Rearview mirror business plans

So much going on in the media world that seems to be based on a combination of feelings that innovation is bad and that people are in the delivery business and not the content-creation business.

First up there is, of course, Hollywood.

If you remember back to the Christmas of 1989 you’ll remember a seismic shift that occurred in the world of home video. While VHS had dominated the video market after triumphing over Betamax and being adopted by Blockbuster (just starting its expansion plans in earnest), most all consumer activity had consisted of rentals since to buy a movie cost about $99, at least in the first year or so of its release. So you would rent a movie dozens of times if you wanted to keep watching it.

But in 1989 Warner Bros. led the sell-through market by releasing Tim Burton’s Batman on VHS for just $20 or so, the first blockbuster to get such a release strategy, a move that essentially kicked off the home video library behavior among consumers. The elimination of that window combined with an attractive price-point, in other words, created demand to own and not just rent.

But now studios want to go back to that window (Los Angeles Times, 10/23), making movies unavailable to rent at first. They’re seeing too much drop in sales as consumers pull back their spending and too much growth in low-cost rental options like Netflix and Redbox. Those options have grown at the expense of not only sales figures but also higher-cost options like Blockbuster, which has to maintain those high prices because they have more overhead.

While that’s happening there’s increasing chatter (New York Times, 10/25) around what used to be the third rail of home video, digital distribution. The subject is touchy because it cuts out the retail partners that contributed to the success of the DVD format. But that doesn’t change the fact that digital is where the growth potential is at. But Hollywood’s hesitancy to adjust is exemplified by the outcry that’s resulted from Paramount’s decision to speed up (Variety, 10/26) the home video release of G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and the genuflecting the studio had to do to assure theater owners this wasn’t the new norm but an exception to the rule.

While all this is going on, reports are circulating that Hulu will begin charging for “some” content (Mediaweek, 10/23) in 2010. That led to this absolutely ridiculous statement from columnist Diane Mermigas, who I actually enjoy reading, about the streaming site:

“Hulu’s online video platform may be a success with the masses, but it will have to begin charging for at least some of its content if it doesn’t want to destroy the $185 billion television ecosystem it draws from.”

Mermigas’ comment is indicative of the problematic thinking that’s going on at studios, TV networks and newspapers, which are reeling from a report that their cumulative circulation continues to drop like a rock.

Specifically, the problem is that Hulu doesn’t need the broadcast television infrastructure to survive. It depends on the creation of high-quality content. It doesn’t actually matter to Hulu if “30 Rock” airs on NBC, ABC or anywhere else. It doesn’t matter if it airs at 8PM, 3AM or any other time of day. It just needs “30 Rock” to be created.

Likewise, Netflix doesn’t need Universal or Paramount to make the movie. It just needs the movie to get made. And the audience *really* doesn’t care who the studio making a movie is, what network a show actually airs on – TiVo is channel agnostic, as is Hulu.

Problems *always* emerge when content companies become invested in the distribution format. That’s what we’re seeing with movies, TV and newspapers/magazines right now. Studios have no vested interest in movie theaters (something corrected with the Paramount Decrees) but they are the ones distributing DVDs. So they want to see that format survive and are willing to start the process of turning up the heat on theater owners to further their own self-interest. Similarly, TV networks are beholden right now to the physical television set instead of seeing themselves as creators who can put their content anywhere and everywhere for distribution. And newspapers are so set on the survival of ink-on-paper they can’t rightly judge any plans that don’t involve that as the cornerstone.

An industry has never survived by hunkering down and going into survival mode, and that’s exactly where all three of these industries are. They survive by innovating and meeting customer needs, wants and desires in smart ways. I’m not advocating giving away the farm here. But retreating to or clinging desperately to the business plans of the past is never a recipe for future success.

Cross-platform measurement

Online streaming of prime-time programming won’t really make its case at the big conference table for full commitment of either title selection or ad dollars until there’s a system in place to measure how a show performs on TV, on mobile devices or on computers (either streaming or downloads) until there’s a cross-platform measurement system in place. So it’s nice that Nielsen is finally getting around to having talks (10/16/09) about just that.

More than that it’s going to open up a whole new definition of what a “hit” is. Something like “Dollhouse” will be seen in a vastly different light when all formats are taken into account in the spreadsheet.

Disney teases Keychest

I’ve long held that the consumer home entertainment marketplace inevitably will wind up in a place that allows people to buy what amounts to a license for a movie, album or other content. That license would allow them to access what they’ve paid for at home, on the road, on their mobile devices or anywhere else.

Coming out of a recent industry conference comes word that Disney is moving forward with something just like that. Dubbed “Keychest” (Variety 10/21/09) the system would let consumers buy a “key” that would allow access to a movie that’s stored not on their hard drive or set-top box but on a remote server (I’m not going to say “in the clouds”) that they could then watch anywhere they wanted on any registered device.

The “Keychest” initiative is an independent program being initiated by Disney, who is not participating in a consortium of other studios that’s working toward a similar goal, albeit with different elements and goals.

Movie Marketing Madness: (Untitled)

Untitled PosterIt goes without saying that the “serious” art world is and always has been one filled with healthy amounts of pretension. People take themselves seriously because they feel that what they’re creating is unique and important and expresses something that is by turns extremely personal and extremely universal to the world.

That serious, serious mindset, then, makes it the perfect target for a bit of satire. And that’s exactly what (Untitled) sets out to do.

