Sunday, May 26, 2013

If you want to make movies, start small

The movie business is going through a dramatic transition: The major movie studios are focusing on expensive action- and special effects-based productions that they can sell worldwide, and are giving short shrift to the kinds of smaller, more plot- and character-driven movies that independent filmmakers do best. On the other hand, the tools necessary for professional filmmaking are less expensive and more available than ever. Thus, the paradox: It's easier than ever to produce an independent film, but it's as hard or harder than it's ever been to get it distributed.

That hasn't stopped people from trying; one estimate is that as many as 5,000 independently-produced films are available for U.S. distribution each year. However, only a tiny fraction ever get any theatrical distribution. In 2012, the Motion Picture Association of America reported (based on Rentrak figures) that 677 movies opened in at least one theater, of which 128 were distributed and/or produced by one of the major studios. Some of the remaining movies were distributed to the home video market via DVD, Blu-Ray or streaming video--but there's not much demand for full-length movies that never got theatrical distribution.

Many, if not most, people who produce independent films do so in order to get the attention of a movie distributor. They neither plan to nor have the resources to distribute the film themselves. However, if they can't get theatrical distribution, there's very little chance of ever recouping even a fraction of the money they spent on production and post-production.

If you're thinking of producing your own movie, you should consider producing a short film rather than a full-length feature. Here's why:
  • It costs much less to produce a short film that it does to produce a feature-length one, so you can spend less time raising money and more time producing your film.
  • From inception of the project to completion, it can take as long as three years to produce a feature-length movie. On the other hand, you can produce a short film in a few months.
  • A short film requires the same elements as a feature film: Writing, acting, directing, producing, cinematography, editing, special effects, etc. It demonstrates talent just as well as a full-length movie.
  • It's much easier to self-distribute a short film; you can post it on YouTube or Vimeo, make it available to film festivals, license it to be included in short film collections, etc.
A short film is much easier to finance, produce and distribute than a full-length movie--and it's far more likely to be seen. 
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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thoughts on Microsoft's new Xbox One

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled its new Xbox One game console to an assembly of press, analysts and Microsoft employees on its Redmond, WA campus. The Xbox One has faster processors and more memory than the Xbox 360. A new version of its Kinect 3D digitizer with a 1080p camera is included as standard equipment. The Xbox Controller has also been redesigned, although the changes are mainly cosmetic. In addition, the Xbox One has an HDMI input, so that selected cable, satellite and IPTV set-top boxes can be connected to and controlled by the Xbox One.

Microsoft spent the first half of the presentation focusing on the Xbox One's TV-related features. For example, the Xbox One will have a built-in Electronic Program Guide (EPG) that supports many video operators. Users will be able to change channels and look for shows to watch by voice. In addition, the Xbox One will enable navigation via Kinect gestures.

The second half of the presentation was devoted to games. Only a handful of game publishers were represented on stage, and none of them showed actual game play; instead, they showed trailers. To my eyes, the most impressive trailer was for Forza Motorsport 5, which is the only game title that's been confirmed to be released day-and-date with the Xbox One. It looked great, with visual elements such as metallic paint and realistic depth-of-field rendering that would have been possible only in pre-rendered cutscenes not long ago. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with the demos from the other game publishers. Electronic Arts, for example, appears to be using the Xbox One's additional horsepower to add more intelligence to the game play in its sports titles rather than for improving how its games look.

Microsoft is apparently concerned about the future of the Xbox given the falloff in sales of console games and the rise of casual games on smartphones and tablets. As a result, it's trying to position the Xbox One as both a set-top box (one that can both connect directly to content over the Internet and indirectly through cable, satellite and IPTV set-top boxes) and a high-performance game console. The problem is that those are two very different markets, with different use cases and consumer expectations. For example, Google TV provides most of the same non-game functionality as the Xbox One, albeit without voice recognition or gesture control. On the other hand, you can buy a Google TV-based set-top box from Vizio for $99, while I expect the Xbox One to be priced around $399. You can also buy an Apple TV or Roku set-top box for $99 or less. I simply don't see very many people buying the Xbox One for its set-top box features, since they can get most of its functionality from less expensive competitors. That means that most of the Xbox One's buyers will be hard-core or moderate gamers, which won't expand the potential market for the device at all.

I suspect that Microsoft's corporate leadership has fallen victim to Shimmer Syndrome (named after the combination floor wax and dessert topping in the famous Saturday Night Live commercial parody.) As with Windows 8, which works both on tablets and on conventional PCs but is compromised on both platforms, it's trying to make the Xbox One work both as a set-top box and game console. The compromise on the set-top box side is clearly price; we don't yet know what the compromise is on the game side, but it may be lack of attention that opens the door for Sony to offer a superior developer and gaming experience.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Does a Microsoft purchase of Nook Media make sense, and to whom?

Earlier this week, TechCrunch reported that it received private documents describing a $1 billion offer made by Microsoft to acquire Barnes & Noble's digital businesses from its Nook Media business unit, in which Microsoft invested $300 million last year. Nook Media also includes Barnes & Noble's college bookstore unit, which Microsoft doesn't want and would most likely be reintegrated with B&N's retail business.

