could have guessed that Mulan could not launch well but Hamilton would have.

But that’s why Disney needs to decide if PVOD is a part of their strategy or not going forward.

Okay, my last try: “Was the Mulan PVOD release strategy the best one to maximize revenue?”

That is the best way to ask the question! Thanks, me.

I think it wasn’t. With the caveat that I’m second guessing the executives, let’s review the options Disney had in front of them. They could release in theaters now, or next year. They could try the PVOD test. They could release in TVOD. Or go straight to SVOD on Disney+.

Trying to run the numbers wouldn’t really help since it would require tons of estimates and just guess work. But if we’re ranking the options, my gut is Disney ended up choosing the 3rd or 4th worst option. I’d do it this way:

1. Release on TVOD in September in Disney+ territories, theaters elsewhere.
2. Release in September in theaters globally, with a shortened window.
3. Release sometime next year in theaters globally.
4. Release on PVOD in September as above.
5. Release straight to SVOD in Disney+ territories, theaters elsewhere.

Here’s my logic for number one: Mulan had higher brand equity than Trolls: World Tour, so it would have generated more interest. Indeed, the biggest release tactic that held Mulan back wasn’t the price, it was the distribution strategy. However, you could convince me that options 2 and 3 could have beat option 1.

As I wrote a few weeks back about “exclusive distribution channels” when it came to Spotify, Podcasts and Joe Rogan, when you go “exclusive” you artificially limit your upside. Disney essentially opted for the same path here. The problem was their exclusive channel doesn’t look to be worth it. Essentially, TVOD would have expanded the footprint by so much that it would likely have generated more sales. So that’s my number 1 option to maximize revenue. (And a lower price I think would have further convinced folks to buy it.)

What about the new subscribers Mulan brought in?

Uh, look at the Antenna data of new sign-ups in context of past releases:

antenna-longer-time-period-1

In other words, Mulan didn’t drive new subscribers. Because it was PVOD, fundamentally, it didn’t help with retention either. The number of new subscribers is barely statistically significant.

What about releasing in theaters?

Unlike Universal, Disney hasn’t been expressly antagonistic to theater chains. (Though as soon as AMC and Comcast agreed on a deal, they publicly became best buddies again.) So assuming Disney could have sold the theater chains on it, yes there is a chance they could have released Mulan in theaters followed by a simultaneous or 3 weeks later PVOD release. That would have made more money than PVOD only.

The logic for me is simple: give multiple options for customers to watch a film. The challenge is most theaters in huge markets are still closed. It’s that uncertainty that is hurting theaters more than anything. And the theater chains would have fought fiercely.

Could Disney have held it until next year?

They could, but three things are holding them back. Which I’ve been struggling to explain all summer, and think I just figured out.

First, the financial cost of capital. Which is the idea that if you spend $200 million to make a film, the goal is to eventually make $216 million accounting for inflation since the entertainment industry’s cost of capital is roughly 8%. (No matter what else you know about entertainment, that’s the key math.) If you wait a year, you need to make 8% extra to cover the costs of the delay. That’s the damage “cost of capital” does to a cash flow statement.

(Want an explainer on net present value/the time value of money? Go here.)

For big films, this is clearly worth it; smaller films it isn’t. If the next Fast and Furious film does a billion dollars, taking the 8% cost of capital hit is better than a 60% total revenue hit. Using this logic, Disney should have moved it back.

The second cost, though, may be the real driver. That of what I’m calling “organizational” cost of capital. If everyone moves their films back simultaneously, the problem is many of those films can’t release at the same time. And that means you can’t start making new films, since they won’t have anywhere to go.

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Mulan vs Tenet: I (Don’t) Declare a Winner

At first, I was tempted to call “Mulan vs Tenet” the biggest battle of the streaming wars. Each weekend in September, we’ve eagerly awaited answers to the hottest questions in film: Will Tenet save theaters? Will Mulan blow up the model? Who is making more money? Who is WINNING?!?!?

It turns out that the answer to the first two questions is probably no. As for the third and fourth, well, that’s tricky to answer. But since it’s the logical follow-up to my article on Monday, I’ll do my best.

But I wouldn’t call this a battle. If anything it’s a “skirmish” on one end of the larger distribution battle. (The sort of way that Pickett’s Charge was one tactical engagement in the larger Battle of Gettysburg.) Just because it is a skirmish doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Skirmishes are what win or lose battles! (For want of a nail…) 

So after three weeks of data, let’s analyze what we know. Here’s the outline of today’s article:

– First, two lessons on data that set the terms of the debate.
– Second, an analysis of what we know about each film, including US box office, International box office, and PVOD sales to date.
– Third, thoughts on each film’s revenue potential after these initial windows.
– Fourth, a comparison between the two films and declaring a winner.

Kidding! I won’t do that last part because I don’t know the answer. Moreover, I won’t draw giant conclusions about what this means for the future of film. Because frankly two films won’t fundamentally change the landscape. But I’ll explain that point in future articles. For now, the performance of these films to date.

(Also, I found that I was linking to a lot of my articles explaining the business of film. To keep this article clean and not polluted with links, I put a “reading list” at the bottom.)

Bottom Line, Up Front

– Comparing the box office of Tenet to PVOD of Mulan is comparing two different windows to each other. That isn’t apples to apples.
– That said, we can’t know the future value of either film because both “inputs” are “n of 1” meaning so unique that we can’t build a model.
Tenet will likely gross $325-350 in global box office.
Mulan will likely gross $70-100 million in global box office.
Mulan will end up with likely $155 million in global PVOD (with a big range of $105-$270 million.)
– As for lifetime earnings? No one really knows, because there aren’t good comps to make accurate estimates.

Two Data Lessons: Apples to Apples and “n of 1”

My primary job on this site, as I see it, is to explain the entertainment business. You can find lots of places on the internet opining about the entertainment business; I’m trying to teach you why it works the way it does. And in the “Mulan v Tenet” debate, I see two major mistakes being made.

First, Apples-To-Apples

That’s my simple term for comparing like-to-like. In some ways, statistics/data analysis/science is essentially the quest for comparing things like-to-like as much as possible. That way you can isolate the the true drivers of causality. (That’s why random controlled trials are random and controlled.)

Here’s a simple example from last week: folks saw that 7 Park’s data was much larger than peer analytics companies for Mulan’s debut. The key, though, was that they were measuring eight days of data, and not just the opening weekend. They were also measuring the percentage of folks who watched Mulan who were active users, not all subscribers. Once you accounted for this, their math (1.5 million subscribers), was close to other estimates (1 million at the low end for Antenna and 1.1 from Samba TV). Comparing things apples-to-apples solved the problem.

In “Mulan v Tenet”, the key question/claim at the center of the debate misunderstands this notion. Consider these major windows of movie revenue:

IMAGE 1 - Table Second Window Waterfall

The question I’ve seen written and been asked repeated is, “Is Mulan making more than Tenet?” We could reframe it based on the windows in question. Basically, “Is Mulan making more money in PVOD than Tenet in domestic box office?” That would look like this:

IMAGE 2 - MvT Current Debate

But this isn’t the right question. It’s comparing apples-to-hammers. (A Chuck Klosterman phrase.) Look:

Image 3 - MvT Good

This framing really sets the terms of debate better, in my opinion. Even after Tenet leaves theaters, it can go to US domestic TVOD and home entertainment. So even if the answer to the current question is, “Yes, Mulan has likely made more in PVOD than Tenet at the domestic box office,” the question doesn’t make sense.

