Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New Releases!

Why do we pay extra for "new releases" of movies, books, and music?

One of the more puzzling things about the media is how "new releases" are hyped and touted, and how we are expected to pay extra for them.  It is no mystery why media companies do this, of course - they want to maximize profits.   But why do people fall for this?  And is the Internet changing all of this?  The answer to the latter is, yes, of course it is.

Movies, for example, have followed a predictable pattern of release, and the cost of viewing a movie decreases over time, as it is released into different media channels.   This summer's new blockbuster will hit the theaters after a media saturation campaign, which will include television and internet advertisements, appearances by the stars and the director on the various talk shows, and of course, several well planted "news stories" about the movie.

As a "first-run" movie, you can expect to pay $10 and up for a ticket for the privilege of wedging into a tiny theater in a multiplex, where the surround sound will be far too loud, but not loud enough to drown out the idiot on the cell phone, sitting in front of you.

Next, the movie is then shunted off to "Pay-Per-View" on television, commanding anywhere from $4 to $15 to watch it via Satellite dish or on Cable.   These movies are also offered in "Pay-Per-View" format in hotel rooms.

Shortly thereafter, you may be able to purchase the movie for home viewing, on DVD or Blu-Ray disc, for anywhere from $12 to $45.

After that, the movie may appear on a premium movie channel on Cable or on Satellite, where you can view it for free, provided you pay the monthly cable fee and the fee for the premium channel.

And about this time, it may have appeared in the rental bins of Blockbuster, back when people actually rented DVDs in physical form.

At this point, the product starts to saturate the market.   It may slip down to a non-premium movie channel (such as HBO, which is increasingly a tier 1 channel) and then be played in heavy rotation.   Suddenly, that movie that you thought you wanted to see, last summer, is being played so often, you are sick of it.

Somewhere in this mess, it appears as a "new release" on Netflix, although increasingly, the studios are bypassing Netflix in favor of their own distribution channels.

Finally, the movie is being shown on regular basic cable and even network television (usually in a heavily edited format, with all the swear words removed, 15 minutes cut off to fit in more ads, and using pan-and-scan to fit the aspect ratio of most TV's.   You see the DVD in the bargain basement closeout bin at the grocery store, for $5.   And the tie-in merchandise is on sale at the dollar store.   No one wants Teenage Mutant Ninja Underoos anymore.

At each stage in the process, the movie is cut like bad cocaine, and the price is dropped accordingly as well.   But if you think about it, the basic movie really hasn't changed very much.   Why do the studios charge more to see a "new release" than an older one?   And more importantly, why do we pay more for the latest and greatest?

Before we address that, let me note that the publishing industry and the music industry work about the same way - with books being released in hardcover first (back when books were made of paper) and then working their way down to paperbacks and finally, book-of-the-month club.   New albums commanded high prices, until months later, when they languish in the remainder bin or are sold for a dollar apiece in the Columbia Record Club (now that was back in the day!).

So why do media companies do this?  And why do we fall for this?   After all, a good movie is a good movie, six months later or six years later (or in some cases, sixty years later).   Good music survives decades.  And a good book, eons.

The simple answer, is, of course, Marketing.   The studios, the record companies, and the publishers, all spend tons of money marketing their products - creating demand for that which is new and novel.   Kids want to go see the latest explosion movie that is coming out that summer - not the explosion movie from last year, or indeed, ten years back.   Why is this?  Explosion movies are all about the same.

In part, it is due to the desire to have a shared cultural experience, as well as peer pressure.   And that is why you see only young people in theaters these days (and why going to a movie is so unpleasant as well).   Kids are susceptible to pressure from their peers, and when one kid says, "Gee, do you want to go see the latest movie made from an obscure comic book and/or video game?" the other kids chime in.   It is something to do, of course, and the television and the media have made it seem oh-so-important to do.  Advertising works, at least in some instances.

In other words, they have convinced you that a new movie has value - and there is enhanced value in seeing it right away - the first weekend, preferably.   The longer you wait to see it, the less valuable it is.  And if you think about this logically, it is an insane proposition.  Based on this philosophy, Shakespeare is utterly worthless.  After all, it is hundreds of years old.

