Tag: Streaming

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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Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling

(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)

In war, what really matters on a map is the “key terrain”. The place on the map that if you control it, you have a much better chance at winning the upcoming battle or war. In Army lingo, terrain that control “affords a marked advantage”. Usually this is the high ground, but can be anything from a bridge to a national capitol, or airfield or even castle, in olden times.

So take a gander at our “map” of the video landscape from last week.

Image 7 Video Value WEb

As a commander, where do we want to control? What gives us a “marked advantage”? Well, I highlighted it in yellow. 

Last week, I “defined” the map and area of operations. Now we move onto the challenging tasking of describing that map. While I won’t use all of the Army’s frameworks, the concept of “key terrain” really does resonate with business. (Don’t worry, we’ll use other business analysis frameworks as well.)

Today, I’m going to highlight the key terrain the streaming wars will be fought over, and it’s not what most streaming observers and customers think it is. (If I had to guess, they’d call it subscribers.) I’ll start with the “BLUF”, then describe the situation in broad strokes, the reasons why digital bundlers are in a powerful position, the stark choice facing streamers, and finally the ramifications for all players in digital video. 

Bottom Line, Up Front – Digital Streaming Bundlers Are Best Positioned to Capture Value

While streamers started as the aggregators—Netflix inspired cord cutting by offering it’s own bundle—in the next five to ten years, the new digital video bundlers (who I call DVBs) will be in the best position to capture value (meaning profit and cash flow) in the video landscape. This means the winners will be folks like Amazon, Apple or Roku, and not Netflix, Disney, Comcast or AT&T.

The Situation: Netflix breaks the user experience monopoly of cable TV

In the past—meaning just ten years ago—the landscape was relatively simple for TV: you turned on a cable or satellite box, and scrolled. Netflix changed that all. Using its installed base of DVD subscribers, it started offering streaming video to its customers. Thus, when you sat down at your TV, you could decide, “Netflix or cable?” Netflix provided a second user experience to watch TV. Some people—though less than usually hyped—cancelled cable just to use Netflix and were dubbed “cord cutters”. 

Netflix was so successful, it inspired copycats from Amazon Prime to Apple TV+ to Disney+, who launched this week. Of course, the best place to watch TV isn’t from a computer screen, but from a living room TV. Devices were released to manage all these different streaming platforms, like smart TVs, Google Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.

Which leads to my biggest theory of the landscape: customers will want to return to one operating system to manage all their television watching. Crucially, this may include bundling content. The cable companies didn’t just provide one user experience, they provided a bundle of cable channel at one fixed price. That bundle is dying.

But it’s returning. Instead of just channels, though, it will be a combination of virtual MVPDs (like Hulu Live TV, Youtube Live TV or AT&T TV), FASTs (like Pluto, STIRR, Xumi, and Tubo) and SVODs (like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon Prime). The question is who mediates that experience. Someone will. And potentially to manage all their payments. And if you’re managing all the payments, you can bundle all the streamers/FASTs/vMVPDs into one monthly or annual price. A bundle.

The question is what do we call them? I’ve taken to the acronym DVB:

Digital Video Bundlers. 

I’ve colored this in yellow on my map because of how important I think it is. If an Amazon or Apple can own the customer relationship, they’ll own all the data and be best positioned to capture value from suppliers or competitors. Before I get into the ramifications, let me explain why I think this will happen.

Reasons Why The Bundle Will Return

The return of the bundle doesn’t just seem likely, but almost inevitable.

First, a clear customer value proposition – One user interface for all content.

Both Amazon and Apple have touted a clear proposition to users, which is the idea that you have one place to go to watch all your content. Meaning: if you log in, every subscription video service is in one location to easily search and browse without having to switch between apps. 

(In some cases, this vision is still aspirational, as opposed to realized. But it’s both companies’ dream user scenario.)

This makes sense from the cable example. The big revolution wrought by Netflix stemmed from the idea that suddenly customers now had to choose between two different ways to interact with the TV screen. Once that was severed, the cable bundle no longer offers it all. But neither did the “Netflix only” option, since you missed all traditional cable channels. Or other streamers like Hulu. This makes deciding what to watch just that much harder (and was to Netflix’s advantage).