(Since PVOD wasn’t a window when I first made this table, I added it above. And I summarized all digital/streaming the “pay windows” to show the timeline better.) 

Really the question is, who will make more domestic revenue? So we should fill in this whole chart, accounting for blacked out windows:

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 1.23.54 PM

And we can see that two big chunks of revenue for that are the same: who will make more in Pay 1, Pay 2 and library distribution? (That means all the future revenue implied by streaming (like Netflix), airing on premium channels (like HBO), cable (like TNT) and other places. Now that question is tricky because of our next data point.)

“n” of 1

I was inspired by the “n” of 1 after reading earlier this year an article in the Economist about the rise of “n” of 1 medicine. “n” is statistics jargon for sample size. If you poll 3,000 folks about the Presidency, your “n” is 3,000. If your sample size is all Americans, that’s a sample (population technically) of 300 million. “n” of 1 medicine is referring to treatments designed for one individual with a unique life-threatening condition. It means the “sample size” is so unique it’s a category by itself.

This applies to box office and film revenue analysis. When we make forecasts based on opening weekend performance, we can do that because movies are similar and we can account for the differences to compare things apples-to-apples. Hence, we use Marvel films to forecast how much money films based on superheroes will make, while accounting for the time of year of the release and various other factors. (Scott Mendelson at Forbes is my favorite analyst at this.)

Once we have box office, we can use its results to forecast all the other windows a feature film is sold into. That’s how my film forecasting model works. It’s a fairly accurate system. We can also do it for PVOD, TVOD, streaming, TV and any revenue stream. Once we have an input, we can derive the rest.

The challenge for both Mulan and Tenet is they are unprecedented. They are without comps in the United States because: 1. No other blockbuster film has released during a pandemic that closed 70% of theaters and 2. No other film released to Disney+ exclusively for a one-time $30 payment. 

Because of this, making any forecasts about profitability is perilous. Or should I say, highly uncertain. Meaning, while I know what Mulan did in PVOD—see Monday—I’m much more uncertain about what this means for future windows. Conversely, while I know how well Tenet is doing, I don’t know what that means for future revenue streams, since Tenet is only available in 70% of US markets, that account for about 40% ticket sales.

So let’s start with what we do know.

The Data: International and US Box Office, Mulan PVOD and Forecasts

The easiest data to find is domestic and international box office. Since Tenet has been out a bit longer, it’s getting easier to see what its final total will be. So I’ve included the likely final box office total ranges offered by Scott Mendelson.

IMAGE 5 - Box Office with Rnagers

Are those numbers good or bad? Well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so who knows? As Mendelson makes the case, for an original material sci-fi live action film, Tenet is doing really well!

Meanwhile, even the ranges on Tenet are fairly uncertain. I put $350 million as the likely ceiling, but if New York and California reopen theaters, there could be give it a late boost (and stronger “legs”) as folks go to see it. Or not! A recovery that happens quickly is also unlikely so it could stay middling. 

Meanwhile, we know from Monday about how well Mulan is doing on PVOD.

IMAGE 6 Mulan Summary PVOD

The wildcard of the Mulan PVOD numbers is the fact that Mulan wasn’t just PVOD in the United States, but globally where Disney+ is available. My analysis from Monday focused on US analytics firms since there aren’t a lot of estimates for global performance. It turns out Mulan was released in every Disney+ territory but France and India, which includes these territories:

IMAGE 7 - Territories and Price

You’ll note it’s also cheaper in dollar terms in other territories. Time to go to the comps. What I did was find the last five Disney live-action remakes, pull down their box office by territory, and use that as a comp for demand:

IMAGE 8 - Disney Live Action Comps

The way to read this chart is that the “Disney+ territories that have Mulan” tend to account for 43-75% of the box office of the United States box office. Great! That becomes our tool to forecast PVOD revenue in those other territories. My low will be 40% (slightly lower than the Jungle Book comp) and I made a high of 100% based on Scott Mendelson’s back-of-the-envelope estimate. I consider that the far outlier, but with this much uncertainty that’s okay. Here’s the results:

IMAGE 9 Mulan International

Of course, I had high case and low case forecasts from Monday, which we could combine. The worry with our estimates now is that we’re making estimates on estimates, which doubles the uncertainty. Which you’ll see in how big our range is getting:

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 1.27.19 PM

What do we know? We have estimates for how Tenet and Mulan both did in their opening “windows”, one of which was PVOD/theatrical, and one which was theatrical only.

What don’t we know? What comes next.

The Comparison: Mulan v Tenet

Here’s a rough look at the current revenue of both Mulan and Tenet. As in how much each film has brought their studios as of this (rough) moment, roughly through their first month of releases:

IMAGE 11 Current Revenue

To answer the question I said you shouldn’t ask up above, yes Mulan globally has made more money than Tenet as of this moment. Crucially, the presumed 90% net take beats the 50% domestic/35% international split of theatrical. (Though I think that Disney’s split with PVOD partners like Apple, and Amazon may actually be lower than 90%, but don’t know for sure.) Here’s the look at the question I said we should ask:

IMAGE 12 Lifetime Estimate

I love this look because it clarifies how much we don’t know. Which is frankly how much Tenet will make on TVOD/DVD, how much Mulan will make in home entertainment, how much more Tenet can make by going to premium cable, and how much both will make in streaming.

Why not try to estimate it? 

Because I don’t believe the Tenet or Mulan numbers are good comps for forecasting. 

If Tenet’s US box office is depressed because of Covid-19, then it’s home entertainment could make as much as Trolls: World Tour or Mulan at home. Meaning it could have as large a window as Mulan had since 60% of theatrical attendees couldn’t see it. It’s rumored that Mulan will go wide on TVOD (including iTunes, Amazon and maybe even Pay-Per-View), but I don’t know if that viewership has already been cannibalized by this PVOD experiment. If it hasn’t, it could add 33% more revenue as Trolls: World Tour did when it went cheaper on TVOD in July.

Meanwhile, Tenet will eventually be on HBO and likely HBO Max. But Mulan will stay on Disney+ exclusively? Could I calculate that exclusivity value? Nope. Because I still don’t know enough about Disney subscribers to conclude that this PVOD experiment drove subscribers or that Mulan will have good replay value on the platform. (Unlike Netflix, who we have multiple years of US-only data to parse.)

This is the “n of 1” problem I discussed above. There are so many conflicting variables that my usual methods of forecasting are out the window. Same for the studios. They’ll basically have to collect the revenue and see what shakes out.

Thus, at $35 million dollars difference between the two, I’m calling this a push. It’s as likely Tenet makes more money for Warner Bros. as it is Mulan makes more money for Disney.

In short, we’ll never really know who “won” this skirmish since our numbers are close enough to call it a draw. I’d add, using one proxy for demand, Google Trends, it looks like Mulan peaked higher, but Tenet may last longer.

IMAGE 13 G Trends Tenet vs Mulan WW

As for how demand shifts from here, we’ll see as they release on additional platforms.

Reading List

Really, this article is a continuation of this series I started in December on “Should You Release Your Film Straight to Netflix? Part I” and “Part II” In that series, I explore the economics of taking a film straight to streaming.

Previously, I built a model on how to forecast “revenue” for straight to streaming titles in this series, “The Great Irishman Project”. It’s fairly tricky to forecast streaming revenue, but definitely possible. (Netflix does it!) See my methods explained here.

