28 March 2008

A cinema whose house is always full

As promised, I'm getting around to posting my better business ideas. Yes, yes. I'm sure your breath has been bated.

Think of your favorite movie. Now imagine the ideal environment in which to watch it. Do you see yourself alone, in your underwear, in your own bedroom, late at night, watching your favorite movie on your computer monitor? Unless you're one of those rare individuals willing to argue the artistic and cultural merits of porn, it's not likely.
NOT the Future Cinema
The future of porn? Maybe. The future of cinema? Don't count on it.

Probably you're thinking of a dark room with a huge screen and comfortable chairs. And, almost certainly, other people. Although the advent of forums like YouTube has fomented whole new genres of minimalist movies (e.g., machinima, video how-tos, porn vlogs, and even as yet un(sound)bitten political speeches), our thirst for full-length feature films appears unslaked. And we still prefer viewing them, when possible, in the company of other viewers. As an art form, film descends from theater, and the social dimension of theater is irreducible and ineradicable. Part of the meaning of watching theater--and therefore part of the meaning of watching films--is watching them as part of group.

Viscerally, we know this is true. Funny movies are funnier when viewed in a packed cinema. Scary movies are scarier. Exciting movies are more exciting. The whole experience of watching a film is intensified and improved when the house is full.
Meunier, A. - 18th C. - Paris_ Comedie Francaise
In a sense, "audience" is a role--a role it sucks to have to play by yourself.

Most current thinking about about how people are going to consume movies in the future, even the freshest, can be divided into models based on how people consume live theater on the one hand and how people consume internet pornography on the other. (There are some non-stupid "innovations" in the works which try to make the most of the cinema space, but they have little to do with the movie-going experience per se.) The theater model can't seem to get past the fact that plays are performances while films are recordings of performances--that is, they're what we call media. The porn model can't seem to get past the fact that watching anything except porn by yourself isn't nearly as much fun as watching it as part of an audience.

The most important development in the movie business during the past 20 years isn't--with all due respect to Peter Jackson and his fanboys--CGI, but the megaplex:

The improved viewing experience and the ability to let consumers watch whatever movie they wanted almost whenever they wanted brought more people through the door and bulked up Hollywood's grosses.
I love this conceit--that access to 20 or 30 screens has allowed consumer to "watch whatever movie they wanted almost whenever they wanted." Whatever movie I want? Give me a break. And what about TV series, animated shorts, foreign releases, etc. etc. etc.? And rental stores? There are good reasons why they're dying out.
Local Video Store
"Um.. Bollywood? The Thunderbirds? Fullmetal Alchemist? Le Dîner de cons? Nah, we don't got any of that. But, dude, have you seen The Transformers?"

Megaplexes offer an order of magnitude more choice than the 3-screen movie house; your average rental store (which carries some 3,000 titles according to Chris Andersen) ups the choice by two more orders of magnitude. And then Netflix and company bump that up to 60,000+ titles--another order of magnitude plus a doubling thrown in for good measure. No doubt that 30 screens offers a lot of choice, but it's still the film industry and the theater managers who decide what's on the menu. Time to break out.

The challenge, I would argue, is to get The Long Tail of screenable media (i.e., movies, TV, video games, and a bunch of stuff I'm sure I'm missing) to interface elegantly with the social theater experience.

The Setting. So, imagine an urban megaplex which offers 30 screens of varying sizes--from the 300-person stadium to the 15-person black box. (I'm picking 15 as the minimum capacity because, in my experience anyways, 12 is the magic number where dinner party tips and becomes a house party.) However we manage it, our megaplex is technically capable of showing anything that's currently out on DVD on any of its screens. (I see two basic possibilities here: either (1) allow the viewers to bring their own media--you're just a screen and seat provider; or (2) go digital--maybe make ISO images of every DVD you can get your hands on, or an equivalent. I like (2) better for a variety of reasons, but (1) might be the place to start while the IP agreements get hammered out.)

