Saturday, December 24, 2011

Do copyright extensions drive innovation? -- Hollywood blockbuster edition

After all this time on patents, I thought we'd give copyrights a turn.

One of the standard arguments for stronger intellectual property laws is that they encourage innovation. Now let's think about how this is supposed to work. Stronger protection for intellectual property makes those properties more valuable. Greater value causes the market to generate more and better properties, particularly those specific properties that best capitalize on the new profit potential.

In the case of copyright protection, the properties that make the best use of these extensions are franchisable stories and characters. I'm specifically using franchise in the sense of selling the right to use a business model. Just as McDonald's can sell one person the right to run a restaurant in one neighborhood and then sell a different person the right to run one in a different neighborhood, the company that owns the rights to, say, Batman can allow one creative team to produce a series of properties based on the character, then turn around a few years later and allow another team a shot.

This interchangeability of talent is essential given the lengths of time we're talking about here. For most of the Twentieth Century, copyright protection was effectively capped at fifty-six years, but major extensions were passed in 1976 and 1998 which extended protection of corporate works up to ninety-five years and left the possibility open of essentially unlimited future extensions.

In order to reach their full potential, franchises have to repeatedly replace all of their creative personnel. Bond and Batman are arguably the good examples, both having gone through numerous incarnations with completely different creative teams, but there's an important difference in the business model. Bond was an ongoing series with considerable continuity both in front of and behind the camera; Batman pattern since the Sixties has been successful run, fallow period, relaunch with new team. The second model, with its long cycles, takes better advantage of the long copyrights.

We would expect 1976 and 1998 to produce major upticks in the creation of properties that could support Batman style franchises because at those points the profit potential of that type of property greatly increased. We would also expect newer properties generally to be less valuable than older properties both because of freshness and because of changing tastes.

That means by now if we look at films that are either part of a franchise or an attempt to launch or relaunch one, we should expect to see a very large share from the past decade (both because of the 1998 Act and because of recency) then a decent showing from the the Eighties and Nineties and little if anything from before the mid-seventies. With that in mind, let's look at the medium to large budget franchisable movies from 2011 and their creation decade:

The Adventures of Tintin -- Twenties

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked -- Fifties

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 -- 00s

Captain America: The First Avenger -- Forties

Conan the Barbarian -- Thirties

Cowboys & Aliens -- 00s

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules -- 00s

The Green Hornet -- Thirties

Green Lantern -- Sixties*

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 -- Nineties

I Am Number Four -- 00s

Mission Impossible -- Sixties

The Muppets -- Fifties

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- Sixties (part of Disney's movies based on rides series)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- Sixties

Sherlock Holmes -- Nineteenth Century

The Smurfs -- Fifties

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World -- 00s

Thor -- Sixties

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen -- Eighties

X-Men: First Class -- Sixties

You can quibble with some of my calls here. I quibbled with myself quite a bit, going back and forth on the Adjustment Bureau (old), Cars (new), Puss-in-boots (old) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid among others, but no matter what standards you use, it's almost impossible to see anything in the data that supports the idea that these extremely long copyrights have increased the production of highly marketable properties.

At best you could argue that the extensions might have had a positive effect but it was small enough to be swamped by other technological, economic and demographic factors. At worst, you could make the case that copyright laws were approximately optimal in the middle of the Twentieth Century and that the extensions have actually inhibited innovation.

Like patents, copyrights are necessary, but highly intrusive regulations. Taken to an extreme, they distort markets, divert resources from creators to legal departments, encourage consolidation and set up onerous barriers to entry for small companies and start-ups.

For another layer of irony here, take a look at how Disney approached intellectual property in its early days.

* Technically very late Fifties (or even Forties if you count earlier character with the same name)

Also posted at Observational Epidemiology.

The most disturbing Christmas episode ever

The Untouchables season 4 -- "The Night They Shot Santa Claus"

It's actually worse than it sounds -- they shot him in front of a window of an orphanage.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

As I've said before, directors are the most over- and under-rated people in Hollywood

Largely because most critics have no idea what directors do. As a result, they routinely give directors credit for the work of writers and producers while ignoring the actual direction. I recently came across a perfect example from the New York Times in a review of Cops and Robbers.

Determining who did what in a film can be a challenge, but when a film has one screenwriter, particularly a screenwriter adapting his own novel, the picture's quite a bit clearer. In this case, we have other thematically and stylistically similar works by the author.