I also built and explained a film finance model for feature films released traditionally, which I first explained back when I launched the site in a series evaluating the Disney-Lucasfilm acquisition.

HBO U.S. Subscribers Over Time – Visual of the Week

Inspired by AT&T’s release of HBO Max “activations” and total HBO subscribers, here’s a timeline of HBO subscribers and HBO+Cinemax subscribers over time:

IMAGE 1 Chart

If you’d like to see that in table form, along with some financial numbers, here you go:

Screen Shot 2020-08-03 at 11.13.55 AM

What about total subscribers? Again, we only have data from 2011-2017, but here you go:

Screen Shot 2020-08-04 at 9.35.20 AM.pngSome quick points and explanations:

– This data was cobbled together from random leaks, Time-Warner’s annual reports and AT&T’s earnings reports. (Links here, here, or here for leaks and here for Statista.) If you know of any I missed, send them my way.

– There is a chance that the reason AT&T didn’t release 2018 numbers for HBO, in addition to the merger being ongoing is because their numbers during Game of Thrones season 8 last spring were higher than they are right now. We don’t know because of gaps in the data, but looking at 31.4 million HBO subs alone in 2015, then considering they had 5 million digital only subscribers in 2017, that could easily have been higher than the current 36 million.

– With only 3 million subscribers having “activated” HBO Max, that service has a lot of room to grow. I’d compare that to the early days of Amazon Prime Video; it too had a lot of time to convince people to try it out, but also the free cash flow to wait. Math and explanation of activations over at Variety.

– If you want more on the financials of HBO, and discussion of their subscriber counts over time, read my article at Decider and the Director’s Commentary.

– Comparing multiple subscriber counts with different definitions reminded me of this table I built for Netflix last fall. I’ll update it this fall with yet ANOTHER definition for Netflix.

Most Important Story of the Week – 24 July 20: The Incredible Shrinking Libraries of Peacock and HBO Max

The initial draft of this weekly column went very long in the “data of the week” section. So long it’s going to be its own article next week. (It isn’t that time sensitive.)

Meanwhile, the biggest story is one of omission…

Most Important Story of the Week – The Incredible Shrinking Libraries of Peacock and HBO Max

While the entertainment press often stares at shiny objects–Tenet’s delayed again is the example this week–I still can’t quite believe my eyes on this one:

The Harry Potter films are leaving HBO Max in August!

I’ve been telling everyone that the streaming wars aren’t a sprint, they’re a marathon. Heck, they’re an ultramarathon. Just like (most) real wars. World War II wasn’t won on December 7th. (Fine, 26th of May 1940 for my UK readers.) It slogged on for half a decade more. The Vietnam War or Iraq War were twice as long at least. Historically, wars have gone even longer. (Like 30 or 100 year time spans!) Even the Galactic Civil War in Star Wars lasted ten years. 

Yet the newly launched streamers tried to win it on day 1. In addition to the departure of Harry Potter, we have…

– The Jurassic Park films are leaving Peacock this month for Netflix.
– The Hobbit films quietly left HBO Max sometime in July.
– The Matrix films are leaving Peacock along with some Fast and Furious films.
And more

As far as content planning goes, this is bad strategy. The thinking for the traditional streamers must have been that buzz would never be higher than launch, so the goal was to present the impression that there are tons of blockbuster movies. (Just like Disney+.)

Of course, when folks see tons of movies, they expect them to stay there. If they leave without similar high-powered replacements coming in, the result is disappointment. Traditional HBO knows this, which is why every Saturday they usually have a big new movie, but it leaves after a few months. (And why no defining films have left Disney+.)

Why haven’t they paid more to keep these buzzy films around? Traditional companies like making money. And Wall Street still expects them too. It’s cheaper to pay for a limited, non-exclusive streaming window measured in months (or even days) than to permanently end some of these lucrative exclusive linear deals in the United States. (TNT/TBS, USA Network/Syfy, and FX/FXX still pay handsomely for blockbuster films. So do Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video.)

Disney paid dearly to get nearly all their rights back and keep them. As a result, Disney streaming has lost lots of money so far. (It did have some films leave the service, such as Home Alone.) Meanwhile, it stays focused on the numbers that drive Netflix’s stock price: subscriber counts.

In defense of HBO Max and Peacock, I’m not sure losing any of these titles besides Harry Potter and Jurassic Park will really hurt the brand. If I were offering them advice, though, it would be to end these old habits of shifting films around constantly. Some library rotation will make sense; windows under a year do not. The key to the traditional streamers competing with Netflix is to offer consistent libraries of classic films. Their value proposition is that their films are better on average than Netflix. Rotating films in and out won’t provide that. 

This does mean, frighteningly, to ignore the money guys. At least for now. Since the economics are all in flux anyways, the cash now doesn’t actually exceed the potential cash later, but that’s a tough case to make.

M&A Update

IMG and Learfield’s merger was cleared last week, consolidating another industry, this time sports viewing rights, mainly college. This will likely be anti-competitive and Sports Business Daily has the details. (Hat tip to Matt Stoller for pointing me to it.)

Meanwhile, the tech giants can’t seem to help themselves. First the Wall Street Journal reports that Google specifically preferences Youtube for video searches. Second, the Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon explores buying start ups, then copies their business models. 

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Let’s do quick hits on other stories that piqued my interest.

UTA Signs the WGA Code of Conduct

Whoa! Why did I spend so much time on Netflix last week when this story is a way bigger deal?

It doesn’t end everything with the writer’s-firing-their-agents-strike, but this is the first major agency to break ranks. Though the deal definitely will have compromises on the writer’s side. I have to imagine that we’ll see WME and CAA strike deals soon, but I could be wrong.

Amazon’s New Video Game is a Dud

Amazon released a big new “shooter” video game out of private beta testing into public beta testing, then put it back into private. In other words, Amazon’s quest to be the “everything store” isn’t going about as well as their quest to make movies/TV shows: it may take a decade to make a profit, if they ever do. 

AMC Wins Latest Profit Sharing Deal

It looks like the talent for The Walking Dead will lose their suit against AMC Networks over profit sharing. Of course, with these legal opinions you never know how it will actually end or if it ever will.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Updates – The Films Moving Backwards

My take on Disney moving the dates for some of its films for next year–and following Tenet by delaying Mulan–is that the production pause is finally starting to impact the 2021 calendar. Every month that you can’t be shooting is another delay to already tight production/effects calendars.

Really, this issue has been covered widely, but with theaters closed in California, Texas and Florida, it doesn’t make sense to release blockbusters in America. And throws off the entire calculus. 

The solution to break the logjam is for someone to just reopen with the library titles doing well in drive-thrus. Obviously this would have to be done safely, using the best procedures to keep everyone as safe as possible. And not in locations with spiking cases. And this seems to be what AMC is planning to do. Which could finally break the impasse.

Should You Release Your Movie Straight to Netflix? Part II: The Streaming (nee Netflix) Counter-Arguments

Last December, I started a series whose goal was to valiantly defend the theatrical distribution model. This doesn’t come (only) from some soft spot in my heart for theaters, but from the economics of making movies. Studios can earn a lot more money by releasing their films theatrically. I’ve taken to calling this the “Booksmart Conundrum”.

