Some thoughts on the HBO Max day-and-date streaming releases during the pandemic

Earlier today Keith Calder asked a intriguing question about the Warner Bros. announcement to release their upcoming slate on HBO Max date-and-date with movie theaters.

So let’s give it a whirl then, shall we?

Warner Bros. is a primarily a distribution company and to some extent acts like a bank. 

Generally most of their contracts are written to protect themselves and their financial interests at the highest end, not the interests of the producers or production companies that work for them. 

Usually they’re acquiring content from production companies and the acquisition doesn’t tie them down to particular release patterns, marketing dollars, or other preconditions. Producers can consult on some of the decisions, but usually the studio is going to do what it wants.

This is done, in part, because it’s in everyone’s general interest that the picture makes the maximum amount of money. Usually the studio is putting (at least some of) their own money up in advance, so it doesn’t behoove them not to maximize their return.

Production companies, directors, writers, and actors all rely on them having skin in the game. In this case, they’re the ones left physically holding the bag.

With this move, the studio is covering its (and everyone else’s) best interest by attempting to recoup as much as they can. Since they control the release from top to bottom on their own platform all the money goes into their own pockets instead of giving a sliding percentage of it away to so many of the popcorn and carbonated sugar syrup grocery stores that masquerade as movie theaters these days. 

One also needs to keep in mind that it’s quite common for talent contracts to fester for long after the start of principal photography and some never get to the point of receiving wet signatures. I’ve seen dozens of contracts get wet signatures long after their films’ theatrical releases.

So it’s entirely possible that they could be waiting until now to drop the bomb. But what is the talent going to do? They’re not going to fail to show up and support their work, that’s for sure. Everyone knows the business is in the hole and not coming back any time soon.

The finance costs of some of these movies would completely eat the studios alive if they don’t do something. What else can they do? The best they can. Grin, bear it, and keep the gears turning.

And let’s not forget about the total turkeys which can be illustrative. There are many movies that get made and acquired and don’t get a release at all. Sometimes the studio makes the determination that it’s in their interest to sit on a film and never release it because the cost of prints and advertising is just too great.

Here’s a great example. Do you remember the 2000 blockbuster hit The Third Wheel starring Ben Affleck and Luke Wilson?

What?! Never heard of it? Affleck shot it between Reindeer Games and Bounce while starting talks for doing Pearl Harbor for Bruckheimer at Disney.

His star was on the rise after Good Will Hunting and Armageddon and it was generally obvious to Mirimax and the producers (which included Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), that an incredibly mediocre film starring him might potentially end his career or the pairs’ producing careers.

So, what the heck? We only spent a few million on it, so we’ll eat the cost of production and maybe release it in a handful of foreign territories in a cheap dub a few years down the road and no harm, no foul. Right?

But what about all the other crappy movies that come out and tank at the box office? It’s often not until your film has had a test audience screening that the studio truly slots its release date. Any dates prior to that are just flexing to scare the competition. 

After a test screening, the last thing you want to hear is that it’s coming out in late August or February. Studios don’t release movies in those time periods—they escape! Those slots are the kiss-of-death because no one goes to the movies then.

The studio knows that but generally needs to recoup some money. Typically they’re also paying interest on production loans or bridge financing which they can’t sit on forever.

So in an effort to clear the books, they push the movie out with the least amount of P&A so that they can begin bundling their films into all the follow up release windows in hopes that those will at least cover their cost.

If there are law suits after-the-fact, they’ll likely be over the back end deal segments that provide bonuses for talent for box office performance. But guess what? Usually creative finance on the studio’s part is done to prevent these bonuses from being paid out in the first place.

And shame on the agents and attorneys of the talent for not adding in bonus payouts for performance of releases in each window segment of the pictures lifespan. You can bet those clauses will be baked into contracts going forward.

I’ve got some first look and producing deals as well as some acquisition paperwork kicking around the office here, but without looking through them, I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in those contracts that requires the studio(s) to actually release anything.

Of course it only hurts the studio to buy material and just sit on it, so can you fault them for doing the best they can? 

My guess is that with the givens, they’ll get a massive bump in (recurring–everyone’s favorite) subscription income and it will either mostly or completely cover a large part of the gap. And likely better for their part, it’s harder for talent to audit internal numbers and machinations within a studio to prove that the movie made it to profit levels necessary to pay off points on the back end.

If there is a contractual obligation lurking around somewhere, they’ve always got a force majeure clause in there somewhere that would certainly cover the issues they’re living with.

Some of the more interesting questions relate to the studios’ relationships with exhibitors which generally aren’t owned by them. That may be a slightly harder question, but what are theater owners really going to do? They can’t guarantee the box office turn out that they might have before, and a poor box office turn out is more likely to do irreparable damage to a film’s release in all the subsequent windows. 

Generally with a sliding scale of box office receipts going to the exhibitors, they’re really in the business of selling popcorn which is where they make all their profits, but as we all know, that’s not doing very well for them right now either.