Most smart TVs don’t offer a simple way to scan between streaming services. Instead, you decide what app to use and go to its platform to browse. Amazon and Apple want to incorporate everything into one user interface, so HBO content would sit next to Disney+ content which is next to CBS All-Access, for example. Meaning you can organize all your video in one place. Here’s Amazon Channels right now to show this vision:

Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 10.38.31 AM.png

(By the way, Amazon and Apple both ruin this customer experience with a clear user experience fail. When customers surf TV and streaming, the expect everything to be watchable for free. Pay Per View, historically, was always limited to clearly defined section of the cable interface. In their efforts to have an accurate search, Amazon and Apple both surface results for their TVOD businesses, which customers despise. Loathe. Hate. Keep your “pay for it” shows and movies clearly separated from your TV experience.)

Second, a vague customer value proposition – One source for payments.

The second reason cited by folks selling subscriptions is it offers simplicity in payments. I’m less sold on this value proposition because people will likely still search for the best deals. But it’s a potential for some customers and has some value.

Third, a potential value proposition: the new bundle. (Which everyone is predicting)

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Introducing An Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield

As the streaming wars kick off this month, one question is dominating every conversation online, whether implicitly or explicitly:

Who will win?

As if this were a professional sports league. And only one studio gets the championship each year. Or even more extreme, like it is a war to be won. To steal a quote from Game of Thrones, “When you play the streaming wars, you win or you die.

Listen, it won’t be that extreme, Mike Raab explained on Medium last week. Or as Alan Wolk has said, no one will “kill” Netflix anytime soon.

But if you’re an executive, there are plenty of questions about the streaming wars you still need answered:

– What is the landscape of digital video, and how is your company positioned?
– Who are the strongest competitors in digital video?
– What are the biggest economic, technological and regulatory forces facing streaming?

If you can answer those questions, you can then answer the most important question for your company, business unit or team:

– What should we do to “win” the streaming wars?

Frankly, what I described above is how an intelligence officer in the United States Army would approach the battlefield in a war. Before a military commander can decide what to do, she needs to know what she is facing. That makes this analogy between real wars and the streaming wars fairly apt. The biggest change is we’ll change “win” to “create or capture value”.

So if we want to explain the streaming wars, we need someone versed in both intelligence planning for the military and the economics of streaming.

Fortunately, I’ve worn both intelligence officer and entertainment strategic planner hats in my life…

Introducing: The Entertainment Strategy Guy’s “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” for the Streaming Wars

As the streaming wars kick off in earnest, it seems like the perfect time to reflect more broadly on the streaming war, going a bit beyond my weekly columns and analysis. There have been some great layouts of the industry the last few months, but none that captured everything I’ve been seeing (with my own unique nee skeptical) take on the industry. 

So that’s my job for November. A lay out of the streaming video landscape. An explanation of the business of streaming. An intelligence briefing for the streaming wars. Since I used to make those for the US Army—a story for another time—that’s the framework I’ll use to organize my thinking.

In today’s article, I’ll explain what the IPB process is, and how I need to translate it to the streaming wars. Then, I’ll explain what I will and won’t cover in my first version of this.

What is an “intelligence preparation of the battlefield”?

In truly US Army fashion, an acronym fills in where regular words will do. So Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield becomes IPB.

An IPB is both a process completed by a staff (the IPB planning process) and the product(s) that results, usually a powerpoint presentation, but sometimes a document or brief. It also usually results in maps and graphics. It can also include a plan to collect further intelligence.

The strength of an IPB is the clear process. For a bit now, I’ve been collecting thoughts on specific companies and larger issues in the streaming wars, but I didn’t have an organizing framework. The IPB process provides that. It’s a great tool because it’s flexible enough to be used by intelligence officers from small battalions to gigantic corps managing entire theaters of war, in situations involving a pitched battle with tanks in the desert to combating insurgencies in the jungles. 

Or in our case, the streaming wars.

Which battlefield in the streaming wars?

Crucially, I need to pick which battlefield I’m analyzing. The streaming wars will be a global war, but I’m going to start by focusing on the United States. Frankly, each country probably deserves its own analysis because of its own unique situation. But we have to start somewhere and I think covering the entire globe will be too tough for one month. 

