Tag: theaters

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?

Read More

Read My Latest at Decider – Why Is Comcast Declaring War on Movie Theaters?

I finally cracked why Comcast is doing all the things it does. I explain it over at Decider, but quickly:

  • They can’t buy any more cable companies, so they money needs to go somewhere.
  • If you become a tech company, you can get a higher valuation. 
  • Also, Brian Roberts loves buying things.

So how does this relate to fighting theaters? Because tech titans hate the whole idea of “windowing” and sharing profits with others. Comcast is just the latest to get in the game.

So head to Decider and check it out.

Most Important Story of the Week – 13 Mar 20: Love (Films) in the Time of Coronavirus

The most important thing in this time of crisis is to focus on staying healthy and being good citizens. So don’t hoard food, avoid public gatherings, and try to donate blood.

Still, the economic consequences will quickly become as real as the pandemic ones. This is really what we pay CEOs for; not how you govern in times of booming stock prices, but times of crisis. 

For the next few weeks, since Coronavirus will dominate the news coverage, it will dominate this column too. I plan to run through how all the parts of the traditional and digital video value chain could be impacted. 

Image 7 Video Value WEb

Emphasis on the “could”, because in times of crisis there is a lot more we don’t know then do.

Most Important Story of the Week – Hollywood Pauses Production; Theaters Begin to Close

In my last weekly column, I speculated that the Coronavirus Pandemic had finally reached the “economic consequences” stage. Arguably, I was too late to make this warning very useful. But if any doubters remained, last weekend cinched it. Every big film moved out of the Q2 time period and nearly every major sporting event was cancelled. This week—I’m dating this for the 13th of March, but posting on the 17th—most major theater chains have closed.

Still, I hedged. Especially about predicting what would happen to entertainment companies.

Indeed, I tried to commit to the position that I wasn’t going to forecast the future. Why? Well, it’s impossible.

Which hasn’t stopped folks of course. Within the swarm of actual news came the opinions you’d expect, usually verging on the apocalyptic. “This is the death of theaters” being a typical example.

How do movie studios banking on theatrical releases handle that uncertainty? Well, they have quite a few strategic options. Given that theaters are the most visible part of the video value chain, we’ll start this mini-series there.

Before that, though, a rant…

Probabilistic Scenarios vs Narratives

The biggest “narrative” impacting actual stock prices goes like this…

…the impending quarantine will leave Americans (and the globe) stuck at home.
…Americans (and the globe) like Netflix.
…Therefore, they will binge a lot of Netflix.
…So Netflix wins the coronavirus sweepstakes.

Um, maybe?

Like most things “Netflix” when it comes to the narratives the only thing larger than the impact of the narrative is the stridency of the belief. Once the “Quarantine and chill” narrative started, it quickly went from “hypothesis’ to “thesis” to “inevitable outcome”. 

But consider this: if all the studios have to freeze productions, and Netflix is a studio, then they will have to freeze productions. While that could definitely help Netflix’s near term cash flow, it also would kill the new content used to bring in new customers. Speaking of cash flow, if credit markets freeze up, then getting new high yield debt could be tricky. 

Or consider this. With the impending budget cuts, cable MVPDs may aggressively cut prices to keep customers around in a pandemic-cause recession. They know folks are stuck at home; don’t let the recession kill your business.

Or this. Free, ad-supported streaming TV service (FASTs) may actually take up viewing. They have the same volume as Netflix for a better price: free. Or Twitch. Or Youtube. Both free too.

Which one of those scenarios will happen? I don’t know. Maybe all of them. Or none of them. We’ll need to set up good metrics to measure the signal of what’s actually happening with customers, not the noise of social media.

Which is my point. While narratives feel good, they don’t tend to make good strategy, since they tend to reinforce stereotypes and biases instead of generate insights and understanding. We need a more systematic approach. Which is what I’ll try to provide. (And I’ll get to Netflix in the streaming article.)

My Tools for Understanding Coronavirus Impacts

To try to think about Coronavirus strategically, I ended up pulling out three tools that I’ll use together.

– Supply, demand, and employment: The impacts of the coranavirus are unique in that they impact both supply and demand, making this a unique crisis.

– What we know; what we don’t: In times of crisis, it’s often good to separate what you know from what you don’t and what you believe from what you assume. Otherwise, you’re likely just building a narrative that reinforces existing and preconceived biases.

– What could change permanently versus what is temporary. This ties back to my “question of the year” I speculated before we started. The question was, “With streaming, what is the same and what is different?” This same question applies to the Coronavirus: what is a temporary change in circumstances, and what could lead to a permanent change in how we consume content and entertain ourselves?

