THB #63: New Year's Resolutions, Part 1
I am writing these in alphabetical order. As it turns out, streamer-driven Amazon and Apple are alphabetical leaders. Comcast makes 3. After that, 2 more columns (of 3 and 4) to go. It’ll be New Year’s Eve before you know it!
In other housekeeping, I apologize for not offering audio versions of the newsletter these last couple of weeks. I have a good old-fashioned cold. Been tested. Not The COVID. But not sharing the nasal voice. Audio will be back in the new year.
Amazon/MGM: The purchase of MGM allows Amazon to lean into its natural lean, given the current leadership. Let the TV side stream hard, occasionally throwing a film to theatrical and let the MGM side be the movie side, occasionally throwing a film to streaming. This offers the opportunity for the content to assert itself in the way that the companies going both ways say they want.
I can’t argue that, for instance, the 4th film in the Hotel Transylvania franchise needs a theatrical… except that the third in the series actually ticked up at international box office while maintaining domestically. Someone fed the trades a $100m price tag for Amazon to pick the film up for streaming. That doesn’t really make any sense. Might still be true. But if the box office dropped in half from 3 to 4, Sony would still have done better releasing the film. None of us know how much Amazon paid or what triggered Sony to bail on the film as a theatrical. (Well, someone reading this might.) But for Amazon… even if they paid $200 million… the question is whether the film is worth that in marketing value worldwide for the Amazon Prime platform.
This takes us to what is really the single central question of 2022. Everyone has just gone along with the premise that Squid Game can actually have a worth of a billion dollars to Netflix and that over $200m apiece for two Knives Out sequels makes sense financially.
Amazon, which people forget has been rather conservative in its acquisition spending during its brief history, is in a good position to come up with a metric for streaming content value moving forward.
Amazon has the deep pockets and the MGM acquisition is bringing a legit team into the fold that specializes in movies that are modest but can blossom into unexpected blockbusters. A comparison between Scott Stuber (at Netflix) and DeLuca/Abdy has a thousand little holes in it… but it’s not insane either. Scott’s strength has always been in the middle with some comedies or action dramas that scored over expectations. Safe House and Ted and The Breakup is where he lives. (Geez, what Netflix wouldn’t do for a Ted of their own… aside from their real Ted, who is lovely, but not as fun for audiences.) PTA and 21 and The Social Network and 50 Shades of Grey is where DeLuca and Abdy live. Zathura and Battleship is not where you want these folks mining.
Amazon’s 2022 resolution should be to have strong advocacy on both arenas, streaming and theatrical, which will lead to clarity towards a working future.
Apple: So far, AppleTV+ has been relentlessly clear about being television and not theatrical. Even as it hopes for awards attention to its “films,” like CODA, the biggest buy in the history of Sundance, there is no footprint for the U.S. theatrical release of the film, qualifying it for Oscar. There is only a $1 million run in Mexico.
Essentially, Apple has become the richest “guy” at the party, with everyone wanting to find a way to get money out of “him,” but with no sign at all that a hand will ever reach for a wallet, much less a giant contract.
"I'm not gonna try it—you try it!"
"Let's get Apple… the want to own everything"
"He’s aware of it! Hey, Apple!"
Apple has been lovely for Tom Hanks. They bought Greyhound from Sony, which was widely watched on the platform, though no one cared. But they tried again and bought Bios out of Universal and changed the name to Fitch… and no one cared.
CODA hasn’t rung that bell. And neither has Swan Song.
in 2022, AppleTV+ will release Emancipation, starring Will Smith as a slave and Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, the company’s 2 most expensive film projects.
And their first resolution should be that if these films don’t turn the knob, they stop throwing good money after bad and stop chasing that fake rabbit around the track. It’s not what they do. Being a tourist in the $100m+ production cost movie business is not recommended.
As for the TV business… I don’t see a real end game, but they are doing better there than in “film.” That said, they need some variation in the voice. For an organization that is clearly looking to be inclusive (Truth Be Told, Little America, Swagger, CODA, Swan Song, Swagger, Acapulco), there is a weirdly very white privileged tone to what feels like a majority of their programming. I’m not tearing down Ted Lasso or Physical or The Morning Show or Defending Jacob or The Mosquito Coast or Sevant or Trying or Lisey’s Story or Dickinson or The Shrink Next Door or Schmigadoon or Mr. Corman, etc… I love some of those shows… but that’s a lotta entitled white people, ladies and gentlemen!
Some of the shows have significant supporting characters of color. I’m really not accusing AppleTV+ of having a racial issue. But the network has a surprising consistency. Shows seem to either be about race, rather directly, or disconnected from the issue of race.
AppleTV+ plays to a well-educated, somewhat entitled, mostly white audience. I happen to fit that group, so I am not complaining for myself. But even the “Apple Original Films” are just so white… Dads, On The Rocks, Beastie Boys Story, Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You, Come From Away, The Velvet Underground, Greyhound, Finch, Cherry, Palmer… again… I really like a lot of these films, love a couple… but very white.
Mythic Quest is one of the few series that really tries to scuff things up. One resolution for 2022 has to be to be scruffier. AppleTV+ still feels like it has the brand new car smell. As I said, it works for me personally… a lot. I have watched almost everything. And maybe that is the voice of this channel… and they should get rid of tough shows like the Israeli import Losing Alice or docs that are very tough or whatever those edges are. But I think… more range, not less.