Moreover, even in the United States, I’ll be focusing on digital video. Meaning streamers, bundlers, aggregators and virtual MVPDs. But digitally distributed. Broadcast, cable, theaters and home entertainment are all interesting, but for a future analysis.

With that, let’s explain this tool. (By the by, if you want to download a copy yourself. The U.S. Army hosts them online.)

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield…Explained

An IPB consists of four parts:

– Define the Battlefield (in jargon terms, “operational environment”)
– Describe the Battlefield
– Evaluate the Threat (formerly “enemy”)
– Determine Threat Courses of Action

Let’s define a few terms to unpack that simple four step process. In previous iterations, the operational environment was called the “battlefield”, but that wasn’t an acronym so the Army had to change it. We’re going to stick with “battlefield” since it is so much clearer of a phrase to use and “IPOE” just doesn’t sound right.

The battlefield is where your unit is conducting its operations. In a lot of was this is the military analogue to properly defining the problem. If you don’t know where you can and can’t operate, you can’t properly plan. It’s also particularly important in the military context because knowing where fellow military units are prevents friendly fire. (It’s a simple leap to make an analogy to a giant conglomerate with competing business units here.)

Once you know the battlefield, you then describe it. For the Army, this usually means three areas: terrain, weather and civilian considerations. Weather is just weather. But the terrain is what most Cold War military veterans were raised on, and it was summarized by the acronym OACOK: Obstacles, Avenues of Approach, Cover and Concealment, Observation, and Key Terrain. After the post 9/11 wars, when counter-insurgency became a thing again, the civilian part of the OE was described with ASCOPE or Area, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events. We’ll use different tools to describe the streaming war’s battlefield.

Next comes the threat. In the olden times, the Army called this the enemy. But then insurgencies were filled with political and non-violent actors, so this became “the threat”. During the evaluation part of IPB, you basically ask, “How dangerous are they? How many of them are there? What weapons do they have? What can they do?” When the Russians were the main bad guy, this meant a lot of maps with graphics describing effective firing ranges for artillery and machine guns and what not. For insurgencies, it meant capturing a lot more data about the relationships of society. The best word to capture this is “capabilities”.

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“Hurry Up and Wait” for the Streaming Wars: Netflix’s Q3 2019 Earnings Report

(Before you start, consider signing up for my newsletter! Yes I know you have too many already, but this is the best way to help support independent writers such as myself. Sign up here.)

If you ever found yourself in the armed forces, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of “hurry up and wait”. It worked like this. A dignitary is coming in. Say a three star general. So your two star general plans a division parade. Which means the Command Sergeant Major sets it up. Scheduled to start at 1000 (ten hundred in parlance), the Division Sergeant Major tells his Brigades he wants them in position by 0930, so of course that means standing in place at 0915.

Woe to the unit that is late, by the way, which is why everyone is “hurrying”.

Here’s where the fun starts. The brigades don’t want to be late for the 0915 “time hack”, so they have their troops show up in formation at 0830, to be ready 30 minutes early too. Then the battalions say, well, “Let’s be ready 30 minutes before that.”

And so on. With companies, platoons and even squads.

Eventually, you have thousands of soldiers leaving their houses at 0500 in the morning—and skipping PT— so that they can stand in formation for 3 hours doing nothing. Hurry up and wait.

That’s my feeling for Netflix’s latest earnings report. If I can speak for my fellow Netflix hawks—be they bulls or bears—we had this date circled since July. Will Netflix miss subscribers targets again? Could the stock tank? Or will Netflix crush estimates? And what will Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have to say about the “streaming wars”, which start next month? 

No kidding, the (hashtag) streaming wars made it in the shareholder letter.

IMAGE 1 - The Streaming Wars

After all the waiting…we didn’t learn much. Netflix hit almost all their targets on the dot and Hastings/Sarandos didn’t reveal any ground breaking news.

Instead, we hurried up, but we’re still waiting for the streaming wars. Sigh. Still, we learned a few things in the latest earnings report. Let’s start with strategy, touch on the specifics and end with the subscribers/financials. Oh, and meta thoughts to conclude.

Strategy: Focused, but Narrow?

When it comes to strategy, Netflix probably has the clearest plan and simplest business model of all the streamers. They sell subscriptions and they plan to dominate all scripted and reality viewing. If you want to know their strategic advantage, it’s that. They know what they are, and they’re extremely focused on that.