Along the way, I’ll try to call out the biggest narratives I see emerging and I’ll conclude with my tentative strategic recommendations. These are the strategies I’d pitch to CEOs if I worked at a theater or a film studio.

Theatrical Film Going – The Narratives

Theaters hold a special place in the entertainment industry’s heart. For as much as it is being displaced by streaming it still has that “je ne sais quoi” embodied by the Oscars every year. That experience of going to a theater to see a film with a bunch of strangers on opening weekend. And for my money, big budget epics just look better on the big screen.

But how will the industry fare in the Covid-19 times?

I’ve seen a few narratives. Most prominently, is the “This is the death of theaters” theory. Theaters had merged for several years, then spent significantly to upgrade the experience (better seats; alcohol). Meanwhile, theaters have always been a low margin business even in the best of times. While those are true facts financially, the narrative piece seems to be the prediction that somehow customers will turn against theaters as an experience. 

Will being stuck inside for 8 weeks really prove to Americans how little they enjoyed going to theaters in the first place?

Let’s dig in. 

Supply

What we know: Supply gets hit in two ways. First, theaters themselves are now closed in Los Angeles and New York. This will likely spread to other states and cities. Obviously, if folks can’t go to theaters, they can’t see films in those theaters. As of this writing, most major chains have gone dark and most films scheduled for Q2 have been postponed or moved to VOD.

As for release calendars, we know that studios are now getting creative. Some films have moved back to later in the year, some to 2020, some up to VOD and some indefinitely. As a result, we can say that the end of 2020 and start of 2021 will likely be fairly crowded release calendars.

What we don’t know: How long theaters will have to stay closed. As of two weeks ago, it looked like April was gone. Then last week, most would have predicted though the end of May. Now June and July and beyond are on the table. But this crisis is moving quickly, so if by the end of April cases start declining, who knows? Maybe June is available.

The bigger unknown is what happens to the release window now. While Universal has “broken” the theatrical window with Trolls and The Hunt, they have a pretty damn good explanation: theaters are literally shuttered. It’s not breaking a window that doesn’t exist. Some studio chiefs likely would like to experiment with smaller theatrical windows like NBC, while others, especially Disney, like things the way they are. I personally wouldn’t be confident predicting the future of the window in either direction.

As for release calendars, even these are pretty unknown. A few weeks back Richard Rushfield wondered aloud if any big budget films would venture to streaming. There are big financial differences between VOD—which has great unit ecnomics—and straight-to-streaming, which doesn’t. But more than anything none of these moves sets a precedence. 

Meanwhile, studios will be desperate to get films in theaters. Especially blockbusters. Studios make roughly $5 billion from domestic releases alone. You can’t remove $5 billion and expect the same level of production. Globally tosses in another $15-20 billion. And remember, the economics are much better in theaters than even VOD.

Demand

What we know: Honestly? That folks like going to big budget movies. But we also know that America is afraid and as a result no one is going to the theaters. 

What we don’t: How folks will feel about movies in the future. This is a classic narrative you can build to support both sides. Maybe the Coronavirus creates a new normal where Americans decide to permanently live sheltered in their homes. Streaming satisfies all their filmgoing needs.

Or maybe after a two month quarantine, stir crazy Americans flood back into theaters to escape their home. Maybe the theater experience really does have something to it. (Most theater attendees have Netflix right now!) That feels more likely to me. But when and how and if this can happen we don’t know. And how theater attendance fares in a potential extended slump is another unknown.

Meanwhile, if theaters do go bankrupt in the quarantine, the impact on demand could be felt in the death of super hero films. Frankly, without home entertainment and theatrical releases powering billion dollar grosses, major studios will have to cut special effects driven films. What type of content will replace those films, if anything? Will folks miss super hero content when the next round of streaming series don’t have quite the same budgets?

Employment

What we know: Well, theaters employ lots and lots of people. From staff taking tickets to contractors cleaning the theaters. If there are no show times, there are no jobs to be had. And unlike sports teams which could choose to keep salaries going for the foreseeable future, theaters run much tighter margins.  

What we don’t know: What happens to these workers in an extended slowdown. 

My strategic recommendations

Since I started writing this column last Friday, things have already changed. The headline of headlines being that Universal broke the theatrical window.

1. Get creative. The Troll World Tour move to VOD makes a lot of sense. (I’m honestly surprised the price isn’t higher.) I’d recommend this for lots of films that are in this window; triage for what can go to theaters later, what can go to streaming now, and then theaters later and what will go to VOD never to emerge.