Architecturally, the lobby resembles a cafe more than a cattle yard. Picture a large space subtly divided by differences in floor height, floor coloring, lighting, etc. in order to create a cluster of distinct, yet interconnected spaces, each of which feels somewhat enclosed and therefore intimate. The idea is to provide environmental level support the social dimension of consuming screenable media. Film clubs, groups of friends, and/or couples can use this space to nosh and chat before and after movies.

The Website. The website of our megaplex looks more like a social networking website than a tarted-up broadsheet for the very simply reason that it is a social networking site. The website is the platform which our megaplex uses to decide--on a rolling, ongoing basis--what it's going to show on each of its screens. Website members "vote" for a particular title and a particular time-slot by prepurchasing tickets to those titles at those times. (Credit card authorization--not charged until movie is shown.) The most popular title for any given time-slot is shown in the biggest theater, the second most popular in the second biggest screen, and so on. Titles are "locked in" 48 hours in advance in order to allow everyone to plan their schedules and casual viewers to pick what they want.

One interesting consequence of this system is that it becomes possible to distribute various screens over several different physical locations within a city. Not too many different locations, or people would get confused. But a single web system could link together a handful of physical clusters of screens into a single movie selection and viewing system, effectively allowing our megaplex to consume urban real estate much more efficiently. We can therefore offer 100 screens' worth of choice without thereby incurring a need for a gargantuan, unbroken chunk of real estate. In fact, precisely the opposite. The more geographically concentrated our demand (the more "urban"), the more screens we can offer. And further, since every theater is filled to capacity (or as close as we can get) every time, we optimize our use of square footage even further.

Show Me the Money. Our megaplex will pass profits back to those who own the rights to the media on a per-seat-sold basis rather than a per-showing basis. This has several consequences.

First, pricing for the viewer is dynamic. The more "votes" a suggested title-and-time gets, the cheaper the tickets. This displaces some of the responsibility (and risk!) of promoting a particular title-and-time onto its supporters. A film club working its way through all of Humphrey Bogart's films, for example, will not only form the core of the audience which views those films--they'll also promote those title-and-times to everyone else. Take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and you've got individual promoters buying out entire screens and promoting film events (say, a Star Wars-a-thon) on their own. The promoters shoulder the risk of promotion; the audience gets a full house experience; and our megaplex gets a locked-in profit on an optimized use of cinema square footage. Every title which gets shown in our megaplex has, before it shows, demonstrated that it can command such-and-such level of committed demand.

Second, pricing between our megaplex and media rights owners is negotiable on a title-by-title basis--even on a showing-by-showing basis--because our megaplex can show exactly how many seats are sold for each title. Structurally, such a system will favor older titles (whose production costs have already been either recouped or written off), niche titles (which capture focused, sustained affection), and less publicized titles (which have fewer advertising costs built into their financing model). Basically, although our megaplex is perfectly capable of competing with "normal" theaters when it comes to blockbusters, it's capable of making gold out the vast libraries of screenable media currently lying around in our culture.

And third, this system really opens up the possibilities for using a cinema-like space in creative ways. Business presentations? Naturally. Ungodly-huge-screen Super Smash Bros. Brawl parties? No problem. Anime marathons? Duh. In a way, this model is a bit like McDonald's:
The brilliance behind Harry Sonnenborne’s model [for McDonald's] was to sell real estate and not hamburgers. His suggestion was to purchase or lease the land on which all the McDonald’s restaurants were built on. Franchisees would then pay the company either a monthly rent amount or a percentage of their gross sales, whichever amount was greater.
The idea isn't to sell movies (which today's theaters can't do, so they sell outrageously priced corn syrup instead) , it's to rent square footage, facilities, and equipment to those in a position to use those resources to their utmost. Why be a lousy movie promoter or a gouging snack-food vendor when you can be a fantastic screenable media landlord? Let the watchers be the deciders, because those who decide what to show bear the risk for promoting it.

There are plenty of holes here, so please, comment away.

06 March 2008

The meaning of business

Lately, I've been mulling over a comment made by my uncle--who has the reputation in the family of being a super savvy investor--to the effect that it doesn't matter what a business does per se, so long as it turns a profit. I've argued before on this blog that my uncle's position unfairly impoverishes the concept of value. I've even gestured (crudely) in a few directions which might help us to enrich our concept of value.

