What Streaming Services Can Do To Up Their Game

As streaming services seize the day, their shortcomings become clear.

There are any number of streaming services – though notably not the big three or four – offering extended free trials or other incentives right now, hoping to capture the attention of people who are locked at home at the moment. Those audiences aren’t going to the theater anytime soon, so may as well try to hook them.

Most all of these services will make much the same pitch they’ve been making for a while now, one that’s based around their own selection of content, especially whatever originals and exclusives they’ve managed to produce or acquire. They will hope people find the balance of content and price point attractive enough to continue on for a while, occupying the rotating fourth “Other” position alongside mainstays including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+.

Most of the streamers feature roughly the same functionality, including search and various forms of recommendations, often based on a combination of what you’ve watched previously and what the company is working to promote at the moment. They also have at least a handful of shortcomings in common.

First, Lack of Context

A big, consistent problem with streaming offerings is that the content available is almost always presented as a one-off. Here’s Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by a handful of random 80s films and then Temple of Doom. That they are part of a series or have any other connective material is completely missing from the presentation.

In other words, there’s no context.

When I look up a particular Coen Brothers film what I’m presented isn’t whatever portion of their filmography is available but a selection of what the algorithm feels is “similar” to what I’m looking for. And when I finish watching one, I’m more likely to get a recommendation for whatever the corporate priority is at that time, not another movie from the same filmmakers or with the same stars.

Part of this is due to the ever-changing nature of the lineup on these services. The Bond movies bounce around from one to the other every few months, as does the Star Trek franchise. Why bother building a hub for these films when they’re just going to be gone soon?

Disney+ does the best job of solving this problem, mostly because they have such strong brands. All the Star Wars, Pixar etc material is helpfully grouped, and watching one leads to a logical and contextual suggestion for what to watch next.

As additional media companies repatriate their content under their own banner, it will be interesting to see how they handle this issue. But Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others that still rely to a great extent on licensed material could do much better with the original content they *do* own.

Second, Lack of Peer Recommendations

Given how big a role recommendations play in the business model of most every streaming service, you’d think that they’d approach the issue from all angles. Instead they’ve focused almost exclusively on their own systems, completely missing out on the word of mouth that many other businesses of all types rely on.

To be clear, the specific problem is on-platform recommendations, which even filmmakers acknowledge is lacking. Off-site recommendations, especially those happening on social media, are still a thing but there’s no peer voice coming at you at the moment you’re in the app or on the site, just when you’re elsewhere.

This is part of a bigger problem, which is a lack of social features on many of these sites, but while I don’t necessarily need to see everything my friends are watching on Hulu, I would sometimes like to see what they’ve been watching. More accurately, I’d like to know if something I’m *considering* watching is something they would recommend. Make it a toggle switch, maybe, a feature to turn on and off when I want that extra level of insight.

Third, A Feed

Good Lord it can be maddening trying to navigate some of these sites looking for the most recent additions to the catalog. Some have sections called “New Releases” but those looking shockingly similar to what’s displayed in the “Featured” section more often than not.

It’s become common to see news stories toward the end of the month with lists of what’s coming to Amazon, Netflix and more in the next month, but actually adding them to your list is cumbersome. You need to go to the app *after* that date and either search for it or hope that it happens to appear on the front page.

There are a few options on how to get around this. First would be to just offer a straight RSS-type feed of new releases, both as a firehose and by category/genre. No, it doesn’t actually have to be RSS-based (though making one available would be great) but could be a Twitter-type page of updates showing what’s new.

On Spotify this would be even easier, and the foundation for it is already baked in. Spotify lets you “follow” artists and bands, yet there’s no subsequent section or feed of new additions by those artists and bands.

These are just a few of the areas where significant improvements could be made. As more and more players come on the scene, the existing powerhouses may find they have to up their game and overcome some of these shortcomings, all of which could make them stickier and improve subscriber retention.

The Future Is In Original Content

Here’s the key passage from the news that Netflix was investing 85% of its available funds on original material:

Sarandos reiterated that Netflix’s heavier focus on original and exclusive content is driven by more favorable economics — as opposed to licensing TV shows and films owned by Hollywood studios — and the expectation that big media companies would eventually put more weight into their own streaming-subscription services.

There’s a lot that could be said – and has been, by myself and others – about how the dynamics of the media industry have changed, are changing and will continue to change. Phrases like “media fragmentation” are used often as more and more options for consumers to choose from arrive on all platforms, whether it’s via a home-based or mobile connected device. Two things are clear, though:

#1: Everyone is out for original content

That’s a point that’s been hammered home on many occasions. Netflix is producing or buying more and more original shows and movies. Same goes for Hulu, Amazon and even Apple. These companies are placing the same bets HBO, Showtime, TNT and other cable channels have for years. Each one hopes that even if the shows or movies aren’t award-winning prestige material (though there’s a heavy dose of that as well, exemplified by not only “Game of Thrones” but how Amazon is searching for its own version of that show) they’re good enough to keep people’s attention and convince them to become or remain subscribers. A recent survey ranked which services people thought had the best original content, with Netflix coming out as the clear winner.