Here's what Microsoft would be acquiring:
  • Barnes & Noble's eBook business, including its publisher contracts, self-publishing business, eCommerce websites, online order fulfillment infrastructure and customer lists.
  • The Nook hardware line (both eReaders and tablets,) and Barnes & Noble's hardware design operation in Silicon Valley.
  • B&N's other digital product lines (apps, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and video.)
The deal, if it goes through, would make Microsoft the second largest reseller of eBooks in the U.S., ahead of everyone other than Amazon. It would save Microsoft the time needed to build its own relationships with publishers and eBook distribution infrastructure. However, the other things it would buy might not be all that valuable:
  • Barnes & Noble's tablet business, which was once a viable competitor for Apple and Amazon, has been declining since last year's Holiday sales season. B&N has been running a series of promotions to try to sell off its inventory of Nook HD and HD+ tablets.
  • The document received by TechCrunch states that Barnes & Noble intends to shut down its tablet business by the end of its 2014 fiscal year. That's a huge "red flag" to B&N's Silicon Valley-based hardware and software engineers, who'll have no trouble finding jobs with other companies. By the time a Microsoft acquisition closes, most of Barnes & Noble's top engineers are likely to be gone.
  • The existing Nook tablet line is of no interest to Microsoft, and in fact will represent a customer support liability.
  • Microsoft already has its own app stores for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. It has no interest in maintaining the Nook's Android-based app store.
  • Microsoft already sells videos and music through its Xbox Marketplace; it doesn't need Barnes & Noble's content.
That's what Microsoft gets for its one billion dollars, but what does the deal mean for Barnes & Noble? A billion dollars could fund a more serious reorganization of Barnes & Noble's retail business. The company is planning to reduce its store count largely by allowing leases for less-profitable locations to expire. Microsoft's money could enable Barnes & Noble's management to buy out leases and reduce its total number of stores much more quickly. It could also be used to redesign the stores in order to make them more profitable--but there's no evidence to date that Barnes & Noble knows how to turn its stores around.

Selling its eBook business to Microsoft also leaves Barnes & Noble with a big problem. eBooks represent as much as 30% of the sales of the Big 6 publishers; for some genres, such as romance, eBooks comprise 50% of sales. B&N's eBook sales are profitable and growing. So, Barnes & Noble needs to continue to offer eBooks to its customers. It could do so by referring its customers to Microsoft's eBookstore and getting a commission. However, Barnes & Noble would no longer be able to use its eBook sales to negotiate steeper discounts from publishers, since Microsoft would actually be the reseller for those publishers.

So, is Barnes & Noble's eBook business really worth a billion dollars (71% of the company's market capitalization as of this writing) to Microsoft? Is that billion dollars worth it to B&N if it means getting out of the only segment of the book business that's continuing to grow in both revenue dollars and units? In the long run, will selling its eBook business save Barnes & Noble's retail bookstores, or will it only buy the company a little more time?
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Monday, May 06, 2013

Adobe drops software sales in favor of subscriptions

Earlier today, Adobe announced a major change in strategic direction. Its Creative Suites, which bundle software such as Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Premiere Pro and After Effects into multiple packages for applications such as video post-production and web design, will be discontinued as of June, when the company introduces the next version of its Creative Cloud service. CS6, the current version of Adobe's Creative Suite, will remain on the market in both physical and downloadable versions, but will not be updated. In addition, individual applications will only be available in physical and downloadable versions in their CS6 form. As of June, the only way to get the latest version of Adobe's software will be to subscribe to either the complete Creative Cloud or to individual applications.

As with the current version of Creative Cloud, the new version will be priced at $49.99/month, and individual applications will be priced at $19.99/month. Existing Adobe customers who own either a complete copy of Creative Suite 3 or greater, or one of the applications in Creative Suite 3 or greater, can take advantage of three different pricing models:
  • They can license individual applications for $9.99/month.
  • If they own CS6, they can license the complete Creative Cloud collection for $19.99/month.
  • If they own CS3, CS4, CS5 or CS5.5, they can license the complete Creative Cloud collection for $29.99/month.
After the first year, the price of individual applications will increase to $19.99/month, and the price of Creative Cloud will increase to $49.99/month.

Customers who use most of Adobe's applications, such as those in the former Production and Master Creative Suite collections, will end up saving money with Creative Cloud versus buying annual updates. On the other hand, customers who use fewer applications, such as those in the Design and Web Creative Suite collections, and customers who've typically skipped versions of Creative Suite in the past, will end up paying more on an annual basis for Creative Cloud subscriptions.

As it stands today, Creative Cloud is a good deal for many Adobe customers, but what we don't know are Adobe's future pricing plans. What's $49.99/month this year could be considerably more in a few years. My sense is that there's going to be a lot of resistance to the end of Adobe's Creative Suites and individual purchase options, and a fair number of creative professionals will begin evaluating open source and lower-cost replacements for Adobe's software.
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