New York’s Media Summit offers the view from the (set) top


Digital Hollywood’s annual Media Summit in Manhattan (March 7-8) attracted the familiar herd of knowledge- and job-seeking attendees and networkers and schmoozers in the crazily changing sectors of television, Internet, mobile, cable, advertising, financing and VOD (video on demand). The goal was to bring all participants up-to-date, but the mission remained to uncover “the future of the industry.” Fat chance.

But the session did provide hints of, among other things, where within the growing avalanche of content options lie the hits, which options were clicking with whom and what content might stick and prosper. And might so much choice put more pressure on moviegoing?

The Summit is also arguably a glimpse at which screen distractions might deter moviegoers from trips to the big screens (there continues to be only 24 hours to the day). Accepting that law related to inert (sedentary) matter staying in place (e.g., consumers at home or glued, some say addicted, to their mobile devices), threats to theatre outings amount to a truffle hunt at conferences such as these.

Beyond the panels that focused on strategies, financing and the role of advertising, Media Summit again this year provided insights into the expanding fog of choice, be it choice of content, platform, device, time or place. Notably, the sound and fury surrounding virtual reality (VR) was diminished this year, as the immersive technology and its applications have entered a wait-and-see stage, with enthusiasts and cheerleaders in this area trying to sober up and give more thought to what consumers want and will pay for. The ray of optimism here that is stealing some thunder comes from Augmented Reality (AR), which incorporates into the hyper-immersive experience a real-world live view of the environment or story unfolding in the confines (a nuisance) of headsets. Of course, VR has hardly gone away (IMAX’s recent entry will be given close scrutiny and there’s no stopping announcements of new VR ventures, gizmos, content, showcases, etc.).

Also thunderous was the excitement palpably growing around the creepy-brilliant, voice-activated tiny home assistants like Alexa and Google Home. And comforting fires continue to flicker brightly around such familiar Summit topics as customer engagement, storytelling, artificial intelligence and effective data-gathering (snooping, to some minds).

But most pressing to filmmaking and exhibition communities is the abundance of choices that several Summit panels addressed, including that of “Video Anytime Anywhere: Video Across Platforms—Television, Internet and Mobile—Understanding the Value Proposition,” a mouthful of a title to match the eyeful of screen options available these days.

Among insights and preferences that panelists, including reps from CBS, HGTV, Google and Turner, shared or suggested were:

* Consumers are averse to the hundreds of channels the cable services impose and would prefer far less.

* Consumers love the voice-activated helpers and welcome such assistance in making their video choices.

* The abundance of content even put pressure on content creators like Google to put an “A” in front of a film title so it would pop up early on VOD lists.

* Consumers love downloading, as it gives them control over when to watch what they want to watch. This ability has also contributed to the popularity of podcasting, also benefiting by its mobility.

* The jury is out on whether consumers will allow TV’s subscription model to last, especially as they are showing preferences for the “thin bundles” offered by over-the-top (OTT) services, which bypass the MSOs.

* Advertisers, especially the agencies, remain old-guard in their thinking, even as screen ads grow more attractive (shorter, splashier, etc.).

* Broadcasters, recognizing they need a new model while also proclaiming they can’t give programming away for free, are at a crossroads.

Addressing the theatre-going advantage of providing movie lovers with a social experience, panelist Michael Pachter, L.A.-based managing director of Equity Research WEDBUSH securities, mentioned a new small screen add-on that allows groups of friends to watch the same movie at the same time and share opinions.

Responding to Film Journal International regarding what amongst so many new-media and tech-driven devices, services and content might pose the biggest threats to motivating people to get out of their homes, off their devices and into theatres, Pachter responded, “Unless home theatre becomes ubiquitous or windows shrink to weeks instead of months, exhibitors should not worry about declining attendance.”

Pachter, who holds business and law degrees, feels the biggest obstacle to a shift away from theatrical exhibition continues to be the exclusive cinema window, about three-and-a-half months currently in most cases. “So long as theatres have 15 weeks of exclusivity, there will always will be moviegoers who prefer to see films on a big screen. But as studios want to maximize revenue, they may shrink the window to two-and-a-half months, but I don’t see them successfully shrinking it any further. These theatrical exhibition revenues are important and the word of mouth drives awareness.”

What he does see is “a continued slow bleed with ticket sales dropping one percent per year, but offset by premium format and comfortable seat ticket price increases.”

But the tastes of young generations give pause, as the panel “Internet TV—Mainstream Media to OVNs—The Cross Platform Explosion” suggested with its emphasis on the gazillions of niche channels that young creatives are churning out for over-the-top delivery. These may not make money yet, but these niche offerings aren’t dependent of a large subscriber base.

When asked how the film studios, other feature filmmakers and motion picture theatres might exploit this low-cost niche explosion to get the OTT crowd into more cinema seats, Jamie Wilkinson, general manager of OTT services at Vimeo, declined comment, no doubt content in his comfort zone overseeing the mounting of niche channels of short programming for short attention spans.

Such alt-focused attention to smaller screens suggests that theatre-minded eyes must pay real attention to all these entertainment alternatives, however small and niche, because what distracts also subtracts from those meaningful attendance and box-office numbers.