2. Be prepared for a “summer snap back”. If the virus is under control, I think August could shatter records as folks desperate for distraction seek entertainment out doors. This requires a lot of things going right, but seems on the table.

3. Assume a government intervention. Or reach out directly. Part of the reason I don’t think the window is irrevocably broken is that thousands of theaters going out of business would put tens of thousands of folks out of work, which would exacerbate the impending recession. If you can get a bail out for lost blockbuster revenue, VOD seems more attractive. 

Other Stories

Well that was the big story, but some other new stories were there too.

Netflix Biz Model Keeps Evolving

First, Netflix ended 30 day free trials in Australia. If I had to speculate? Well, churn is the name of the game. Second, Netflix is expanding their very cheap $3 plan to new territories. If I had to speculate? Subscribers are the name of the game.

Pixar’s Onward Stumble

If I’d gotten this column out on time last week, I would have noted the soft weekend opening of Onward. The most obvious explanation? It was Covid-19 worries. But the film felt like it had soft buzz even before it came out. Why is this big news? Well, I’m monitoring Disney Animation/Pixar for the first sign of stumble post-Lasseter exit and that was Onward. One is a data point, so we’ll look to Soul for a trend.

Fox Sports Brings Back Written Content

The “pivot to video” may be the worst strategic decision universally adopted by media since the dawn of the internet. And no surprise Fox has slowly reversed itself. Now if only ESPN would make their website more functional to read their great writers.

 

Should You Release Your Movie Straight to Netflix? Part I: The basic maths

Since 2019 started, there has been a debate among the entertainment biz literati (you know who they are):

Should you keep releasing your films in theaters, or go straight to streaming?

I first saw this in January when some folks on Twitter argued Disney should release Star Wars films straight-to-streaming now that Disney+ was coming. (My rebuttal here.) Then, when Booksmart flopped, I saw this debate take over Twitter. In short, why bother looking bad releasing in theaters, when you can go to Netflix and get 40 million views?

The Booksmart-esque examples kept coming. Late Night’s flop brought Amazon to the debate. Then Brittany Runs a Marathon. It got so bad, Amazon got out of the theatrical release business altogether. (So the big-for-Amazon Aeronauts abandoned traditional theatrical in exchange for a “four wall” strategy like Netflix.)

Meanwhile, this question is on every company’s mind. Netflix doesn’t do theatrical runs; Amazon just left the business; Apple is figuring out what it wants to do; Disney, Warner Bros and Universal are leaning into theatrical, except when they aren’t as Disney did with Lady and the Tramp. Paramount is an arms dealer at its finest. Let’s not sugar coat how important this question is. It’s literally a billion dollar question, per company! 

Getting this question right is business strategy at it’s finest: so who’s making the right call?

Judging by the online narrative, the Netflix supporters say Netflix. Most “arguments” for going straight-to-streaming seem to rely on personal experience, first, and Netflix’s stock price, second. Hardly ever do I see the piece of information I love most: numbers. (Strategy is numbers!)

Before I finished my series on The Great Irishman Challenge, I would have had trouble relying on anything more than qualitative/narrative explanations too. Without a model, testing assumptions or quantifying the financial impact of these strategic implications would have been little more than guesswork. But since I have it, I think I can try to quantify some aspects of this debate better than I’ve seen before. 

This debate has so many components, arguments and counter-arguments, that as I wrote my response, it was fairly jumbled. To organize my thinking, I’m deploying a “question and answer” format. Which I think helps. Still, before I get to that here’s my…

Bottom Line, Up Front

While very small films or historically poor performing theatrical films—think documentaries or foreign language films—may benefit from going straight-to-streaming, the vast majority of “studio films”—larger than $5 million production budgets, will make much more money for their producers by having theatrical distribution. (On average.) The “strategic” benefits of skipping the theatrical window don’t exist in practice as much as theory. So much so I call it the “straight-to-streaming trap”. 

Question: If you only had two words, why should movies avoid the “straight-to-streaming” trap?

Avengers: Endgame.

Q: Okay, explain.

Well, it made $2.7 billion (with a b) dollars in theatrical box office. Of course, Disney doesn’t keep all of that in revenue. Depending if it is US or international, Disney keeps 35-50%, and less in China. Still, I’d estimate Disney kept about $1.1 billion (and even that is low considering how powerful Disney’s bargaining power is with studios).

Assuming a $350 million production budget and a $200 million marketing budget, after just theatrical distribution, Disney has $550 million in gross profit to split with talent. In just one window! That doesn’t factor in toys, DVDs, electronic rentals or future streaming/cable value. Just one window netted over half a billion dollars. 