Even by 1972, Cops and Robbers was clearly a Westlake story, but when Roger Greenspun reviewed the film, he wrote at length about things found in the script and about the casting and yet the only name he mentioned was the director Aram Avakian (who was involved in neither the writing nor the production).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Svengoolie is the classiest show ever to prominently feature rubber chickens*

I've been on a Weigel kick recently so I should probably take a moment and say a few words about the Man in the Hat. Last night Svengoolie aired the seldom seen 1931 Dracula. It was lovingly presented with the commercial breaks placed at varying intervals that followed the breaks in the story. There was also a split-screen comparison of Browning/Lugosi's version with the Spanish language one filmed simultaneously on the same sets.

Svengoolie has a long history with Drac in particular and with the classic Universal horror films in general. Here's Wikipedia's account:
In August 2006 it was announced that WCIU obtained broadcast rights to the classic Universal Monsters films of the 1930s and 1940s. These films had been requested since Svengoolie aired in the 1980s. By December 2006, the show had featured four of the Abbott and Costello "Meet" series, with the Universal Studio Monsters, and several Hammer Film Productions, which had been distributed by Universal-International. On May 5, 2007, Svengoolie presented a one-time-only show featuring Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931), which he claimed to be the first time the movie has been shown on local television in over a decade.
Having been following the larger story for a while now, this strikes me as an extraordinarily representative Weigel moment. The company has an exceptional commitment to getting things just right (like debuting Sven on MeTV with the Bride of Frankenstein), even when the majority of the audience wouldn't notice if they settled for pretty close.

* Yes, I do make it a point to often split my infinitives.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Free TV blogging -- Why Weigel Broadcasting may be the best business story that no one's covering -- part I

[I should start with the disclaimer that all of the information I have about Weigel comes from two sources: Wikipedia and way too many hours of watching television. It's entirely possible that a competent journalist could discover that the truth here is something entirely different, but if competent journalists were paying attention I wouldn't be writing these posts.]

Though the improvement in picture and sound got most of the attention, another aspect of the transition to terrestrial digital was arguably more important, particularly for broadcasters: under the new technology, each station could broadcast multiple subchannels. The situation was analogous to the TV landscape thirty years earlier when cable and satellite stations were exploding on the scene. It's not surprising that someone would try to create the broadcast equivalent of superstations like TBS. What is surprising is who was able to get a channel up and running before any of the competitors were out of the gate.

The name of the channel was ThisTV. It was produced by a regional broadcasting called Weigel, best known for operating the last independent station in Chicago and being the home of the cult favorite Svengoolie -- last of old time horror hosts. Weigel had a content deal with MGM which was not nearly as impressive as it sounds -- Turner had bought out the classic MGM library years earlier -- but MGM still had a lot of films including the catalog of American International, the studio responsible for virtually every drive in movie you can think of from the late Fifties through the early Seventies.

Access to all those AIP films probably had a lot to do with the unique ThisTV brand. Here's how I summed it up earlier:
Weigel are the people behind ThisTV and the exceptionally good retro station MeTV (more on that later). ThisTV is basically a poor man's TCM. It can't compete with Turner's movie channel in terms of library and budget -- no one can (if my cable company hadn't bumped TCM to a more expensive tier I never would have dropped the service), but it manages to do a lot with limited resources using imagination and personality. As a movie channel, it consistently beats the hell out of AMC.

ThisTV has caught on to the fact that the most interesting films are often on the far ends of the spectrum and has responded with a wonderful mixture of art house and grind house. Among the former, you can see films like Persona, the Music Lovers and Paths of Glory. Among the latter you'll find American International quickies and action pictures with titles like Pray for Death. You can even find films that fit into both categories like Corman's Poe films or Milius' Dillinger.

If I ran a TV station, I would definitely combine Bergman and ninjas. I would not, however, run Mario Bava's feature length pulp magazine cover, Planet of the Vampires from twelve till two. Some of us have to get up in the morning.

This mix was in place from the very beginning. The station officially debuted on November 1, 2008 with Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It but many stations started carrying it a day earlier to take advantage of a day of cheesy Halloween horror films. It was a formula that made a virtue out of cheapness (rarely seen auteur films and drive-in movies both have the advantage of not costing much) and it produced a format that's been running smoothly with remarkably few adjustments for almost three years.

For a small player to identify a new market, develop a concept, negotiate the necessary deals with a content provider (MGM), line up affiliates, make the countless other arrangements that accompany a major launch and to be up and running with a quality product when the support technology first comes online is an impressive accomplishment. But it gets better.

