Q&A: A front-row seat for media's meltdown

Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland, who tracks file sharing for media companies, says studios will fare better in the Digital Age and Hulu should not charge fees.

Asked whether the film industry is doomed, Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland predicts that it has more advantages in the Digital Age than music labels. Big Champagne

During a visit to Hollywood last week , I wanted to talk to people who knew a thing or two about the film industry's burgeoning meltdown. One of the people I sought out was Eric Garland, CEO and co-founder of Big Champagne.

Beverly Hills, Calif.,-based Big Champagne has collected data on file sharing and sold it to media companies for almost 10 years. Garland's company has survived all that time, even while making the same sad pitch. He tells the music labels and film studios they are going to be chopped down at the knees by the Internet and online piracy--but that doesn't mean they can't survive.

As anyone might have guessed, almost everybody in media initially told Big Champagne to stick a cork in it. Back in the early part of the decade, nobody wanted to hear it, and Garland logged lots of five-minute meetings. Thanks to his persistence, though, he saw up close how digital technology buffeted the music industry. Now, some of the big labels are striking partnerships with his company.

What makes Garland an important speaker on this subject is that despite his gloomy message, he's bullish on both the Internet and movies. His interests and Hollywood's are aligned, he says, because if the studios don't survive then he loses customers. He wants them to do well but he just doesn't think that telling them what they want to hear, the "bedtime stories" as he calls it, is going to help.

In his interview with CNET, Garland predicted that the film business is in for a period of downsizing and cost cutting; that Hollywood's digital evolution will likely be similar to the music industry's but will unfold much faster; and that great wealth will still flow into the sector.

Question: Your business is watching file sharing. So is it spreading to the mainstream? Is Mom and Dad from Sheboygan pirating content?
Garland: Oh yes, particularly Mom and Dad in Munich; Mom and Dad in Seville; Mom and Dad in Paris. When we talk about video the reason I single out the European cities is because that's where people are forced to wait a long time to see content legally. In the digital world, we don't want to wait three months, six months. We're just not accepting that anymore...we want it all, we want it right now and even Mom and Pa Kettle are getting to the point where they say if it's not on, let's just fire up the computer and watch it. If they want me to wait six months, I've got other options. And people don't really have a conscious or qualms about that, or at least it's mitigated by their feeling that they are entitled to keep up with the Jones'. It is the Twitter, real-time Internet expectations.

What we're seeing is a tremendous pile-on of feature film and television content, led by TV worldwide. In terms of growth, it is eclipsing the sharing of these little music files. I mean most of the new adopter activity, most of the increase in terms of people, transactions, and downloads is coming on the video side.

That means that this year or next year is going to be Hollywood's year to really start to lose audience--not just at the fringes but in regular middle-American living rooms. They'll lose them to the other box, to the smart box.

"(The music industry) spent a lot of money going back to antipiracy and spent a lot of emotional dollars on vendors who sold them panaceas and told them everything is going to be okay."
--Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland

Q: Reed Hastings (the CEO of Netflix) wants to see every TV set come equipped with the ability to access the Internet. That will only accelerate Hollywood's demise, no?
Garland: Again, I think it drives both. The winner is the one who ultimately wins on the merits, and those are ease of use. Certainly the legitimate markets should win there. It did in music. Remember, iTunes wins in large part because it works so much better than anything else. So, Reed should win. His competitors should win on ease of use. Quality of content? They should at least be competitive in terms of having great on-demand, high-definition, rich audio, video. But when it comes to depth of catalog, that's where pirate markets have the edge. They have it also in timely delivery. Sorry. Go to Hulu right now and type in 24. There's just a clipped sort of terse message that says "Sorry about season 1 and season seven...

Q: Because they want to sell me past seasons on DVD, right?
Garland: Yes, but Surfthechannel.com, (an online site where users can find links to a plethora of unauthorized shows and films) doesn't care about that. They're happy to serve up current and past episodes of "24." And just like music, Hollywood's first reaction to that will be "Well, that's just not fair. That's jumping the turnstile, that's breaking the rules. We have to shut that down, because if you remove that option then people will be more patient." You won't remove that option, and you're losing valuable time if you focus on removing that option at the expense of improving that option and bettering that option, beating that option.

