Debating digital: Cinemas left out of the picture at annual NYC tech conference


Digital Hollywood New York (DHNY) is late fall’s annual conference that brings together players from a wide swath of media and entertainment sectors (marketing/advertising, publishing, TV, film, webcasting, mobile options, etc.) to mull the latest trends and challenges.

While “Digital” and “Hollywood” are at the very core of motion pictures theatres, exhibition was a near wallflower at last week’s Midtown session and the theatre business barely entered conversations.

At least one company, Regal, AMC and Cinemark’s NCM Cinema Network, which has firm footing in the two worlds of advertising and exhibition, was represented on the conference’s Entertainment Marketing panel, which focused on strategies and partnerships affecting small-screen advertising, brands, content and viewers.

Panelist Bennett Fogel, NCM Media Networks Executive VP, Sales and Marketing Partnerships, joined other executives sharing insights into ways to integrate brands into entertainment product and engage viewers. They tackled a number of questions, including whether the brand or the concept comes first, how to effectively integrate brands with content and advocate brand interests without alienating viewers, how to forge effective partnerships, and how to find target audiences and deal with the incredible fragmentation of an audience that is more and more embracing mobile devices and simultaneous screens at the expense of more traditional sources and ways of consuming entertainment.

The panel tossed around trends and challenges affecting ad and talent agencies seeking to match creative clients and their “authentic” content, whether apps for mobile, two to three-minute snippets for the Web or the 90-minute movie Cybergeddon, TV showrunner Anthony E. Zuiker’s Yahoo Web series collaboration with anti-virus software giant Norton.

Notions parried included those surrounding the “second screen” conundrum that has more and more young consumers moving between two screens at once (TV and tablet or phone or laptop); and the value of partnerships in this “era of partnerships” such as Norton’s and Yahoo’s (brokered by a unit of PR giant Edelman). Also noodled: what are the best bets to reach consumers (Facebook, apps and now hotter-than-hot mobile and the popularity of text messaging); and whether it’s content, target audience or format that comes first in promoting a brand to consumers.

Again, while there was no panic betrayed this year, no one, to paraphrase William Goldman’s now clichéd dictum, knows anything, especially regarding where things are going and where the profits are. Per usual, some curious digital innovations added to all the chaos got attention, including tablet apps with audio recognition that can detect when a viewer is watching a TV show (Conan O’Brien’s for instance) and automatically provides complementary tablet content to enhance your viewing confusion.

As DHNY’s lone “theatre guy” (Tribeca Films was an unexplained no-show on a panel they were running), NCM’s Fogel spoke briefly on the panel about a second-screen experiment in some of NCM’s theatres which apparently fell short of initial expectations. But pushing the ubiquity of text-messaging, Serena Ehrlich, director of marketing for Mogreet, mentioned an unnamed small theatre in San Francisco that actually has seats set up for second-screen use. Andy Marks, general manager of MATTER, inc., noted that Cinedigm apparently has an in-theatre promotion that deters people from engaging in second-screen activity during showtimes.

Fogel also made passing reference to NCM’s expanding focus from out-of-home network space to video-networking space but further elaborated to FJI, as part of our interview below: “Cinema advertising is in its inception, as it’s always been bought and evaluated by [ad] agencies as out-of-home space like billboards or at malls. But now, with all the fragmentation of consumers with so much content to deal with on so many small screens, the theatres, like online video advertising, have become alternatives to advertising’s big TV buys.”

From his vantage point of being in the two worlds of cross-media advertising and exhibition, Fogel concurs that it’s the former that has been most shaken by the digital revolution. “What’s happening is that the digital revolution has created a lot of new issues and opportunities that are actually very favorable to what we do with our cinema networks. The many new digital options for consuming media and entertainment have created enormous fragmentation that others have to deal with. But for us and our network, we’re positioning ourselves as a video option like online video advertising but that is better targeted. Both theatres and online have become alternatives to the traditional big TV spends.”

Fogel agrees that the film and theatre business have gotten off relatively easy during this ongoing digital disruption, compared to the other sectors hit by so much fragmentation of audiences. “Fragmentation is more an issue for home entertainment and mobile users. But in the film business there’s no similar fragmentation to upset the values of the social experience. As for content, theatres offer manageable numbers of films to see.”

He explains the value of NCM’s network to advertisers. “Audiences are eroding on network TV—broadcast saw its lowest declines this fall—and with our network now rated by Nielsen, we are getting such high ratings, especially on weekends. We’re often the number-one network with the broadest reach, since broadcast is soft on weekends while going to the movies is still a very stable weekend activity. But entertainment at home and on all smaller screens is undergoing so much fragmentation.”

