Still in the picture? Exhibition is a wallflower at wide-ranging Media Summit


No one has ever likened motion picture exhibition to a party wallflower, but that is what feature films and their theatres seemed like at this year’s Digital Hollywood Media Summit, whose 11th annual session in New York again took place early March at Midtown’s McGraw-Hill building.

The Summit again proclaimed a broad focus on “Television, Broadband, Mobile, Advertising, Cable, Telcos, Publishing, Radio & Marketing, Print Media, News Media, Motion Pictures and Games.” But “Motion Picture” was all but left out of the festivities.

While many other subjects were the talk of panels and attendees (apps, platforms, Netflix, mobile and on and on), a few interesting comments about exhibition surprisingly surfaced on a financing and investing panel. One participant, citing the Wanda Group’s AMC Theatres acquisition, suggested much greater value awaited theatres were they to increase their advertising potential through more deals and alternative programming options with companies like NCM Fathom.

More provocatively, Eric Hippeau, managing director of Lerer Ventures, speaking on the same panel, declared that nothing can make ad dollars increase in theatres. He likened the stagnation to that of newspapers, especially the print edition of The New York Times that has dramatically lost advertising even though Times content has remained consistently high. Further elaborating to FJI, he said, “You can’t convince an advertiser that theatres are a good place to put their ads.”

Really? In this wake-up-and-smell the popcorn moment, Hippeau might be delivering an unstated message to theatres that they need to do a better job of conveying to the advertising world that they have the captive eyeballs (provided ad spots are good) and easily identifiable audiences (as reflected by their ticket-buying) that make ad buys for big screens or big lobbies a good bet.

In previous years, the Media Summit Conference has always included a sprinkling of film-themed panels and film folk in the mix. Their diminution this year to wallflower status is no reflection on the health of the exhibition and studio businesses, as attendance has held pretty impressively. Rather, the shift is more an indication of how much more dramatically the digital revolution has impacted other entertainment and media sectors.

Yet, the Summit still demands attention from the studios, screen-advertising people, independent filmmakers, other creators and distribs. It’s not so much that keep-your-enemies-closer strategy as facing the cold, hard fact that in the feature film/long-form business, wherever it is happening, companies like Netflix and many other small-screen (and advertising-fueled) entities for content creation and viewing are ballooning.

So using that half-full or half-empty cup analogy, exhibition’s wallflower status at this Summit can be interpreted as both good and bad news. The good news is that exhibition, unlike everyone else, is maintaining a relatively stable course; the bad news is that a day remains fixed at 24 hours but ever-hungry media and entertainment consumers are confronted each day with hundreds of new ways to fill those hours.

But with the digital revolution having left behind days of panic at all the change, this year’s Summit was a happier and more upbeat affair. Much of that feeling is due to all the new stuff available and a belief that even better things are to come. And now with advertising dollars—a once-timid previous wallflower at these summits—more and more boldly venturing onto the floor with their social-media and Internet buys, there’s even more money to be made. In other words, as this session suggested, it truly is time for overwhelmed consumers and ever-challenged purveyors, enablers and creators to party on.

Panels and attendees chewed over the latest developments in convergence and consolidation (the jury’s out on whether Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable will be a good or bad thing, if approved); platforms (the smartphones that are getting bigger screens, the tablets that are also insanely popular, the TVs which are getting even smarter, and the PCs that meaningfully were hardly part of the conversation); the explosion of apps for everything; the threat of cord-cutting, etc.

Attendees were cheered by advertising’s embrace of all the new opportunities, in mobile especially, and its investments in new kinds of content creation where the brand behind it might not at all be obvious. Bolstering ad community enthusiasm is their ability to target, thanks to the technology and analytics that know us and our whereabouts maybe a little too well.

The “Financing and Investing in the Future” panel joined the optimistic vibe, concurring that the marketplace is getting bigger and better, although both risks and rewards remain. Hippeau characterized today as the “golden age to launch new brands, especially those targeting younger audiences.” And not a bad time to do deals. Said Tuna (sic) N. Amobi, director of S&P Capital IQ, “We’re in a very dynamic environment for deal-making today.” Another panelist guessed that there is a trillion dollars in the equity environment waiting on the sidelines.

But Ad-tech, an exciting new field that is constantly changing, was deemed more attractive to venture capital than to private equity because the necessary grand scale equity craves is not there.

Panelists commented that while there’s over-investment in content creation and under-investment in outdoor advertising (i.e., digital billboards), money thrown at TV these days is just right.

Just as investment money matters, so does that of consumers at the end of the chain. Many of the takeaways tossed out on panels focused on who those digital entertainment consumers are, what they want, and how marketers are influencing their leisure-time decisions and getting more active around that content.

And, yes, consumers today can be as young as a year old, according to a Sesame Workshop creative director who described those touchy-feely toddlers using Sesame software which can be navigated on iPads by touch.

Here are some other takeaways:

* More and more young people (those “digital natives,” the millennials and younger) are more and more comfortable with and enamored of their mobile gadgets (smartphones and tablets).