Over at The Bastiat Society Blog, however, Ben Rast has a post entitled Business as Creative Act, which takes the first few steps down what I think is the brightest path toward a full and mature understanding of what business is (and why my uncle is mistaken). Simply put:

Business, as a creative act, draws on the very same strengths and suffers the same weaknesses as the creative act in art. They are more alike than dissimilar.
By "creative act," Rast means to emphasize entrepreneurship particularly:
We can illustrate just how much artistic creativity and business creativity have in common with the following paragraph of advice to writers, taken from an interview of William Faulkner published in the Paris Review in 1956:

"Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him."

Now, notice how well it works as advice to entrepreneurs -- those troublesome dreamers and innovators in business -- with a few strategic substitutions.

"Let the entrepreneur take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get business done, no shortcut. The young entrepreneur would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good entrepreneur believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old business, he wants to beat it."
Rast is astute to catch this similarity. People who launch new enterprises resemble artists in their drive to make something new, to add an original trope to the poem of humanity. But it's obvious, in a sense, that entrepreneurs are creators. What's not so obvious is that all productive activity (in the economic sense)--that is, all business activity--is creative as well.

To put it succinctly, human creativity is coextensive with human endeavor. Wherever people get stuff done, there people come up with new ways to think, do, and make. It doesn't matter what you call the end product--good, service, artwork--productive human activity demands creativity for the very simply reason that every object humans make with intention and every action humans do with intention bears the stamp, as it were, of the intention that brought it into being.

Aristotle identified four causes which obtain in the world: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the so-called final cause. It's the last one which concerns us here. The
final cause explains the cause of something in terms of its conceived end, or the purpose why it is made. According to Aristotle, [the] final cause is “the end (telos), that for the sake of which a thing is done.”
Every good is made and every service performed for the sake of something else--specifically, they're made and performed for the sake of the customer's good. That's why we call them "goods," right? Yes, yes, the producer produces goods in order to get paid, and the service provider serves in order to get paid, but they only get paid if someone recognizes the value of their goods and services. (And this objection is weak, since money is only and always a means to an end. "To get paid" can never be a final cause for making or doing something for the simple reason that money always points beyond itself to another end--one always exchanges the money on something else. It is not, simply put, final.)

Because goods and services are self-evidently intended to do someone some good (otherwise who would buy them?), we can say that economically productive activity is not only a functional activity, but is additionally an expressive activity--that is, it means something. In particular, it speaks to a vision of the good in general and the customer's good in particular. Even further, each good produced and each service provided changes the world; each good and each service brings into being a new state of affairs which must be presumed to be better than had the good been left unmade, the service undone (again, otherwise who would buy them?).

From this line of thinking two absurdly important conclusions follow:
  1. Businesses really do change the world--so they'd better get it right. The presumption of "providing value," of making or doing something "good," is built into the very possibility of business. If a business doesn't add value--that is, if it doesn't make the world a better place--then it has no business being in business. It seems almost too obvious to need saying, but... businesses may be judged by the same standard as every other human endeavor, and that standard is whether or not the business's making and/or doing makes the world a better place.
  2. Investors are to companies what patrons are to artists--so they'd better get it right. Warren Buffet famously advises investors to buy shares of a company only if they'd be willing to buy the whole company. I'll take Mr. Buffet one step further. You should buy shares of a company only if you'd be willing to be that company's sole customer--like an artist's patron, buying, owning, and enjoying responsibility for that company's entire output. Just as being a shareholder means being wholly and individually responsible for (and dependent upon) a company's entire financial performance, so being a shareholder means being wholly and individually responsible for (and dependent upon) a company's entire, world-changing making and doing. Just like a patron, you've put money down so that the companies you own can make what they make, do what they do. You enjoy the financial fruit of the shares you own for the single, simple reason that the companies you own get paid for changing the world, and the world they're making and enacting is the world we all live in--the world our children are growing up in.