And they still have a big goals: they want to take over TV all over the globe. If you want Netflix’s global upside for share price, it’s all this. Honestly, “Netflix bears” like myself probably neglect how much additional revenue can come from this global conquest.

But it isn’t cheap, of course. Netflix is spending $10 billion in amortized and $15+ billion in actual cash each year (from 10K) to get those new subscribers. Worse, the most valuable subscribers are in the United States, then Europe, then Japan and then descending down the GDP per capita income ladder. And those most valuable markets are nearing Netflix saturation. (Meanwhile some, like China, remain off limits.)

The most interesting observation, for me, was about the content strategy. Here’s the introduction to the content section of the shareholder letter:

IMAGE 2 - Content Strategy Summary

This content strategy manages to be both broad and limited, at the same time. Broad because Netflix is competing on film and TV and scripted and unscripted for kids and adults and everyone. 

And it’s limited because that’s all they are competing on? If “live TV” isn’t an option, that means  events, sports and news just aren’t in the cards.

In other words, for all the growth in content spend, many TV consumers will want a TV service that provides news and sports. If Netflix can’t fulfill someone’s entire TV demand, that means customers will have to watch other options too. If you value Netflix’s stock price as “becoming TV”, well you’re seeing a company that knows it won’t be that. Sure, it has a chance (that is becoming smaller every week) of “become all scripted and reality TV”, but that will be a pricey fight.

My view is that as long as customers need to have other TV services, Netflix is increasingly likely to be churned out of someone’s regular diet.

Nor does Netflix have the capital to branch out into a large new business like either buying DAZN or Roku or even a Lionsgate. They could merge with any of those, but any new venture that has huge upfront costs will stress their cash flow even further. Apple, Amazon and Disney don’t have those hindrances. That means Netflix needs to be perfect on everything decision from here on out to maximize that share price. That’s tough. 

So let’s get into those specifics.

Content: Some Selected Datecdotes Tell Us Some Things

Let’s start with the headlines you did not see yesterday. And the “null results” because I want to place in your easily available forebrain the idea that most shows aren’t doing well on Netflix. Or they are and it behooves Netflix to keep them secret. (I guess.)

Headline one: 

Of 162 original launches in Q3, 93% did under 29 million viewers. They were bombs.

Fine that is a bit provocative. Technically, I don’t know how many series really had less than 29 million viewers. Just because the lowest Netflix datecdote was 29 million doesn’t mean some other movie secretly did more than that, and Netflix just didn’t say. (Which, why hide that?) How’s this:

We don’t know how 93% of Netflix originals performed last year.

It’s crazy to consider that’s how many launches Netflix had in Q3, but according to my data—which means sorting this long, long list from All Your Screens Rick Ellis—that’s accurate. And given that when we do get inadvertent leaks—Steven Soderbergh said in an interview High Flying Bird had 8 million views—they are much lower, I’d bet that most other content releases were much lower than the leaks.

On to the datecdotes (explanation here) we did receive. These are both higher and lower than it seems. On the high side, I counted 12 datecdotes (authorized or leaked) since Q2. No seriously, four movies and 8 TV series. The challenge is that four of these datecdotes apply to two series (Netflix released 7 and 28 day numbers for both Stranger Things and La Casa de Papel.) And three of the TV series releases didn’t actually have numbers just “biggest TV series in the country” (Sintonia, The Naked Director and Sacred Heart.)

Since I’ve done feature films the last two times, I’m going to try to draw out some conclusions from the TV side this edition. Here’s my summary table of the data:

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 4.28.29 PM.pngAnd now some implications.

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Most Important Story of the Week – 11 October 19: Evolving Feature Film Strategies By The Streamers

I’ll admit it: I have a key question on my brain this month:

Should you release your film in theaters or straight to streaming?

Obsessed with it. Trying to compare Netflix to Disney to Amazon to Apple and the rest of the traditional studios is tough enough, and each has a different answer to that question. How can we tell who is right? Well, I’ll try. But I can’t answer it in one column. Instead, this is the amuse bouche for that discussion…

The Most Important Story of the Week – Evolving Feature Film Strategies By The Streamers

The “fun” story of the week was about He-Man and his potential reboot at Sony moving over to Netflix. Whether or not this move specifically happens–this story falls into the category of “are exploring” which half the time means it won’t–it pairs well with this in-depth New York Times article about Amazon Prim-Video-Studios’ evolving theatrical release strategy. Essentially, they (Amazon) won’t. 