Nevertheless, the question I asked last winter—“Should you release your film straight-to-streaming (Netflix) or to theaters?—is as relevant now as ever. Indeed, it’s almost quaint to imagine an article from last December is still relevant, given all that’s happened:

– Coronavirus came and closed theaters.
– Comcast (via Universal) released Trolls: World Tour straight-to-video.
– Disney put Artemis Fowl straight to Disney+, and later Hamilton.
– Netflix bought the rights to countless films and put them straight on its service too.

Does all that news invalidate my article series? Far from it. Here’s the plan. I’m going to continue my Q&A as I had it planned last December. Then, I’ll dedicate an entire article to the post-Coronavirus landscape and it’s implications. 

So let’s do it.

Question: Seriously, you’re going to pretend “Covid-19/Coronavirus” never happened?

Not at all. Obviously the immediate impacts are real and I’m monitoring them in my weekly column. (Example of my latest back in June, here.)

But the core economics of releasing films in one streaming window versus multiple windows starting with theaters hasn’t really changed. They may have been tweaked given some of the new behaviors—but you know I’m skeptical on that—but Coronavirus is the “Asterisk Extraordinaire” of our time. The more confident someone is in predicting the future impact of Covid-19, the more likely they are to be wrong.

What matters for studios in the immediate term is when traditional theatrical releases restart. I still maintain that will happen before the end of the year, and likely in August. And when that happens 90% of the model will be intact. So that’s what we’ll discuss in this series.

Question: Fine, can you remind me where we were?

Sure, because I had to do it myself. To start, I finally built a straight-to-streaming financial model for films. This means that via Netflix Datecdote I can estimate how much money an individual film made for Netflix. How cool!

You can read how I built the model, why it works, and the results for The Irishman here. I built this model at the behest of the venerable Richard Rushfield for his Ankler newsletter, and showed how I can use this model very recently when I calculated the results for Extraction on Netflix too. I would add, Nina Metz at the Chicago Tribune did a great write up on my methodology too.

The most useful part of a model, though, isn’t the results but what the model tells you about how the world works. That’s the point of this series: take the model and use it to draw insights about streaming versus theatrical business models. In Part I, we focused on how much money a film makes in the various “windows” it transitions through. No matter how you cut it, theatrical distribution is a huge part of that window. Over 30% easily, but that’s actually rising as home video declines. (Also don’t neglect how home entertainment, TVOD, EST, and premium cable can add to the bottom line too.)

Another key insight is how much better the margins are better for theatrical viewing than they are for viewing at home. As a result, if you don’t release in theaters, you’re giving away potential revenue. Did I calculate this specifically for Netflix? I did, and found out, under a pretty reasonable scenario, they could have easily left $750 million dollars on the table in 2019.

Question: Three quarters of a billion dollars? Why would Netflix do that? If you were making the strongest pro-straight to streaming argument, what would it be?

The folks at Netflix aren’t crazy. They can build these models too. And the folks at Amazon tried to release their films in theaters. The most generous explanation I can give would go like this:

When a film goes to theaters first, it risks being viewed as unpopular if it flops. That would destroy the value on the streaming platform. Moreover, by going straight-to-streaming, Netflix and others have the added value of exclusivity on the platform, driving new subscribers. This is really the point of putting films on streaming anyways, to acquire and retain subscribers.

That’s really two explanations in one. First, failure at the box office destroys value and second that exclusivity raises value.

Q: Is this a strawman, or do you have someone making this argument explicitly?

This is the argument Scott Stuber—Netflix head of film— made to Variety at their conference. His quote:

IMAGE 1 - Stuber to Variety QuoteEssentially, he’s more afraid that film will bomb at the box office than it won’t perform on his service.

Well, I have a two word answer for him:

Late Night.

Q: What does Late Night have to do with it?

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Is Disney Is Throwing Away Its Money Generating Machine? Thinking Critically About Deficit-Financed Business Units

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling
The Flywheel Is a Lie! Distinguishing Between Ecosystems, Business Models, & Network Effects and How They All Impact the Streaming Wars

If Disney+ has done nothing else, it has given the Disneyphiles tons of extra documentaries to consume. Making of Disneyland here. Insights into props here. More behind the scenes here.

My wife and I have watched some of “The Imagineering Story” documentary and there was a tidbit in the first episode about Disneyland’s launch which has stuck with me:

Disneyland was profitable by the end of the first year.

To compare Disney to the company that led the introduction to last week’s article, if Amazon opens a “BezosLand” in Seattle, do you think it would make money in its first year? 

Heck no!

It would probably never make money. It would be created as a unique bonus for Prime subscribers who could attend for free. We would never find out how much money they make and if there were rumors BezosLand was losing billions every year, they’d leak to a few favorite journalists that the “data” makes it all up for them in selling more socks.

It feels quaint what Walt Disney did in the 1960s: He saw a way to create value—have amusement parks that were clean and cutting edge that emphasized decades old beloved characters—and when he launched it, he was quickly proven right. This is capitalism at its finest: for his bet he earned lots and lots of money. Shareholders still are benefitting from his foresight.

Far from being quaint, Walt Disney was actually on to something. For most companies making money is key. This is true even in the streaming wars. But we’ve lost sight of that fact because so many companies entering the streaming wars with plans to lose oodles of money doing so. 

This is part II of my three part exploration of “flywheels” in the streaming wars. Last time I defined my terms. Next time, I’ll use the principles of this article to look at a few other new streamers. Today, the lesson is all about why making money still matters, even in streaming. And Disney’s future is the case study.

Summary

– The best way to evaluate any business is still Net Present Value.
– Even in flywheels and deficit-financed business units, the goal is still the same: to invest money in net present value positive endeavors.
– The risk of a “flywheel” with a deficit-financed component is that you simply lose money, not start the flywheel spinning.
– Disney provides the case study in this: if streaming can’t/won’t make money, their flywheel of toys, parks and resorts won’t make up for it.
– Thesis: The best business model makes money at every point, not “flywheels” that lose money in one area to make money in others. This is actually the forgotten lesson of Walt Disney.

A Reminder about Net Present Value

Fortunately, the key to evaluating flywheels is the same as the key to evaluating all businesses: 

Net Present Value

Or NPV. The short hand for calculating “net present value of the discounted future cash flows”. That’s a finance-y way of saying that a company should invest in businesses that promise to make money. Again, we’re talking Finance 101 here. But it’s worth repeating because I’ve seen many businesses or ventures praised in the streaming world who likely won’t make money, even on a net present value basis. (They use narratives, not numbers. And strategy is numbers.)

Read my explainer for this concept here. (And no website can do it justice, you really should read your finance textbook to understand the details.) But for a reminder, since I use it a lot, 90% of NPV decisions look like this:

– You invest a lot of money at the start. (Capital expenditure)
– You slowly start to make some money. (Revenue)
– You still have some ongoing costs. (Cost of goods sold.)
– You subtract the two, and keep the remaining. (Profit)
– You take those future sums and account for the time value of money. (Discounting)

Since we’re talking Disney, here’s a look at my big series on how much they made from Star Wars toys:

IMAGE 2 - Discounted Star WarsThe problem I keep running into with streaming video is folks seem very willing to ignore these two core principles when evaluating the streaming wars. Most money losing/unknown streaming or digital video ventures are excused because frankly we don’t know. Since we don’t have the numbers—and it’s hard to calculate them—we use narratives instead.

If you take nothing away from this article, remember that even a flywheel can be evaluated on NPV terms. It’s components can, nee MUST!, be evaluated on NPV positive terms as well. Otherwise, companies run a huge risk.