The movie follows a young artist played by Adam Goldberg who specializes in sound. His creations are a mish-mash of various sounds, with his latest work ending with him kicking a metal bucket. That brings him to the attention of a comely young gallery owner played by Marley Shelton, who not only wants to help further his career but also has some interest in him romantically. As things go on, the discussion of what art is goes along with the discussion of what it means to be popular.

The Posters

The poster puts the film’s title treatment on the wall in the same manner as one of those cards placed next to a work of art with the name of the piece and the artist’s name on it, a clever concept that probably should have been expanded to the entire one-sheet. As it is that card itself becomes the art that Shelton’s character is looking at and admiring, while Goldberg (because he’s the more recognizable face, even if is is as Eddie from “Friends”) looks at the audience. Toward the bottom the copy “Everyones got an opinion” makes it clear we’re dealing with a discussion of what art “is,” even if that discussion is tongue-in-cheek and satirical.

The Trailers

The movie’s one trailer starts off with it being made clear that we’re in the world of experimental art, art that’s labeled as “important” and “revolutionary” by gasbags who have no idea what they’re talking about but want to sound like they’re on the cutting edge of what’s interesting.

Goldberg plays the central character in the movie and we see that he’s very much the struggling artist, someone who catches the eye of an influential gallery owner, a beautiful young woman (Shelton) who he winds up in bed with, probably something that’s going to provide some of the movie’s story. In between all that we get plenty of shots of artists who dabble in negative space, instillation pieces and other abstract areas like that. It’s pretty funny and certainly shows off the performances of Goldberg and Shelton and is the stronger for that.

Online

The official website for the movie is pretty cool in that frames – literally – the content in the manner of an art gallery. If you mouse around the picture frame that makes up the center of the site the image will move and content areas pop up, but all those sections are also listed below the frame.

“Overview” has a good, well, overview of the movie. It’s not exactly a plot synopsis though there’s a bit of that there. Instead it’s more of a setting of the stage for that story, providing a quick glimpse at some of the main characters and how they’re poised against and alongside each other.

You can find links to a handful of reviews and other write-ups about the movie under “Press” as well as a prompt to follow their updates on Facebook.

“Character Bios” has just that, a history of the characters themselves, though with an acknowledgement of the actors portraying them. The bio for Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg), for instance lists his performance and recording credits to date.

“Videos” has the Trailer as well as three extended clips that show off some scenes from the movie that are pretty funny. There are 10 stills in the “Photo Gallery” that are unique and not just grabbed from the trailer.

Finally you’ll find press contact information and downloadable notes and the poster under “Contact.”

Moving off-domain, the movie’s Facebook page does indeed have links to quite a bit more press coverage of the film. Also there is the trailer, the poster and a still from the movie. The MySpace page just has a photo gallery, synopsis and the trailer.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Nothing that I’ve been privy to, not even a smattering of online ads.

Media and Publicity

There’s been a bit of coverage of the movie, but most of the buzz that I was able to find or which found me had to do with the release of the various marketing materials. There were some other items like a screening of footage from the movie at a San Francisco art studio but that was about it.

One story that stuck out was a New York Times piece (10/11/09) that examined how the studio was getting around the pricey advertising in New York and L.A. – the two markets most likely to have an audience interested in the movie’s theme – by reaching out to gallery owners and others who could host events and spread the buzz about it. That’s a great tactic that is emphasized quite a bit in discussions of how to market independent films; reaching

Overall

I really like this campaign for its simplicity and consistency. Everything seems to be hinged on that blank wall that the characters are looking at in the poster as that theme gets repeated throughout the campaign elements, sometimes overtly and sometimes just as a grace note. While it’s not a huge campaign I think it does manage to sell the movie very well, not only to those who live in the world portrayed in the film but also fans of light and funny satire.

What’s next?

Of course it’s inevitable that Facebook, Twitter and any other social/status network we’re using now will be seen as archaic – or at least no longer hip – five years from now (Washington Post, 10/19/09). That’s why it’s important to 1) Always be tuned in to what the audience for your specific product or project is using and 2) Make sure you don’t listen to the gasbags who always see what’s out right now as the cure for all ills.

A plethora of formats

Would you say I have a plethora of distribution formats?

Oh yes, you have a plethora.

A piece by Susanne Ault in Variety (9/16/09) serves as kind of a counter-point to a previous one by Scott Kirsner in terms of surveying the distribution landscape. Where Scott’s focused on the options available to independent filmmakers, Ault’s is more a lay of the land for the mainstream distributors, including the nugget that there are up to 250 different distribution formats that must be catered to in order to put movies in everyone’s hands.

Which is why this is important:

With the help of the Entertainment Technology Center, studios are engineering an interoperable digital master format (IMF) to further boost their digital businesses. Studios would seriously simplify — and save money on — the distribution process with one movie file, instead of 250, that could be delivered to fit most digital retailers.

Based at the U. of Southern California, the ETC has been overseeing regular studio meetings toward this IMF goal. The ETC expects to create a master specification by early 2010, having already completed more than half the work by September.

My guess is that adoption of digital distribution changes dramatically when that is achieved.

There was also a later story, also in Variety (10/17/09) about how some studios are testing out different models for home video/video-on-demand releasing patterns that’s kind of interesting. Recaps a lot of what’s come before but also looks ahead a bit to what may be coming as a result of some of those experiments.

Outreach

The tactics on display here are just awful. It’s not a failure of outreach or anything as easy to write-off as that – it’s a failure of understanding. They just don’t understand what is ethical and what isn’t.

As I’ve said before, online outreach is – or at least should be – no different from traditional media outreach. And this email would never, ever be sent to a writer at The Chicago Tribune. Therefore it should never have been sent to online media.