For today, though, instead of focusing on “how” they release their films, I’ve been thinking about “what” types of films the streamers are releasing. Especially with Amazon releasing the relatively expensive (for them) Aeronauts, Netflix releasing a probably pricey Breaking Bad spinoff film El Camino and Netflix about to release the supremely expensive Martin Scorcese The Irishman

As I started to explain this shift, I came up with a thesis, but it didn’t really work. But then I had an opposite explanation. An antithesis if you will. So with that start, you know what? We’re going “Hegelian” on this today.

Thesis – Introduce the Low Priced Option and Then Move Up Cost/Quality Frontier

On the surface, this looks like a great way to explain what Netflix and Amazon are doing in feature films. Essentially, the low-cost entry method is all about finding a way to make a product for much, much cheaper and competing with incumbents by offering this cheaper option. Then, once you’ve established a foothold, you start making more expensive options and competing with incumbents directly. Presumably with higher quality and hence better margins. 

Take cars. Japanese automakers started by making cars that are safer and cheaper (Toyota, Nissan) then they moved into luxury market (Lexus, Infiniti). 

On the surface, that looks like what Netflix and Amazon are both doing. They start by making “prestige”-type films. (I do a quick definition of this in my latest Linked-In article.) So the streamers head to film festivals and buy films for “only” $14 million or so. They buy a bunch though, and give these to their customers. After the prestige films, they move onto the mid-tier films–say $20-50 million dollar price tags–like romantic comedies or horror films. And now both are graduating to the top of the income bracket: big budget films like The Irishman or He-Man. (Besides Aeronauts, Amazon hasn’t shown a willingness to go much bigger budget, but facts are no reason to spoil a nice narrative.) (As for previous studios trying to do this, Lionsgate is the best example.)

The challenge? As a reader pointed out on Twitter quite a while back, it isn’t like Netflix or Amazon Studios really figured out a way to make the films for lower costs. Netflix did when it came to licensed content; they routinely got studios to license them library films and TV series for way below the market value because studios considered in “found money”. (Indeed, back in August, I described how cable channels launched with reruns as a low cost option, then moved up the value chain as Netflix did here.) (Lionsgate tended to sell international rights to fund production, then made money off US distribution.)

Indeed, the main “innovation” of Netflix and Amazon was to take films that previously sold for $5 million at Sundance and pay three times as much for them. Definitively, then, this is NOT a low cost strategy. So what is it?

Antithesis – Make Increasingly Popular Films

Maybe this is moving up the “popularity” value chain. I like this approach because it combines two of my old bailiwicks. First, as I repeat ad nauseam, is that popularity is logarithmically distributed:

chart-2-movies-again(More examples here.)

In other words, the most popular film in America–Avengers: Endgame–is as popular as the bottom 500 films released in America in 2018 put together. My second bailiwick is that something that is popular on one platform is popular everywhere it airs. (ie The Force Awakens was the most popular film in the US on theatrical, home entertainment and linear TV. And very, very probably streaming too, if Netflix would share the data.) With this knowledge, we could reframe the initial strategy of both Netflix and Amazon as: 

Start by making pretty unpopular films, then make slightly more popular films and finally start making very popular films.

Prestige films and documentaries are less popular than teen rom-coms, gross out comedies and horror films, which are less popular than superhero movies. Crucially, the popularity is still roughly the same whether it goes to theaters or straight-to-streaming; popularity is popularity.

Does this help explain the behavior of our streamers better? Probably. According to the article, Netflix wants to make one “quality tentpole” quarterly AND it needs international appeal. Presumably films getting 80 million subscribers like Bird Box and Murder Mystery show the value of moving up this popularity theshold. The Breaking Bad film El Camino likely fits this category as well, being the equivalent of a Downton Abbey-sized film, bigger than many Sundance acquisitions but smaller than superhero films. And Aeronauts will likely have more appeal than a lot of other Amazon Studios acquisitions that were geared for awards season only. 