The music people used to say, "How can you can compete with free?" And now you ask anybody in digital music and they'll tell you, "I'm just trying to compete effectively with free." They've embraced the very condition that up until very recently they said they would reject. I'm telling you, you are going to compete with free. Sometimes you're even going to win, once you make the commitment to living in the marketplace as it is and not as you wish it were or as it once was.

Q: That's got to be hard for people in that industry or in any industry to hear. After hearing that, I almost want to start collecting donations for Matt Damon.
Garland: But I want to be clear that I was far more bearish on music than I am about Hollywood's prospects.

"The film industry will have to chase legal remedies, legislative agendas, all the way to what they view as being the end of the line before they say 'Okay, so this really is the landscape we're stuck with.'"
--Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland

Everything that the customer demonstrated that they wanted starting with the original Napster was diametrically opposed to what the music industry needed. Everything that the distributor or the (bandwidth providers) wanted was diametrically to what the music industry wanted. In other words there was no place to hammer out a marketplace that would work for both sides. Customers would say "I want MP3s" and the music industry would say "We can't do MP3s because we have to have (digital rights management)." The customer would say "deal breaker!" The customer would say "I want every piece of music ever recorded. I want access to everything, everything I can remember dancing to no matter what year I went to prom and I want it right now."

Napster said sure. The music industry said "We can't do that. We can only license these titles." Deal breaker.

The customer said "I want to eat all I want at one low price that feels like free." The music industry said "No my friend, it's a dollar a track." There was no point of agreement. Hollywood conversely, is very different.

Hollywood says we like DRM, we would like to extend to you this content but on terms that we control and the customer says "Yeah, that's cool. I've always been good with that. I like renting. I'll give it back to you when I'm done." The music industry says "How come we can't we do that?" The customer says "No, because it's not my expectation. It's not the contract that we've had all along." But in video this is in the contract we've had all along. Blockbuster has always given us stuff and we paid for it and then we had to bring it back. We're good with that. There are all these places where what the online consumer is demanding is actually a workable proposition to Hollywood. There's a lot of alignment but some really some important places where there isn't any. There's no easy fix. When I tell the film studios "The good news is that you want people to rent and not just own and people are happy to do that. Check."

I say "You want some DRM--people are accustomed to DRM. There's DRM on DVDs." But when you get to one where you want customers to wait two months for a DVD, then they say that's not negotiable.

Anybody who really understands the film business will tell you that's the end of our lives as we know it. That's the end of our industry as we know it. We have to be able to preserve those windows. We have to regain at least enough control to say you can have it, but not today. And when I tell them you're never going to get that, that's when the conversation breaks off and curse words are uttered and we go back to our corners.

Q: What windows are you referring to? They have windows that allows cable channels and broadcast stations to get exclusive access to a film title for a specific amount of time. But you can't be talking about theaters too. What is Hollywood if it can't promise theaters exclusive access to films?
Garland: I think the theatrical experience is totally viable. We love going to the theater. But when we walk out to the lobby I want to be able to pick up the DVD. If I got my 3D glasses on and my kids say "Can we watch it when we get home?" The answer has to be "yes." If the answer's no, the film industry loses.

Garland: These are tough lessons. By the way, I don't want to sound like the armchair pundit. You end up sounding not very empathetic. You sound like some ass who says "This is how it's going to be and if you don't like too bad." I'm not trying to be dismissive. I'm not trying to be glib about this. I understand the implication may well be tens-of-thousands of jobs lost, billions of dollars pouring out of the industry, shutterings, downsizings...I'm not trying to make light of that. I'm just telling you that in the final accounting i think some things we now know. Some of them are very unpopular even in concept and some of them are very hard to incorporate into strategic thinking, but that doesn't make them any less avoidable or inevitable.

Q: Are paywalls one of the solutions? That's what Hulu's leaders are considering .
Absolutely not. What you have is a very effective antipiracy tool in Hulu, and I'm specifically drawing on the numbers and not just citing anecdotal evidence. People really do prefer the Hulu experience. So you actually have cannibalization, for once, of a pirate market by a legitimate market. You have a legitimate market stealing share and audience away from a pirate market. Put that behind a subscription wall and they'll just go back.

Q: But it doesn't appear that Hulu is making the kind of money that will satisfy content owners, at least those News Corp. and NBC Universal (Hulu's backers).
Garland: The cute answer, which is probably the truest answer, is that growing a sector is a privilege and not a right. There is no right size. There is no correct or God-given size for any sector. Why do we get to make movies that cost $300 million to make? Because we have found venues where people will spend more than $300 million on the result. If people spend only $50 million then the price of a movie must be $49 million or less.

