The way movies and TV shows are going to be released in the near future will be very different than how the process works today. WSJ ran an article (sorry free preview ended) recently about how NBC sent a nastygram to Bolt.com to take down 140 video clips from the site. The choice quote:
"These viral sites are interesting to us in instances before a show becomes an asset and we are trying to expose it to people," says John Miller, NBC's chief marketing officer. "Once something becomes a hit it's a different story. Our interest here is generating revenue for ourselves."
(This kind of sucks from Bolt’s perspective; they provide the infrastructure, drive the traffic, and pay the bandwidth charges to generate the buzz and NBC gets to monetize the appreciated asset once its actually worth something. But that’s for a different post…)
But it does point to the reality of viral video growth. They are the mechanism whereby video assets are judged for their relative merit by all of us. What John Miller doesn’t seem to understand is that he’s not talking about protecting NBC’s existing revenue; he’s talking about how NBC should be capturing value in the future. Think about it. If a video is uploaded to YouTube and it’s good, it will tend to get watched frequently and grow in popularity. If it’s bad, it won’t. The process isn’t perfect, but it works better than the system we have today in which executives guess what the audience will like, spend millions of dollars on that bet and cross their fingers on the day of release.
This is crazy. And on top of this, because these movies and TV shows are expensive to make, they get delivered over the most expensive distribution channels available, theaters and broadcast. They want the explosive opening and the buzz that goes with it. But buzz on the Web is rarely the manufactured reality of a large marketing budget. Increasingly it’s the result of a good product and the efforts of lots of people telling others that it’s good. The buzz builds over time, not from seeing billboards on every street corner, but from people actually using the thing and finding value in it.
Taken to its logical conclusion, movies and TV shows that make it to blockbuster status should have already experienced viral Web growth before reaching the most expensive venues, theaters and cable. If the DVD is released at the same time as the movie hits the theater, it still assumes that sufficient demand has been manufactured by throwing millions of dollars at marketing. That may be the case today, but I seriously doubt that this is a sustainable model as audiences continue to fragment and become more nuanced in their tastes. Release windows aren’t going to collapse, they’re going to reverse.
It’s already happening with TV shows like The Office. The TV series does ok, but once the show is made available on iTunes, audiences skyrocket. People don’t stop watching high quality broadcast when given the 2-3 inch micro-resolution version. They preview it in low quality and watch the new stuff in high quality as it is broadcast. The micro-res builds buzz and demand for the standard and high-res current versions. And this is with iTunes, which is about the worst mechanism in the world at producing viral growth.
I believe that the release window of the future will look something like this:
Step 1: A short version of your story/movie/series/farcical aquatic adventure is told in a short 2-10 minute clip. It could be the first 2-10 minutes of a two hour movie; it could be the first episode in a series. It could be the entire show. Whatever it is, it’s produced quickly and cheaply. This clip is uploaded to every major video publishing site available, no DRM, no price tag, no advertisements. It quickly spreads to vertical and horizontal aggregation points who introduce it to people who would probably like it.
Step 2: The video has either grown in popularity or stagnated. If it’s stagnated, it’s fixed and step 1 is repeated or it’s abandoned. If it’s growing in popularity, additional segments are added. Feedback is collected from the audience. Feedback is incorporated into re-releases of existing clips or into new improved clips. Your clips get better. You might even consider licensing under Creative Commons thereby allowing other to build off of your storyline or characters.
Step 3: The videos are really doing well. They’ve been streamed 2 million times in the last 90 days. People are asking for more. They’re embedding them in blogs and fans are emerging. You release a full quality or HD version for download or for delivery via DVD/Blu-Ray. You begin to talk to traditional mass-media distributors.
Step 4: DVD sales are starting to pick up, you’ve released the last episode in the first series or you’ve cut the last scene of your two hour movie. All clips are still available to stream for free online anywhere. The clips have been embedded it thousands of Websites and blogs. Netflix agrees to carry your DVD. Several “download and burn to DVD services” carry your title as well.
Step 5: Growth continues to accelerate. You negotiate a deal with a major studio. They agree to reproduce the movie/series with a larger budget, or it’s left as is. They tell you to take down all of the video clips from everywhere on the Web and to stop selling the DVD. You remind them that this is impossible (and idiotic). They try to do it anyway over your protests and piss off hundreds of fans before admitting their mistake. A version of your movie/series is made available via broadcast cable/satellite, PPV, and theater simultaneously (or in some sort of staggered release if the major distributors still haven’t quite worked things out). Even though people can watch the thing in low quality on the Web or mid quality on DVD… THEY GO BUY TICKETS ANYWAY!
Step 6: You celebrate by starting all over again, but everything happens much faster this time.
This may not be exact, but it should be closer to reality than the current “spend and pray” system employed by most studios today. These guys may be slow to change, but they also like to make money while reducing risk. That’s why the blockbusters of the future will be born on the Web, not in the theater.