Big Tech, Don't Keep Your Hollywood Talent in the Dark (Guest Column)
Amazon, Apple, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants are spending billions on content, but these companies are a black box to their creative partners as the "goalposts keep on moving," writes veteran executive Jordan Levin.
As Amazon, Apple and Facebook bulk up on streaming video and Netflix nears escape velocity fueled by $10 billion in debt, there's a growing awareness that Hollywood is caught in the tractor beam of big tech. These companies have been a boon for the creative industry so far, catalyzing a content arms race resulting in a bubble for original content.
But as tech giants move further into Hollywood and the industry repositions itself in the over-the-top era, cautionary tales abound. AOL, Yahoo!, Microsoft — the latter of which I was intimately involved with for the blink of an eye as executive vp/GM of Xbox Entertainment Studios — all had dreams of disrupting entertainment. In June, Verizon shuttered its Go90 mobile video service as part of a shift away from content, a move that altered the trajectory of companies including Awesomeness, of which I was recently CEO (again short-lived).
The merging of Hollywood and tech is going to have to result in a blended common culture. Yet big tech is a black box for producers and creators, many of whom are deciding whether to sign deals with these companies or stick with traditional players. The rules of engagement are unclear, but it doesn't need to be that way. Here are a few sensible proposals for tech companies as they court A-list talent.
1. Explain your content strategy to partners. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu rarely, if ever, share either the insights or performance metrics that inform decision-making. This makes it nearly impossible for content providers to understand why a series was ordered, renewed or even canceled. For many creators, it feels as though the goalposts keep on moving. Even more difficult is when a tech company comes calling for original content for a new entertainment service, but can't clearly explain the value proposition, or how it will work. Creators justifiably want to know where their shows will live and how they will get seen. Worse yet is when the newly hired entertainment executives don't even know themselves. Some are unfortunately tasked with building a piece of the larger enterprise, without having been presented the full plan.
2. Be more transparent. As part of its quarterly earnings report on Oct. 16, Netflix singled out To All the Boys I've Loved Before as one of its "most viewed original films ever." It should be noted that we funded and produced that film all by ourselves at Awesomeness. We were fortunate that Netflix acquired it and marketed it brilliantly. But the ability of streamers to capture and structure data provides invaluable insights into audience behavior that I would have coveted as both a network programmer and studio executive dependent upon ratings and research testing, and more recently as a producer wanting to know as much as I could about the audience.
I can’t really fault SVOD companies for not wanting to make their performance metrics public. After all, ratings are the currency of ad-supported programming services. The Pay TV game is all about selling and retaining subs. Plus, in this environment of ever-evolving consumption habits and endless metrics it’s almost impossible to cleanly compare series viewership. When I assumed oversight of The WB network, I eliminated pilot testing. Most thought it was because I abhorred research. Far from it. I genuinely valued research, but the process of picking which pilots went to series was overrun by an abundance of voices from both inside and outside the building who would often weaponize research to make their case. Lost in the process was careful consideration of which of the pilots and creators revealed the most potential for success at this stage of development.
Instead, I rolled the pilot testing budget into even more research for those pilots picked up to series. Since all involved were aligned in wanting to make the series succeed, we opened up the research process to make it as transparent as it could be. We encouraged showrunners to attend focus groups so that they could hear directly from the participants and submit their questions for discussion. We built an online forum to facilitate direct interaction between creators and viewers. The goal should always be to foster a culture of respect, fairness and equity, all in the spirit of creative collaboration and true partnership. Unfortunately, a lack of transparency only widens the distance between creators and their audience, rather than closing it.
3. Respect the creative process. Producing premium content is complicated and requires specific knowledge, but tech companies have frequently made the mistake of not bothering to learn or understand the production process. Not distinguishing what it means to be a studio or a network. Not knowing the nuance that differentiates business affairs from business development dealmaking. Believing in a one-size-fits-all approach. Not appreciating the need to adapt. The result has been untold dollars spent by unseasoned outsiders and far too green underlings put in positions of authority. Stories abound of needing vendor approval to hire freelancers and purchase orders to pay vendors, money being held from preproduction until longform contracts are signed, fights over employee classifications and corresponding responsibilities, confusion over terminology and the never-ending mysteries that arise when speaking in acronyms.
4. Don't reinvent the wheel. The best chance to create an original entertainment portfolio starts with building a creator-friendly environment and an experienced infrastructure to enable a creator's vision. This means surrounding talent with people who know what they're doing. Consider those people talent in their own right: creative executives who know how to identify unique storytellers, nurture their ideas, sharpen their POVs and hone their distinctive voices. Production execs, business affairs and legal, finance and accounting personnel — all are needed to put the proper systems and processes in place.
5. Be accessible. Tech companies, generally, tend to take a binary approach to business: They're either all in or all out. To succeed in Hollywood, these firms need to appreciate that entertainment is a relationship-based business. Dealmakers need to stand by their word, not hide behind legions of corporate lawyers attempting to renegotiate every point up until the signature pages are executed. And humility is key. Even if buried underneath layers of false bravado, I'm convinced that most everyone in Hollywood knows that if they're honest with themselves deep down, they know they got lucky. Everyone has a hit they thought was going to flop, just as they have sure things that fizzled. No matter how successful you are, luck and timing matter.
Jordan Levin is the former CEO of The WB, Awesomeness and Generate; He is also an Emmy-award winning producer and director who currently provides strategic advisory services.
This story appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.