It’s actually more likely in the studio’s interest to pull their films. Their smaller budget releases in January and February are far more likely to overperform by being released during the pandemic to audiences who can pay a premium for them and who may feel a dearth of new entertainment options.

Meanwhile all the parents who couldn’t afford the $100+ for the babysitter and incidentals are likely to appreciate their HBO Max subscription all the more.

But wait! There’s more! I’ve completely buried the lede! Peter Kafka alludes to it in his interview with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar earlier today, but I suspect he is completely unaware of it. (This is likely why Vox gets the interview in a soft presser and not a senior legal journalist with The Hollywood Reporter or Variety.) For the careful viewers at home, let’s not forget that the 1948 Paramount Consent Decree died quietly earlier in August this year. This essentially makes it much easier for studios to become vertically integrated again. The studios can now own the entirety of the finance, production, distribution, and exhibition chain like they could in the “Golden Era” of Hollywood. If you want to ask questions about something, this is the area to focus on! 

Give it another couple of years and studios will eventually own talent agencies again… Who’s going to be the next Lew Wasserman?

If only we had a President who was also in the entertainment business who could monkey around with this arrangement the way Reagan did…

Podcast discovery, Huffduffer, and listen feeds

As I was reading through some of the subscriptions in Aaron Davis’ well-curated blogroll which I’m subscribed to via OPML Subscription in Inoreader, I was reminded that I should be following my own Huffduffer Collective. This is a feed of audio that comes from all of the accounts I’m following on Jeremy Keith’s awesome Huffduffer audio service. For those looking for a great method for discovering new and interesting audio content and podcasts, this is by far the best discovery service I know.

While finding content which others have bookmarked is an excellent discovery mechanism, I think that finding it by means of things they’ve actually listened to would be even more powerful. By saying you’ve listened to something, it means you’ve put some skin in the game and spent some of your own valuable time actually consuming the content and then separately posting about it. I wonder how Huffduffer might incorporate this sort of “listen” functionality in addition to their bookmarking functionality? I can’t help but thinking that more audio applications should have Micropub functionality for posting listens.

Here I’ll remind people that my website provides just such a feed of my own listens, so if you want to hear exactly what I’ve been listening to, you can have your own feed of it, which I call my faux-cast and you should be able to subscribe to it in most podcatchers. I do roughly the same thing for all the things I read online and off as well. I may bookmark something as interesting, but you know it was even more valuable to me when I’ve spent the time to actually listen to or read it from start to finish.

Do you have a listen feed I could subscribe to?  Perhaps a Huffduffer account I should follow? How do you discover audio content online? How could this be used in the education technology space?

Bookmarked Pubnet (pubnet.org)

Pubnet® organizes the order processes between publishers and book retailers with the standard global Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). Orders are sent to Pubnet® by ERP systems on a completely automated basis and forwarded to the appropriate publishers. The key benefit of the system is its increase in efficiency: Book retailers connect to a single system and can access all of the relevant publishers, while publishers no longer need to maintain separate links with thousands of book retailers. This is particularly relevant for communications between major book retailers and smaller publishers, and smaller book retailers and publishers.

For retailers, the service is free of charge with the exception of a setup fee, while publishers pay a fixed annual fee based on their use during the previous year. Saving energy and time EDI messages supported on Pubnet® include:

Orders
Order acknowledgments
Shipping notices
Invoices

Automating the sending and receiving of these documents can dramatically reduce the cost and time spent re-keying information, sending emails, dealing with faxes or sending information via the traditional post.

Our members include Internet bookstores, college stores, wholesalers, library jobbers, trade stores, international subsidiaries of publishers, exporters, elementary and high schools, book clubs and more. Pubnet® has been serving the book industry since July 1987.

👓 'Captain Marvel' Shows How Trolls Lost Their Edge | WIRED

Read 'Captain Marvel' Shows How Trolls Lost Their Edge (WIRED)
They've been trying to sabotage the movie's success from the beginning. Their failure proves they're played out.

👓 ‘I can get any novel I want in 30 seconds’: can book piracy be stopped? | The Guardian

Read 'I can get any novel I want in 30 seconds': can book piracy be stopped? by Katy Guest (the Guardian)
As publishers struggle with ‘whack-a-mole’ websites, experts, authors and Guardian readers who illegally download books, assess the damage

👓 The world in brief, January 22nd 2019 | Economist Espresso

Read The world in brief, January 22nd 2019 (Economist Espresso)

WhatsApp, a messaging service, is cracking down further on fake news. Users will now only be allowed to forward a message to five groups (each group can be up to 256 people), down from 20. The limitation was first introduced in India last year after several mob lynchings there appeared to start after incendiary messages spread through the service.

I can’t imagine that unless the average group is well under 20 people, that WhatsApps change will have a drastic effect. 256 by itself, much less 5 times that, is way over the Dunbar number and likely not enough of a brake on social gossip. This sounds like a lot of lip service to me.

