Review – The Pixar Touch

The Pixar Touch

by David A. Price, published 2008

It starts with Disney

The story of Pixar is interesting because it starts and ends with Disney, but under very different circumstances in each case. The two primary characters in the company’s founding and subsequent rise to glory, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, were both Disney aficionados and aspiring animators from the get-go. At the time each was coming of age and establishing their careers, Disney was not only the premiere animation studio to work for, it was essentially the ONLY major animation studio to work for. But Catmull almost missed playing a pivotal role in the development of computer-animation when he decided, in high school, that he was not artistically cut out to be an animator. Lasseter, by contrast, found his high school experience to be an affirming one and it was during this period of his life that he knew for sure that an animator was what he wanted to become.

The two luminaries: Ed Catmull and John Lasseter

Though they had similar aspirations (with Catmull’s muted initially), Catmull and Lasseter took quite different paths to their eventual rendezvous at LucasFilm where they would come to create a Pixar Animation-in-the-womb.

Catmull went from the computer science department at the University of Utah, which was not only the scene of huge amounts of R&D spending by the Department of Defense’s ARPA project, but was also the unwitting locus of a number of individuals who would come to be highly influential innovators in the space of computer graphic design. It was here at the university where Catmull had a second awakening and decided that while he may not have a future as a traditional animator, he might become one yet by pioneering animation in the computer-generated space.

He eventually was scooped up by an “eccentric millionaire”, Alexander Schure, who drafted Catmull as well as a number of his computer science comrades from the University of Utah computer science department to come to his mansion-turned-technical institute (the nascent New York Institute of Technology on Long Island) and essentially tinker away at computer graphic design on his dollar. Catmull and company obligingly did so until personal and family pressures drove him to seek other employment, eventually finding his way to George Lucas’s design outfit in northern California where he and a number of other defectors worked on various technology-related odd jobs for Lucas’s studio.

Meanwhile, John Lasseter graduated from high school and went into the animation program at CalArts, an art school that was partially meant to be a recruiting ground for future Disney animation talent. He was subsequently hired into Disney’s animation studios only to be later fired in a political scuffle. He, too, wound up at Lucasfilm, where he teamed up with Catmull and the other NYIT veterans to develop the proprietary Pixar Image Computer. On the side, the ambitious would-be animators continued teaching themselves the craft of computer-generated animation, a technology they were largely innovating into existence on their own. Each year they attended the SIGGRAPH convention and showed off their latest minutes-long computer-animated film clips to an awe-struck and excited audience.

Even early on, Lasseter was showing a knack for story-telling beyond his years and experience.

Exit Lucasfilm, enter Steve Jobs

Having tired of losing money on the Pixar Image Computer and the Pixar company itself for long enough, Lucas looked for a buyer at an asking price of $15M plus an additional $15M to capitalize the spun-off business. Initially, there were no takers. At one point, an executive at Disney considered purchasing the entire company at $15M to subsume it into Disney’s animation facilities, but a young Jeffrey Katzenberg felt pursuing it was a waste of time.

Another series of failed deals followed (including one in which GM almost acquired the company before board member Ross Perot shot the idea down) when Steve Jobs’s offer of $5M for the company was finally accepted.

For the next several years, Jobs stuck $5M at a time into Pixar to keep in afloat, but he, too, had trouble finding anything to do with it. Initially imagined as a hardware design company, everyone ended up being frustrated as Catmull, Lasseter and their team were truly animators at heart (and certainly not businessmen) and Jobs was impatient and still reeling from the ego-blow of being booted out of his own company at Apple. He was looking for vengeance.

Jobs almost abandoned Pixar but at the last minute he decided to hold on to the company, realizing what he controlled was an outstanding group of talented individuals, not a failing hardware business. Soon after, Pixar inked its first deal with Disney animation (under Katzenberg, who had come to see the error of his earlier ways) to create what would become the smash, breakout computer-animation genre hit, Toy Story.

Jobs, always the savvy financier just as much as he was an outstanding technologist and businessman, took the company public on November 29, 1995, one week after the premiere of Toy Story. Still hot off the success of the film, Jobs brilliantly managed to hype the IPO by placing it so close to the release of their first major film even though he was technically supposed to be observing an SEC-enforced quiet period leading up to the IPO event. Jobs 80% stake in the company was valued at around $1.1B.

The story ends with Disney

Just over a decade after going public, Disney, the long-time partner of Pixar (and the long-time dependent, as Pixar’s computer-animated films essentially had become Disney animation, not the mention a substantial part of Disney’s total film and company-wide earnings) announced its offer to acquire Pixar on January 24, 2006, for 287.5M shares of Disney valued at about $7.4B.

Pixar’s fortunes, and the fortunes of its two central figures, Catmull and Lasseter, had now come full circle. What started with inspiration, dreams and ambitions based on the world of Disney had ended as a massive payoff from that very same studio. And along the way, these gentlemen and their co-creators not only revolutionized the world of animation, they created and popularized a genre, all while maintaining a nearly uninterrupted stream of critically-acclaimed, highly profitable film franchise hits.

The moral of the story

The Pixar story carries with it many morals: Always have the courage to follow your dreams; Don’t let the absence of something stand as proof of its impossibility; A lot of life’s magic and human progress is due to lucky happenstance.

But the most enduring lesson of all from the Pixar story is most likely the fact that greatness is hard to forecast, and the future is always full of uncertainty. Before Pixar was sold to Disney for $7.4B in stock, it was first nearly kicked to the curb by Lucasfilm for a song ($5M on the original asking price of $15M) and thought to be hopeless. And this was the view of it from a highly successful film studio whose chief architect was a successful technological innovator himself! From there, the group went on to suck millions of dollars out of Steve Jobs nearly to the point of exasperation before it finally had its first major breakthrough. How many failed deals came and went before Pixar turned out to be a multi-billion dollar enterprise?

