Motion Pictures: An Expendable Commodity Experience

In a world where a billion people can create and share content, Hollywood studios compete against their own consumers for audience attention. Hundreds of thousands of hours of video reach audiences through a growing number of channels each day. Web Video Platforms enabling your four-year-old nephew to compete with studio mega-moguls struggle to sift through the infinite noise to help you find the best entertainment. Hollywood Studios struggle to efficiently recapture audiences after the curtain closes, left only to throw billions of dollars marketing desperate pleas to past successes through a record number of franchises, sequels and remakes. As a consumer, building a loyal relationship with either continues to prove as difficult as siding with a parent through a divorce.

The theatrical and home video businesses treat content as a commodity, marking up ticket and a la carte prices to record-high margins. The television and internet businesses treat content as expendable to sell advertising and subscriptions. The answer, for consumers most loyal to great storytelling, lies somewhere in the middle. As the music industry learned through live shows versus lost sales via easily transmittable mp3s, sustainable value lies not in the content itself but the experience through which people consume it. Great content markets special experiences. Rather than fighting an uphill piracy battle, consumers continue to challenge the industry to focus on making it as easy as possible for them to access content in any and all formats that maximize their personal experience. Greater the experience, greater the value.

In the Information Age, consumers expect better quality at their own convenience. Make them wait or jump through hoops and they will likely go elsewhere or steal from you. Are they criminals? The law says so. But the studios are responsible — for failing to build a better relationship with and serve audiences who love their content. As the Internet evolves into a responsive utility with no prejudice between screen sizes or location, producers have the opportunity to reach limitless platforms with ease. What are we waiting for?

With the capacity to reach any screen at negligible distribution cost, how can the industry create the illusion of value in content itself? Commodity value comes from scarcity — supply and demand. Digital can transmit anywhere, anytime, ad infinitum. Unlimited supply. No scarcity. When movies exist as ones and zeros, good luck convincing audiences to pay $30 for a file or stream.

Scarcity, then, can only come through wrapping the movie with an unforgettable experience. The “wrapper” can manifest as a better video player, larger screen or infused relationship with a fan community. But that’s only the beginning. Sure, digital can transmit ad infinitum, but “once in a lifetime” experiences cannot. Exclusive themed dinners, costumed extravaganzas or private viewings with filmmakers all fit the “once in a lifetime” thesis. An experience you cannot rewind or replay. An experience worth paying for. How much would you pay to sit next to Steven Spielberg and watch Jurassic Park or E.T.? The more inventive and unique the experience, the greater the value. Popcorn and surround sound do not sell tickets anymore.

Want to compete against small screens, millions of content “producers” and the Internet abroad? Make content easy for audiences to consume and help fans live your stories.

Don’t just make movies; create memorable experiences.

Advertisements

My Ten Favorite Films of 2012

It’s that time of year again. Without further adieu, my top ten list for 2012:

1. Lincoln

2. Argo

3. Killing Them Softly

4. Moonrise Kingdom

5. Skyfall

6. Zero Dark Thirty

7. Les Misérables

8. Samsara

9. Looper

10. Ruby Sparks

Five Honorable Mentions:

Five Worst Movies:

Here are the 36 movies I’ve seen to date with 2012 release dates:

Broadcast Contracts Will Kill Hollywood

It does not surprise me that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show on television. Without cable, I have no way to watch it. I’d happily pay $20 per month if HBO GO was open to people without cable subscriptions. Unfortunately, that’s not that case. None of HBO’s shows are available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I have no way to watch any of HBO’s shows except pay a $75 per month cable subscription for a television I don’t have, wait for them to come out on DVD, or pirate them. I’m a good boy with little expendable time, so I avoid Game of Thrones altogether. But 25 million people have not been angels and found the show through whatever means necessary. Who knows how many more people opt out entirely and forever pass the show by?

I’ve said before that Hollywood should concern themselves less with piracy and more with audience access. Simple supply and demand metrics – audiences demand content and providers are failing to supply to increasingly popular internet channels. It’s the whole industry’s fault for inciting piracy. They are missing out on an expanding margin of customers. In defense of HBO and others, production companies have entangled themselves in lucrative and restricting contracts with cable partners. To offer direct-to-consumer digital distribution would breach their contracts and deprive them of their single strongest revenue source. For most companies like HBO, that may never happen – at least not until everyone has internet televisions or the cable providers themselves die.