Presumably, a well done He-Man could do even better. Specifically, whereas prestige dramas and TV spinoffs may have a limited appeal globally, we know superhero and big budget sci-fi/fantasy can travel. He-Man fits that bill.

Synthesis – Moving Up the “ROI Cost/Quality Frontier”

The problem with just focusing on popularity is that, yes if all things were equal, you want more popular films. But these films specifically aren’t equal in one key regard: while most Sundance acquisitions are at most $5-15 million, The Irishman and He-Man could easily be in the $150 to $250 million. You could buy all of Sundance for those prices. 

I bring this up because of another Netflix film I haven’t mentioned yet, which is Triple Frontier. A key report in The Information leaked news that even with 40 million customers, it wasn’t “profitable” (though they probably said cost effective) for Netflix. It cost $100 million to make this mid-tier actioner.

That’s because popularity and cost combine together for ROI, or return on investment. Just because something isn’t “popular” doesn’t mean it isn’t cost effective. Horror movies are the gold standard here. Many are nowhere near as popular as superhero films, but they cost so much less that even middling popularity gives great ROI. A few weeks back on Strictly Business the CEO of Walden Media bragged about their strong ROI on their family films, despite not making as much money as say the Disney tentpoles. He’s totally right. I’d add animation has been an ROI gold mine for studios too.

But…

The best ROI really is big four quadrant tentpoles, even with the huge costs. If you can create a franchise, the hit rate skyrockets. Even as it decays over time (see Lord of The Rings Hobbit films, Pirates of the Carribean or Transformers), the films still often make their money back. (See my “economics of blockbusters” here.) That’s more than can be said for most Sundance acquisitions or even mid-tier comedies and horror flicks. I’d add, given that they travel well, big budget tentpoles have even better ROI for a global streaming service.

Netlix knows this and knows that 40 million for $100 million isn’t enough. It needs 150 million global viewers for $200 million. Hence, He-Man. (If it works.) Amazon Studios in a way is already doing this too, just in TV, essentially turning Lord of the Rings into the most expensive TV series of all time. Now, it does require more cash to compete in this expensive arena, but Netflix and Amazon seem willing to do that.

Other Quick Thoughts

I had some other quick thoughts I couldn’t fit into the above narrative too:

– There are additional ramifications for Netflix’s spending. Because if you can make Triple Frontier for $40 million, maybe it is “profitable”. In other words, if costs matter–they do!–then freewheeling spending may not be sustainable. 

– This doesn’t quite explain why Amazon isn’t releasing films to theaters anymore, I’ll admit. Instead, I’d focus on the marketing spend. The mistake wasn’t acquiring Late Night per se, but spending $30 million (at least, maybe higher) to market it unsuccessfully. If the films aren’t even going to make back that marketing spend, well just release them straight to your platform.

– Apple spent a ton of money for a Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds Christmas musical. (Yes you read that right.) Does this explain that? Sure, they’re hopping to the middle tier after their first set of films are mostly awards bait. 

– But why the overspending from the streamers? Right now, my working theory is that the marginal benefits of new subs is so high that overspending makes sense financially. As you hit maturity, though, those benefits decline precipitously, so you can’t keep doing it. That’s Netflix’s world right now. (I need to write an article to flesh this out.)

– What about Sony? Well, essentially take my feature film model, and apply your own percentages to it. If you accurately account for all the potential revenue streams (including a successful franchise), and still Netflix will pay you more in a “cost plus 30%” model, then you make that sale.

That’s it for feature film on streaming musings. For now. We still haven’t gotten to the rationale (or lack of) for skipping the theatrical window, which will be a future article series.

Oh, one more thing.

Post-Script: Man, He-Man? Seriously?

Also, just rewatch this trailer:

Maybe that’s why Sony hasn’t been able to get a working script in 12 years.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – NBCU Reshuffle

I read this Variety story twice to make sure I got everything. Wait a minute. Okay, just read it a third time. Then listened to TV’s Top Five.  

Honestly, I feel like I could read a powerpoint presentation of this and still not quite understand who controls what and who reports to who(m?). There are presidents and chairmen and vice-chairs and folks reporting to multiple bosses galore. (Cue the Office Space joke.) Basically, who will make what decisions on what? I don’t quite know.