Would the Pixar we know today even have existed if no one had ever thought to drop the frustrating hardware side of the business and let these technological entrepreneurs follow their true passion in story-telling and computer-animation?

The world could always be a different place than it is. It’s easy to see how obvious everything looks when you’re at the end of the story and not the beginning.

What kind of value would you have put on Pixar in the early 1980s?

Advertisements

Review – The Innovator’s Dilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business

by Clayton M. Christensen, published 1997

Technological innovation always means change, but which kind?

In the world of business technology, innovation can be thought of as coming in two distinct flavors:

  • sustaining, which are new technologies that improve a product or service in a way that is valuable to existing customers or markets
  • disruptive, which are new technologies that are uncompetitive along traditional performance metrics, which are unusable or undesirable to existing customers or markets but which nonetheless can eventually come to replace the traditional market over time

Throughout history, it is the best-in-class businesses which have the most difficult time with disruptive technologies to the point that disruptive technologies are usually the death knell for the leading businesses at the time. But this raises a question: if they’re such good businesses and they’re so well-managed, how come they can’t manage their way around disruptive technology in their industry?

The answer lies at the heart of what the author refers to as the “innovator’s dilemma”:

the logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership

Why do good management teams and competent decision-making processes miss disruptive technologies? Disruptive technologies:

  1. are normally simpler and cheaper, promising lower margins, not greater profits
  2. typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets
  3. are usually unwanted and unusable to leading firms’ most profitable customers

But good management teams with excellent decision-making processes are fine-tuned to search out:

  1. higher margin opportunities at best, and opportunities with minimum margin requirements based upon their existing cost structure
  2. opportunities that market research and querying of leading customers show there is a present demand for
  3. markets and growth opportunities which can have a significant impact on their business relative to their current scale

In short, every successful firm has a unique “value network” DNA that allows them to be especially dominant within a certain set of competitive circumstances.

the value network — the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures inputs, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit

But disruptive technologies present a paradigm shift of a market into a completely different “value network” that the firm has not been evolved to survive in which results in, similar to biology, an extinction event for firms with the wrong type of value network DNA.

Crafting a response to disruptive technology

But the reality of disruptive technology is not entirely depressing for successful firms, and they can develop successful strategies for coping with disruptive technologies if they first make themselves aware of the five principles of disruptive innovation:

  1. Companies depend on customers and investors for resources
  2. Small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies
  3. Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed
  4. An organizations capabilities define its disabilities
  5. Technology supply may not equal market demand

Each of these principles holds within it a potential misstep for successful firms within their traditional value networks trying to respond to a disruptive technology. Because firms depend on their customers (primarily their leading, most profitable customers) and investors for their resources, they are often incentivized to ignore the low margin disruptive technology because their customers initially don’t want it. And because disruptive technologies start in emerging or insignificant markets, successful firms often ignore them in favor of better growth opportunities. Meanwhile, firms that DO try to take disruptive technologies seriously often commit themselves to particular investment and marketing patterns based off of market research for a market that is dynamic and prone to sudden and rapid change. At the same time, that which makes a company excellent at doing A simultaneously makes the company horrible at doing B (where B is the opposite of A), and often disruptive technologies require B responses when successful firms are honed to operate at A. The final frustration for these successful firms occurs when they attempt to enter a disruptive market with a solution that technologically exceeds the needs of its current users, causing them to withdraw in defeat only to watch the market then take off anyway!

An ironic twist

As hinted at above, it is ironic that the very strengths of leading firms in adapting their business to sustaining technologies (improvements in performance in relevant metrics that their best customers demand) are the exact things that cause them to fail to respond to disruptive technologies in a profitable, dominant way. And to make a bad story worse, it is these strengths-as-weaknesses that allow entrants in disruptive technological markets to capture important first-mover advantages for themselves, constructing barriers to entry which are later often insurmountable for established firms.

To a dominant firm, disruptive technology looks like low-margin, small market business that neither their customers nor anyone else seems to be interested in. But for entrants in the disruptive market, with radically different cost structures than dominant firms and with organizational sizes and resources better matched to the opportunities presented, disruptive markets are a wild playground full of unchallenged opportunity.

And while the dominant firms look down at lower-margin, smaller market business and shake their heads dismissively, entrant firms look up above at higher-margin, huge market opportunity and lick their chops. Every business ultimately looks upstream for higher-margin opportunities than the ones they have at present.

Is it any wonder why dominant firms are continually defeated by surprise attacks from below?

How dominant firms can successfully respond to disruptive technology

The position of the dominant firm in the face of disruptive emerging technology is not hopeless. For every yin, there is a yang. By inverting the five principles of disruptive innovation outlined earlier, dominant firms can find five guidelines for successfully responding to disruptive technology:

  1. Give responsibility for disruptive technologies to organizations whose customers need them
  2. Match the size of the organization to the size of the market
  3. Discover new and emerging markets through a flexible commitment to “plans for learning” rather than plans for implementation
  4. Create organizational capabilities and strengths which are complementary to the unique demands of the disruptive market place
  5. Resist the temptation to approach the disruptive technology with the goal of turning it into something existing customers can use, rather than serving the customers unique to the market and searching out new markets entirely

Conclusion

This book was published 15 years ago. The subtitle is, “The revolutionary book that will change the way you do business.” I don’t know if 15 years is long enough in the business world for the ideas of a book like this to be fully adapted into the mainstream but I would guess it is not. I am no business expert but this material was completely uncharted territory for me.

Frankly, I never thought I’d enjoy reading something written by a Harvard business school professor as much as I did with this book. Whereas case studies, quirky charts and statistical evidence usually bore me to the point that I often skip over them, this book was something of a page-turner for me and I found myself eager to find out “what happens next” in each subsequent chapter.

As faddish as it has become as of late to hype the increasingly rapid change of markets and business practices in general, the reality is that most markets don’t change that quickly and most business practices are timeless themselves. But for those unlucky enough to find themselves, suddenly or otherwise, in a market or business that is changing due to disruptive technology, this book could be a lifesaver at a minimum and a handbook for profiting immensely from that change at best.