Broadcast contracts may be a reasonable excuse for holding content back from web distribution. But if companies plan to stand behind that excuse, they need to stop making such a big deal about piracy. By threatening or incriminating millions of people who cannot access your primary distribution method, you are alienating potential evangelists of your content and failing to understand the trajectory of your market. Web television is not a trend. In five years, most motion picture content will be consumed online – on connected televisions, game consoles, mobile devices or computers. To fight or deny this is foolish and egoistic.

I left Hollywood because no companies were willing to put the engineering muscle behind personal distribution channels. Beyond sheer web design and database builds, online services require customer service and billing infrastructure that can cost a lot of money. Fortunately, these things are getting easier and cheaper. An independent production company with enough content to leverage could easily set up shop on the web with a very controllable investment and small handful of people on the tech side.

If you want a sustainable career in the movie business, start or work for a company with full digital rights. Careful signing onto productions with traditional broadcast contracts and no digital rights – these opportunities, no matter how lucrative, are sinking ships. If they cannot find a way to breach contracts soon, they may not survive the next wave of liberated web-savvy competitors.

Consolidating the Online Content Experience

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Marvel’s The Avengers raking in a $200M+ opening weekend leaves little room to tell Hollywood that they are doing it wrong. The 40-year old blockbuster model continues to pay for the movie business. In the early days, the cinema experience was not far removed from attending a Broadway show: dressing up and cozying into ornate movie palaces staffed by ushers and orchestras. To expand the experience, multiplexes cropped up everywhere. To augment the experience further, Hollywood learned to tentpole a film, merchandise it and open theme park rides. The cinema experience is larger than life.

While all of that may work for three or four titles, hundreds of motion pictures barely scrape by each year. The internet and a proliferation of choice in the new millennium continues to threaten the sustainability of the movie business. The entertainment industry as a whole keeps falling behind the times. They still depend on Nielsen‘s myopic ratings and surveys to make strategic market decisions. They collect little to no data on their viewers to leverage repeat conversions. They build no intimate relationships with their customers and create few opportunities outside the theater to communitize their content. They embrace an antiquated scarcity model by rolling content out onto different platforms across rigid windows weeks and months apart, thereby eliciting content access demand and piracy. Merchandise still sits on retail shelves or on random websites online, far from the experience of seeing the movie itself. Without update, these practices may be fatal. While box office may be up (due largely to increased ticket prices and 3D or IMAX premiums), attendance is down – even more painful when considering population growth.

All of these issues could be solved by incorporating a thicker web layer into and consolidating the filmgoing experience under one roof – literally and figuratively. By converging merchandise, community and content into a digital or real world platform, Hollywood could make all facets of their business more accessible and leverage entire catalogs toward a more scalable, niche-friendly or cost-effective practice. Loved the movie you just saw? The theaters should make it as easy as possible to leave the theater and impulse buy a plush or action figure of your favorite character. Imagine if you could buy merchandise from and connect with other fans on a movie’s page in Netflix? Organize public screenings or petition for a sequel with the masses online? The community layer would add to the consumer experience and give filmmakers a platform to understand how people engage with their work.

I love the movies. I love the theater. I want the industry to succeed. These issues are reparable. If the industry can recruit key talent from the web tech sector, surrender a century’s worth of logic around brick and mortar business practices, build relationships with consumers online and put storytelling first, there may be a glimmer of stability and hope for film professionals and moviegoers alike. We’ve got work to do. There’s plenty of stories to tell and opportunities to make a living by producing great content.