🎧 “The Daily”: What the West Got Wrong About China, Part 2 | New York Times

Listened to "The Daily": What the West Got Wrong About China, Part 2 by Michael Barbaro from New York Times

The U.S. misunderstood not only how China would respond to economic growth, but how the U.S. would respond to China.

👓 2019 Book Industry Predictions: The Butterflies Will Flap Their Wings | Smashwords

Read 2019 Book Industry Predictions: The Butterflies Will Flap Their Wings (blog.smashwords.com)
Welcome to my annual publishing predictions. I’ll start by sharing some thoughts on the state of the indie nation and then I’ll jump int...
This post is very anti-Amazon and has an IndieWeb flavor. Sadly, it comes mostly from the perspective of yet-another-silo that is competing with Amazon. A better and more holistic solution would be for them to be supporting authors owning their own platforms for publishing and distribution. 

There’s also a useful question brought up here about the idea of discovering new authors and new books. It’s a similar problem faced by websites and other online content in general. Silo’s general nature and the algorithms they can bring to bear have solved some of the discovery question (for their own enrichment). Solving this from an indie perspective isn’t just useful from the website content perspective, but it’s also very important for the book sales perspective.

🔖 The Art of the Benshi | UCLA Film & Television Archive

Bookmarked The Art of the Benshi (UCLA Film & Television Archive)

March 1, 2019-March 3, 2019 at Billy Wilder Theater

During the silent film era in Japan, which extended into the early 1930s, film screenings were accompanied by live narrators, called benshi. In the industry’s early years, benshi functioned much in the way scientific lecturers did in early American and European cinema, providing simple explanations about the new medium and the moving images on screen. Soon, however, benshi developed into full-fledged performers in their own right, enlivening the cinema experience with expressive word, gesture and music. Each with their own highly refined personal style, they deftly narrated action and dialogue to illuminate—and often to invent—emotions and themes that heightened the audience’s connection to the screen. Loosely related to the style of kabuki theater in which vocal intonation and rhythm carries significant meaning and feeling, benshi evolved in its golden age, between 1926-1931, as an art form unto itself. Well-established benshi such as Tokugawa Musei, Ikukoma Raiyfi, and Nakamura Koenami were treated as stars, reviewed by critics, featured in profiles (in 1909, the first issue of one of Japan’s earliest film journals featured a benshi on its cover) and commanded high salaries from exhibitors. The prominence and significant cultural influence of benshi prompted the government to try to regulate their practice, instituting a licensing system in 1917 and attempts were made to enhance their role as “educators” through training programs overseen by the Ministry of Education. The benshi were not without controversy, however. While some contemporary critics argued that the benshi were essential to differentiating Japanese film culture from the rest of the world’s output, others argued that the benshi, along with other theatrical elements, impeded the artistic and technical evolution of Japanese cinema into a fully modern art form. Benshi did vigorously resist the coming of sound to Japanese cinema and the practice continued, though with increasing rarity, into the sound era. The art, today, is carried on by a small group of specialized performers who have been apprenticed by the preceding generations of benshi, creating a continuous lineage back to the original performers.

The Archive and the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities are pleased to present this major benshi event in Los Angeles which will afford audiences a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience this unique art form in all its rich textures. Pairing rare prints of Japanese classics and new restorations of American masterworks, this weekend-long series features performances by three of Japan’s most renowned contemporary benshi, Kataoka Ichirō, Sakamoto Raikō, and Ōmori Kumiko. Trained by benshi masters of the previous generation, they will each perform their unique art live on stage in Japanese (with English subtitles) to multiple films over the course of the weekend. Every performance and screening will be accompanied by a musical ensemble with traditional Japanese instrumentation, featuring Yuasa Jōichi (conductor, shamisen), Tanbara Kaname (piano), Furuhashi Yuki (violin), Suzuki Makiko (flute), Katada Kisayo (drums).

Special thanks to the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University and the Top Global University Project, Global Japanese Studies Model Unit, Waseda University (MEXT Grant), National Film Archive of Japan.

I’ve always loved old school screenings of silent films, but I’ve never experienced benshi. This sounds like it could be pretty cool and definitely unique as its own artform.

👓 ‘Heathers’ TV show cancelled again following Pittsburgh synagogue shooting | The Independent

Read The new 'Heathers' TV show keeps getting pulled off the air due to mass shootings (The Independent)
Paramount Network's remake of the cult 1988 black comedy has been rendered tasteless by a string of mass shootings over the past eight months

👓 MoviePass competitor Sinemia is making big changes after it was hit with a lawsuit by angry customers | Business Insider

Read MoviePass competitor Sinemia is making big changes after it was hit with a lawsuit by angry customers (Business Insider)
MoviePass competitor Sinemia is re-introducing debit cards that allow customers to bypass its per-movie fees (though the card itself costs $14.99).