“A License to Lose Money”: Explaining Deficit-Financed Business Units

Consider:

– Prime Video (money made unknown) isn’t around to make money, but to sell more socks, thus spoke Jeff Bezos.
– Apple TV+ (will spend $6 billion on content) isn’t around to make money, but to sell Apple devices and Apple Channels.
– AT&T (will spend at least $3 billion on HBO Max) isn’t around to make money, but to sell more cellular subscriptions.

In these cases, the explanation is that video is a means to an end. At extremes, defenders of the “lose money in media to make money elsewhere” even call it a “marketing expense”. 

It’s worth dwelling on the concept of “marketing expense” more. Because in the previous world—the old fashioned/traditional business world—it wasn’t like you could just label something as marketing and spend as much as you wanted on it. Indeed, marketing was always taken out of your operating profit. So the more you could trim marketing while keeping sales the same, the more you trimmed! That’s why advertising is the first thing to go in an economic downturn.

Despite the branding as marketing expenses, there is real money being spent on video. These are real products from real business units. Not simply “marketing”. We need a new name, which is why I’ve come up with:

Deficit-Financed Business Units.

DFBUs. Yes, I was in the Army so I acronymize everything. It’s worth unpacking the phrases to see why these definition makes so much sense. 

First, a venture is “deficit-financed” if the plan is to never make money on it. Or to make money, but so far in the future that current financing is still net present value negative. Thinking about this abstractly explains why. Say I offered you a billion dollars a year starting in 2050. The key is you have to pay me $20 billion now. Should you do it? Heck no! You could just invest that $20 billion and probably double it multiple times before 2050, making more than enough to pay yourself $1 billion per year.

That same scenario is a microcosm of “net present value”. Should Apple invest $20 billion right now to make $1 billion a year in 2050? Heck no! Just keep it in cash or cash equivalents. No matter if it is marketing.

Second, I like business unit because it really distinguishes between streaming video companies  and a marketing expense. Plopping down several million dollars for a Super Bowl ad could be a net present value negative decision. (And should be evaluated in those terms.) But we should distinguish from genuine efforts at marketing versus creating brand news businesses, that in most other contexts would need to make money. 

The Riskiness of DFBUs: You Don’t Make Actually Make Money on the Flywheel 

My worry for companies and investors is that they don’t insist on looking at these business ventures with an NPV lens. As a result, DFBUs become a license to lose money for big tech companies. They may even grab market share—that’s certainly the case with all of them—but that doesn’t mean they actually make money.

That license usually has a justifciation, though. If we lose money on this part of a flywheel, can it make more money elsewhere? In other words, the key question is:

Can Deficit-Financed Business Units Turn a Flywheel?

This is really the supposition that has fueled the rise of streaming video. If you have a true flywheel or ecosystem, getting more customers in will help cause it to spin. That’s expressly Jeff Bezos’ logic. Apple’s too. AT&T even.

The answer? Maybe. It depends on the flywheel.

My thesis is that they can, but they are risky and hence rare. Losing money is easy for a business to do. Allowing someone to lose money means they will. It makes their thinking sloppy. Moreover, it’s easy to get the tradeoffs slightly wrong, and you deficit-financed business unit just becomes a money losing hole.

And I think I can illustrate this with Disney. If you’ve been following me on social, you’ll know that my household has been into Disney’s Inside Out recently. Which is appropriate to call back to, for this scene:

That’s how I’d describe DFBUs, they’re shortcuts that should be labeled danger. The current danger-disguised-shortcut facing Disney is losing money on streaming (Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu.) to make it on extra toy sales. The rationales I’ve seen justifying Disney’s move into streaming reinforce this money losing narrative. I’ve seen the same arguments used by the tech conglomerates trotted out for the House of Mouse. For example, I’ve seen Disney’s streaming efforts explained as…

– They’ll lose money on streaming to get folks into the “ecosystem” of theme parks and toys.
– Disney has a flywheel and streaming video will bring more subscribers into the flywheel.
– Disney should disrupt the theatrical business model to own the customer relationship in streaming. 

So all the buzz words. Of course, since strategy is numbers, the question isn’t what narrative you employ to justify losing money, but whether or not the investment will make it up in the long run. So let’s quantify—for what I think is the first time on the internet—the actual numbers behind those narratives.

The Messy Financials of Disney

One of the first explanations for Disney’s push into streaming was so it could “sell more toys”, just like Jeff Bezos sells more socks. But take a gander at this Hollywood Reporter image I love trotting out:

IMAGE 3 - THR Disney 2018

Toys—from here on “consumer products”—is a small, small part of Disney’s overall operating margin, isn’t it?

Let’s dig deeper. I approach a company’s financials like a hostile witness on the stand. What are they trying to hide? What don’t they want me to know?

For Disney, I looked at their financials going back to 2009. And a huge red flag jumps out, which should be a clue for the quality of the toy business:

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Most Important Story of the Week – 29 May 20: All the Complications of the AT&T and Amazon Show Down

Since May kicked off, I’ve been back to writing two articles per week and have had my highest traffic month since launch. So thank you to all the readers and supporters. If you want to stay on top of all my writings, the best method is to either subscribe to my newsletter (at Substack) or through the WordPress application.

Meanwhile, onto one of the more fascinating stories of the year…

Most Important Story of the Week – HBO Max and Amazon Stare Down

Well, HBO Max launched.

If you’re comparing hype, it feels way less substantial than Disney+. Or even Apple TV+. But that’s to be expected. Disney+ was a brand new thing by one of the most powerful brands in America; HBO Max is a retread of a brand most people already know. Meanwhile, while Warner Bros has always had big films and series, but they aren’t associated with their parent company.

Since the HBO Max that launched this week is mostly the service promised last fall, I’m going to focus on the issue we’re all obsessed with: 

HBO Max didn’t launch on Amazon’s devices.

Technically, Roku devices too. But Amazon is the fascinating topic to me, since their negotiating position isn’t just about devices, it’s also about operating systems, content rights, and profit sharing. Let’s try to explain why this negotiating is too contentious, and so critical for AT&T to get right.

The Issue: Operating System vs Device

The core issue of the streaming wars is who gets to aggregate content and who gets to bundle that aggregated content. The aggregators are the streamers, in this case. Think Disney+. HBO Max. Netflix. Prime Video. Previously, they were the linear channels. And formerly ESPN, Disney Channel and HBO.

Bundlers figure out a way to offer access to streamers. In some cases, this is via device. Fire TV. Roku. Apple TV. Sometimes this is via an operating system. Like Apple Channels and Prime Video Channels. Maybe Hulu and Youtube in the future. Formerly, this was the MVPDs like Comcast, DirecTV and Spectrum.

Notice that Amazon has both a device and an operating system.

The trouble is their operating system is a lot like their streaming service. Specifically, if you subscribe to HBO through Prime Video channels, you can access your content via the Prime Video application. This way a customer using Amazon Channels can seamlessly go from Prime Video shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. Honestly, you couldn’t tell the difference between where the content comes from.

From Amazon’s perspective, if HBO is already included in channels, then so should HBO Max. They signed a deal several years back to make this happen, so why not continue since every other HBO customer (mostly) gets HBO Max with HBO?

Because AT&T learned enough over the last few years to know what matters when launching a streamer. When HBO was mostly a cash play, Amazon was found money. Since HBO was also a key piece to Amazon Channels–clearly their biggest seller– Warner Bro negotiated fairly beneficial deal terms. The partnership worked, as Amazon felt free to leak that 5 million folks subscribe to HBO through their Channels program.