I honestly can’t fathom a scenario where Disney would have made more money by ignoring theatrical. (Again, that was my thesis back in January about Star Wars, but these are equivalent franchises.) That’s like having a barrel of oil and not refining the entire thing.

Q: Excuse me, oil?

Oil. Every year, one of the best things I read is The Economist’s Christmas Double Issue. Two years ago, they had a graphic about how a barrel of oil is refined into its component parts. Here’s the link for subscribers, but they had the whole thing on Google Images:

Image 1 - Economist Oil 20171223_XMC600_weblarge.png

In short, a barrel of oil is sort of like the not-quite-true aphorism that the Native American’s used every part of the buffalo. (Which was taken to another extreme by American meat packing at the turn of the century, who used every part of the pig/cow. Read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for details.)

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(Source: The Far Side cartoon. How is that not a piece of IP up for sale?)

As oil companies heat a barrel of oil, the raw material separates into different types of chemicals that are then used for everything from gasoline to diesel fuel to sulphur to countless other compounds. This is necessary because different size oil molecules have different uses. The goal for the oil company when refining oil is to extract as much value as possible from the oil they spent real money bringing out of the ground.

I love this analogy for theaters. Each window is a heavier as in greater gross margin type of oil. Netflix is essentially skipping the heaviest molecules (theaters, home entertainment) for the lightest (digital streaming). Long term, that means a lot of lost potential revenue.

Q: And can we quantify that?

Yes, and that’s what I spent a chunk of November doing. Here’s the “financial revenue” waterfall I’ve been using for theatrical films. Actually, here’s how it’s looked historically:

Image 2 - Financial Waterfall Historically

And here are my recent assumptions:

IMAGE 3 - Financial Waterfall Now

In other words, if you skip theaters, there goes 35-40% of your revenue. (While box office isn’t rising, as a percentage of feature film revenue, it is increasing because home entertainment is shrinking. By next year, it may be 40% of a film’s take.) If you skip home entertainment, that’s another big chunk of revenue. And frankly, it makes sense that theaters make so much money because it’s more expensive to go.

Q: The gross margins are higher for theaters than streaming? Do you have numbers for that?

Frankly, these are the numbers that any discussion about Netflix and Amazon have to start with. You can end up where you want, but if you ignore these numbers you’re likely using fuzzy math to justify your preexisting conclusions.

So let’s take each window into rough “per person per film hour” revenue in the United States. Just to make it explicit. Theaters have an average ticket price of call it $10. (It’s slightly lower, but I like to round my numbers.) Since each person pays that to see a film, it’s a $5 per person per film hour for the average two hour film.

Now, compare that Netflix, where the average subscription watches 40 hours of content per month. (According to past leaks/surveys.) Since a US customer pays $12, that’s $0.30 per hour. But since more than one person can watch, we can assume 1.5 customers share that viewership. Which takes it down to $0.20 per film. Which leads to this crucial note on potential revenue:

The streaming window is 8% of the total revenue of the theatrical window per person.

As I said above, theatrical is much, much more lucrative for studios than streaming. (The specific way to calculate the value to Netflix of a film is different than the usage version above—see here for those—but this is to show the potential size difference for different windows.)

Q: So let’s ask the obvious: have you quantified how much Netflix could have made releasing films in theaters this year?

Rightey-oh I have. Let’s talk upside. I took a selection of Netflix’s most noteworthy/expensive films, and asked Twitter for ideas for some quick and dirty “upside” comps for them. (I focused on the most recent films as possible, and matching rating/genre primarily.) Here’s the list I settled on:

IMAGE 4 - Netflix Film Comps

There’s your headline/nut graph/lede at the end of the article: if Netflix released its 10 (arguably) most valuable films from December 2019 to December 2020 (with Bird Box sneaking in), it could have made $750 in additional cash flow to the bottom line in just theatrical box office. If Netflix had to throw in $50 million per film on this list in additional marketing (which feels high), that’s still $250 extra million.

I’d add this list isn’t a ridiculous list of comps. A Quiet Place is definitely the same sized hit that Netflix is portraying Bird Box, so that number is reasonable. Meanwhile, I put in a couple of films well under $100 million in total gross and a lot of other solid doubles. 

So why hasn’t Netflix looked at this revenue and jumped? I’d argue sloppy financial thinking. And changing their strategy has PR implications. Others, though, would argue it’s about exclusivity for their platform. (Presumably some folks would see it in theaters, but not on Netflix.) 

To keep this article from going too long, I’m going to continue the Q&A in my next article. Essentially, I’ll lay out and debate the pro-straight-to-streaming arguments in their own place.