I almost elevated this to my top story because I’ve long wanted to explore Bonnie Hammer’s role at NBC Universal. She’s right on the cusp of being a top development exec–meaning I put her in that Moonves/Burnett level–but she stops just short. Syfy has had just too many slip ups to make her track record spotless and she doesn’t get credit for Bravo’s success rate. Meanwhile, USA Network had a great 2000s (silently) but the 2010s have been…fine.

As for the final piece of this puzzle–Comcast veteran Matt Strauss moving to head Peacock–we don’t know. Strauss helped spearhead Xfinity’s operating system. That’s a great user experience. But streaming is much bigger and he won’t really have control over the content side. Hammer and the dozens of execs over there will determine what ends up on Peacock as originals and second runs. Which means that the internal turf wars at NBC Universal aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Also, call me old fashioned but I still like it when one boss leads a business. Don’t divide, the technical and creative sides to keep execs happy; find a boss who can lead.

Data of the Week – TV Ratings Bump from 3 Days to 4 Weeks

What is your default for streaming video? Either you believe that customer behavior is truly different on Netflix or it’s basically the same. That’s my take for DVRs, and Rick Porter has fun details on how long folks wait to watch content on delay on traditional TV, which certainly matches my experience. (We’re currently watching season 3 of Mr. Robot in preparation for the new season. We recorded it two years ago, so yes those commercials are out of date.) Porter’s data gives a tiny glimpse into this phenomenon.

My only so-so hot take is that this shows that TV viewing across platforms is more similar (sometimes very delayed, but the majority within the first four weeks) than it is different.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Update

TV Ratings Updates!

We had a lot of data from last week. Batwoman came out strong in the ratings–for The CW–and the All American may be getting a “Netflix bump”. Lessons? Some combination of marketing, buzzy IP and easy catch-up help ratings. Meanwhile, the NFL ratings are still strong, which does hell for narratives and helps create narratives galore. (Maybe the NFL ratings were a politics thing? Or maybe folks got over their concussion fears? Is cord cutting dead?) Honestly, we don’t know.

Overall Deals

Jordan Peele re-upped his overall deal with Universal films. I didn’t see a price, but I like this fine for Universal. However, if I had a first look with him–cough Amazon cough–I’d be pretty mad. I mean, between these films, CBS’ Twilight Zone, HBO’s Lovecraft Country, when is he going to give you any attention to pitch?

Management Advice – Email

I’ve had this article by Cal Newport bookmarked for a while now. I absolutely love his (deep) work. In my mind, your team, division or business–yes, you right there–can drastically improve its effectiveness by limiting, controlling and managing work outside of email. Key quote here:

Cal Newport Quote

Read My Latest at Linked-In: “Predicting Independent Film Sales in 2020 and Beyond”

Sometimes, it turns out you can’t predict the future.

Which doesn’t stop us from trying, all the time, whether we realize it or not.

That’s basically the theme of my latest article at Linked-In. It shows how small sample sizes and a lack of data make some efforts at predictions essentially impossible. (I’ve been trying to build my profile over there as well, so consider a follow/connection on Linked-In if you use it as your default social media source.)

Specifically, I looked at film festivals, using Sundance sales from past years as stand-in for all festivals. This is also a great example of how people are predicting things—how likely it is they can sell their film—without realizing it—at best folks predict if the market will be weak or strong, rarely with any numbers to it.

Take a read. Even if you’re not a fan of independent film, you can learn more about…

— A brief history of the rise of prestige/independent films.

— How the streaming wars have boosted prices in independent film.

— A history of Sundance sales looks over the last five years…in numbers. 

So check it out!

Why I Think Netflix Will End Up with 70 Million US Subscribers: Applying Bass Diffusion To The Streaming Wars

(Before we start, I launched a newsletter! It’s weekly and it’s short, and I explained my logic here. Sign up here.)

My goal is to try, as best I can, to explain the complicated parts of the entertainment biz, trying to walk readers through what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Unfortunately, even when I’ve tried to simplify things, I’ve gotten comments that my articles are pretty dense. That’s what happens when you don’t have an editor. 

With that preamble, today’s article is math-y.