The difference between distributing on Fire TV devices and within Amazon Channels–and the fact that Amazon bundled those discussions together–basically shows how much AT&T stands to lose.

The Key Negotiating Deal Points

  1. User Experience – This issue more than any is what AT&T wants to control. Prime Video has been around for years, and it still gets the most “blah” reviews as a streaming platform. When AT&T sends its content to Prime Video–as it has to for the Channels program–it essentially gives up control for how it will be branded and leveraged. Try as you might to negotiate this, it’s really hard to manage as a third party. Especially a deal point like, “Make your service more user friendly.”

I would add, the other piece is building value in the eyes of customers. If a customer has to go to HBO Max’s application every day, they learn to value the content on that experience. In someone else’s streaming service that just doesn’t happen. It devalues the HBO brand overall. 

  1. Pricing – I haven’t negotiated these type of deals in a few years, but if terms are roughly similar to then, which I believe they are, there is a big monetary difference between a channels revenue split–which is a monthly recurring payment–and a device “bounty” where the device owner gets a one-time payment for signing up new customers. The latter is an enticement to have the device owner market your platform; the former is a deal tax primarily. But they work out to dramatically different financial outcomes for a streamer. A 30% fee in perpetuity can be awfully expensive.

But that’s not all the revenue Amazon wants…

  1. Advertising – This issue came up with Disney+’s negotiations as Amazon wants a cut of advertising revenue from the apps on its platform. On the one hand, this is bonkers as Amazon will have very little to do with creating value from those ads. On the other hand, in the old MVPD world, cable channels shared advertising time with MVPD operators. (That’s how local ads made it on old school cable networks.) Given that AT&T has dreams to launch an ad-supported version of HBO Max, this is likely a huge sticking point.
  2. Content – Andrew Rosen thinks a big hold up is that Amazon wants Warner Media content for IMDb TV’s FAST service. I’m not sure AT&T would ever consent to this, but not long after Disney+’s deal was closed the same group licensed Disney-owned shows to IMDb TV. Consider the market power that when AT&T is trying to negotiate for a device deal for its streamer, Amazon is essentially demanding that some of the content for that service wind up on a competing streamer. Such is Amazon’s market power, that a deal term could be forcing a studio to sell it content. (As I wrote on Twitter, the echoes to Standard Oil are remarkable.)

 

  1. Data – AT&T also wants the customer data. If you don’t control the user experience, you don’t control the data either. They basically go hand in hand. For as much as I love data–look, it was the first theme of this website–I do think “data” has been a bit overhyped in the business sphere. Data is an asset, but it isn’t actually cash. It is something that can generate more cash, but only if you use it properly. Still since it goes hand-in-hand with user experience, they’re tied together.

The Major Streamers Don’t Allow Bundling

That’s really the issue for AT&T. Netflix, Hulu/Disney+ and now HBO Max see themselves as bigger than just content in someone else’s streaming application. Heck, even Prime Video content isn’t available in Apple Channels!

And when you think about it, the ask by Amazon is kind of crazy. It’s not just asking to sell rights to HBO’s content, it’s asking for that content to essentially be bundled with the rest of its content. Which seems a lot more like a retransmission issue than simply allowing an application on your operating system. The best tweet which summarized this for me came from The Verge’s Julia Alexander:

Screen Shot 2020-05-29 at 12.18.15 PM

Exactly. Thus, the whole debate is fairly simple: AT&T considers itself a major player. And won’t allow itself to be bundled. 

Who is right?

First off, no one is right or wrong. The worst thing in the world is to pretend like negotiations between two businesses are about fairness or justice. Or that the needs/wants of customers matter. (If you want the needs of customers taken into account, government regulation is your only hope. And entertainment should be heavily regulated!)

Still, who is more right in holding to their position in this negotiation? AT&T.

When in doubt, ask who is creating value. AT&T has decades of valuable content, is spending billions making more and will have to spend hundreds of millions more to market that content. In other words, they’re doing all the work to launch a streamer. Amazon is a gatekeeper asking for a fee/toll/rent to allow it’s application on its platform. 

Not to mention AT&T bears most of the risk, unlike Amazon. To maximize that investment, they need to distribute and own that customer relationship. So they’re right to hold, and it will be fascinating to see who blinks first. 

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

A few other stories filtered in over the last week that competed for the top spot. A few were generally interesting, but just couldn’t compete with the HBO Max drama.

DAZN Shops Itself

A report from the Financial Times says that sports streamer DAZN is looking to raise money, which could mean anything from selling itself to finding a strategic partner to simply selling equity. Of all the newly launched streamers, DAZN has the toughest road to travel. Sports rights are extremely expensive, meaning they cost almost as much as the value they bring in. As much as I’d like an “indie” sports streamer to survive, DAZN needs cash to compete with the tech giants of the world.

Quibi Programming Strategy Reset

Less than two months in and Quibi is already revamping its programming line up. The plan is to focus more on what is working, which is apparently content that appeals to older, female viewers

Is this too aggressive of a pivot? Maybe. This is the perennial problem with data driving content decisions. Quibi is looking at what is working on their platform, and using that to make future content decisions.

But does that make sense? If your two best shows happened to appeal to that demographic, then it will make it look like that’s your best customer demographic. If you use that data to make more decisions, then you’ll no doubt appeal more and more to older, female viewers.

Do you see how this is a self-reinforcing algorithm? And how that can limit your potential audience.

Want to see how this applies to Netflix? Well, they too made originals, but they also put originals on the top of their home screen. This drove usage, because anything on the top screen gets clicks. But then Netflix made more originals using that data, in a self-reinforcing loop. Hence, why some of Netflix’s content feels so similar or appealing to the same demographics.

Disney World and Universal Studios Plan Summer Openings

July 15th is the planned date for Disney World to reopen at half capacity with tons of restrictions. Universal presented plans as well. This is both expected and seemingly on track for the next stage. My tentative prediction is that as thinks open up, folks will return to old habits and behaviors quicker than currently anticipated. If testing continues to ramp up, we could find this surprisingly normal looking.

Peacock Originals Slate on July 15th

When NBC released their plans for Peacock, my initial reaction was Peacock wants to be the most broadcast network of the streamers. This review of Peacock on Bloomberg essentially describes that as the mission statement. And this made me happy because, in full disclosure, I think broadly popular content has mostly been missing from the streaming wold.

As Peacock prepares its first set of originals for July 15th launch, are we getting a broadly appealing set of shows, or are we getting another rebound of peak-TV/prestige content? Looking at the list of shows–a Brave New World remake, a David Schwimmer comedy and an international thriller–I’m worried it’s more of the latter. However, they do have Psych 2 special. So we’ll see.

Data of the Week – Nielsen Top 100 Broadcast TV Shows

Twice a year, Michael Schneider uses Nielsen data to look at the top shows and then networks for the previous TV season or year. Here’s the 2019 season edition, which feels so bizarre in today’s coronavirus times. I’m mainly looking at it for the next set of shows to come to streaming channels. Look for 9-1-1 to one day get a pay day on streaming.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Update – Apple Content Moves

Apple Snags the New Scorsese Film from Paramount…

This could have been my story of the week, but for HBO Max launching. Dollar wise, it’s relatively small. Just $200 million or so among friends. 

But not with Netflix? What went wrong!!!