You can get the essential points of the book entirely from reading my review, or skim-reading the introduction and final chapters of the book (which present a comprehensive summary of the ideas outlined above). But the case studies are invaluable in driving the point home and there are numerous nuances to Christensen’s argument that are worth savoring and considering on their own. Because of this, I unequivocally recommend that every interested reader purchase their own copy and read it in full, and thereby grant themselves an invaluable competitive advantage in the market place, whichever value network they might happen to be competing within.

Review – The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing

The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing: Violate Them At Your Own Risk

by Al Ries & Jack Trout, published 1993

The redundant and contradictory laws of marketing

The 22 Laws is a helpful quick-read book for those looking to dip their toe into the waters of marketing. It takes a high level approach to the strategy of marketing and is definitely a “how-to-do” not “what-to-do” title. As such, my goal in this write-up is to focus on the laws I found to be most reasonable and deserving of consideration, the combine several laws that seemed to be versions of one another or the same concept examined from different angles, and dropped a number of laws I thought were too crude to be of any use.

An abridged journal of immutable marketing laws

My abridged version of The 22 Laws is as follows:

  1. It’s better to be first than it is to be better
  2. If you can’t be first in an existing category, introduce a new one in which you can be first
  3. Target mindshare, not marketshare
  4. Perception is reality; focus on perception, not products
  5. Own an exclusive word or attribute; your product and a category keyword or attribute should be inseparable in people’s minds
  6. The only positions that count in the market are first and second, and second’s marketing strategy is dictated by first’s
  7. Marketing categories will continually bifurcate over time
  8. There is a temptation to extend brand equity to new product lines, which simply dilutes the brand and invites additional competition
  9. You must be willing to give up product line, target market or constant change in order to dominate a market
  10. Failure is to be expected and accepted
  11. Trends, not fads, are the key to long-term marketing success

Putting the 11 laws into practice

Hopefully each of the 11 abridged marketing laws above are self-explanatory. But even as simple as they are, each holds a wealth of additional implications.

Law 1 is related to the concept of competition and is tied to laws 3 and 4. If you are the first product into a market you will not only likely benefit from a first-mover advantage but, if done correctly, you will have positioned yourself to define the market. People form habits and tend to make up their mind once and then not change it. When you’re first into the market you have a fortress position within people’s minds that entrant firms must assault if they hope to dislodge you. People tend to remember those who did things first, not best. It is easier to entrench than dislodge.

This is why law 2 is important– you want to avoid being an entrant in the competitive landscape as much as you can. Much better to create a category where you are the only supplier at best, or force your competitors to be No. 2, 3, 4, etc. at worst. Once you’ve created a category you are first in, promote the category, not your brand.

Marketing is a deeply psychological enterprise, which is why laws 3-5 focus on the role perception and mental imagery play in good marketing practice. But the specific application of these psychological rules is once again strategic in nature– they are each about how you compete and limiting your competition. By owning a word or attribute, as law 5 suggests, you deny your competition the benefit of identifying their product with that word and you often get a halo effect as related words and benefits get associated with your product in the consumer’s mind as well. The most effective words are simple and benefit oriented.

Furthermore, your word should be exclusive and precise, and you should only have one. If you pick something like “quality” you haven’t said anything about your product, because everyone intends to create a product with quality. You haven’t differentiated. And if you try to pick “value and safety”, you’ll lose because you’re now competing with two opponents– the one which prides itself on value and the one which prides itself on safety. It’s harder to fight two people than one. And it should go without saying that, if available, you should always choose the most important word or attribute to focus on.

Law 6 is important to understanding the concept of relativity in marketing. Your marketing strategy should always take account of “which rung of the ladder” you’re on as certain claims and strategies won’t make sense or will sound inauthentic if given from the wrong place on the market share ladder. Further, it will never be appropriate to market as if you’re No. 1, when you’re No. 2. The advantage of No. 1 is telling everyone you’re the best. The advantage to No. 2 is telling people they have an alternative to No. 1.

Laws 7-9 deal with the concept of marketing focus, or concentrating your marketing strategy to a narrow band where you can actually be competitive. Category bifurcation is a natural process (eg., computers –> laptops vs. desktops; automobiles –> family sedans vs. economy compacts, etc.) in market evolution. Many firms make the mistake of trying to maintain leadership in all resulting markets as initial markets bifurcate, instead of sticking to the market they have an advantage in where their brand is trusted most.

Worse, they dilute their own brand by bifurcating their market themselves (eg., 7UP –> cherry 7UP vs. original 7UP). The market that 7UP made for itself as an “uncola” and the marketing strategy it followed to enable that success does not carry over to derivative products and it ends up just competing against itself. Sometimes, you simply expose yourself to more competition in the process as competitors mimic you and you further slice up a slice of the market.

This is why a successful marketing strategy entails “sacrifice”, either of product line, target market or the impetus to constantly change. Expanding product lines mean expanding competition. According to earlier marketing laws, a brand can’t mean everything or it means nothing. Expanding product lines under a brand means movement toward “meaning everything/nothing”.

Similarly, few products will appeal to everyone. Attempts to appeal to everyone usually result in appealing to no one. Focus on the target markets where your product has the strongest appeal and then dominate those markets. And when you have a marketing strategy that works and results in market dominance, leave it alone, don’t go out in search of a new market you might not dominate (while giving up your dominant position in the process!)

The eleventh law highlights the long-term nature of successful marketing strategies. Good marketing is about coming up with an angle or word that differentiates your product and then establishing a long-term marketing direction to maximize the idea or angle over time. This implies avoiding hype and the temptation to market your product as a fad and instead seek to create a trend, which is more enduring and has more competitive inertia making it harder for your opponents to fight.