So far we have a solid business story -- small yet nimble company with some good ideas beats big, well-established competitors into a new market. Not exactly the most original piece of journalism but certainly good enough for the front page of the business section. However the story doesn't stop there. Weigel didn't just beat its big and well-financed competitors; it lapped them. Before the next entrant, Tribune/WGN, was able to get its station, AntennaTV on the air, Weigel managed to launch a second channel, the ambitious classic television station, METV. If this weren't enough, AntennaTV is the only one of the three to look slapped together despite having taken far longer to make it to the air (of course, we have no way of knowing how long it took Tribune to see the opportunity and how long it took them to act on it but either way Weigel looks good by comparison).

To put this in context, at least half of this story takes place after the collapse of '08, a downturn that hit advertiser-based businesses particularly hard. Furthermore, the story occurs in an industry that a large number of lobbyists and at least a few pundits were literally trying to kill. There had even been a New York Times op-ed calling for the government to eliminate over the air television and sell off the spectrum.

One of the great memes of the Great Recession has been that uncertainty paralyzes businesses. Even the possibility of a tax increase or some additional regulation -- both extremely mild by historical standards -- are enough to bring the economy to a standstill, but here's a market filled with unknowns under a credible threat of annihilation and we can still find a company like Weigel moving aggressively to establish dominance of it.

That's the other side of uncertainty. It allows companies to substitute boldness and decisiveness for money and market position and take advantage of opportunities that would otherwise be out of their reach.

[also posted at Observational Epidemiology]

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why I keep going on about rabbit ears

I'm starting a string of posts on this so I thought I'd take a few moments and explain why I think over-the-air TV is worth discussing.

1. I genuinely like the product

I get my television through an antenna on the top of my set and I can't think of a purchase I've been happier with. The picture is DVD quality and I get over a hundred channels, some of them very good, all for free.

2. It provides an excellent service for people who could use something nice

It has always sucked to be poor but in recent years we seemed determined to make it suck worse. Over the air digital television bucks that trend. Anyone with an old TV, a second hand converter box and a set of dollar store rabbit ears can have a source of entertainment, news and education (I get ten PBS channels). That may not seem like much to you but to a lot of people in this country, it can be a major improvement in quality of life.

3. There are other people trying to take that service away

Some would like to sell off the part of the spectrum used for television. Economist Richard Thaler even wrote a New York Times op-ed on the subject, explaining how the sale could solve virtually all of society's ill. Think I'm exaggerating?
Here's a list of national domestic priorities, in no particular order: Stimulate the economy, improve health care, offer fast Internet connections to all of our schools, foster development of advanced technology. Oh, and let’s not forget, we’d better do something about the budget deficit.

Now, suppose that there were a way to deal effectively with all of those things at once, without hurting anyone... I know that this sounds like the second coming of voodoo economics, but bear with me. This proposal involves no magical thinking, just good common sense: By simply reallocating the way we use the radio spectrum now devoted to over-the-air television broadcasting, we can create a bonanza for the government, stimulate the economy and advance all of the other goals listed above. Really.
(I'm tempted to go off on multiple tangents here about how these sales of public land of have a way of going badly for the government and the tax payer, or how the VHF part of the spectrum isn't actually that useful for mobile applications, or how oblivious men like Thaler are to what life is like in the bottom decile, but Rajiv Sethi has already written the definitive rebuttal so I'll just leave it with a link and a recommendation to follow it.)

At the risk of sounding paranoid, I very much doubt that this idea simply popped into Thaler's head. We live in an age subsidized discourse. Whenever you read a news story or opinion piece that seems to come from a lobbyist's desk, you can generally assume that it originally did. I'm not saying that Thaler was paid to hold these opinions -- I'm sure he wasn't -- but I'll bet good money that the experts he relied on were, either directly on indirectly.

There is a huge imbalance of money in this conflict. A number of big and deep-pocketed corporations are gunning for OTA broadcasters. Some would like to carve up the spectrum. Other would just like to get rid of the competition.

4. Competition is good

And over-the-air television plays a vital role in maintaining competition in the world of live TV. If access is limited to cable/phone lines and satellite, the business will always be dominated by a handful of very big and powerful companies and since these companies fall in the middle of the supply chain, we have to worry about both monopolistic and monopsonistic effects.

The industry currently runs on the up-sell model: get people in the door with a twenty or thirty dollar a month plan (sometimes helped along with some opaque pricing), then make the package crappy enough to get people to move up to a more expensive tier. OTA television presents a potentially deadly threat to that model because, in most markets, OTA is actually better than cable's basic package. It has more channels, better content and less compression (this may be less applicable to satellite). Cable has been able to ignore this threat up until now because most consumers are unaware of what they can get for free, but if word gets out cable companies will have to start giving customers considerably more value for their money.

5. There's a story here

And it has been woefully under-reported. New technology. New markets. Small but smart players like Weigel Broadcasting coming up with innovative business models and easily lapping major media companies. For me that's way more interesting than reading about Facebook throwing money at some business problem.

