August 23, 2017

Inside the Movie Business: The Upside of Disruption

L to R producer Warrington Hudlin (co-chair; Museum of the Moving
Image), Dan Ochiva, Shari E. Redstone, Jason E. Squire, Harold L.
Vogel, Michael Barker (Museum co-chair.)

Associate Professor of Practice Jason E. Squire’s scholarly work was honored at The Museum of the Moving Image in New York with a panel discussion based on The Movie Business Book Fourth Edition, “Inside the Movie Business: The Upside of Disruption.”

Sony Pictures Classics Co-President and Museum Co-Chair Michael Barker introduced Jason: “Columbia University graduate school of film wanted me to teach their course on the business of film, with one condition: you have to use Jason Squire’s book as the textbook. I know of no other publication in the world that serves that purpose. It means a lot to practitioners in the business to actually have a guide like that, so we thank you.”

Panelists were Shari E. Redstone, president of National Amusements, parent company of Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp., and vice-chair of both boards; Jamie Wilkinson, co-founder and general manager of Vimeo-VHX, a pioneering platform in online self-distribution, allowing content creators to be their own distributor; Harold L. Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management and author of essential book Entertainment Industry Economics; and Dan Ochiva, founder and president of NYC Production and Post News, with Jason moderating.

Asked about one current business challenge, Shari Redstone said, “I was thinking, do I answer that as National Amusements, in the motion picture exhibition business, as Viacom, as CBS, as Advancit Capital, where we invest in early-stage companies in media and entertainment? I have one answer for all those companies: The biggest thing now is changes in consumer behavior. It used to be that we would dictate content to consumers. Now, they choose what to watch, on what platform, how to engage with that content and there’s something different every day. That’s what we struggle with, trying to be ahead of the curve and understand not where consumers are today, but where they will be tomorrow, and how to run our businesses accordingly.”

In response, Jamie Wilkinson observed, “As an internet company, we think about all the same problems. From our angle, which is catering more to small media businesses and independent creators, we think about how we can support and grow their careers and businesses. What is storytelling on a smartphone? When you don’t experience it with other people?

Hal Vogel commented, “Through the lens of an analyst and economist, the cost of capital is very important for this industry, whether it’s for television, internet or movie production. Cost of capital is at a low point and going to go up. As they say in financial markets, ’the risk will be re-priced.’”

Then Jason framed, “What is the upside of disruption? It shakes people up; allows newcomers to enter the arena, providing new, wider competition (always a good thing); more choices for customers on one side and creators on the other. Customers are in charge, as Shari said, creating their own networks, discovering platforms, defining their own entertainment choices. It also leads to new business models. For example, online self-distribution wasn’t around ten years ago. And finally, in general, leveling the playing field.”

Panel reactions included Jamie. “I would be unemployed if it weren’t for it [these disruptions].”

Shari agreed. “I’m with you, I wouldn’t have a job either if there weren’t distuption. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s still about great content. Disruption, or let’s call it innovation, forces you to re-think who you are and who you want to be, and from a consumer perspective, it only keeps getting better. Disruption is exciting and if we don’t embrace it, understanding the scary pieces of it, none of us is going to succeed and survive.”

Jason asked Jamie about being a pioneer in the new business model, online self-distribution, where the creator becomes the distributor. “We’ve been talking about potential inversion of the ‘content is king’ model. The way markets are moving, we are looking at the centralization of platforms. Facebook, Netflix and Vimeo (to a smaller extent) do become arbiters in a way that is more reminiscent of the old studio model, than of what the web promised. People know how to play into the old system, with getting into the right festivals, the right agent, whatever. The new model less clear. Everyone is still figuring it out, but it’s veering back toward a centralization that is disconcerting.”

Shari responded “I’m not sure why you have the inversion of ‘content is king.’ Given that we are in the Sumner Redstone auditorium and my dad coined the phrase, I’m not going to be able to let that go, even though I totally respect your opinion,” to laughter from the audience. “You do end up with the same issues. Discovery might change, but it is still about content. Content has never been more valuable than it is today. Consumers will find everything they want, on different platforms. Great content is still what it’s going to be about. So thank you, Dad, for teaching me that this is something I should always pay attention to. Content is still king….” to a burst of applause from the audience.

Regarding creating content, Dan Ochiva noted, “In my area of journalism, journalists function almost like DJs, with different styles that attract different readers.”  

Shari added, "Speaking of Viacom, we are taking a look at creating new content, looking at our brands. We’re launching, and are already creating content for, a digital online studio. We see across the board, from Advancit, CBS, and Viacom, that people don’t want to be passive consumers of content anymore. They want a more interactive and engaging experience. That’s something Viacom is very focused on. We’re just getting started and there’s a lot to do. But we’re really focused on building that loyalty and connection. Consumers are fickle and, at the same time, loyal to something they feel passionately about, and we think about that all the time in the creation of our content.”

Questions from the audience were met with encouragement from panelists.

Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker introducing
panel moderator Jason E. Squire


Jason observed, “Platforms like Amazon, Hulu, Facebook, that have never been in the entertainment industry, are jumping in full tilt to finance their own product in order to compete. This is a reflection of a healthy environment. They are taking great risks and, judging from awards and revenue, they are succeeding. The entertainment environment is a healthy one if it can withstand these newcomers.”

When asked about mistakes, Jamie recalled, "At Vimeo around 2008-9 they launched one of the first HD video sites and the heaviest users were people doing video game videos. Vimeo was a home for film and creativity, and ‘what on earth are these video game videos?’ So they banned all the video game videos, single-handedly creating Twitch, a multi-billion dollar company in e-sports, a multi-billion dollar industry. Vimeo missed the boat because they made judgments about other people’s product.”

Shari added, “About failure, you get up and go on. You learn from it and say, there’s another deal, another opportunity, we’re going to approach it differently, and on a more macro level, that’s what you learn. You go back and say, what would I do differently?”

Panelists Dan Ochiva, Shari E. Redstone, Jason E. Squire, Jamie
Wilkinson, Harold L Vogel


About starting careers, Dan noted, “I was lucky to put myself into computers early, and watched the analog and digital worlds coming together. As a journalist, I went behind the scenes of companies making this gear. People out there are willing to share what they know. It might be a friend, someone at a conference, or calling someone and asking about a product or process.”

When asked if New York writers should move to Los Angeles, Jason said, “The good news is that writing can be done anywhere. Writers gravitate to Southern California because many buyers are there. There is a business structure density, competition and cameraderie among agents, buyers, managers. The rest is alchemy, lucky, ability. To refresh tonight’s theme: if you’re a writer, create content with friends and put it up on the web, where people will either spend the time or not, but you’re already producing content, which you could not have done so easily ten or 15 years ago.”

Jamie added his advice: “Keep making stuff. Stories that get a lot of attention are where the first thing just hits and it’s amazing, but the data shows that long and consistent output results in success. The exception is the first thing that hits.”

Shari: “Don’t focus on the market, focus on your story.”

Jamie: “The magic of the internet is dialogue between you and the audience. People tell you what they liked and didn’t like, and you continue adapting. It favors volume and “short and sweet.” That will give you the most feedback to test ideas. There’s always temptation to create the great, perfect thing. Instead, start with something small and manageable.”

Shari: “We invest in a lot of companies, and one issue early on is, how are you going to scale? Who are the bloggers, social media and partnerships to promote viability? Those are three things we look at a lot.”

The evening ended with a book-signing with panelists in the Museum’s store.