The New York Times ran an article this morning entitled “Movies Try to Escape Cultural Irrelevance”. I had to smile because I have been thinking for a while about what is going on culturally in our entertainment universe and trying to ponder how the economics of various distribution platforms determine the daringness of what gets produced. It is clear that the cultural conversation today is around TV and not the movies. The movie business has long since surrendered to producing cartoon fantasies (Spider Man, X Men, etc) for teenagers while the TV business seems to thrive on serious dramas that plumb the depths of character in dramatically satisfying ways (Mad Men, The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, etc). The Movie industry thinks they have a PR problem, when they really have a content problem.
Several industry groups, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, and the nonprofit American Film Institute, which supports cinema, are privately brainstorming about starting public campaigns to convince people that movies still matter.
You wouldn’t have to convince people that movies mattered in 1975, because every week there was a movie that mattered. So what is it about the platform that determines this differential? To begin with, TV still has a business model that works, unlike either the film business or the Broadband Internet distribution business. TV works because it has a limited supply of commercial spots per hour. With increasing demand from advertisers, the price for each spot rises and so production costs can be covered and a profit can be made. Contrast this to the Internet advertising platform. Here you have an infinite number of ad units so that prices never rise even if demand rises.
Google is in essence trying to repeal the laws of supply and demand, which is why their recent financial results disappointed analysts.
Analysts focused on the amount that advertisers pay for clicks on Google ads, a metric called cost-per-click, which dropped 8 percent over both last quarter and last year. Susan Wojcicki, Google’s senior vice president of advertising, told analysts that a drop in average cost-per-click often accompanied an increase in the number of paid clicks on ads, which rose 34 percent over last year.
In contrast, even though TV viewership is down, ad rates have stayed high because of supply constraints. Which leads us to the movie business model. Unlike TV, movies are a total crapshoot. Each film is a one off product, almost impossible to predict demand. The only possible indicator is sales of a very similar product—thus the sequel. It’s hard to imagine, but the sequel is a relatively new phenomena. No one suggested a Gone with the Wind II or a Casablanca II. But once Star Wars II made more money than the first one, the die was cast and now Hollywood is a crackhead chasing sequels. Of course the agents know this, so the price for talent soars as the number after the title rises. Now a rational business would look for metrics such as return on investment to determine whether spending $200 million on Tron Legacy was a good idea. In that world, Bob Zemekis’ new film Flight, made for $30 million, may seem like the best investment of the year. Whether Hollywood will be able to kick it’s sequel habit is a question, but in the mean time the movies will continue to suffer from a kind of cultural irrelevance and TV will continue to thrive.