The law of failure (10) is the one likely most forgotten and least appreciated. Failure will happen. Not every strategy will work out. In the event of a failure, it’s best to cut your losses early and change directions. At the same time, it’s critical to understand that the first several laws of marketing entail risk-taking (for example, being first at anything involves sticking your neck out) so occasional failure is part of the territory.

Review – The Big Picture: Money And Power In Hollywood

The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood

by Edward Jay Epstein, published 2005

What the movie business was like in 1947

The central theme of “The Big Picture” is that the economics of the film industry and the profitability of Hollywood (both mechanistically and proportionally) have changed significantly from 1947 to the present day. By way of comparison, consider a few of the following starting statistics:

  • In 1947, the major film studios produced 500 films; in 2003, the six major studios produced 80 films
  • In 1947, 90M people out of a total population of 151M went to a theater each week in America at a cost of about $.40/ticket; in 2003, less than 12% of the population saw a movie in a given week
  • In 1947, 4.7B movie tickets were sold in America; in 2003, 1.57B were sold
  • In 1947, “feature films could be shot in less than a month, and some B films were shot in a week”; today, the average live action film takes over a year to produce and the average animated film takes 2-3 years to produce
  • In 1947, “virtually all [studio] films” made money, with the average cost of making a film at $732,000, and average net receipts of around $1.6M; in 2003, “a relatively good year, the six studios lost money on the worldwide theatrical release of most of their titles”

By 2003, the cost of producing the average film had risen to $63.8M. Although the dollar fell 7x from 1947-2003, the cost of producing a film rose 16x! Clearly, when the trend in film production is studied over time it is obvious that film production has become a substantially more capital-intensive business, it is a higher risk business (in terms of the chance and cost of failure) and it is substantially less profitable, at least in terms of theatrical release.

How and why did the economics of the film industry change, and how have film studios managed to stay in business today if their main product (theatrical film releases) are money losers on average? The answer consists of two elements: changing government regulations, and changing strategic dynamics.

Government intervention

The new studio system is the product of three government interventions. (The old one was a product of one– patents and intellectual property laws that caused movie studios to flee the Edison Trust on the East Coast, where the ET’s lawyers had a harder time pursuing patent infringement claims.)

  1. In 1948, the Justice Department issued a consent decree to the major film studios, “give up control over major retail outlets [the theater distribution system] or face the consequences of a criminal antitrust investigation”
  2. In 1970, the FCC passed the fin-syn rule on studios’ behalf, giving Hollywood an advantage over the networks in the syndication business, laying the seeds for and eventual studio takeover of the television network industry and the rise of the international, corporate media conglomerate business model
  3. In the 1990s, fin-syn was weakened and in 1995, abolished altogether by the FCC, allowing studios and networks to become part of vertically integrated conglomerates controlling production, distribution, stations, networks, cables, satellites and other means of TV transmission

A few other intervention-related items of note: the Nixon administration asked studios to portray drug users as menaces to society rather than victims of addiction, resulting in the start of perpetrators of crime frequently being depicted as drug users in film and television productions. Additionally, in 1997 Congress passed a law allowing studios to be paid through a formula for integrating antidrug messages into the plots of television series that were approved by White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Your tax dollars at work!

Disney changes the game

The second major change to the old studio production and profitability model was Walt Disney’s decision to focus on young children and families as the primary audience for his film and television productions. This strategy began with development of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which began in 1934. Between 1937 and 1948, 400 million children’s tickets at an average cost of $.25 had been sold. The film was the first to gross over $100 million. It was also the first film to have a commercial soundtrack, the first film to have merchandising tie-ins and the first film with multiple licensable characters.

Disney’s strategic decision was brilliant– he created a niche market (children’s entertainment) that the other studios refused to enter. He had this new and growing market all to himself for a long period of time, during which he established his brand as essential and synonymous with family entertainment. He  and his successors pioneered the idea of film releases as simply the starting point in establishing a long-lived exploitable IP asset which could generate additional cash flows outside the box office through merchandising and licensing arrangements.

The way Hollywood works today

Today, the major movie studios have either been subsumed into massive, international corporate conglomerates, or else they’ve become one (like Disney). Movies are just one of their many businesses, and the role of the box office has dwindled. Many movies lose money at the box office. But this is okay because the corporate studios issue their content and IP across their other media (TV, merchandising, music, home entertainment products, etc.) to make back their money, and then some.

As one example of new studio economics, consider the film Gone in 60 Seconds— worldwide box office gross of $242M, $103.3M paid by Disney to produce the film, $23.2 for physical distribution into theaters (prints and insurance), $67.4M on worldwide advertising, $12.6M in residual fees, all in costs of $206.5M to get the film into the theater and to generate an audience to see the film. The theaters then kept $139.8M of the box office gross. Disney’s distribution arm (Buena Vista) collected $102.2M. Disney’s overhead of $17.2M for employee salaries in production, distribution and marketing and interest payments of $41.8M mean the film lost over $160M by 2003.

But that isn’t the end of the story for a film like Gone in 60 Seconds, as the film IP takes on a new life once it leaves the theatrical market and enters the world of home entertainment, where it is sold as a personal home library title, rented and licensed for syndication through major domestic and foreign TV and other media networks. For animated films (and some live action titles), there is also the opportunity to merchandise relevant IP and license the film’s IP as a movie tie-in for the products of other companies.

As can be seen from the numbers above, the two primary drivers of increased film production costs are related to the competitive aspects of film advertising and distribution and the end of the “chattel talent” system whereby studios essentially owned their stars and laborers (producers, directors and film crews), compared with the “star power” arrangements of today. According to the author,

In this new era, stars, not studios, reap the profit their brand names bring to a film.

One reason that advertising costs have risen is due to the fact that in the previous era, one admission got you in for multiple screenings and every moviegoer essentially watched every screening shown during their admission. Today, movie audiences are highly segmented. This means that studios have to “create” a new audience for each and every film, they can not count on a moviegoer purchasing a general admission ticket which will result in them watching all of their films. As one Sony marketing executive put it:

If we release twenty-eight films, we need to create twenty-eight different audiences which necessitates twenty-eight different marketing campaigns.

