Changes: Screen Trends Stateside

Written by James MacGregor on . Posted in Studio 2.0

Film reels fighting a falling audience2005 was a turning point in the entertainment industries, the year that Hollywood's tried and tested methods of reaching the masses finally had tio give way - to iPods, TiVos and Xbox 360s. What lessons will 2006 bring? The lesson of changing markets, that's for sure. The best admission of that came from NBC Universal TV chairman Jeff Zucker; "The overall strategy is to make all our content available everywhere."

Consumer habits are changing - the cinema industry is trying hard to keep upThat was what Zucker said on 6th of December, a few hours after announcing a deal to put programming on video iPods - a complete reversal of strategy by broadcasters in 2005. After half a century guarding their programme property from all comers, they suddenly decided that telling viewers when they can watch their favourite programmes is finally over.

Despite all the new technologies though, the sort of problems film and TV companie are facing is as old as showbusiness itself. How do you cope with shrinking ratings, box office plummets and splintering audience? How do you grab a mass audience that has shattered into thousands of fragments?

    IT WAS ALL SO SIMPLE THEN

Ten years ago it was all pretty simple. In the UK we had five terrestrial broadcast networks, plus local cable and satellite channels. The internet was just a baby and movies were sewn up tight. Everything was cosy and stable, for certain. It was much the same in the US.

What upset the entire applecart was the DVD. It began changing everything and created something of an economic boom for Hollywood where studios could exploit their back catalalogues afresh and consumers got a windfall of old favourites - and a lot of things they had missed first time round - and got it all handed to them on a plastic disc - and all in superior digital quality.

   BOOM TIME

Then that too began to change. The DVD boom began to taper and now there's a very different entertainment market - one where the old rules of media consumption can no longer hold. As usual the ripples always begin on the other side of the pond, so we must look across the Atlantic to discover the real trends.

In the US The Polar Express released on DVD early in November, but it is also playing to packed houses in 3-D across 66 Imax screens. It is breaking all the rules. After a less than startling opening weekend in 2004, it has grossed over $170m in the US alone.

There's a clear 2006 lesson here for us. Windows may be shrinking, but with a box office like this rising like Lazarus from a lack-lustre opening we need to learn the lesson fast: theatrical and home entertainment are treated as separate entertainments and have to be approached as different markets. With the right approach and the right product, you can buy into one and you can also buy into the other market, but they need to be treated differently

    SET IN STONE

When the old rules were carved in stone it's not surprising that studios are struggling to grasp the new reality and connect well with its consumers, so their response has been as lack-lustre as The Polar Express opening.

The masses came out en masse for Harry Potter, Star Wars and Saw but didn't want to know sequels to The Mask and Zorro. A remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sank, but  Herbie: Fully Loaded wasn't. Batman Begins and The Chronicles of Narnia found big audiences, but Stealth and XXX: State of the Union didn't.

     INDUSTRY AT A CROSSROADS

Alan Horn of Warner Bros. Entertainment puts it precisely: "We are at a crossroads in entertainment today and it's too soon to know which routes into the future are the decisive paths." Well Warner's path is now "looking at the greenlight process with an eye to the tastes of audiences around the world, both in subject matter and in cast" and "looking at new ways of reaching consumers -- and new styles of communicating with them -- as a response to changing trends in media consumption."

Enter the social scientists to tell us what's going on. According to a recent Nielsen Media Research report, Americans spent record amounts of time in front of the box during the 2004-05 television season: 8 hours and 11 minutes of television per day, a 2.7% increase from the previous year and the longest time since measuring these things started up in 1949.

Media researchers last year spent several months shadowing people in Indianapolis and Muncie, Ind. They discovered that the average American spends 30% of waking hours in consuming media, and 30% of those hours are spent consuming more than one medium at a time.