This is about as math-y as I can get. I’ll be slinging terms like linear programming and mean absolute percentage error. To help out, I’m going to start with a BLUF (bottom line up front) so you can read my findings even if you don’t want to read my process to learn how I pulled it off.

Today is the “Bass Diffusion Model” in action. In layman’s terms, the Bass Diffusion Model is a way to calculate a “total addressable market” (TAM or “market size” in non-jargon terms) for various new products or innovations. As the headline suggests, today we’re turning our gaze towards Netflix as a stand-in for the streaming world.

BLUF – Netflix’s Market Size in the US is closer to 70 million than 90 million

When you apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US operations, the model which fits best has a market size in the United States of around 70-72 million subscribers. In other words, a saturated US market is much closer to the low end of Netflix’s projected outcome (60 million) than the high end (90 million). 

The Bass Diffusion model fits the data pretty well. My average “error” fitting the Bass Model to Netflix is 1 million for streaming only and 600K for all subscribers.

That said, applying the Bass model to Netflix isn’t perfect. First, Netflix transitioned from a DVD company to a streaming company, which is arguably two different product innovations. Second, Netflix isn’t alone in the streaming world, and we only have current Netflix subscribers in any period, and don’t know how many folks are still streaming, but no longer Netflix subscribers. Third, this is a US only model. In the future, I plan to apply the projections to the international markets (which has its own problems) and for all streamers.

The Origin Story – Seeing Bass Diffusion Applied in the early 2010s.

Going to b-school during the Qwikster debacle of 2013 made for interesting class discussions. Overnight, Netflix became a laughing stock. Yet, even with that debacle the year before, they had kept adding streaming customers. They were the growth story already—23%!—leading some early analysts to throw out huge potential market sizes. How long would this double digit growth continue for?

That’s when my professor—a marketing professor, naturally—trotted out the Bass Diffusion Model. We’d all learned this model in marketing the year before; I’d never considered applying it here. He did, and out popped a total market size: about 60 million US subscribers. The model fit really well. 

That 60 million has stuck in my head and influenced my thinking ever since. It’s why I launched this series and why I kept my annual subscriber projections a bit lower than most observers last January. Seriously, look at this chart I made back for an article on Hulu at DeciderBass doesn’t leap off as strongly as it did for Fortnite, but you can see it for Netflix and especially see it for Hulu.

Image 1 - NFLX StartFrankly, because of that one application, the 60 million subscribers point in the US felt like the point where we’d see Netflix slow down. Then, in Q2 of this year…that reality finally happened.

The good news for Netflix is the last few years have had better subscriber growth for Netflix than that old Bass model. (For those keeping score, my projection last year was probably too low.) The bad news? Well, 90 million subscribers is looking MUCH harder to reach. But instead of relying on old estimates, today is about making new ones.

The Task – Forecast Netflix Subscriber Growth in the United States

Just to be clear, my goal today is to apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US subscriber count. Why US only? Well, it has a few more data points which will make it a bit more accurate. More over, the recent slow down point gives me a bit more confidence that we’re seeing the inflection, which I’m not sure we’ve seen internationally yet. 

I’ll be building two models, though, because Netflix has actually had two products: the DVD delivery and streaming video. Unfortunately, Netflix has been a bit tricky when it releases subscriber counts, which means I needed to make some assumptions. Let’s explain those.

The Data – Netflix Subscriber Counts Over Time

To really make the Bass model work, I needed to do a lot of cleaning of my Netflix subscriber data to make sure everything I was calculating was apples-to-apples. Wait, doesn’t Netflix provide this? They do, every year. Here’s a Statista table summarizing that. Can’t we just use that?

Unfortunately, it’s a bit unreliable. When I use data, I pull it myself so I can vet it. For example, with those Statista numbers, are those numbers paid subscribers or free? Streaming only? Or all subscribers? Many tables and charts for Netflix actually mix up those categories in the same chart.

In fact, even in my chart above—the one for Decider—I did a bit of that.

So I updated all my Netflix subscriber numbers, calculating streaming and all subscribers for Netflix from the beginning of time. This took me SO long—and I had some insights into Netflix’s history from it—that I’m going to write it up as its own, probably too-in-the-weeds, article. In the meantime, just know these colors are the six different ways Netflix has revealed subscribers to investors:

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