Additionally, the transformation of the film industry into a global market with simultaneous releases means higher advertising costs (no way to reuse promotional prints and media as films no longer have “rolling releases” across the country) and higher physical film production and distribution costs (every theater needs its own copy of the film which must be shipped there and back). And because the studios no longer “control” their talent and labor, they must be willing to pay top dollar for the name-brand stars that draw the biggest crowds.

However, the studios have also gotten savvier at advertising and cross-marketing in the age of ownership by global, corporate media conglomerates. Major Hollywood studios cross-promotionalize across their various media. A studio can get actors, directors, etc. to be interviewed on the corporate parent’s TV networks to promote an upcoming film. Corporate sponsors with TV rights for certain sports and national events can get additional advertising and exposure for the corp parents film studios as well.

Film studios have also learned how to leverage their promotional efforts through tie-in marketing and merchandising partnerships. In these relationships, a leveraged marketing and advertising budget results because your partners pay to promote your characters and content for you. For example,

[McDonald’s] invested more than $100M — four times Disney’s own advertising budget– in just one film, Monsters, Inc.

The clearinghouse system

Another essential element of the modern film business that must be understood is the “clearinghouse system.”

Studios now outsource the making and financing of most of their movies and television series to off-the-book corporations

Movies used to return almost all of their money in a year; now, revenue flows in over the lifetime of licensable rights, often lasting many decades.

When revenue flows in, it is the studio that decides (initially at least) who is entitled to what part of it, and when, and under what conditions

which works to the studios advantage because

the studios usually control the information on which the payments are based

Theaters, distribution and merchandising

Today’s theaters have three primary businesses: concessions vending, movie-exhibition, and corporate advertising. However, contrary to popular belief and news headlines, the box office is not the primary source of profits for theaters– the selling of refreshments is.

Theaters want a film with broad appeal so there are more people attending who will buy more refreshments. Additionally, they want films no longer than 128 minutes in length because every film which exceeds that limit causes them to lose a potential evening showing.

Film studios, meanwhile, simply want their films to succeed at the box office because there has historically been a connection between success at the box office and later success in the home entertainment market, which is much more profitable for them as studios end up with only 45-60% of the box office revenues on average.

Non-domestic box office and non-theatrical release have long been critical to the Hollywood model. As early as 1926, Hollywood studios represented 3/4 of European box office and 1/3 of Hollywood revenues came from Europe. In the 1950s, Hollywood film studios had a 30% share of European and Japanese box office which grew to 80% by 1990. American film studios seem to flagrantly violate the Greenwaldian strategic mantra of “compete locally”!

Paramount and Universal jointly control the largest overseas distributor, United International Pictures (UIP). Pay-per-view TV earned the six major studies $367M in 2003, a relatively modest sum of money despite the hype of the model. Other major sources of revenues in nontheatrical release are airline in-flight entertainment, hotel pay-per-view and US military theaters overseas. One of the benefits of television syndication of studio content is that almost all marketing expenses are paid by the broadcaster and the network.

Merchandising is another critical element of film studio profitability. For example, merchandising alone adds an estimated $500M profit to Disney’s bottom line each year.And The Lion King produced $1B in retail sales by itself. Streams of licensing revenues can enrich a studio’s clearinghouse for many decades.

Critical competitive dynamics of the film industry

It’s a well-known fact within the industry that “the date on which a film will open can make or break a movie.” Traditionally, the 9 months between September and May when school is in session promises only a fraction of the audience possible during the three months in the summer season. Studios must compete for a limited number of big-release slots and face a distinct “prisoner’s dilemma” strategic framework in which the refusal to cooperate in selecting movie release dates can result in massively diminished box office performance for each studio.

The studio whose film has the weaker appeal to the target audience has a strong incentive to change its slot, since if the NRG numbers prove correct, it stands to get a smaller share of a confused and cross-pressured audience and will probably fail.

A key competitive strategy for film studios is the creation of franchise films. Franchise films are more stable sources of revenue, because they’re more consistent performers at the box office and in the sell-through of the home entertainment market. Additionally, they ostensibly help to lower the costs of advertising and marketing because there is already a fan-base/audience in place which does not need convincing anew to see a franchise sequel film or buy related merchandise. Additionally, television and other syndication networks are willing to bid higher for franchise films because of their consistency and predictability.

One key to creating franchise films is close adherence to the “Midas formula.”

The Midas formula

Only a very few films account for the lion’s share of a studio’s earnings. The film’s that succeed most often and most extremely typically follow the “Midas formula”. Films which follow this lucrative formula have the following features:

  1. based on children’s stories, comic books, serials, cartoons or a theme-park ride
  2. child or adolescent protagonist
  3. fairy-tale like plot
  4. strictly platonic relationships
  5. appropriate for toy and game licensing
  6. a rating no more restrictive than PG-13
  7. end happily
  8. use digital animation
  9. cast actors who are not ranking stars (do not command gross-revenue shares)

The Disney empire is largely the result of Disney’s successors closely hewing to this formula. R-rated and live action films have far less chance to reach their break-even compared to films adhering to the Midas formula. In act, non-formula films have little, if any, possibility of becoming billion-dollar-club members.

Other facts and figures and final comments

First, a few stray facts and figures:

  • the average cost of American distribution in 2003 was $4.2M per film for the major studios, while independent films averaged $1.87M per film
  • the six major studios spent more than $1B in 2003 on film prints
  • in 2003, the average advertising expense per film was $34.8M, compared to 1947 when $60M was spent on distribution and advertising by ALL major film studios combined
  • in 1947, movies were America’s third largest retail business and the six major studios collectively earned $1.1B, or 95%, of all film “rentals” at the domestic box office
  • in 1947, there were 18,000 neighborhood theaters
  • in 1947, Clark Gable made less than $100,000 per film

Studios are moving away from physical film in favor of digital projections. This could save millions in distribution costs as there will be no more cost of producing, shipping, storing and retrieving prints from film exchanges all over the world.