Likely the price tag and performance of The Irishman scared off Netflix. As I wrote in multiple outlets last December, Netflix doesn’t have the monetization methods to get a return on $300 million budget films. (That’s what I expect Netflix ended up paying for The Irishman.) Toss in all the controversy about theaters, maybe some DiCaprio nervousness about back end, and I think Apple TV+ with Paramount theatrical was the logical choice.

Is this good for Apple TV+? Sure. It will get a ton of new subscribers to check them out. Without a library, though, how long will they stay? Speaking of…

…and Fraggle Rock from Henson Company

Bloomberg reported last week that Apple was looking at licensing library content. Well, their first “big” purchase is Fraggle Rock’s library to complement an upcoming reboot. Then there was controversy in the entertainment journalism press about whether Apple had changed strategies or not. (Which would directly contradict my column from last week.) Apple PR went to multiple outlets to leak that “No, no, nothing has changed.”

My guess is both scenarios are true. If Apple can’t find a library to buy, they’ll say their strategy hasn’t changed. If they do? Then they’ll happily announce it.

Meanwhile, is Fraggle Rock a game changer? I doubt it. Kids need lots of content to go through. Almost more so than adults. Frankly, Apple TV+ doesn’t have it.

Most Important Story of the Week – 21 February 20: Rumors! Bob Iger and Apple TV+ Edition

Sometimes, you really don’t need to overthink your weekly column. Thank you, Disney, and really Bob Iger, for making this easy.

Most Important Story of the Week – Bob Iger Steps Down

Bob Iger stepped down from his role as CEO of Disney on Tuesday, but will remain as the company’s chairman of the board. What else do we know for sure?

– Iger said he’ll stay on in an active role to guide and manage content.
– His replacement, Bob Chapek, has had roles throughout Disney, from studios to merchandise to theme parks.
– Iger has long been speculated to want to retire, but kept staying on, first to see the 21st Century Fox Acquisition, and then to see the Disney+ launch.

Everything else is speculation. And there was plenty in the aftermath of this genuinely surprising news. The question for this column isn’t what happened or why or what fun rumor to promote, but what it means for the strategic landscape

The Entertainment CEO Hype Cycle

I occasionally write about CEO departures, but usually not as the most important story of the week. Why not? Well, frankly, most CEOs are “average”. Their company is moving along before they get there, and will mostly continue after they leavd. (Unless, of course, you’re a CEO reading this. I think you’re above average. Definitely. This is about all those other CEOs.)

This is especially true for lower level executives. For example, Discovery hired a new DTC boss from Hulu, Hulu promoted a new president, and CBS rearranged programming execs at All-Access, but neither will get a mention in my “other contenders” section down below. (Again, unless you’re a lower lever exec. You’re above average. Definitely. It’s all the other ones I’m talking about.)

To be clear, this isn’t because CEOs aren’t important. It’s more a comment that I don’t think anyone is really good at accurately judging who is good or not. Especially via the Hollywood trades. When a new head of a studio is hired, one or multiple trades/important papers (roughly, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, NY Times, LA Times, Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal) writes a long in-depth article based around an interview with the executive. Their strengths are highlighted; their weaknesses minimized.

This makes sense. If you want to get Jen Salke to join your executive roundtable, you better talk her up right after she takes the job.

Then comes the downfall. Kevin Drum mentioned this on his blog a few weeks back and I’d call it the “candidate hype cycles”. UCLA political scientists have called this process in elections the “discover, scrutiny and decline” cycle. 

Image 1 - Hype Cycle

Well, the same thing happens with CEOs. They start, get tons of hype, and inevitably either fail or retire quietly. We could call it “hype, status quo and departure”. Like a politician, they have two paths at the end: If they get fired, you bury them; if they retire you celebrate their run.

Meanwhile, we never hear the bad things until they get fired or leave. For example, The Information revealed that Amazon hired Mike Hopkins was hired due to concerns about shows being late, over budget and, presumably, not that popular. Which would speak poorly of Salke, but again I’ve never seen a trade report that.

Every so often a CEO comes along though, who never loses the hype cycle. 

Value Over Replacement CEO

In the knowledge economy, the best workers aren’t just a little more valuable than their peers, but multiples better. The returns aren’t linear, but logarithmic. This applies to CEOs too; the best CEO isn’t just a little better than their peers, they are miles and miles better in terms of return on investment.

The best way to think about this, as I’ve written before, is the “Value over Replacement” concept from baseball and basketball. In basketball, this is LeBron James. His dominance is so much that singlehandedly he gave Miami and Cleveland championships and may do the same for the Lakers. As a result, he’s worth much more than any other player.

Let’s put this in a chart. Imagine every executive is ranked on a zero to 100 point scale. A fifty is the “average” employee or student or basketball player or CEO. The top is the 99th percentile employees, the one delivering outsized returns. The 1% are the folks who don’t just do average work, but actively damage your organization.

(And by the way, this is how I categorize every person I work/worked/could work with. At business school, since we did so many group projects, I was constantly scouting for who would help deliver outsized returns. Which made getting good grades easy. And yes this doesn’t apply to you if I worked with you. You were way above average. It’s about everyone else.)

This is how the chart would look. The percentiles are on the right; the returns on the left.

IMAGE 2 - VORCEO Chart

The question for Disney is…where is Bob Iger on that chart? Where is Bob Chapek?

The Disney Challenge

As I said above, I’m pretty brutally honest about where executives are on that “value over” chart and so often I’ve seen that when one executives gets replaced, despite all the internal worry, it usually ends up being about the same. So 95% of the time, say, if a CEO leaves a big company, since they were probably average, and their replacement will be average, everything will go on just the same. (Just usually paid more. See next section.)

Iger, was, though, firmly planted in the top 99%. Here’s Disney’s performance the last 20 years compared to the S&P 500. (He took over four years in to this chart.)

Image 3b DIS vs SP with Label

That’s an elite performance. And if like me you think stock performance isn’t the be-all-end-all, well, all the other narrative stuff from the acquisitions to the box office dominance to the pivot to streaming reinforces this. Iger was an elite CEO, which is a statement. Being top 1% of CEOs is supremely rare and valuable.

The challenge for Chapek is that no matter how good he is or isn’t, odds are he isn’t a 99% CEO. Just run the numbers: if we can’t predict how a CEO will turn out, then we have a “uniform distribution” meaning each outcome is equally likely. Therefore, Chapek has about a 1 in hundred chance matching or exceeding Iger’s performance. (That’s obviously why the board tried to cling to Iger for as long as possible.)

The Disney Nightmare Scenario

Does this mean the “end of Disney’s run”? Absolutely not. The situation Chapek is walking into is about as strong as you can get. Just being average means the company will be fine. If he’s slightly above average they’ll keep growing.

But every company has upside scenarios and downside scenarios, and the downside scenario feels a little more likely for me. If Chapek turns out to be worse than “average”, and there’s a fifty percent chance of that, then the company could regress.

But it could pair with four other potential risks:

– First, Lasseter turns out to be have been crucial for animation. (Like Frank G Wells was in the 1980s.) Arguably, since Iger moved Lasseter to Disney Animation, that side of the business rebounded. (Why might this not be true? Read Kim Master’s take here.) We’ll find out in about 1 to 2 years if this is true.
– Second, something happens to Kevin Feige. He runs the Marvel golden goose, If another company poached him, that would be “sub-optimal”.
– Third, streaming ins’t profitable and cord cutting accelerates. This your regular reminder that for all the value in parks and merchandise, uh, networks (specifically ESPN) actually powered Iger’s rise.