     COUCH POTATOES - BIG TIME

So the media are found almost everywhere now, but it has never been harder to grab people's attention. The response of US broadcast networks was scattered across 2005. Disney made a groundbreaking deal with Apple in October and  one month later, CBS and NBC joined with Comcast and DirecTV to make shows available on demand - which HBO has actually been doing for years.

Then Warner Bros. premiered fresh drama Supernatural online, streaming the show's pilot on Yahoo! UPN handed out a million free DVDs containing the first episode of their new comedy Everybody Hates Chris.

"We want to be where the viewers are," CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group exec Nancy Tellem said -- while announcing a deal to put repeats of two CBS comedies on Yahoo.

   ON-DEMAND  IN DEMAND

TV-on-demand's biggest demand is for news, which viewers expect to reach them - no matter whereabouts it originates - on their own time and on their own terms. News differs from entertainment and sports, because the networks own the rights to news. They are free to re-package it for the web, cable or mobile devices.

That's why CBS digital boss Larry Kramer says "It's the most exciting time in journalism in 100 years.he's the guy who brought in a "cable bypass" strategy that lets surfers build their own news bulletin by selecting from available online clips. CBS doesn't have a 24-hour cable news channel, but it can connect directly with consumers by pushing video, text and audio from its 1,500 journalists to the web, to 'phones or other portable devices.

The drive toward on-demand programming and plans to merge the TV set with the computer also shaped the cable and satellite business in 2005.

     DIGITAL GROWTH

Brian Roberts, chairman of Comcast - biggest US cable operator in the business, boasts that 9.4 million of his 21.4 million subscribers have bought digital boxes, and together they've ordered a billion programs on demand, mostly movies and cable series, most of them for no extra charge.

Backing up video on demand in these homes is the digital video recorder, which allows people to build their own programme menu for viewing at their convenience, fast-forwarding through the commercials. More than 3,800 movies and TV programmes are available to Comcast's digital subscribers.

Once digital outstrips analog as the TV viewing norm, not the exception, cable operators will start linking up with the Microsofts, Yahoos and Googles. There will be a seamless, wireless welding of television and all of the services that can be accessed on the With a remote the size of a computer keyboard, cable customers could turn on a sixpence from the umpteenth version of Crime Scene Investigators to their preferred daily newspaper's Web site to the latest Harry Potter film.

     SHRINKING BOX OFFICE

Roberts' vision of the future may be seductive, but it's causing a flurry of consternation as studios and exhibitors grapple with shrinking box office and the ongoing decline in US movie attendance. The high water mark of 1.6 billion ticket sales in 2002 had shrunk by 14% by the end of 2005.

Cinema exhibitors are quick to lay blame for the drop on the lackluster quality of studio films and the shrinking DVD window. But recent market research studies lay the blame elsewhere: Takinng into account tickets, popcorn and parking, consumers say, it simply costs too much to go to the movies. In the three years when attendances drpped by 14%, ticket prices rose by 10%.

Exhibitors hope new cinema technologies will provide some answers for a consumer culture that's rapidly splitting apart. Even 3-D - the cinema's answer to television half a centory ago-  is making a comeback. There's also the hope that in a digital world, theatres could be the venues for things other than movies - simulcasts of live sporting events and concerts, for example.

   ADVERTISING GROWTH

In the short term though, exhibitors are chasing new revenue streams, like in-theatre advertising, placing promos in the lobby. US theatres almost universally are now part of two large pre-show advertising networks, Screenvision and the National Cinemedia, a joint venture between Regal, AMC-Loews and Cinemark.

So, as US box office dropped 5% in 2005, US cinema advertising revenue was booming. Regal, America's largest chain, reports that during the first three quarters of 2005, concessions and ticket sales accounted for 92.4% of its total revenues, but growth was flat. Meanwhile, the money it made through advertising grew at around 10% to $138 million.

It's one of the supreme ironies of this topsy-turvy media age: The more the movie audience fragments and splinters and the faster box office admissions fall, the more moviegoers get served with the content they once went to the cinema to escape: advertising.

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