That original content, then, supplements the catalog material offered by each channel. As each media company launches or plans for the launch of their own OTT subscription service, they’re often reclaiming their back catalog from whoever they’ve previously licensed it to as soon as those contracts expire. WB pulled “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and other shows off Netflix so it they could be exclusive to Hulu, which it has a stake in. Disney will be letting its Netflix contract lapse as it seeks to build out its upcoming service. There are a number of other examples, though there will likely always be some material that’s licensed out to other players in the game.

It’s important to note that this isn’t just a trend in the entertainment industry. Target, according to a recent report, has brought in a lot of shoppers with its new exclusive brands and other offerings. As “house brand” has become less associated with “generic” and is seen as better able to compete with other products on both quality and prestige, retailers like Target are ramping up those products. When Target, Walmart, Meijer and other big-box retailers all sell the same national toothpaste and dishwasher liquid, they seek to differentiate themselves in other ways. As direct-to-consumer brands, facilitated by online shopping and bespoke boutique physical locations, become more popular, exclusive products become a powerful competitive feature, giving shoppers a clear reason to choose to shop at this store, not that one.

So everyone, then, is adopting some variation on what I’ll call the “HBO Model,” a mix of licensed and original content. That means how we talk about things will matter more and more, which brings me to my second point.

#2: We’re going to need some new terminology

If we accept that Netflix, CBS, Disney, Apple, Amazon, Crackle and others are all playing the same game, we then need to look at how the platform on which they operate determines the terminology with which we refer to them. And since the platform question is increasingly answered by “all of them,” that becomes a tricky task, though one that’s still necessary to address if we’re going to have intelligent discussions.

Consider how HBO Now is only used by about 10% of its U.S. subscribers according to a Bloomberg story from February. That service, though, is available on a number of platforms. The same can be said of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other services. Apple’s iTunes service is really the only one that doesn’t cross platform lines, available exclusively on Apple devices with the exception of PCs.

So is HBO a streaming service in the same way we would apply that label to Netflix? Is Amazon a cable company because of how it offers “channels” to different media companies, allowing consumers to subscribe to those individual outlets? A recent survey indicated customers were much happier with streaming subscription options and content than with their traditional cable subscriptions, so things are coming to a head as the one begins to increasingly look like the other and vice versa.

I don’t know what those new terms and labels are, but they’re going to be needed in the same way we need a new word for “TV” that doesn’t comes with the baggage of being intrinsically tied to distribution technology. If you have thoughts, leave them in the comments or @ me on Twitter.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Brad’s Status – Marketing Recap

Ben Stiller plays Brad Sloan in the new movie from writer/director Mike White, Brad’s Status. Brad leads a comfortable life with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and his son Troy (Austin Abrams). They get along just fine and are happy, but Brad feels somewhat unfulfilled. His mid-life crisis happens just as Troy is about to head to college. Wanting to support his son, Brad joins him on a trip to visit various schools.

Along the way, Brad’s ennui is only amplified by constant reminders of the outsized success enjoyed by some of his own friends from years ago. They’re all power players: Mike (White) in Hollywood, Jason (Luke Wilson) on Wall Street, Billy (Jemaine Clement) in tech and Craig (Michael Sheen) as an author. So Brad has to grapple with his own seemingly-unrealized potential while trying to guide his son through a major life moment.

The Posters

The first poster features Stiller and Abrams, the former looking lovingly at the latter. What’s unique is that they’re divided by an outline of Abrams’ face and body like one of the images where you’re asked if you see a woman’s face or a candlestick. A positive quote from an early review is at the top and at the bottom is the copy “The success you’ve been searching for may be right next to you,” a line that obviously is related to the relationship between these two characters.

The Trailers

As the trailer opens we see Brad intrude on and have an awkward moment with his son Troy before the two head off to visit colleges. Brad is nostalgic for the life he never had, though, thinking about the success of his old friends. That midlife crisis coincides with the fact that he’s sending his son off to the next phase of his own life.

It’s funny and emotional and dammit, I get it. I like Stiller in more dramatic roles, including those where he’s just not asked to go super-crazy so this works for me. It lays out the story pretty well, making it clear it revolves around the relationship between Brad and Troy, promising plenty of uncomfortable moments along the way.

Online and Social

There’s not a whole lot happening on the movie’s official website. It just has the “Trailer,” a brief “Synopsis” and a prompt to buy tickets. There are also links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles, where updates about the release, clips and other information have been shared.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Not aware of any paid advertising that was done, though it’s entirely possible I’ve missed something.

Media and Publicity

Annapurna and Amazon partnered on a distribution deal that was closed and announced at Cannes, with a release date just four months out set at that time. It was later included among other movies screening at the Toronto Film Festival, a screening that resulted in middling buzz.

