The final countdown…
Sony: Do you remember that Sony was once the leader in Home Entertainment? Cutting edge. High fliers. Only 15 years ago. Ben Feingold was the Icarus of the moment.
Things change. And they change faster than people realize.
Tom Rothman is about to celebrate 7 years at the studio in Culver, not Century, City. It’s been an interesting run. Shaky start (with a lead-in from Tri-Star) by Pascal’s Spider-Man: Homecoming to Jumanji to Venom. Rinse. Repeat. Add Little Women, Baby Driver, a Bad Boys reboot, post-Harvey Tarantino, and Peter Rabbit. That’s an average of about 2 pre-COVID big hits a year… which will keep pretty much anyone in their job.
Is Sony Pictures edgy and cool? No. Is it stable and successful. Yeah.
You know the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb… just one, but the light bulb has to want to change.
Sony sold off its Pay-1 window to Netflix for the next 5 years. Then they sold the next streaming window after Pay-1 to Disney+/Hulu. Seinfeld, the jewel of the Sony TV library, is also at Netflix, for almost the same 5-year stretch.
Point is, Sony is pretty much on lock down for the next 5 years-plus.
They have set up a near-future in which they can focus on making and releasing movies, knowing the revenue streams ahead that can be counted on for more than 5 years, beyond the crap shoots of theatrical and single-unit VOD.
Tony Vinciquerra has taken the target off the back of the company for at least a few years. Anything could happen, but the primary assets are not unencumbered.
They don’t have a very full 2022, with 4 franchise-ish pictures and 4 or 5 of the kind of movies “no one makes anymore.” Matilda is going to Netflix… except in the UK, where it will apparently get a full release by Sony.
Sony’s resolution for 2022 can only really be… do what you do as well as possible. Enjoy the cocoon while you can.
Warner Media/Discovery: Ah… the most elusive resolution of the year. Current leadership, represented by Mr. Kilar, continues to sell the “success” of Project Popcorn to friends in the media who have never met a follow-up question they won’t let get bulldozered by a charming, very wealthy CEO who makes whirling dervishes seem sedate.
But by summer, there is likely to be a new boss in Burbank.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The year in theatrical and HBO Max is a steady diet of pre-chewed IP. Aside from a Soderbergh currently set for HBO Max, a sci-fi comedy romance called Moonshot, and an Olivia Wilde set for release in September, it’s Batman, Harry Potter, DC Super-Pets, Elvis, The Rock as Black Adam, Salem’s Lot (again), House Party, The Flash, Creed, and Aquaman.
If you’re looking for originality… you’re in the wrong place.
New series heading to HBO/HBO Max? About 2 a month. The superstar, they pray, is House of the Dragon. There is a bunch of animation. A few foreign language efforts. Pairings like Destin Daniel Cretton and Michael Mann that excite people like me and will actually launch on HBO Max. The Pretty Little Liars franchise moves onto streaming, which will make the question of how raunchy it can now go very interesting. There’s a pirate comedy with Taika Waititi. A Julia Child life story series. The return of Tiny Toons & Boondocks & Gremlins to boot.
The TV line-up is a lot more adventurous than the movie line-up. But give them time. They’ll grind it down.
If I were to offer a resolution for the current team at Warner Media, the top item would be to work out the tech on the HBO Max website. It’s not just people being demanding. The app seems to be pretty buggy for a lot of people. Just the other night, people trying to watch the season premiere of Euphoria were fighting the app for anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour to get the show to launch. Handing over the keys to an unpainted apartment is not classy.
Next on the list… stop trying to win the last war. Project Popcorn was a mistake. You feel otherwise? Great. But don’t drag the future of the company down by trying to prove that it was a great success. Remember, Project Popcorn was only one of the major investments driving growth in HBO Max. There were also HBO hits. And for much of America, the pricing on HBO, with or without Max, was significantly decreased when it went to $15 a month. There were expensive library buys like Friends and the special that took so long to make. And a bunch of HBO Max originals that got less attention because of the movie hype.
I am not here to say that adding 2 million subs a month this year was a failure. But was it an extraordinary result? Because it would have to be to be considered a success.
I don’t anticipate any major changes within the Warners eco-system before Mr. Zaslav lands.
But when he lands, the list of resolutions gets thicker.
1. Change the name from HBO Max. HBO is a great asset, but using it as The Brand limits the perception of the overall product, which is a lot more than HBO.
2. Go back to the classic WB shield. The home entertainment blue shield looks cheap and gaudy.
3. Let Toby Emmerich keep overseeing the repeating IP of the studio, if you like. But hire someone who is a serious movie person to ramp up the indie-level film effort. If 1 out of 5 of the films that come out of the effort ends up going theatrical, fine. But there are a bunch of really interesting filmmakers who are suffering in the indie crunch who can deliver really interesting product at really low spends (compared to your norm). For a company that wants a really healthy streaming business, 20 films for $200 million makes sense in place of another $200 million tentpole wannabe. Warners can look like a leader and trendsetter.
4. Everyone with a brain knows that international markets is where the money is going to be for the future of streaming. Obsess on this. Especially in the Discovery programming area. Food from the world. Houses flip everywhere. How does the rest of the world live? What can they teach Americans? What can Americans teach them?
5. I gather that a lot of the good programmers from HBO Go/HBO Now left for Discovery. Now they are back. Fix the hell out of your interfaces. These are the offensive linemen of the industry… no one notices them until there is a problem. No one should ever have to think about whether your apps will work. Ever.
6. Take the theatrical business seriously. You are in the business of entertaining people. Don’t throw away any of your platforms.
7. Get a copy of The Animatrix. This should be your template for IP. The stuff that works can be interpreted more ways more often and hold up. Don’t keep trying to make B-level characters into stars. What is Shazam giving you that isn’t available from the rest of your DC universe… and can it every be as powerful as your core characters? There are many ways to experiment with the audience without spending $200 million a movie.
8. Make Wall St come to you, not the other way around. Don’t get caught up in the obsessive chase for market heroism. Obviously, if you are failing, you are in danger. But slow and steady is much more realistic. International expansion will be the good story for a few years. Use it as cover to build what you really want to build. Measure in years, not in quarters.
9. Consider some strategic acquisitions. But also consider selling your business as a narrower idea than “everything for everyone.” The advantage of the Warners catalog is depth that neither Disney nor Netflix can deliver from within. Flex those muscles. Explain why you are a “must carry.”
10. This industry is a like a shark. Stop swimming and you suffocate. You have to convince everyone that you are moving in a direction, purposefully. And you need to be able to explain your vision in a way that can be heard twice and then repeated ad nauseum. Getting subs is life, yes. But that is not a goal that anyone buying your product cares about. It wasn’t TV. It was HBO. But TV and Netflix caught up with HBO. What’s next?
Easy for me to write.