Books work the same way - with many people touting the "New York Times Bestseller's List!" as an indicia of good literature.   But unfortunately, literature today consists mostly of tomes written on-the-fly by famous celebrities or people who were made briefly famous.  If you crash-land a plane in the Hudson, the first thing you need to do is get a literary agent.   And most of these sorts of books are mere flash in the pan, and frankly, I suspect that half the people buying them, never read them - or read them all the way through.

The best books, of course, survive, and become classics.   And the best books are available for free, at your local library.  Paying $29.95 for a hardcover "best seller" is at best, a risky bet.

But again, perhaps it is this need for a communal experience that drives this sort of Lemming-think.   Bram Stoker's Dracula, for example, was published in 1897.  Yet today, vampire fantasy novels are the in thing among young people (many of whom, I suspect, never read the original tome which started the entire genre).

To be sure, some media content does not age well.   I read Moby Dick a few years back.  It is one of those "Great American Novels" (or THE Great American Novel) you were supposed to have read in High School or College.  But I suspect few did - most relying on the Cliff Notes, or if indeed, it is still in the curriculum today (being one of those dead white male authors and all).

What struck me about the book was that it was hard to read.   It took a lot of effort to follow Melville's dialog and narrative, including his numerous detours and distractions, as he spends entire chapters riffing on everything from the minute details of the whaling industry and practices, to esoteric discussions about the evil of whiteness.   You could not sell this book today - no one would read it.   And I suspect that not many do, even if it was required in college.

And movies - well, some age like vintage wine, like Casablanca, while others fade into well-deserved oblivion.  I suspect most modern explosion movies will fall into this latter category.   Music, of course, is the same way.  While we still may listen to some classic recordings from days gone by, much of what we once thought was important and good is basically noise, after only a few years.  In 30 years, no one will be listening to "Classic Gansta' Rap!" on the radio.    But other music will survive - some does, for Centuries.

So what does this all mean?   Well, as you get older, you realize that consuming media is expensive, particularly when you fall for the advertising hype that the latest "blockbuster" movies is the greatest, that the latest "best-seller" is tops, and the "chart-topping" music is worth buying.   If a movie is worth watching, a book worth reading, a song worth dancing to, it can wait.   And in fact, waiting is often the best strategy, as you pay less for the media content over time, and moreover, you learn which content is worth paying for.   It is never fun to pony up $30 or $40 to go to the movies (paying for that $15 stale popcorn and all) and then realize that you just watched a series of CGI explosion effects and bad dialog.

And this is one reason why "new media" content is aimed at younger people.  Only the young will fall for heavy advertising and rush out to buy the latest-and-greatest new thing.   They still have that raging true-believer mentality, and want to see all the world has to offer to them.  God Bless 'em - half the crap we sell in this country would remain unsold, if not for young people.  For marketers, the shrinking youth audience must be a major headache.

And I suspect the Internet is a headache as well.   As I noted before, one positive change in our culture has been how the Internet has changed how media is marketed.   A band can record their own album on a Macbook, post it online, and sell it.  An introspective girl who likes to write troll stories can end up becoming a bestselling author.  And if you like classic movies, sites like Netflix can expose you to mountains of old films that in years past, never would have seen the light of day, and might only occasionally be seen on late-night television.

In other words, the Internet is the antithesis of the "New Release" and to some extent, negates this entire temporal method of marketing.* On the Internet, content is content, and its "freshness" is really secondary to its inherent quality and value.   Why go see a movie on the first weekend, only to find out it was an expensive dud (and you wasted $30?).   Just put it on your Netflix queue and wait for its eventual release on DVD.  In the meantime, there are legions of worthy movies out there, well worth watching.   Some with actual dialog and very few, if any, explosions!

And yes, this is a real threat to the media industry and how media is marketed.   But if you can see through this circus of self-promotion, you can end up saving a boatload of money, and moreover, expose yourself to real culture and art.   As it turns out, the "Latest New Releases" are often not the very best our culture has to offer, and in fact, are often some of the worst dreck imaginable.

* * *

* Note:  The rise of Facebook and so-called "social networking" seem to be working against this trend.   The Internet is becoming more and more like television these days, with people being steered into wanting the same things, using social media to direct them.   The empowerment of the Internet is being usurped by the same forces that usurped the power of radio - turning it from an interactive media, into a passive broadcast media.   David Sarnoff would be proud.