What Do David Bowie and Movie/TV Distributors Have In Common?

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” — David Bowie

It’s a powerful statement…perhaps cliche, but truthful in its clear message. Those who can divine what is coming have a powerful advantage over those who are only reactionary. From Bowie’s point of view, the future was something that one could hear, if you had the ear for it. (I think we all can acknowledge that he had the ear, without question.)

While many of those who knew and appreciated David Bowie’s work, myself included, were saddened by his passing last week, the event put an exclamation point at the end of a career marked by variety, creativity and longevity. Singer, actor, artist…dare I say futurist…his was a unique style and sensibility will surely be missed.

But how does David Bowie apply to movie and TV distributors?

I’ll answer with an anecdote. Recently, in my business development role here at Giant Interactive, I reached out to a previous client regarding their plans for Blu-ray. This particular company had completed a group of six titles a few years back and I thought there was potential for additional projects from new acquisitions.

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The response I received was short and to the point, and, again, truthful in its clear message. “It looks like Blu-ray is not in the future for out company. We are focusing on VOD…”

While disappointing to me, it’s a strategic choice which actually makes sense for this mid-level distributor which focuses on the faith-friendly market segment, an astute reading of the market and the direction the home entertainment industry seems to be headed. Somebody (or perhaps sombodies) in management could hear that disc-based entertainment would not be a source of future growth, and had consciously chosen to devote their strategic resources where growth (and revenue) could be expected.

The data coming from home entertainment industry groups certainly supports that view.

There’s certainly no denying physical media sales are declining in the U.S. Sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs fell 12% in 2015 to $6.1 billion, according to the Digital Entertainment Group after an 11% drop in 2014. Meanwhile, digital revenues rose 18% in 2015. (Fortune)

Also posting double-digit gains was electronic sellthrough, which according to DEG generated $1.9 billion in consumer spending, up 18.1% from the $1.6 billion DEG estimates it generated in 2014. Studios are pushing the sale of digital downloads due to their high margins… (Home Media Magazine)

Physical media seems to be faltering, while digital and streaming media is on the rise.

Yet last week also brought a flurry of annoucements about UHD Blu-ray and upcoming title releases from companies such as Warner Bros., Lionsgate, Sony and Fox. Even Shout! Factory said they’d be issuing IMAX titles on UHD.

Thus, curious and attentive readers might ask…aren’t studio leaders HEARING the same future that that mid-sized distributor?

Yes, they are. To extend the metaphor, the future is an orchestra, not just a single tone like that of an approaching locomotive.

The criticial difference is that studios inhabit different segments of the market than that mid-sized distributor. The former entities are in the business of blockbuster tentpole pictures, collector’s editions and big screen epics where high quality video and sound are de rigueur to their collector and cinephile customers. Consider the list of announced upcoming releases: Kingsman: The Secret Service, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Life of Pi, Fantastic Four, Mad Max: Fury Road, American Sniper, and The Lego Movie. Each of these are intended to be a feast for both the eyes and the ears. The latter operates in the family-entertainment segment, specializing in movies within a specific category of topic and theme, films which appeal to the heart and the head. The former, by necessity, aim for the very best experience, with “blow your socks off” picture and sound; the latter do just fine within “good enough”, wherein the picture is viewable and the sound is clear.

Let’s get specific: Star Wars: The Force Awakens will definitely see a top notch, UHD Blu-ray collector’s edition release with best-in-class sound and picture possibly as soon as Q4’16. Sure, there’ll be standard Blu-ray, DVD and even digital releases (to cover all the market bases), but the future of this type of film IS on disc, with consistent, high-quality delivery which can’t be delivered through heavily compressed streaming technologies.

But not every movie or audience desire or value the additional quality, with the associated expense. A well-received movie like , say, A Walk To Remember (starring Mandy Moore, 2002), wouldn’t be getting the UHD treatment were it released today. The likely home entertainment audience just don’t (generally) find the additional quality worth the expense. This market segment values access over quality. Good enough is good enough. It’s the story and message that are important.

Photo Credit: Fortune.com

Photo Credit: Fortune.com

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” For studio home entertainment leaders, they can hear the opportunity and revenue potential in high-quality, disc-based entertainment…thus their future includes physical media. For this archtypical mid-sized distributor’s management, they can hear the opportunity in near-frictionless access to living rooms (and mobile devices) everywhere, delivering and monetizing their niche entertainment via digital means.

Each can own their tomorrow, successfully pursuing their different agendas and different audiences via different means.

Perhaps David Bowie’s essential point in this now well-known quote is this: HEARING tomorrow allows us to prepare for it, according to our own strengths, needs, abilities and strategies. Hearing allows us to prepare to take action and to be at the right place at the right time. Essential for hearing tomorrow is listening for it, and being open to what you discover. Studios are doing so, within their mission; that mid-sized distributor is also doing it, within their focused mandate.

Bowie certainly did it in his remaining days, owning the conclusion of his career and creating an album which, by all accounts, turned his very death into a work of art. In doing so, he owned tomorrow, becoming legend.