12 Most Anticipated Films of 2012

2011 was an embarrassing year for movies. Fortunately, 2012’s lineup promises to recover from the wake of the writer’s strike and trump the decade with a vengeance. I had a difficult time narrowing down over two dozen movies I am eager to see. Without further adieu, my twelve most anticipated films of 2012:

  1. Skyfall – A dream-team collaboration with Sam Mendes in the chair, Roger Deakins behind the lens and Thomas Newman at the piano. With Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench and Albert Finney reading scripts, this may be the most resonate and award-saturated package of the year. Did I mention that it’s a James Bond film?
  2. The Dark Knight Rises – The film that needs no introduction, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight.
  3. Moonrise Kingdom – The world can always use a little Wes Anderson snark. This one looks like a charm.
  4. Cogan’s Trade – One of my favorite films of 2007 was The Assassination of Jesse James. Cogan marks the five year reunion between director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt.
  5. Wettest Country – Excited to see if John Hillcoat can pull off prohibition bootlegging with Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce.
  6. Lincoln – I’ve been waiting years for this and Steven Spielberg has, too. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Need I say more?
  7. Only God Forgives – One of last year’s saving graces was Drive. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling re-team this year in the world of Thai boxing.
  8. Prometheus – Director Ridley Scott back to his roots with a reboot / prequel to the original Alien.
  9. Brave – A Pixar movie. Bam.
  10. The Gangster Squad – A gangster film with Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte and Emma Stone? Yes, please!
  11. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Looks and smells like The Lord of the Rings.
  12. Gravity – Been hearing about this one for a while; George Clooney and Sandra Bullock – in space. Alfonso Cuarón’s last film, Children of Men, was a daring jump into the sci-fi genre and I’m curious to see him do it again.

Protest

I keep my mouth shut and seldom declare my stance on tabled issues in public. I avoid stirring the pot for the sake of it and do what I can to preserve my nonpartisan relationships. But when it comes to legislation or executive decisions that may invariably keep my mouth shut against my will, I speak up.

I learned a lot from Hollywood in the five years that I studied and worked in Los Angeles. I respect and support the industry’s need to fight piracy. To produce and spread content on a sustainable scale requires considerable revenue chains that dare not waver. Due largely to the size of teams necessary to complete them, films will always be expensive to produce. Losing control of your content – and thereby losing the ability to recoup costs on your production – is a huge issue and must be curtailed.

That said, I do not respect Hollywood’s conservative grapple-hold on content in an antiquated scarcity model. While the studios contend that they make more by staggering the release of a film across all mediums, these rigid exhibition windows from theater to home regularly deprive hungry consumers of content they want to consume. The Hollywood release model is effectively inspiring piracy – not because people want to maliciously destroy the industry, but because people want to consume content and cannot do so when and where they want. Street vendors in the third world do not sell ripped DVDs as an attack on studios or because tickets are too expensive; they do it because Hollywood failed to make the content available in their market. Contemporary piracy stems more from accessibility issues than anything else. Hollywood is utterly failing to provide. By holding product close to the chest, the entertainment industry is failing to reach customers, scale brands at the contemporary pace necessary to survive, and collect the money of eager and willing fans. The media industry is killing itself. They need no help from pirates.

Out of desperation and a lazy aversion to change, entertainment turned to lobbyists to craft a bill that would effectively give our government the power to censor or shut down websites. There are constitutional ways to fight piracy; the Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property Acts are not it. To learn more about the bills, I encourage you to watch this video.

Tomorrow between 5am and 5pm MST, I will join many Internet companies – including Wikipedia and Google – in protesting these bills by shutting down my site. You will not be able to read my blog.

Under the First Amendment, we have the right to contest any act abridging the freedom of speech. We have the freedom to protest and stand up for our rights. Do not dismiss protests as mass whining or vanity noise. Without protest and public forums for opinion, women would not have the right to vote and many of us would still own slaves. Do not take the freedom of expression lightly. Celebrate your voice at every possible turn. Use it when you can.

My Ten Favorite Films of 2011

It’s that time of year again. Overall, a painfully disappointing year from Hollywood. Wrought with sequels and still choking from the wake of the 2007-2008 Writer’s Strike, 2011 may be the worst year for movies in my lifetime (certainly in the last decade since I’ve considered myself a connoisseur of such things). Notwithstanding Netflix or anything else, I don’t think I would go out of my way to buy or see many of these movies again. Underwhelming publicity campaigns and Rotten Tomatoes scores only pulled me out to see 36 titles. Having seen so few, I am certainly missing a handful that may find their way onto this list posthumously. We’ll see. I’ll recommend them as they come.

All negativity and pessimism aside, the following ten films made an impression on me and I recommend them. Cinephiles, please go out of your way to see my #1. In reverse order: