April, 2018

Netflix, Independent Cinema, and Hollywood’s New Business Model

The other day The Ringer published a piece about Netflix and their original movie strategy. The piece, entitled Netflix and Shrill listed the original movies that Netflix has already released in 2018 and challenged readers to see how many they recognised. For most people, the most familiar title will have been The Cloverfield Paradox. This was an $XXm space horror film that became part of the Cloverfield franchise. However the studio that made it, Paramount, got cold feet and decided to sell the thing to Netflix lock, stock and barrel. They promptly gave it a surprise release right after the Super Bowl, during which of course, they promoted it.

But what about the rest of the titles in Sean Fennessey’s piece? Well only three others on the list actually resonate with me at all – Mute, Kodachrome and Mercury 13. The former because it’s a Duncan Jones film, and the latter two because I just added both to my Netflix List.

Netflix gets films in a few different ways. It sometimes licences big name studio films either directly from the studios or via third party rights packages. That’s the way most of those familiar titles end up on the service. However, those titles are probably only licenced for a specific period of time. That’s why you get lists of movies that are coming off the service.

Then there are those it acquires at film festivals. The model for smaller independent titles has often been to scrap together funding from wherever, then pitch up somewhere like the Sundance Festival and try to get a distributor to take on the picture, getting it into theatres and, importantly, marketing it. The latter is expensive, and it’s the reason why titles sometimes end up unseen even though funding had been found to actually make them. Netflix’s preferred model is to buy the global rights and buy out the film in perpetuity. But sometimes that’s not possible because different territory’s rights may have been given up as part of the funding model. Furthermore residual rights for home release like Blu Ray or iTunes may reside with someone else.

Finally, there are Netlfix original productions – those that are put together on paper and then shot specifically for Netflix. These are labelled “Netflix Originals,” although confusingly, so are those acquired at places like Sundance. When Netflix owns the film in totality, they get to release it globally and own it in perpetuity on every platform. They control whether you can ever even see the film somewhere like iTunes.

What all this means is that the list at the top of The Ringer article only completely applies to the US. That said, when I checked, all but one of the films was also available in the UK.

I recently read a really good new book called The Big Picture by Wall Steet Journal reporter Ben Fritz, who has long covered the entertainment beat. The book goes through deep into the current Hollywood business model, because it has changed fundamentally inside the last ten years. You only have to look at the table in The Ringer piece.

Fennessey notes that the six major Hollywood studios have released a total of 25 films in the first 16 weeks of 2018. During that same period, Netflix has also released 25 films!

But there’s a reason for that. Hollywood has just dropped out of the middle market – those $30-$80m or more production films that weren’t based on franchises, relying instead on audiences turning out to see stars. They included thrillers, romantic comedies and more serious fare. Fritz’s book takes a really good look at the model that yet used to hold up Hollywood, because some of those titles in the past might have lost money, but others would have made decent cash.

However in the scheme of things, Hollywood was only make 10% and now for a studio like Disney it’s closer to 30%. That’s because they don’t these days make films that aren’t based on franchises or other known intellectual property.

Most famously Disney has Marvel. But they’ve also got Star Wars, their own animated back catalogue now being remade in live action, Pixar (who are perhaps the only real originators of new stories at the moment, even if they themselves are relying more than ever on franchises. Did we really need another Toy Story, or did the trilogy end perfectly before?), and coming soon Indiana Jones.

Fritz’s book looks closely at the travails of Sony. In part because they were the studio that were considered the most talent friendly in the past. Amy Pascal who led the studio had great rapport with the talent and was as a result Sony was home to lots of those kinds of mid-budget films, while only really having Spiderman as a top tier franchise.

The other reason the books uses Sony as a case study is because of the massive email hack. All those communications ended up online and viewable to all. These caused Sony enormous damage at the time, not least when studio heads bad-mouthed people in some of those emails. But Fritz uses them to illustrate some of the inside thinking at Sony as they realised that they desperately needed franchises, and at the same time were struggling with their most valuable asset in Spiderman. As long as they kept making new Spiderman movies on a semi-regular basis, Marvel wasn’t able to grab back arguably their biggest property.

This is all important in light of The Ringer piece because it explains why the number of studio releases this year equals the number released by Netflix. If it wasn’t for Netflix, it’s not clear how those movies would get released at all!

I’m not saying that some of them wouldn’t make it to our screens. In the US, Alex Garland’s highly regarded recent release, Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel, got a theatrical release. But the studio who made it – Paramount again – got slightly cold feet and sold the rights for the rest of the world to Netflix. So a film that was visually spectacular ended up going no a screen no bigger than our televisions, and no doubt for many people, no bigger than their phones. However, that’s another discussion for another day.

Had Netflix not existed, then yes, I suspect some kind of theatrical release would have happened for Annihilation – certainly in the UK. But I can’t see studios like Paramount continuing with this kind of strategy for long. Nor can I see Netflix wandering around picking up and endless succession of studio releases that the studios have suddenly got concerned about. While Annihilation is excellent, the same can’t be said of The Cloverfield Paradox which is decidedly the weakest in the somewhat contrived franchise.

The risk is that Netflix is perceived as the dumping ground for movies that have tested badly with the distributors. Of course Paramount and their ilk manage to avoid having a flop on their hands, and come out cash neutral, or perhaps with a small upside.

Meanwhile, I completely understand that filmmakers must be frustrated. They made these films to be shown on the big screen – that’s how they’re conceived and shot. You frame things differently for television. On the other hand, it has long been the case that far larger audiences will see films on television than will the big screen.

More and more, then, it’s going to continue to be Netflix and Amazon that become the homes of these medium and smaller films. What they perhaps struggle to do is sufficiently market those films.

A lot is made of Netflix’s algorithms that surface films that viewers will want to see with incredible accuracy. I don’t agree. I’ve long felt that Netflix (and Amazon) are woefully bad at surfacing their own titles. They think they know me, but they really don’t.

When Netflix emails me to alert me to a new Adam Sandler release, Netflix being the exclusive home of new Sandler releases these days (Fritz’s book details this deal), then Netflix has failed to grasp even the most basic understanding of my interests. Of course they only know what they know. They don’t know that I enjoy Westworld on Sky Atlantic; The City and the City and Howard’s End on the BBC; Endeavour on ITV. They don’t know that I saw nearly all the Oscar Best Picture shortlist at the cinema this year.

Furthermore, when big releases like Annihilation or that recent flawed Duncan Jones title, Mute are released, I have to really go searching to find them. Did either Kodachrome or Mercury 13 show up on the Netflix home page? No – I had to do a search.

Now these are titles that I’m actively aware of. What about others that I suspect I’d like if they were marketed properly? Well those are the titles that are disappearing into the depth of the platform.

It still seems remarkable to me that neither Netflix nor Amazon are able to replicate what a good physical store is able to do in showing me new titles. If I visit a branch of Fopp (about the only significant retailer of physical discs in the UK right now), I might browse at a display of films from the Criterion Collection, the BFI or Second Sight. In some instances, I simply won’t have heard of some of the titles, but I’ll still pick up discs and browse at them. I may actually buy them. The same is true in a good bookshop where as well as the latest bestsellers, the bookseller has perhaps contrived to display some thematically interesting books together on a table somewhere.

A properly released mid- budget or indie film will have press ads, posters, bus sides, and importantly, reviews. The latter is an area that Netflix and others need to work hard at. Most of the broadsheets have full time film reviewers, but in the main they don’t review streaming titles very well. The release medium seems to dictate what gets reviewed. In the past studios would “game” this. A release that was really “direct to DVD” would get a brief cinema release over a weekend just so they got notability before you spotted the title in the DVD aisle of Sainsburys the following week.

Somehow a movie poster can tell me more about a film than a small box with barely even a one line description of the title. Netflix has some incredible algorithms to test multiple images to find just the right one to appeal to me. Am I a fan of a particular actor? Then I see that actor in the image on the platform. You see something different to illustrate the same title. But beyond that, they need to work harder. Choosing to start a stream is a much more proactive choice than flicking through the channels on a remote control before settling on something.

So that’s the real reason why those movies have disappeared without me aware of them. That said, if you gave me a list of everything released at the cinema in the first few months of this, many of them too would be unfamiliar. There are a lot of films craving for attention, and only so much attention that they can be given.

I’m not going to criticise Netflix for their release strategy – but they do need to work harder on marketing of titles. Otherwise, yes, it can feel as though these films didn’t exist at all. An unfamiliar movie title in a long list remains just that. A consumer gets more excited when they seen a known property than an unknown one.

The Ringer piece notes forthcoming films from Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuarón, both of which I’m excited to see. Netflix will also be bringing Andrew Niccol’s new SF film, Anon (It’ll air on Sky Cinema in the UK). I’m always keen to see a new film from the man who brought us Gattaca. As long as Netflix does enough to raise the profile of these films rather them just at best appearing as a meaningless title that tells us nothing, then I’m excited for their future.

The studios, however, I’m more worried about. Their strategy of shifting to fewer and bigger films runs all kinds of risks in the longer term. The words ‘eggs’ and ‘baskets’ spring to mind.

Marvel may be unassailable at the moment, but it only takes one or two duff movies, and that success can begin to slip. In his book Fritz notes that the reduced number of releases affords movie executives more time to spend on the titles that they are releasing. They can give them the time that they need, delaying releases if necessary. That’s great in theory, but even Marvel films have dates to meet, particularly if the outcome of one film leads into the next Avengers title or whatever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, as he says, the world’s highest budget TV series. Audiences go and see the new Marvel films regardless of the hero, a bit like watching your favourite TV shows week in and week out. Marvel tries to structure the films a little like a TV a procedural. You can basically watch each as a standalone, but of course there’s a larger story arc underlying the series. But as we know, even the biggest TV series juggernaut, eventually falls from grace eventually.

And will audiences continue to actually go to cinemas? They’re fighting the battle by laying on bigger and better seats that can sometimes be more akin to a business class seat on a long distance flight. They’re offering in-chair food and drinks service, and we’re seeing new formats like IMAX 3D and 4DX. Yet cinema ticket prices continue to rise ahead of inflation, and they become ever more hostile environments when they don’t ensure that patrons keep their phones switched off for example.

Disney’s answer to this potential uncertainty is to get skin into the streaming game as well. With its Disney Life app in the UK, and the forthcoming bigger offering that is coming in the US, they get to do their version of Netflix. Star Wars and Disney titles will soon disappear from Netflix as a previous deal expires. Don’t expect to see further expansions of the Netflix Marvel TV series featuring the likes of Jessica Jones and Daredevil, although I suspect the existing titles will continue, with the former having just been renewed for a third season.

Disney is claiming back its catalogue, and will no doubt look towards making its own Marvel TV series, and almost certainly, a live action Star Wars universe series. Who would bet against a reboot of the Young Indy series in the future too?

Will audiences get bored of superheroes? Are there enough franchises out there? How often can the same series be “rebooted”?

Who knows. But Hollywood is betting big time on them not running out any time soon.

Winding Down Local TV

In the dim and distant past of 2011, Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, kicked off “Local TV.”

“For consumers, what this will mean is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content,” he said.

In due course, he saw through the legislation to create a series of local TV services. This included the requirement for channels to be carried on all the main broadcast platforms. Furthermore, the new services would find positions fairly high their respective EPGs. Broadly speaking, the higher a channel appears in the EPG, the more viewing it is able to capture.

The BBC’s then licence fee settlement included funding that it must pay to the new services, both to build out a transmitter network and provide funding for each channel over the first three years. In theory programming might find its way back to the BBC.

Famously Hunt said, “Birmingham Alabama … has eight local TV stations – despite being a quarter the size of our Birmingham that, again, doesn’t even have one.”

But the idea was flawed from the outset.

First of all, equating UK and US TV stations was an irrelevance. US TV networks don’t exist in the same way. They are networks of largely independently owned stations, each of which affiliates itself to a major network in a given market. Sometimes there are big operators who own multiple stations, while their station in one city might be an affiliate of CBS, but in another, it is an affiliate of NBC. Mornings and evenings are filled with network programming, while afternoons are filled with nationally syndicated programming (Judge Judy, Ellen, etc).

Those “eight” local TV services in Birmingham, Alabama are basically ABC, NBC, CBS and so on, with local news bulletins scattered throughout the day when they’re not playing syndicated or network programming. Pretty much the same as watching BBC1 or ITV from a viewer’s perspective then. There are barely any true local services that operate around the clock. Sure, an affiliate might break away from the main network to cover a major breaking news story in its area, or more likely a car chase live from a helicopter, but they’re not truly “local” beyond news programmes and advertising sales.

Nonetheless, a variety of people applied for the early local TV licences advertised by Ofcom and they were duly handed out, via a “beauty parade.” In other words, to a win a licence, you had to promise the best programming. Another flawed part of the process, since to win a licence, applicants tended to over-promise.

The new owners of the licences varied. In London, it was the group that owned both the London Evening Standard and The Independent that got the licence. In Glasgow and later Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee, the local ITV franchise STV (which is still independent of the rest of ITV) won the licences. They were more successful than some others because they had a large news operation anyway across Scotland, as well as a healthy library of STV owned catalogue programming. However even these channels, collectively known as STV2, are facing a review over their future.

In Norwich, Mustard TV was operated by newspaper publisher Archant. They published the major daily and weekly newspaper titles in the area, and as in London, would be able to share resources with their stablemates.

But a couple of groups emerged to run what were effectively wider groups: “Made In…” and “That’s…” Your local service might be That’s Oxfordshire or That’s Lancashire, Made In North Wales or Made In Tyne and Wear.

Made Television has six stations while its larger rival That’s TV has fourteen.

Sometimes these groups won the licences from the outset; other times, they took over failing local stations (including the aforementioned Mustard TV).

But all the time, while these quasi groups were being built, something else was happening. A series of “change requests” was going through. Each of these would see a reduction in the number of hours of new original programming each station had to broadcast. The initial bidders had been wildly optimistic about the volume of new television they could make – indeed the “beauty parade” aspect to licencing actively encouraged them to make these promises. But it’s hard to make good television. It’s also hard to make cheap television. And it’s very hard to make good, cheap television.

Every so often, the stations went back to the regulator and asked to be relieved of some of the promises they’d made. That mostly meant reductions in locally made programming.

If they weren’t making original local programming, then how did they fill their schedules? Well they could licence old programming from various parties and save costs.

London Live, for example, licences large swathes of Channel 4 programming, and fits that between cheap Danny Dyer films that it has also licenced.

Made Television is able to licence episodes of Judge Judy, It Takes a Killer and Medical Detectives – all cheap syndicated fare.

Any channel could licence a lot of this programming, but not every channel gets a prime EPG slot as the local services get. Discovery or UKTV would kill to get Freeview channels 7 or 8. Viewers find those channels much more easily.

On the plus side, local TV has probably been a boon for Talking Pictures TV, the classic film channel. It has had an agreement in place that saw carriage of its channel across a lot of That’s TV stations.

Which all brings us to today’s news that Ofcom wants to end the local rollout of new services. This hasn’t come soon enough, because the economics just don’t work.

If a group wants to start a TV channel in 2018, then they should be perfectly able to do it on their own without any government assistance. And building expensive broadcast infrastructure really doesn’t feel the way to go. While there are definitely advantages to broadcast versus IP delivery, building a community TV channel on, say, YouTube would be a perfectly sensible and viable thing to do. Committed volunteers using cheap cameras and open source software can produce decent quality video – tens of thousands of YouTubers show what’s possible.

Indeed, the idea that a small TV channel is capable of filling 24 hours a day is laughable, so concentrating on a decent quality single programme that can be watched at the viewer’s convenience is definitely the most pragmatic solution.

TV is not easy, and most of the groups that started out with local TV services have struggled. Viewing figures are low – indeed for the most part they’re not collected by the ratings body BARB (Be very dubious of claims of viewership that come from other surveys).

The only real good I can think that came out of this experiment was as a training opportunity for new people into the television marketplace which is far too London-centric. But even then, I’d love to know whether everyone is being paid or not.

