Monday, February 15, 2010

Film Business Remains Strong -- But Different

It's Monday morning -- a holiday in the U.S. celebrating our Presidents.  For those of us in the film business, that means one more day for folks to see another film before heading back to another week of work.  This weekend's box office was topped by a star-packed film that critics hated.  "Valentine's Day" made almost $67 million in its first three days of release.  That is a huge number for a light romantic comedy that opened to a pretty negative buzz.  The lesson here is that apparently some stars still matter.  You can argue about whether folks were more interested in seeing Julia Roberts or Taylor & Taylor (or Jessica or Ashton or Bradley or George -- or because they know that Garry Marshall is a great director), but the crowds definitely came out for the stars.

This is actually good news.  From the standpoint of my business representing producers, my initial reaction is to flinch at anything that gives bargaining power to the talent.  But the truth is that we are all in this business together and I want the audience to love actors. I want writers to write great scripts, directors to make stunningly beautiful and poignant films, and actors to deliver performances that stir the hearts of millions.  That is the essence of what makes the film business so wonderful, and such a great business.

And it is apparently working.  Even the number 10 film in this week's box office derby did over $4 million at the box office.  The overall box office numbers were huge.  I was at the multiplex with my family yesterday and there were several films that were selling out shows in the middle of the day.  The film business is doing great.

So why is it still a little (actually, more than a little) difficult to get films into production?  Why is film finance money so tight?  Tax incentives are still lucrative and plentiful. The talent is still willing to work for reasonable guarantees (compared to past years).  Technology allows us to make really high quality pictures for a fraction of what it used to cost.  Costs are going down and sales are going up.  That sounds like a place that most investors would want to put their money.  So what's the problem?

The challenge (I never like to use the word "problem") is that the revenue streams are changing and no one knows what the new revenue structure really looks like.  The studios are moving towards shorter theatrical release windows to allow for earlier DVD releases.  Except everyone sees that the DVD (and soon the Blu-Ray disc, as well) is dying a relatively speedy death.  Hollywood Video is done and Blockbuster is following (but hoping to use its market power to arise as something new).

Within a very short time, consumers will be pushing a button on their remote and pulling a high definition, 3D version of a relatively recent film onto their living room big screen.  That scares a lot of people in the industry because they aren't sure how they continue to make big bucks from that model.  So, they aren't sure how much to spend on a film or how to make deals that won't make them cringe when they pull the contract out of the drawer five years from now.

It is a time for vision and courage, my friends.  It is in times of change that the opportunities are greatest.  It is possible to create assets today that will be bearing fruit for years to come.  And the key is recognizing the power of the long tail.

A copyright lasts for decades, but we have been trying to make all of our money back in the first weekend of release.  If we look at each film as a seed that is being planted (rather than a pinata that is bursting open while we scramble to grab the most candy as quickly as possible), we can build strong, profitable businesses.  Each picture needs to be nurtured and encouraged to find new audiences year after year.  And we need to connect with those audiences in new ways that make them eager to spend a few dollars to engage and continue those relationships.  It's still about stars and stories and beautiful sights and sounds, but let's not think of each new film as a one-night stand.  Let's take the time to form relationships with our audiences that will pay dividends over many years.

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