No. 302: The Hundred Year Titan

The direct-to-consumer (DTC) era has yet to influence how we consume big budget, blockbuster films. To watch the latest Marvel Studios productionconsumers still have to endure the trip to the movie theater, eat the expensive popcorn, and pay the exorbitant prices for soft drinks. In a recent conversation with the Cofounder of AfterMarq and Executive Member Vincenzo Landino, I learned why the DTC era has yet to address the demand for big budget film premieres in the home.

The key questions:

  • Could AMC Theaters and Netflix partner to bring cinematic premieres to our televisions?
  • Why are theaters so reliant upon concessions for revenue?
  • Will ‘day and date’ releases be likely in the future?
  • Which studio is best positioned for the DTC era?

A day and date release combines theatrical release with a video-on-demand offering while the film is screening in the theaters. The length of this window is typically 60 days and there is a notable disparity in the price by venue. According to an Indiewire article from 2015, traditional VOD rental costs a consumer around 50% of the price of the theatrical showing. Traditional studios make more money on theatrical releases than VOD releases. Non-traditional studios (Amazon, Netflix) do the same, except their economics are reversed. Streaming is more profitable for them than theatrical release (though brick and mortar releases unlock awards season potential). We will see on occasion. Some recent examples include Amazon’s award-winning Manchester by the Sea or Netflix’s Roma.

Both, Manchester and Roma, are films produced by a streaming service. The films were provided a “day and date” release to improve their chances in award season. But we’ve yet to see a traditional film studio (Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century-Fox, Sony, Universal Pictures, United Artists, Warner Brothers Pictures, or MGM) lean into a day and date release for a mainstream film. There is a significant reason for this. None of the major studios of the the time controlled the exhibition side between 1948 – today. Only Walt Disney’s Studios is in position to benefit from end-to-end control, today.

The market power of the studios is less than it was [in the 1940s].Per se offenses like price fixing and market allocation are still illegal. But other horizontal arrangements between competitors or vertical arrangements between companies and their partners are more likely to be upheld today.

Michael Carrier, an antitrust expert at Rutgers Law School

Long before the modern DTC era, movie studios did control the product from production to the theater house. This changed in 1948. The Paramount case, and its resulting decrees, changed the motion picture industry for decades. Between 1945 and 1948, the Supreme court mandated a separation between film distribution and exhibition by requiring that the major studios divest distribution or their theaters. It was a near unanimous decision to divest in the theaters and not divesting their distribution businesses.

Understanding the 1948 Paramount Decrees

When Netflix announced to shareholders that players like Fortnite gave executives more anxiety than rivals like Hulu, YouTube or HBO, they explained with this:

Our growth is based on how good our experience is, compared to all the other screen time experiences from which consumers choose.

This is an echo of a sentiment Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, told Fast Company in 2017 in an article titled Sleep Is Our Competition:

It’s 8:00 in the evening, you’re next to your TV–which remote control do you pick up: PlayStation remote? TV remote? Or do you turn Netflix on?

Understanding Paramount Decrees: research and breakdown by 2PM contributor Tracey Wallace.

It makes sense that Netflix views Fortnite as a primary competitor. For younger people, two years ago, the answer to Hastings 2017 question would have been Netflix. Now, that’s being challenged by gaming platforms or by subscription services like MoviePass or AMC Stubs A-List. While MoviePass remains on the decline, thanks to poor unit economics, AMC’s native service boasts a reported 600,000+ subscribers paying at least $19.95 per month. Services like AMC’s are bridging streaming media prices and the in-theater premiere experience.

Of course, Netflix has its own premieres like the acclaimed Bird Box or Bandersnatch or Outlaw King. Each featured a Hollywood-esque budget and at least one A-lister.

Netflix finished up 2018 with 139 subscriptions worldwide, up by 29 million from the beginning of the year. The incredible subscription growth clearly justifies hiking membership prices in the US. Netflix reported $4.19 billion in revenue, just under international forecasts of $4.21 billion. 

Netflix is experiencing a renaissance in audience growth and fanfare. What is stopping Netflix from implementing a direct to consumer approach to in-home blockbuster films?

The The Paramount Decree, a 1948 antitrust law, prevents it.

In this landmark US Supreme Court  case, it was determined that movie studios could not own their own theaters or grant exclusive rights to preferred theaters. At the time (1945), film studios like Paramount owned – either partially or outright – 17% of the theaters in the country. This accounted for 45% of American commercial film revenue in 1945.

The 1948 decision caused a massive recession in movie studio revenues, lasting more than two and a half decades. In 1972, the release of The Godfather became the first modern blockbuster and the first project to increase movie studio revenue to pre-Paramount Decree levels.

The ruling is also considered a bedrock of antitrust law and is often cited in cases where issues of vertical integration play a prominent role in redistricting fair trade. But in 2019, Netflix boasts 139 million subscribers worldwide and produces a handful of their own minor premieres, turning our living rooms into intimate cinemas. Fortunately for Netflix, the Department of Justice recently announced that it would review the 1948 decree that prohibited Hollywood studios from pursuing a DTC approach to owning and operating theaters.

The review of the 1948 antitrust ruling, and its potential reversal, would give major distributors, exhibitionists, and streaming service providers –  like Netflix or Disney – real power to run more like direct to consumer entertainment brands. The revision of the ruling would allow Netflix to seek partners with companies like AMC Theaters (or the aforementioned studios) to co-brand in-theater and in-app premieres.

It’s unlikely that Netflix and AMC Theaters will partner when the time comes, but the line in the sand is marked deeply. Once those antitrust laws expire, these two companies stand to gain a lot from cooperating with studios. But not the most. 

The 100 year titan in waiting

Buena Vista, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios (Revenue, 2018)

Netflix is the dominant streaming service with over 139 million paying customers. AMC Theaters has the best prospects in all the cinema-side of the film industrial complex. The company has successfully navigated the Moviepass economy by instituting its own growing movie-watching program ($19.95 / month). While heavily dependent on revenue driven by concessions and alcohol, the membership program grew to over 600,000 users in its first year. It’s dependence on external revenue (concessions) is the program’s flaw.

While it is fun to envision a world where Netflix offers an AMC Premiere package where at-home consumers pay $50 for the rights to rent a big budget blockbuster on its opening day, AMC remains the middle man. According to Matthew Ball, an analyst and former Head of Strategy for Amazon Studios:

[AMC] owes 55-67% per ticket [to distributors], with floors. [Concessions] are a big priority because of confection economics. Like gym memberships, these subscriptions only work if predicted use is <x%.

According to CNBC: in the past year, Disney has lost nearly $1 billion in its streaming business between its investment in Hulu and its work with BAMtech, the technology behind ESPN+. But DOJ’s reversal of the 1948 decree could change everything for Walt Disney Studios, a company that began just 25 years before the 1948 decision. And was but a blip on the Hollywood radar, at the time.

Disney is hoping that, over time, millions of paying customers will subscribe to Disney+ for its new original content and library of Disney movies and TV shows. Pricing hasn’t been disclosed. Netflix, which announced its quarterly earnings on Thursday, has 139 million global subscribers and just informed them that it’s raising prices by 13 percent to 18 percent.

Alex Sherman for CNBC

Disney is best-suited for the DTC era. There is organic demand, loyalty, and the mechanisms to deliver it to your doorsteps. When the company announced an end to its streaming deal with Netflix, the writing was on the wall. The Disney+ product is slated to be the exclusive home for Disney films, television projects, and other original programming. According to Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, the streaming service is the company’s priority in 2019-2020. He’s also assured the press that major releases (Marvel Studios, Star Wars, etc.) will not go straight to the streaming service.

But through the lens of the Paramount Decrees being overturned, it’s smart to consider the implications of Iger’s words vs. Disney’s impending actions. When the US Department of Justice reviews and amends these decrees, Disney will have the power to stream one of the highest grossing films in history into your home on the night of its premiere. And they will. Disney will be able to command a fee that is more lucrative than traditional day and date releases and at margins far greater than their streaming competitors (Netflix), marketplace vendors (Apple’s iTunes) or cinema competitors (AMC Theaters). Before Walt Disney Studios’ 100th anniversary, you will be able to stream a blockbuster premiere on your devices. With respect to the overturning of the Paramount Decrees of 1948, this is Walt Disney’s end game.

Read your No. 302 curation here.

Report by Web Smith and Tracey Wallace | About 2PM

Member Brief: The Netflix Report

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Consider your favorite film of all time. You’ve probably watched it fifteen times. You know the lines, the body language of the main characters. You may even have the screenplay lying around at home. Odds are, you’ve watched it in the comforts of your own home far more often than you watched it in the theater. Scarface bombed in the theater; Blade Runner didn’t earn half of its budget. And It’s a Wonderful Life fared no better on the silver screen. Each of these films were designated ‘classic’ after years in the living room.

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No. 298: Retention is the new currency

Contributor. The much mused about sharing economy jump started by disruptors like AirBnB, Rent The Runway, Netflix and Uber is running past its adolescence. In 2019, both Uber and its rival Lyft expect to go public.

According to Fortune, Uber alone could be valued at as much as $120 billion, higher than the valuations of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler combined.

It’s also close to double Uber’s valuation at a fundraising round two months ago and would be the biggest debut since Alibaba went public in 2014.

AirBnB, too, is expected to file as early as 2019, bringing some of the biggest disruptors of the last decade to Wall Street. But their impact has already been felt beyond their Silicon Valley offices.

The sharing economy has given rise to the subscription economy:

  • An economy preferred by investors for it’s stability.
  • An economy loved by consumers for its accessibility.
  • An economy coveted by entrepreneurs for it’s long-term customer relationships.
2PM, Inc. contributor: Tracey Wallace

The rise is thanks to the ubiquity of internet access and smartphones in the U.S. across nearly all segments. “Customers, the ultimate endpoint of any business, are today just as connected as the employees of any large enterprise,” writes Ben Thompson on The Stratchery.

This gives consumers and businesses alike endless access to on-going services that don’t function like gym-memberships of old. Instead, modern subscription models are gym-like in execution and participation.

  • They are based on service, not product: The product is the means not the ends.
  • They build convenient communities of like-minded individuals with end-goals in mind: Think Shopify users want to be seen as successful entrepreneurs. Spotify users want to be seen as having the best playlists and musical tastes.
  • They rinse and repeat the experience: The service begets the product, the product begets the goal, the goal begets the service.

Retention is the new currency

Costco – perhaps the longest standing subscription business around – has perfected the model. Amazon evolved it online with Amazon Prime. Giants like Apple and Google are touting their subscription services as differentiators for their products.

  • Google is offering six month free YouTube Premium subscription for all Google Home devices (and varying YouTube Premium subscription access for nearly all Google devices).
  • Apple is packaging their streaming music service and phone care services into single packages –– selling you a full suite of services that beget a product.

The success of the model is clear. You need only look at Dollar Shave Club on the consumer side to see the impact on the industry (or look at newer DNVBs like Quip following similar paths). Or, on the B2B side, look at the stock prices of Adobe (up 770% since 2012), Microsoft (up 320%) or Autodesk (up 360%), which have shifted to offer internet cloud-based software for a monthly or annual fee.

Indeed,  many DNVBs are putting their own spin on the subscription model business. In retail alone, there are more than 5,000 brands offering clothing, cosmetic or the like “subscription boxes” each month.

“It is totally faddish right now,” says Robbie Kellman Baxter, a consultant with Peninsula Strategies and author of The Membership Economy. “Most of them are going to fail. How many ties does dad need?”

But in technology, the rent-rather-than-own trend is holding stronger. In health care, too, it is growing in popularity with brands like SmileDirectClub and MDVIP, a direct primary care service, gaining more and more subscribers.

In media is where we will see the most pronounced shifts. After all, subscriptions are the easiest way around an unforgiving advertising world inhabited by Google and Facebook’s duopoly.

That duopoly began hitting media brands as early as 2015, when many considered the “gold standard” of online content to be free and commoditized. Many digital media brands have yet to recover from this mistake.

According to CNBC:

Vice Media has been the gold standard, earning a valuation of $5.7 billion in June 2017. Earlier this month, Disney wrote down some of its investment in Vice by 40 percent, suggesting a declining overall valuation.

Buzzfeed has built itself into a company that tops $1 billion in value. Still, Buzzfeed missed its 2017 revenue forecast by up to 20 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported last year, pushing back hopes of an initial public offering indefinitely. Vox Media, the owner of sites including SBNation, Eater and The Verge, also missed internal revenue forecasts and is not planning to go public any time soon, said people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the company’s financials are private.

Separately, media companies including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Quartz, Bloomberg, Business Insider, Vanity Fair and Wired have all returned back to media’s subscription business model roots by completely paywalling, introduced paywalls or hardening their paywalls beginning in 2018.

We’re living in an environment where Facebook, Google, and Amazon are sucking up so much of the advertising revenue,” says Sterling Auty, software analyst at J.P. Morgan. “Subscriptions and ecommerce are an antidote to that.”

These media companies are looking to lower their reliance on Facebook and Google algorithms and return to their service roots through subscription payments –– adding yet another monthly subscription to consumers’ bank accounts.

On paid subscription tolerance

According to eMarketer, 71% of U.S. consumers with internet access subscribe to at least one streaming video service. However, the number for all other verticals drop dramatically beyond video.

This leaves ample room for other verticals to grow their subscription services, especially as consumers become more accustomed to the model and testing out various offerings. Paid subscriptions through Apple’s App Store reached over 330 million last quarter. That’s up 50% year over year and includes both Apple and third-party services like Netflix.

Consumers are downloading. They are trying. They are testing. And there will be winners. Some analysts like Eddie Yoon, a consultant and author of the book Superconsumers, see the subscription economy as a 20-year trend –– just now beginning to hit its growth stage.

But there are caveats:

“All brands will try to offer subscriptions, but only a few will take,” he added. “Consumers will push back if they feel overwhelmed with subscription services,” Yoon says. “People won’t tolerate a world where everything is subscriptionized,” he said. “For the things that you really care about, you’ll definitely subscribe.”

The experience economy edges in

This is where the experience economy matters most. Subscription business models create desirable P&Ls, forecasting models and enable brands to act in the best interest of their most dedicated subscribers (rather than advertisers), but fail to provide the experience and you’ll lose your list and your recurring revenue.

Ben Thompson from The Stratechery pulled out this quote from Bill McDermott, the CEO of SAP, on this challenge on an investor call:

There are millions of complaints every day about disappointing customer experiences. This is called the experience gap. Businesses used to have time to sort this out, but in today’s unforgiving world, the damage is immediate, disruption is imminent. This has shifted the challenge from a running a business to guaranteeing great experiences for every single person.

It’s best here to remember that subscription and membership are separate things. Membership provides experience and community. Subscription just gets you access to something behind a gate.

Take a look at Peloton, for example. The company has long argued that it’s bike ($2,000) and subscription program ($39 monthly) are a bargain compared to regularly attended SoulCycle classes. And SoulCycle is hard to beat. Similar to fitness organizations like CrossFit, Inc., it has a hardened fanbase and community.

But where Peloton succeeds is its content –– the ability to stream classes on your bike, forgoing a trip to a physical class. All for substantially lower costs than regular in-person classes anyway. Peloton reports its churn at less than 1%.

You have to do delightful things and leave money on the table,” says Peloton CEO and co-founder John Foley.The monthly service is what you really buy. That was the flaw with the old models. It was just hardware.

Of course, not every company can be a Peloton. The subscription model itself does not lower the cost of doing business. It cannot, on its own, generate demand.

As subscriptions proliferate, investors need to dig deeper into the dynamics of their models,” says Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor and valuation specialist at New York University’s Stern School of Business.Many venture capitalists and public investors are pricing user-based companies on user count, with only a few seriously trying to distinguish between good, indifferent, and bad user-based models.

What’s next in the subscription era is a dwindling down to those brands, media packages, and services which can offer the experience worth paying for –– the service that begets the product, and the product that begets the consumer’s goal. A subscription model, alone, won’t be enough. Consumers will seek membership and the benefits that come with it: experience, community, and camaraderie. For the product companies, the software companies, and media companies that figure it out – the prize is recurring revenue and stability until the next preferred model comes along.  

Read the rest of your No. 298 curation here.

Additional reading. Member Brief: The Subscription Economy

By Tracey Wallace | Edited by Web Smith | About 2PM

Editor’s Note: Tracey serves as the Editor-in-Chief at BigCommerce and a public speaker. She is launching a DtC pillow brand, this spring. She is a paid contributor of 2PM, Inc.