(originally posted at Observational Epidemiology)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Paul Krugman needs to watch more TV

From today's Conscience of a Liberal:

Think of it this way: there was a time when you could say that the right had a model of how the economy worked. A silly model, yes, since it depended on implausibly large effects of marginal tax rates on incentives. Still, supply-side economics had a point of sorts.

But can you discern any model in what Malpass wrote, or for that matter in almost anything on the WSJ editorial page? I can’t. All I see is a bunch of prejudices, strung together with some vaguely economistic-sounding phrases, something like someone talking gibberish that sort of sounds like Swedish. In the world according to the WSJ, low taxes are good (unless the people involved are low income lucky duckies), regulation bad, low inflation good, low interest rates bad, strong dollar good — and don’t ask why.

I can't believe a Nobel Prize-winning economist would get this wrong. It's not gibberish; it's double-talk, and this is how it's done:

Co-posted at Observational Epidemiology.

See update here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Free TV blogging -- ThisTV's Art house/Grind House mix

I always thought it would be fun to run a TV station and yet I've noticed that the people who do seldom seem to enjoy themselves. Most channels reek of that sterile kind of marketing you get when business people try to pitch a product they neither enjoy nor understand.

There are exceptions, of course. Ted Turner had a good time and I get the impression that the people at Weigel Broadcasting are having fun as well as they carve out a mini Turner-style empire in the new world of digital broadcast TV.

Weigel are the people behind ThisTV and the exceptionally good retro station MeTV (more on that later). ThisTV is basically a poor man's TCM. It can't compete with Turner's movie channel in terms of library and budget -- no one can (if my cable company hadn't bumped TCM to a more expensive tier I never would have dropped the service), but it manages to do a lot with limited resources using imagination and personality. As a movie channel, it consistently beats the hell out of AMC.

ThisTV has caught on to the fact that the most interesting films are often on the far ends of the spectrum and has responded with a wonderful mixture of art house and grind house. Among the former, you can see films like Persona, the Music Lovers and Paths of Glory. Among the latter you'll find American International quickies and action pictures with titles like Pray for Death. You can even find films that fit into both categories like Corman's Poe films or Milius' Dillinger.

If I ran a TV station, I would definitely combine Bergman and ninjas. I would not, however, run Mario Bava's faeture length pulp magazine cover, Planet of the Vampires from twelve till two. Some of us have to get up in the morning.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Great moments in marketing -- Charlie Sheen edition

About a week ago, while waiting to check out at a local electronics store, I came across these odd pouches in the snack section.

They looked a bit like IV bags but closer examination revealed they were energy shots accompanied with inexplicably bizarre copy.

It was only after consulting Google did I discover that phrases like "Adonis DNA," "truth torpedos" and "rockstar from Mars" were taken from Charlie Sheen rants.

Further research revealed that the product went out on the shelves more than a month ago. Say what you will about American ingenuity, I'd like to see another country go from embarrassing public spectacle to worthless consumer product this quickly.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The asshole plot

You may be familiar with James Blish's idiot plot, generally defined as a plot that is only possible if the protagonist is an idiot (in some variants, the whole cast has to consist of idiots).

I'd like to add an even more common genre, the asshole plot. In these stories, most or all of the conflict comes from a major character who makes things difficult for the protagonist by being an asshole for no apparent reason other than to make things easy for the writer.

Television, with its constant need for story arcs, is rife with asshole plots. Recent examples include Jayne Atkinson's Erin Strauss on Criminal Minds whose campaign to remove Thomas Gibson's character never made any any sense in the context of the story, or Chi McBride's Edward Vogler on House.

But the best example I've seen in a long time comes from CBS's soon to be late Chaos. In the episode "Song of the North," a congressman, played by Currie Graham holds a press conference revealing a secret mission in North Korea. He knows that this information is top secret. He knows that making it public will endanger American lives. He should know he's risking his political career if something does go wrong. The only reason for him to screw up the mission was that the writer couldn't think of anything else.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Kael on Welles

I was at a party once where conversation turned to Pauline Kael. A guest commented that he didn't know much about Kael except that she "didn't care much for Orson Welles."

The idea that Kael had it in for Welles has been a useful weapon in certain film history debates but it doesn't hold up that when you read what she actually wrote about the man. Here's a representative quote I came across recently:
I mean men like Griffith and von Stroheim and Abel Gance and Eisenstein and Fritz Lang and Orson Welles who thought big, men whose prodigious failures could make other people's successes look puny.
From the review of the Bible, collected in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.