A critical summary of the film studio business model from Richard Fox, a vice president at Warner Bros.:

The studios are basically distributors, banks and owners of intellectual copyrights.

Review – Value Investing: From Graham To Buffett And Beyond

Value Investing: From Graham to Buffett and Beyond

by Bruce Greenwald, Judd Kahn, Paul Sonkin and Michael van Biena, published 2001

Three valuation approaches

In the world of value investing, there are three essential ways to value a business: studying the balance sheet (asset values), studying the income statement (earnings power) or studying the value of growth.

Greenwald and company recommend using each approach contingent upon the type of company being analyzed.

The asset value (balance sheet) approach

The virtue of balance sheet analysis is that it requires little extrapolation and anticipation of future values as the balance sheet ostensibly represents values which exist today. (Note: technically, for balance sheet values to be accurate they must have a meaningful connection to future cash flows and earnings which can be generated from them, but that is beside the present point.) Additionally, the balance sheet is arranged in such a way that the items at the top are items whose present value as stated on the balance sheet is more certain because they are closer to being converted into cash (or requiring immediate cash payment), whereas those toward the bottom are less certain. The implication here is that companies trading closer to the value of net assets nearer to the top of the balance sheet are more likely undervalued than those trading closer to the value of net assets nearer to the bottom of the balance sheet.

Putting these principles into practice, when using the balance sheet method, companies which are not economically viable or are experiencing terminal decline should be valued on a liquidation basis, looking at net current asset values and severely discounting long-term fixed assets (and perhaps completely writing off the accounting value of goodwill and certain intangible items). On the other hand, companies whose viability as going concerns is fairly certain should be valued on a reproduction cost basis when using the balance sheet method, meaning calculating a value for replacing the present assets using current technology and efficiencies.

In an industry with free-entry, a company trading for substantially more than $1 per $1 of asset reproduction costs will invite competition until the market value of that company falls. Similarly, a company trading for substantially less than $1 per $1 of asset reproduction costs will find competitors exiting the industry until the market value of the company rises back to the reproduction cost of the assets. Without barriers to entry which protect the profitability of these assets, the assets are essentially worth reproduction cost as they deserve no earnings power premium.

For these firms, the intrinsic value is the asset value.

The earnings power (income statement) approach

Whereas the asset value approach relies more strongly on present market values, the earnings power valuation approach begins to introduce more estimation of the relationship between present and future earnings, as well as the cost of capital. These are decidedly less certain valuations than the asset value method as they rest on more assumption of future phenomena.

The primary assumptions are that,

  1. current earnings, properly adjusted, correspond to sustainable levels of distributable cash flow, and,
  2. that this earnings level will remain approximately constant into the indefinite future.

Based upon those assumptions, the general equation for calculating earnings power value (EPV) is:

EPV = Adjusted Earnings x 1/R

Where “R” is the current cost of capital.

Earnings adjustments, where necessary, should be made on the following basis:

  1. rectifying accounting misrepresentations; the ratio of average recurring “one-time charges” to unadjusted reported earnings should be used to make a proportional adjustment to current earnings
  2. depreciation and amortization adjustments; reported earnings need to be adjusted by the difference between stated D&A charges and what the firm actually requires to restore its assets at the end of the year to the same level they were at at the beginning of the year
  3. business cycle adjustments; companies in the trough of their business cycle should have an addition to earnings in the amount of the difference between present earnings and average earnings, while companies at the peak of their cycle should have earnings adjusted by the difference between average earnings and present earnings (a negative number)

There is a connection between the EPV of a firm and its competitive position. In consideration of economically viable industries:

  1. EPV < asset reproduction cost; management is not fully utilizing the economic potential of its assets and the solution is for management to change what it’s doing, or for management to be replaced if it refuses to do so or proves incapable of doing so
  2. EPV = asset reproduction cost; this is the norm for firms in industries with no competitive advantage, and the proximity of these two values to one another reinforces our confidence that they have been properly calculated
  3. EPV > asset reproduction cost; this is a sign of an industry with high barriers to entry, with firms inside the barriers earning more on their assets than firms outside of them. For EPV to hold up, the barriers to entry must be sustainable into the indefinite future

The difference between the EPV and the asset value of the firm in question in the third scenario is the value of the franchise of the firm with barriers to entry. In other words, the firm’s intrinsic value should equal the value of its assets plus the value of its franchise.

Similarly, in the second scenario, no premium is granted for the value of growth because with no competitive advantages, growth has no value (the cost of growth will inevitably fully consume all additional earnings power created by growth in an industry characterized by free-entry competition).

The value of growth

The value of growth is the hardest to estimate because it relies the most on assumptions and projections about the future, which is highly uncertain.

Additionally, growth has little value outside the context of competitive advantage. Growing sales typically need to be supported by growing assets: more receivables, more inventory, more plant and equipment. Those assets not offset by greater spontaneous liabilities (accounts payable, etc.) must be funded somehow, through retained earnings, larger borrowings or the sale of additional shares, reducing the amount of distributable cash and therefore lowering the value of the firm.

For firms operating at a competitive disadvantage, growth actually destroys value. Otherwise, growth only creates value within the confines of a competitive advantage. This uncertainty of growth and the competitive context of it leads the value investor to be least willing to pay for it in consideration of the other potential sources of value (assets and EPV).

Review – The Predator’s Ball: The Inside Story Of Drexel Burnham And The Rise Of The Junk Bond Raiders

The Predator’s Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders

by Connie Bruck, published 1988

This review is going to be brief because, full disclosure, I’ve only read (as of this writing) 180 pages of this book. And honestly, that might be about all I’ll end up reading. Here’s why:

There are great Wall Street/business biography books (The First Tycoon by TJ Stiles, for example, which I will write a review of when I eventually re-read), good Wall Street/business biography books (much of what Michael Lewis has written qualifies, even though I find the author as a person to be a bit nauseating) and bad Wall Street/business biography books, a category of which Connie Bruck’s effort is a member.

Great books in this genre are exciting to read, they’re deeply researched and place major developments and character traits into a meaningful context and they leave the reader feeling like he’s gained some knowledge which is general and timeless in nature. The good books largely accomplish the same but a little less efficiently and with a little less objectivity, the author coming across as being taken by his subject matter.

The bad books offer none of the benefits (historical context, depth of mechanical understanding, deconstruction of character) and come chock full of pointless and irrelevant trivia– lots of dates, tons of deal size data and a mountain of dropped names. The writing is sycophantic and lap-dogish, the tone is that of a hyperkinetic cheerleader and the message is one of ignorant, drooling, envious amazement.

“The Predator’s Ball” is hard to read because it seems like it was hard for Bruck to write. She flings a lot of facts and figures at you but you never get the sense she understands the qualitative significance of any of it. The book is too self-conscious and self-aware– whereas in a Michael Lewis book you can easily lose yourself in the story and feel as though you’re a fly on the wall watching everything happen, Bruck’s book comes across as a series of poorly stitched together self-referential interviews where the illusion and pacing are constantly broken by the author willingly neglecting her editorial duty and allowing herself to be used as a mouthpiece by her interviewee.

And it gets worse.

Bruck spends page after page gushing about the… gushers… of money that were pouring forth on Wall Street during the junk bond-backed buyout boom of the early 80s. But in 180 pages she has yet to stop and ask herself (and then answer) where in the hell all this money is coming from? And the book is purposefully about Michael Milken and his comrades but she makes it seem like they were the only players in the entire world of finance doing any of this stuff when more likely they had competitors not only in the US but around the world. There’s no consideration of monetary policy and little discussion of the regulatory climate. It’s like this drama is unfolding in a vacuum.

It’s not only confusing but so arbitrary as to seem pointless.

By Connie Bruck’s telling, Wall Street drama is a lot like the drama of high school social politics. The book speaks of many parties, hangouts (meetings), liaisons and shenanigans and tries to convince the reader that he should care what all these “popular” kids are doing. It’s all supposed to be extremely interesting, who slept with who, who did a deal with who and for how much and how mad it made someone else. You keep turning the page under the assumption it’s all going to add up to something, that the story is going somewhere and the meaning of all of these interactions will be summarized and revealed.

It never does. That’s when you might feel compelled, as I was, to set the book down in frustration and walk away.

I bought the book because I wanted to understand the LBO world– who were the players, how did it work, why did it happen when it did and what were the major lessons? I highlighted a few things, but mostly I just want my money back.

Review – F Wall Street

by Joe Ponzio, published 2009

“There’s Got To Be A Better Way!”

If you’ve ever managed your own retirement investment portfolio such as a 401k or spent any amount of time watching the talking boxes on Bubblevision, you’ve probably reached several conclusions almost simultaneously:

  • Even though we’re told investing in stocks is a surefire way to get rich over time, it never seems to work for the average person
  • Investment options in the average 401k seem best served to satisfy the needs and profitability of the Wall Street companies that peddle the products, not the investor who buys them
  • In general, the whole game seems rigged against you, from the annual expenses of mutual funds to the incentives those mutual funds have to trade to the regulatory burdens which virtually guarantee they’ll never be creative or contrarian enough to earn the kinds of out-sized returns necessary to make a killing in the markets over time
And according to author Joe Ponzio, who started his career working at several of these brokerages and mutual funds, you’d be correct to think that the whole system functions like a racket:
The Wall Street firms convince you to buy their “preferred” or “recommended” mutual funds;  then the mutual funds go out and buy the great, mediocre and bad investments from the brokerages.
In order to have access to the trillions of dollars the brokerages control, mutual funds buy “aggressive” investments, pay some of the brokerages’ expenses, and even offer them kickbacks every three months.

Now you’re thinking, “There’s got to be a better way!”

Luckily, there is.

F Wall Street

Enter Joe Ponzio’s inexpensive but thorough primer on Buffett-style value investing, F Wall Street. This book is truly one of the unsung heroes of the value investment classics library that I think should be one of the first titles an aspiring value investor should familiarize themselves with. The book is divided into several conceptual sections.

First, the basics: the market is not perfectly efficient; bonds are not just for old people and stocks are not just for young people and everyone, young or old, should be looking for good investments, not risky ones; mutual funds are essentially designed to fail the average investor; the true risk in the stock market is overpaying for the value available at the time; cash is king.

A bit more on the last part might be helpful. Ponzio defines the value of a business as its current net worth as well as the sum of its future cash flows. As a stock owner, you are essentially a silent partner in the business and silent partners are paid with cash, not profits. Businesses need cash to grow, to acquire other businesses, to service debt, to increase their net worth and to pay dividends to their investors. The superior business, and consequently the superior stock, is the one that can generate the most cash flows, not the biggest earnings.

Owner Earnings and Intrinsic Value

As Ponzio says, focusing on cash flows allows us to “peak inside” the firm and see what management sees. Furthermore, it implies looking at the business like an owner, rather than an accountant or IRS agent– net income/earnings do not represent cash available to the owners because they include a number of non-cash items and they do not account for necessary CAPEX spending to grow and maintain the business.

Owner Earnings represent actual cash flows attributable to the owners of the company in a given period and can be calculated fairly simply:

Owner Earnings = Net Income + Depreciation/Amortization + Non-Cash Charges – Average CAPEX

Average CAPEX should generally be taken over a period of the most recent 3-5 years, though you could use as many as 10 years if that’s how you prefer to look at a business’s history. Owner earnings tell you whether a business is generating enough cash to pay its bills without new infusions of debt or equity, as well as whether it is generating sufficient cash flows to continue to grow. Further, Ponzio states that “For extremely large, stable businesses, free cash flow usually approximates owner earnings.”