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 12.46.29 PM

– Fourth, the studios run out of creative energy on all the non-Marvel, Star Wars and animated films, having mostly coasted on remakes of classic Disney films. 

Those five risks could, to be clear, could not happen. And probably not all together.

But if I’m a Disney competitor, I’m happy with this news. I’d be optimistic that my studio/network/streamer has a chance to catch up to Disney. It’ll still be tough, but the chance is there.

Other Thoughts

– Is there another shoe to drop?
I have no idea. And based on all the reporting and speculation either way, I don’t think anyone knows anything. So your guess is as good as mine, so I’d guess status quo.

– What about the dual bosses structure?
I’m a little more concerned about this. Dual CEO structures are tricky. Sometimes a minor change like this can actually muck things up, more than the previous boss retiring and just exiting stage left. But we’ll see.

– Was Iger really that good?
Yes. I love hot takes as much as anyone. I’m one of the few folks who think that Plepler leaving HBO and then joining Apple could be the most overhyped stories of the year. But even I can’t with good conscious argue against Iger’s run.

That said, the context was also tremendous. While we rightfully praise Iger for his acquisitions, we sometimes forget that the real income driver in the 2000s was ESPN and it’s sky high sub-fee. (Look that chart just above!) Take that revenue/operating income from Iger and arguably he doesn’t have the cash for Marvel or Star Wars.

– If so many CEOs are average why do they get paid so much?
Bad oversight. Most corporate boards are fairly poor at actually identifying the value their CEOs generate. This is mostly to do with institutional structures. Even though they have average CEOs, they don’t realize it and pay them above average.

Data (?) of the Week – Apple TV+ Ratings?

In a few different conversations, I’ve been hearing that Apple TV+ is underperforming expectations. Honestly, even that isn’t strong enough. The ratings, the rumors imply, are so low that most observers wouldn’t actually believe it.

The challenge is to separate out the rumors that end up being completely false from those based on a nugget of truth. And fortunately, I spent some time doing this in a completely different field: military intelligence.

In intelligence, the hardest part is to manage “human intelligence”, meaning people. Specifically people who are usually betraying their country or allies and providing you information. The goal is to run a “source” who is well placed, so that they can provide a track record of accurate information. That builds trust.

Still, you only trust them so far. Even if one source tells you something, you always want to confirm it. Multiple sources is always better than one source. And ideally from multiple types of intelligence. So a good analyst pairs signals intelligence (tapping phones) with human intelligence (people telling you what is happening) with imagery and other analysis.

I trust the rumor mill in this case. And I wouldn’t pass this rumor on if I only had one source. Like I said, I’ve heard this in a few conversations and from folks I really trust. I know they’re hearing this from folks on the inside. (None of my sources come from Apple directly, in full disclosure.)

Still, that’s just human intelligence. Can we triangulate this? Sure. Take this “open source” intelligence from Bernstein Research via Bloomberg. According to their research, via analyzing Apple’s earnings report, fewer than 10% of eligible Apple customers signed up for Apple TV+, or about 10 million folks.

My rumor is about viewership specifically, but the two are correlated. If you only get 10 million folks to sign up in the first place, the available folks to watch the shows is just smaller. Similarly, if the content isn’t resonating or buzzy, then you won’t get folks to sign up. 

Moreover, the rumors I’m hearing are about recent viewership. As in since the new year started. The key driver there is, of the folks who signed up, how many hung around? Well, when in doubt, Google Trends…

IMAGE 5 -GTrend NFLX vs Dis vs ATV

In other words, this look at Google Trends implies that Apple TV+ has never quite had the brand resonance as either Netflix or Disney. Notably, this is just using search terms, which tells a slightly different story than this Google Trends look, by topic, which shows a Disney+ decline. Google Trends is just one measurement I use, and it can have some quirks that don’t capture the true underlying awareness.

For Apple TV+, I still think the name is clunky. Which may hurt it in Google searches. So let’s look for specific shows instead. In the rumors, I’m hearing that Apple is seeing a big decline since the launch. So look at this chart:

IMAGE 6 - G Trend without Mando

In other words, the decay is real. It’s a little slower than Netflix or Amazon series, because the weekly release still generates news stories when the series concludes, which you see in The Morning Show, but the decay is there. Worse, the new shows aren’t launching nearly as well as the initial batch and accompanying marketing spend.

And how do the Apple shows do compared to, say, The Mandalorian?

IMAGE 7 - G Trend with Mando

They disappear entirely.

This matches other metrics that are publicly available. Say what you will about IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, but the volume of reviews actually is fairly predictive of viewership. Not everyone leaves a review, but more viewed shows tend to have more reviews. Which makes sense. You can see the decline in popularity in Apple shows recently in reviews too:

IMAGE 8 - Ratings Data

Here’s my whole table if you want to see the by show look:

IMAGE 9 Ratings TableMaybe Amazing Stories comes out in April and completely arrests this slide. But Apple will have to rely almost entirely on paid marketing to get the word out since usage of their app seems to be low. Moreover, the biggest challenge is just that Apple TV+ won’t have a lot of shows for the rest of the year, if the lack of announced shows is to be believed. Here’s that table converted to chart form:

IMAGE 9 Count of Shows by Year

And that’s assuming a lot of the renewed shows make it by the end of 2020, which I bet doesn’t happen.

What Does this Mean for Apple’s Plans?

This week Tim Cook repeated that he’s not in the business of renting content. Apple TV+ is originals. That’s the brand.

This strategy doesn’t make sense. Netflix and Amazon had tons of licensed content to keep folks engaged while they built out originals. Disney+, HBO Max and Peacock will have loads of library content as originals ramp. Apple TV+ has none of that. So Apple needs to either ramp originals much more quickly than they are…or they need to rent some TV shows.

Here’s the analogy I’d use. Say about 25,000 people per night tune into Apple TV+. Using Michael Schneider’s annual look at cable channels, that means Apple TV+ is the El Rey Network. Which is bad. 

Would you buy a phone for the El Rey Network? Probably not.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

A+E Networks signs a big licensing deal with Peacock

The definition of a conglomerate should be any firm so big you forget they own half of another big company. In this case, A&E Networks is a legitimate cable business, but Disney quietly owns half. Instead of licensing their highly viewed unscripted originals for Hulu, Peacock got the rights. This is another bold move for Peacock. They are leaning into broad content, which I respect. (The History content pairs well with Law and Order and Chicago series.) Meanwhile, Hulu seems increasingly falling into the prestige lane. This leaves a gap for Disney: they need a streaming service that’s broad, but not genre like Disney+. It should be Hulu, but they’re not making the moves for that.

Discovery May Launch a Streamer

Discovery had their earnings, which were overwhelmed by the surge of news about stock market declines. On the streaming side, they’re contemplating launching a streamer in the US later this year, while happy with their other efforts. So continue to monitor for now.

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

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling

In November, a war started. 

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

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

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

The Plan

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

2. One imaginary war per section. 

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

Easily Discarded

The Civil War (and most other civil wars)

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

The Persian Gulf War or Franco-Prussian War

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

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

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

Independence Day War

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

Closer, but Key Flaws

Punic Wars

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

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

The French Revolution

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

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

The Cold War

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

War of the Ring (Lord of the Rings)

Human-Covenant War (Halo)

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

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

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

Pretty Darn Close

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