An interview with Stiller revealed he received the script accidentally but became hooked by the story and made his case for the part, which allowed him to bring the anxiety he’s sometimes known for to bear in a father-son story.

White also talked about the inspiration behind the story, how his relationship with his father is reflected on screen and more. He also touched on the choice to direct this movie and the kinds of characters he enjoys creating. Wilson got involved as well, with an interview where he talked about working with Stiller as well as his career in general.

Overall

I’ve written quite a bit in the last year or so about how we’re drowning in movies telling of the troubles and restlessness of privileged white people. All that while one of the key press points about movies like the upcoming Mudbound is that studios are nervous because two movies about slavery inside of one year might be one too many.

This campaign certainly shows Brad’s Status to be in that category as well and so I’m inclined to look a bit sideways at it. But while we can’t ignore the over-indexing on this type of story, as well as the criminal underuse of Jenna Fischer (not just here but in general), it also strikes a chord with me because, quite frankly, the story reflects where I’m at. I may not have the entourage of super-successful childhood friends, but hitting me with a story about a dad wrestling with his own life as his oldest son begins his own…well…there are all the feels on that.

What the marketing does well is use Stiller’s nervous energy, which has aged pretty well, as one of the primary hooks. He’s all awkward nods and interjections, traits that have served him well and which should appeal to the audience in general.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Amazon and Apple Bidding for Bond

Included among the companies bidding for distribution rights to the James Bond franchise? Apple and Amazon, according to a report in The Hollywood Reporter that details how valuable this franchise, which is among the only brands in play in terms of rights, is to the potential winner.

Amazon makes a certain amount of sense as it’s ramped up its feature film activities in the last two years. It would be a huge get for the company, no doubt, but that’s almost at the level of being an expected party in the same way Warner Bros. and other studios are.

Apple, though. I’ve long wondered what would happen if Apple got involved in either producing or acquiring original feature films. It recently made news by announcing it had put aside $1 billion for the development of original content, but I have to think Bond money would come from outside of that. Still, it shows the company believes that’s the game to play, original material, and will throw its substantial weight around.

I would think that if Apple were successful with Bond – or whenever it does finally enter the feature film landscape – it would change the distribution equation significantly. Apple is already one of the biggest forces angling for changes in theatrical windowing and this may the stick that sends it into open warfare with Hollywood. There’s a chance it could adopt the Amazon model of release schedules, but it doesn’t have Amazon’s vested interest in multiple formats, just the digital one.

Bond is a big card for any distributor to have in its hand. The franchise shows no sign of slowing down at all and the new face that will take on the role some time in the next five years after Daniel Craig stands down will only increase interest. It could be a big wedge for Apple to use to enter the film acquisition and production market, one that is as close to a sure thing as they come.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Early Digital Releases Could Impact Marketing Efforts

A recent report from Bloomberg hints that the patience of movie studios is running out, leading at least some to move forward with talks with Apple and others about digital rentals being available just weeks after theatrical release. Those studios are, it seems, tired of trying to work with theater chains which have an active interest in blocking such efforts, and so may proceed with or without their blessing.

While this kind of new windowing is, as the story points out, unlikely to move forward until it has the blessing of the major chains, the studios may be hoping presenting this as a fait accompli may force theater owners to agree to something instead of blocking everything.

It’s going to be super-interesting to see how marketing campaigns may change to accommodate this new release pattern. There are two scenarios that come to mind.

Retain the Status Quo

The first option is that things remain more or less as they are. Studios right now are focused squarely on theatrical release being the central element of most all campaigns, with “buy tickets for opening weekend” being the most common call to action. There are slight variations on that here and there, but it’s a more or less universal approach. That’s usually followed up a few months later with a smaller paid campaign that’s built around the home video release, with TV commercials encouraging people to find the movie on Blu-ray and online ads leading to iTunes or other online platforms.

If the studios want to lessen the pain of the new reality for theaters, this is the approach they’ll maintain with their marketing.

One Campaign, Two Messages

If, however, the studios want to be a tad more antagonistic, they could start lacing in other CTAs, namely an additional message that says “…and then find it on iTunes three weeks later” or something along those lines. Whatever the specifics, it would clearly identify two options the audience can choose from: The theater now (depending, of course, on whether the film is even playing near them) or a premium VOD platform just a few weeks out.

That’s very different and essentially gives the audience an “out,” allowing them to shrug and opt to sit this one out, then make a fresh decision when it’s available for digital rental. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t immediately and substantially impact theater chains, which are already seeing lower tickets sales and foot traffic. It’s different even than the model used by Amazon Studios, which is much more along the lines of the traditional theatrical-centric marketing, making new mention of on-demand viewing until it’s actually available on Amazon Video.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that this discussion is coming to a head. It may not be one theater chains want to have, but studios obviously think this is an important step to take to shore up *their* business model, even if it impacts that of a long-time and valued partner.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.