* Banner ads for websites were given last rites, as they have been pushed aside by more creative digital ways to promote brands, products and services to consumers. There are a multitude of iterations in the new advertising strategies (e.g., “native” ads like short and long-form digital videos that agencies and brands co-produce, web promotions on specific sites, etc.).

* More and more, the marketing side is leveraging the power and reach of social media and data analyses, aka data analytics, which reveal the habits, likes and dislikes and demographics of digital consumers and even where they are in real time.

* Other signs of this ongoing advertising/content convergence include retailers who are acting more like publishers by creating their own content and even advertising’s big offensive into the music scene at places like the recent SXSW Conference where films once ruled. (As David Carr in his March 17 NYT column about SXSW put it, “Big brands owned the joint.”)

* EY (Ernst & Young) global advisory and research service repeated in its handouts that “story is everything, but a story with a personal connection is unbeatable.” OK, but EY also predicted that “storytelling will evolve to make better use of an omni-platform environment.” (Notably, as early as the Montreal 1967 Expo, where IMAX was introduced, those in the film vanguard began trumpeting and offering gimmickry like viewer manipulation of plot turns and endings. Almost half a century later, such gimmickry has much to prove.)

* Also, the more recently touted “second screen” phenomenon, or simultaneous viewing on several screens, hasn’t really taken off. Network-created “companion” apps to enhance Bravo or Food network shows are deemed more distraction than companion. When consumers do use multiple screens at the same time on secondary screens, these are for supplemental data (sports facts, for instance) and live social-media chatting.

* As smartphones and tablets become more and more popular indoors, the television itself may become that “second screen” in the home. All in all, consumers love their multi-screen environment but not necessarily using their multiple screens simultaneously.
* Regarding “where’s the money” in all this media and entertainment disruption, an answer for now lies in “advertising,” a word used in many a panel title and description. Advertising, in fact, has become the belle of this party and should, as Hippeau’s negative view of advertising in theatres does, trigger ideas for exhibition to get more aggressive and inventive in attracting more advertising interest.

* On the broadband front, the fact that the U.S. is so far behind many countries like Korea that have better broadband access could prove disastrous.

* Content remains king and more important than distribution. Service providers (the MSOs, distributors, devices, etc.) will turn into the pipes for all the content, but the content owners will be in the catbird seat.

* While good storytelling remains key, content creators and brands are experimenting with narratives by making them as short as six seconds or merely conveying their narrative through a powerful image or two.

* The question of whether “binge viewing” is a revolution or just an evolution remains unanswered.

* In the near future, all visual programming will be referred to as “video” and multi-screen (cross-platform) availability will be assumed.

* Younger, rather than older, generations are the bigger fans of user-generated content (UGC), which, like videogames, created less excitement and conversation fodder at this year’s Summit.

* The Hollywood studios, commented a panelist from CAA, are rooting for Amazon to emerge a viable competitor to Netflix and its dominance in the small-screen movie ecosystem.

* Set-top boxes and plug-ins (cable, AppleTV, Chromecast, etc.) are transient, as everything will soon end up in the TV sets. In five or six years, over-the-top TV (IP-based or Internet Protocol TV, aka Internet TV) will be the norm as more and more consumers buy these “connected” TVs. That long-predicted TV/Internet merger is happening.

* Easier access to the programming people want to watch and the navigation tools that will make this possible continue to elude, but mobile devices might someday provide the solution.

* Business decisions, not technology, will determine whether and when big cable’s pricey 500+ channel content packages will become unbundled so that consumers will get the programming they really want and at a fair price.

* TV content, even live TV, is being unleashed fast and furiously to all devices, a trend which makes traditional motion picture windows and their fixed dates seem quaint, if not outdated.

* The general feeling is that innovations like voice recognition and Google Glass need more improvements and are not yet ready for “prime time.” The latter has a redundancy, since smartphones already have similar capabilities.

* Based on the habits and preferences of millennials (18 to 34-year-olds), e-mail is out and messaging is in, voicemail is a joke and TV viewing is sinking.

* Multinational companies do not understand that millennials and younger are on-demand generations that demand what they want and when and where they want it. And, more and more, they are getting things their way.

* The jury is still out on whether the Internet’s multichannel networks (MCNs) of different content channels that sites like YouTube offer are working. Like so much content in the digital world, there are monetization challenges, but many companies, throwing real money and that metaphorical spaghetti to the wall to see what sticks, are rich enough to wait and see, make bets and spend.

* There was a surprising lack of enthusiasm for 4K Ultra TV in the home. But the major cable providers (the MSOs) could have an edge over the over-the-top providers if they can one day deliver 4K programming.

* Data gathering and analysis (big data and the metadata clarifying it and predictive analytics especially) have grown more important, as it benefits both content creators and distributors and allows them to better know their consumers (even to a scary extent), know what they want and know where to find them.

Digital changes, content growth and technological breakthroughs are happening so rapidly and with no end in sight that the best one can do is party on and enjoy it while trying to take advantage of i.