I mean, with all respect, it is hard to come up with a Jon Stewart show that even Jon Stewart acolytes find unwatchable. I’m sure 99% of the blame is on Jon, who was clearly 99% free to do as he liked. But still.
The content is too good to be a $5 a month afterthought. But that is where they seem to be. Gotta crack some eggs to make an omelet. So far, the strategy seems to be to find the finest laying hens in the land and to build them the best hen house ever and feed them the best whatever they eat and then, as they lay eggs, only pick the most beautiful ones that seem worthy of being photographed for the cover of a magazine.
The world often wants 2 eggs scrambled next to the grease from the bacon and some over-buttered, slightly burnt toast. They aren’t surprised when breakfast doesn’t look like the menu pictures at Denny’s. And sometimes, those are the best meals.
Apple’s 2022 central resolution should be pick their lane. Either toughen up a bit or make this the luxury brand for Entitled TV and Movies. Nothing wrong with that second one. It won’t win you certain awards. But it can be a very successful business model. However, if Apple wants their entertainment brand to compete with the brands that are offering a truly wide range of content to the world, starting with Netflix, it’s time to get some dirt on the silk and cashmere.
Comcast/Universal/NBC: This is the most complicated company in the industry right now. They are the most decisive, making strong strategic choices to try to maximize their opportunities, but also the distributor most slowed by not putting streaming ahead of their cable and broadcast businesses.
The 45-day window, which is, for now, the primary posture of distributors doing wide theatrical releases, started with Universal. After a variety of experiments between April 2020 and November 2020, The Croods: A New Age launched in theaters only on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. The box office was at $25m domestic when it went to PVOD on December 18. The film would do another $35m in theaters - $1m+ weekends continuing until the end of February - while available in various layers of on-demand. But also, $157m internationally ($54m in China). So a big win in what were still the worst of times for the COVID box office, behind only Tenet amongst post-March 15 releases in 2020.
The next 4 full releases wouldn’t be so fortunate. $2m, $13m, $55m, $43m. But then, Summer 2021 was the next bright hopeful window and F9 followed Cruella and A Quiet Place II onto the battlefield with Black Widow quickly coming up behind. The result was mixed positive. The domestic box office came up short, in part because Universal shortened their own window concept, pushing the film to PVOD in 35 days, while they were still bringing in $2.7m a weekend. This torpedoed theatrical and the total for the next 11 weekends in theatrical was under $5 million. Internationally, they managed $553 million, which made the film easily the biggest Hollywood release in the 16 months since COVID took hold.
In the 6 months after, Universal had 7 domestic/international releases. A mixed bag. The two $100 million+ worldwide grossers were the day-n-dated duo of the Jason Blummed Halloween Kills and The Boss Baby 2. H-Kill managed $92m domestic and $40m international. Baby 2 took in $58m domestic, but another $89m internationally where there is no Peacock. Hmmm…
The lesson Universal seems to have taken is… something close to where they started back with The Croods 2. They announced a 45-day theatrical window leading to release on Peacock for most titles.
Meanwhile on Peacock, they seem to be finding their footing a bit better with already-branded content. They’ve gotten a big boost from Yellowstone, which Paramount licensed to the streamer when their strategy was still to sell everything to anyone (they now pretend that never happened… it did). They just launched another piece of Paramount IP with the MacGruber series. They have extended their Bravo Housewives brand into a Peacock exclusive series, mixing between casts. They paid dearly to have the The Office cult on their service. But it’s still hard to get a real read on how things are going. The way they report information on the service is willfully murky. But like Paramount+, things seem to be getting better. Slowly.
But the financial benefit of a streamer for the companies that are not “just” streamers is in international. And this is a big part of the ongoing problem for Peacock and Comcast. They are now offering Peacock as part of the European Sky satellite packages… but if you look at the Sky home pages, there is no mention of Peacock at all. (If you use the search engine, you can find it.) They heavily promote Netflix as an add-on. But nothing about free Peacock. So they added 20 million insta-subs, but are they using the service?
Even at 65 million subs worldwide, Peacock is not yet in a position to have a real hit initiated on the service. Not domestically or worldwide.
Comcast/Universal/NBC’s 2022 resolution should be to stop dancing around and focus on the rest of the world. Sell off your piece of Hulu… make the best deal you can and move on. It doesn’t befit a company of Comcast’s stature to be a barnacle on Disney’s hull forever.
Refocus your domestic efforts and take more advantage of your platforms. Make the entire NBC and Bravo line-up available a day early only on Paid Peacock and Comcast cable. Set up a premium tier for Peacock for a couple of bucks more a month to get the new movies in the 45-day window at 45 days and make everyone else wait until day 49. Keep experimenting. We are still in the early days of streaming.
You don’t need to scale up. Scale, for those who already have as much as Comcast has, is a false prophet.
Want to be super-aggressive worldwide? Go after the Sunday Ticket package. Who cares if it puts you in the business of promoting product that is made by the other networks (CBS and Fox)? It’s another opportunity to make yourself invaluable, both to your cable customers (tick, tock) and the 30% of America and 15% of the world for whom NFL access is a must.
You’re really far behind, but you have the pieces to catch up in a hurry. But hanging around in the middle is not going to be the answer.