The media landscape

Although School doesn’t necessarily leave you with any more free time than working does, it does leave you with plenty of “mental space” – room to think about new things, how the world might be changing around you and what opportunities that may present.

One thing that’s been on my mind lately is the writers strike and what it means. A couple of articles have leapt out at me:

  • The international herald tribune had an interesting article about the now bleak economics of movie making has become for the major studios.
  • Marc Andreesen’s rather excellent blog had a post about Hollywood reforming in the image of Silicon Valley.
  • Patrick Goldstein picked up the thread with an excellent article in the LA Times that describes the “entrepeneur artist” and cites Spielberg, Jackson, Lasseter, and Lucas as ahead of their time archetypes.

The theme of all this is that falling production costs, proliferating distribution channels and generally crummy economics weaken the grip big studios have traditionally exerted on the movie business. There may be a coming wave of entrepreneur-artists who make modest budget movies outside of the studio system, take greater artistic risks and get paid like owners rather than hired guns.

More powerful artists suggests that the vertical integration of the industry is going to start cracking. Funding, production, promotion and distribution are all separate functions that may not be operated by the same entity.

A few observations:

  • Raising $7M doesn’t seem like a big deal if you think you’ve got the right project. Attaching a known director or actor seems like a good way to convince an investor that you’re on to something. I can imagine funds which invest in a diversified portfolio of projects or “angels” who invest in a single project that appeals to them.
  • Production at a lower budget means that costs that used to be insignificant will suddenly start getting scrutiny. Unionized labor that gets paid at least 8 hours a day regardless of how much they work and have all their meals catered seem like low-hanging fruit.
  • Setting up and ripping down a production company every time you work on a new project seems incredibly inefficient. I can imagine standing companies that know how to work together and move from project to project.
  • The perhaps-apocryphal Disney executive who asked his team to “only make the hits” may have in fact been onto something. In order to keep the machinery of a studio running, it needs to have a pipeline. Rather than funding potential hit movies, studios are really funding the best N projects they can find and perhaps this leads to poor funding choices. The Last Boyscout, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix are all movies that apparently “sold themselves” from the script, suggesting that at least in a few cases a script is so compelling as to suggest that in the right hands it will be a hit.
  • Promotion and Distribution still seem like the core difficulty. “On the net” is still not a great venue for watching visual entertainment longer than 10 min and has the nasty side issue that nobody wants to pay. Certainly creating celluloid prints does not seem cost effective.

Things I am thinking about:

  • How do we connect investors with projects? How do they sort good projects from bad ones? This process already happens through an informal social network, can one be systematized?
  • How does investing in low cost movies work? What financial structures do we use to share the upside without removing incentive? Who has succeeded here before?
  • What is really happening to production costs? What are the real cost drivers? How do we accelerate that drop? Not every movie is the Blair Witch Project.
  • How do we find an audience for these new works and how do we get our work out to them?
  • Many artists enter the business motivated by fame. Some movies really do call out for big budgets and huge promotion. Any re-imagination of the business that eliminates either of these things will not work.