Beyond the fragmentation, NCM also benefits from advances in technology like the DVR that, as he puts it, “has created a culture of skipping advertising” on TV. And with theatres serving a captive audience within more readily defined demographics depending on which films are playing, NCM, says Fogel, has become “the better option [for advertisers] to scale and reach.”

And for two important reasons, audiences are paying attention to pre-shows. Explains Fogel, “With a 50-foot screen in front of you, it’s so easy to sit and watch. And the content is engaging. We have content partnerships with the studios and TV networks, so we’re able to provide exclusive content like the making-of shows and films. These are all designed to be compelling programming with ad breaks in between, all of which also means more branded integration so an advertiser can integrate with a movie that’s coming out and know its audience. So the right movie content is integrated with the right brand and the targeted consumer.”

NCM, he further explains, has tremendous reach. “Technology has given us the satellite network that allows us to send our pre-shows and ads simultaneously to 20,000 screens in the DMAs [designated marketing areas]. We also enjoy some input on the content for our ‘First Look’ shows, which, in addition to being made-fors and behind-the-scenes pieces, give audiences a first and exclusive look at what’s coming to theatres and TVs.”

With marketers making stingy ad spends on the Web and wary of how DVRs are impacting ads, NCM also has its eyes on further leveraging the supremacy of big-screen entertainment and the engagement of captive, desirable audiences in terms of building new revenue streams, especially from growing advertiser dollars. A key part of that strategy was NCM’s recent “premiere” at the advertising and television industries’ annual Upfront spring event in New York.

“Our first Upfront presentation was this year and our story will be even a lot stronger next time. TV-network viewing is eroding, but our audience is stable and growing. And as our Nielsen ranking continues to grow and DVRs further grow the ad-skipping environment, we can better make the case that we are becoming more and more of a solution as this [advertising] environment gets more difficult.”

Amidst the Entertainment Marketing panel’s albeit optimistic climate of uncertainty regarding how the heck marketers and content creators are to reach so many consumers empowered by so many ever-growing and improving devices and mind-boggling content choices, knowledgable and funny moderator Carlos Lamadrid, executive VP and publisher of Penske Media Corp., contributed his educated guess that “all media is relevant except print, because it has not evolved.” And, again, “great storytelling that is emotionally engaging is ultimately what it’s all about.”

But with TV programming getting better and better at this and with VOD and other small-screen movie-watching options increasing, might the time be more imminent to boldly confront the question of how much do forever-improving in-home and mobile entertainment and the content explosion really keep film fans from heading to motion picture theatres?

The reasons for film’s low profile at DHNY were obvious: The traditional focus is on advertising, TV and mobile (tablets and smartphones), areas most shaken and baffled by the digital revolution and galloping technological advances. Conversely, motion picture theatres, already through the storm by way of digital conversions and no shortage of product small and tentpole, continue to bestow the all-important marketing and word-of-mouth opportunities that films large and small need to sail successfully through the ancillary streams.

While exhibition sits in relative calm, the DHNY conferences indirectly suggest a potential for big disruption by way of the mind-boggling proliferation of content on so many small screens (many viewed simultaneously as “second screens”) and the bigger of those small screens (say, Sony’s new 4K 84” TV and other UltraHD screens) that are growing larger, crisper and more competitive with out-of-home screens. And AppleTV is rumored to roll out in 2013—do we need remind what Apple did to the music business?

Not that these HD advances allay anxiety for the TV people. Jo Holz, a Nielsen senior VP on DHNY’s “Video Everywhere” panel, made the statistical points that younger generations are moving away from TV. Other panels brought attention to other disruptions. Marketer skepticism regarding the value of Web ads continues as costs remain low for them. The growing “second-screen” trend has viewer attention simultaneously divided between a main (TV) screen and all those fun tablets (squeezing that proverbial “and now a word from our sponsor”). More and more DVRs are taking scheduling away from providers and into the welcome hands of viewers who bypass the commercials that have traditionally sustained the business. Premium cablers like HBO have bypassed the a-la-carte menu that puts viewer control into viewer hands, but are under pressure to relent (the network is already experimenting with this in Scandinavia) and it’s clear that U.S. viewers want this capability.

The threat of ever-improving home viewing aside, DHTV, in future sessions, might want to pay a little more attention to the theatre business, as there are plenty of “digital” and “Hollywood” issues to talk about: digital’s impact on theatres, the synergy (assuming it’s come to that) between exhibition and VOD, self-distribution/four-walling as an option, DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages), and what the future holds (high frame rates, 3D, 4K or 6K projection, better laser light throws, better audio experiences, and the digital impact on/new strategies for marketing to increase theatre traffic in the digital age).

But to get this attention, exhibition may have to wait till all the chaos, confusion, conundrums and uncertainties subside for DHNY’s favored sectors. Which is another way of saying that leaves the movie people plenty of time to think about making better films, better marketing campaigns and better theatre-going experiences.