"I'm not trying to be glib about this. I understand the implication may well be tens-of-thousands of jobs lost, billions of dollars pouring out of the industry, shutterings, downsizings..."
--Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland

I think in today's dollars no one could make "Gone With The Wind" because at the time this movie was made when everyone went to the movies. It was something like 79 percent of the population. The cute answer is that movies will get smaller.

I know people are tearing out hair and spinning in graves, but maybe "Transformers" has to be made for $75 million next time. Oh my God, what am I saying? Put the words back in your mouth. That is just a pretty plain faced observation. One outcome might mean that in the Digital Age the return on investment on a major International tent-pole franchise is not a billion dollars. It's a quarter of that or a third. Therefore we have to get our costs in line with the market value.

When we talk about this in 3 or 5 or 7 years, one thing we will all have to concede is costs have to come down. We don't have the total control over the distribution chain that we exploited so well as industries for so long. Without that you can't take advantage of the consumer in the same way.

Q: I feel like I just heard the doctor give his prognosis and the patient is a goner.
Garland: It's just "Lose weight man (laughter). Get on a treadmill, change your diet and lose weight."

Q: Has Hollywood given up on fighting piracy?
You mean has changing the name from "antipiracy" to "content protection" a symbol of a retreat or a softening? No. Not at all. It's likely that (the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group of the six major studios) is trying to be more focused, more strategic. They are upping their game because that's how seriously they take it and that's how high a priority it is. On the contrary this is not the end, this is early days.

We now have the benefit of hindsight. We have watched an industry go through this. I think we can say with some confidence we know how this unfolds. What will happen is the studios will exhaust every available remedy and there will be a series of evolutions, meaning they will exhaust one remedy and a new one will present itself. These things will be pursued in tandem. They will pursue technological intervention on the Internet. This goes to the study at NYU that basically says this has had no effect. Ultimately, because they are spending a lot of money and not getting results, they'll become disillusioned with these vendors. They'll clean house. But something else will present itself.

"Well, maybe we were focused on trying to disrupt the networks and we should have focused on a technological solution to mass notification." Well be on to the next thing. Well spend some number of months--I'm just essentially recounting the music industry's journey--filing vast numbers of infringement notifications, letting everybody and their granny know you're infringing our content. They'll take the temperature and they'll do surveys and collect data and they'll try to convince themselves that this is having a real effect in reversing the tide and then after some period it will just not have been convincingly demonstrated to have worked. And they'll realize that by any number of measures the piracy problem has only grown worse. But they will have to exhaust all of those things and more. They will have to chase legal remedies, legislative agendas, all the way to what they view as being the end of the line before they say "OK, so this really is the landscape we're stuck with. As much as we didn't want it, this appears to be it. Now we have to just dive in and make businesses that work here."

And that's where music has only just arrived in this country and note it hasn't even come close to arriving in a lot of European countries. If you ask Universal Music Group in the U.K. "Are you going to win this war on piracy?" They will say "Oh yes, swiftly and decisively and soon. The rate of peer-to-peer infringement will be down 70 percent in the U.K. in the next few months. They have specific targets. Not here. We've exhausted all of those paths. There's a big gap. If the music industry in this country just now sort of arrived at the conclusion where they say "We just have to play on this field even through it ain't home court and there isn't a lot of advantage." And in some territories, music hasn't even gotten there yet, then how can Hollywood be there? This is early in the journey. I do think it's going to be a quicker path. It has to be. The economics are going to come down faster.

I spent years when everyone ignored what I was saying because I know it's not pleasant to hear. But my job is to help businesses all over this landscape to get from point A to point B with the least amount of pain. But that means getting smart and getting ready for the transition before the competition. I want them looking in the mirror now and not when it's too late. It's tricky. I want these guys to do well but l don't' want them to tell themselves bedtime stories. That's what the music industry did.

They spent a lot of money going back to antipiracy and spent a lot of emotional dollars on vendors who sold them panaceas and told them everything is going to be okay. "Don't listen to Eric Garland," they said. "He's a gloom-and-doom guy. He gets off on telling you things are going to be terrible. Spend a few million dollars over here and we'll clean up the Internet for you. Hey, I understand that. I want to open up my wallet for that guy too. It's comfort food.

But my message to media companies is they don't have that kind of time anymore.

 

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