The idea was flawed from the outset, and while channels that remain will probably be able to struggle by for a while, they simply can’t afford to make quality local TV programming – especially news. While some UK TV regions are large, meaning that viewers feel distant even from their local BBC or ITV news programmes, they shouldn’t underestimate how expensive that programming is for both the BBC and ITV to make. It’s hard to see how a cost effective local TV service can truly feel that void.

And anyone who’s spent any time actually watching local TV bulletins in the US will know that for the most part, they’re not high quality, often concentrating on stories that make good pictures (car crashes, fires, the aftermath of murders), and filling their bulletins with syndicated material of often dubious quality. (See, for example, the scandal surrounding Sinclair Broadcasting recently.)

The whole plan was wrongheaded from the outset, taking up resource at the regulator, and costing licence fee payers money that won’t up on the services that they’re paying for. Even in 2011, the future of hyper local services was clearly the internet, and the US TV model was both irrelevant to the UK market, and in any case, not very good.

I would never want to see services closed down, but this an experiment that has completely failed.

Gaming Google

It’s widely understood that news organisations can find the going quite precarious in this digital age, with a reluctance on the part of consumers to pay for news, and advertising alone not bringing in enough revenues. So it’s perhaps not surprising that they should look at whatever advantages they can take, and some of these seem to be at the expense of “gaming” Google.

I’ll highlight a couple of things that do irk me a little. But it’s worth noting that while these work for news organisations, they probably won’t work for anyone else. That’s because Google tends to prioritise news outlets in search results that return news sources.

Generally speaking, if your search result is purely factual and not newsworthy then unless a Google “snippet” appears, the top results will be relevant sites, quite often including results from places like Wikipedia or Quora.

However if the search is about current events, then Google throws recently updated news sites in the mix, andthese will find themselves in a prestigious position near the top of the page. Most of the time, that’s because it’s relevant. Someone searching on a current event probably does want a news site at the top of the list of results, rather than some dated article that contains the same keywords.

But that means that news organisations can game the system a little, and here are two examples.

1. The Google Doodle

As anyone who ever uses Google knows, Google loves to replace its regular logo with doodles on its home page. These celebrate all sorts of things from anniversaries of famous people to major events that are happening. Sometimes the doodles are localised to specific countries or regions, and other times they run globally.

Occassionally there’ll be a really ornate interactive one that offers something like a game or even a musical instrument!

But what happens when you see a doodle that you perhaps don’t understand or that intrigues you?

You click it.

And therein lies an opportunity. Because what that actually does is perform a Google search on whatever the subject matter is.

If you’re a news outlet, you swiftly write a piece on the subject on the doodle, noting that Google is celebrating said subject, and you get it published post haste.

The result is that when user click on the doodle, they get a page of results on, say, clockmaker John Harrison. But near the top of the screen are some links to news sites’ “Top Stories” about the very same.

Sure, the Wikipedia piece is there, but the other stories are hacked together pieces written full in the knowledge that they will generate page views as a result of Google’s doodle.

There’s nothing particularly wrong here, but it does push other relevant search results further down the page.

2. When’s It On?

Another type of gaming that goes on is also based on anticipating what people are Googling. Often these will be based around sports events or TV series.

There’s a big fight this weekend, or a big game in the Champions’ League. Perhaps a really popular TV drama is returning to our screens.

In any of these cases, some people will Google something along the lines of, “When is the Joshua fight?”

Now there is some semblance of information being asked for. They do want a date or a time. Perhaps they want to know what channel it’ll be on, or how they go about getting access to that channel.

Into that void rush news outlets. They quickly author pieces providing that information, but usually padding it out beyond briefly stating the date, time and channel. If I were suspicious I’d suspect that Google’s algorithms downgrade stories that are too short. So they get bulked out. You try writing 500 words on when a football match starts!

To put this into perspective, a search for “What time does the super bowl start” – in quotes – returns 15,400 pages.

Yes, these are questions that people want answers to. But do we really need dozens of “news” stories on them?

Of course, Google can sort of kill this my providing the information itself. In some cases it does that, but it doesn’t stop the news sites offering their own pages.

I probably find the first of these two things more irritating that latter, but you still have to recognise these articles for what they are – cheap traffic drivers that don’t really offer a great deal.