Intrinsic value is a related concept which considers the combined value of the current net worth of the business as well as the present value of all discounted future cash flows the business with generate. As a value investor, your goal is to buy businesses trading in the market at steep discounts to your calculated intrinsic value. The difference between intrinsic value and the market price is your “margin of safety” (note that if you pay more in the market than your calculated intrinsic value, this implies a “margin of dissafety” represented by the negative value you’d get from the equation).

To calculate the present value of future cash flows, Ponzio recommends using your desired investment return as the discount rate and sticking to it consistently (so, for example, if you want your investments to grow at 15%, use a 15% discount rate, but be wary that the higher your discount rate, the less conforming investment opportunities you will find). If you have Excel, calculating the value of discounted cash flows is simple. You can enter the following formula into any cell in your spreadsheet,

=PV(DISCOUNT_RATE, NUMBER_OF_DISCOUNT_PERIODS, AMOUNT_OF_ADDITIONAL_INVESTMENTS, FUTURE_VALUE)

By creating a matrix of future anticipated cash flows and then discounting them with the present value function, you can sum them up to get the total present value of present cash flows. When adding this to the business’s present net worth and comparing that amount to current market cap you can get an idea of whether or not the business is trading at a discount or premium to its intrinsic value.

Cash-yields, Buy-and-Hold, CROIC and “No-Brainers”

Ponzio suggests a few more ways to look at possible investments. One is the cash yield, which treats the stock like a bond for comparative purposes. Cash yield is defined as.

Cash Yield = Owner Earnings (or FCF) / Market Cap

Taking this yield, you can compare it to other investments, such as “risk free” government securities. Assuming the government securities are in fact “risk free”, if the cash yield is lower than the government securities the cash yield is telling you that you would likely be better off taking the “guaranteed” yield of the government security rather than assuming the capital risk of a stock. But if the cash yield is higher it could indicate a good investment opportunity, especially because that yield will typically improve over time as the denominator (your acquisition price) remains constant while the numerator (owner earnings/FCF) grows. But, as Ponzio states,

Cash-yield is not a make-or-break valuation; it is a quick and dirty “what’s this worth” number that applies more to slower-growth businesses than to rapidly growing ones.

Whereas cash-yield seeks to answer, “Is this cheap relative to other returns I could get?”, the Buy-and-Hold method seeks to answer “How much is it worth if I buy the entire business?” BAH is a more standard analysis and involves discounting future cash flows and adding them to the present net worth of the business, mentioned above.

A “no-brainer”, in Ponzio’s parlance, is an investment that leaps out at you as ridiculously undervalued– an excellent, growing business trading at a significant discount to its intrinsic value (net worth and discounted future cash flows). When searching for no-brainers, Ponzio suggests you stay in your sphere of confidence by sticking to what you know and asking yourself the following:

  • What does the company do?
  • How does it do it?
  • What is the market like for the company’s products or services?
  • Who is the company’s competition?
  • How well guarded is it from the competition?
  • Five and ten years from now, will this company be making more money than it is today? Why?

If you can’t answer any of those questions, you’re outside your sphere of confidence and probably won’t be able to identify a no-brainer.

There are many ways to identify growing businesses. Sticking to the theme of “watch the cash flows,” Ponzio’s favorite measurement is Cash Return on Invested Capital, or CROIC. CROIC is defined as,

CROIC = Owners Earnings / Invested Capital

(Ponzio suggests using long-term liabilities and shareholder’s equity to estimate IC– obviously if there was preferred equity or some other capital in the business like that, you might want to include it for a more accurate measurement.)

Ponzio recommends CROIC because it demonstrates management’s ability to generate owners earnings from each dollar of invested capital. The more efficient a management team is at generating owners earnings, the more resources it has to grow the business and pay shareholders. But be careful! An extremely high CROIC (such as 45%) is generally unsustainable. Look for anything above 10% as a good CROIC growth rate.

Portfolio Management Is All About The Percentages

You’ve found some great businesses. You know they’re growing and you know they’re trading at big discounts to intrinsic value, offering you your requisite margin of safety. Now you need to figure out how much of each you buy as you construct a portfolio.

A word of warning up front– there’s no science here, even though Ponzio refers to precise percentages. This aspect of investment management is even more art-vs.-science than judging which companies to buy in the first place. That being said, the principles themselves are sound and the truly important takeaway.

Ponzio divides stocks into three main categories:

  • Industry leaders: $10B+ market cap, demand 25% MoS, allocate 10-25% of your portfolio
  • Middlers: $1B-$10B market cap, demand 50% MoS, allocate up to 10% of your portfolio
  • Small fish: <$1B market cap, demand 50%+ MoS, allocate no more than 5% of your portfolio

The percentages are arbitrary but the idea is not. Industry leaders are companies that have proven track records when it comes to cash generation and cash flow sustainability through diverse business conditions. They won’t grow as much (they’re generally too big to do so) but if you can buy them at significant discounts to their intrinsic value, you will be rewarded. These are companies you can buy, read the annual report each year and otherwise sleep easy.

Middlers are companies that are in business limbo. They could grow quickly and become industry leaders, providing you with juicy returns, or they could be surpassed by smaller and larger competitors alike and shrink back to small fish size. Ponzio recommends keeping up with the quarterly reports on these companies and taking prompt action if you think you see any problems approaching.

Finally, small fish are capable of explosive growth… and spectacular failures. Many smaller businesses fail every year. Also, small businesses are often reliant or one or a few major customers for all of their business. If they lose that relationship, or a critical person dies or leaves the firm, their business can evaporate overnight. At the same time, because they are so small, the SF have the most room to grow and if you pick them right, they can turn into the magical “ten-baggers” of Peter Lynch lore. Ponzio recommends following every SEC filing and every news item on these companies as they can go belly up quickly if you aren’t careful.

The key thing to keep in mind is that, however you make your allocation decisions, you should always invest the most in the things you are most confident about. Diversification should be a consequence of your investing decisions, not an outright goal. You will make allocations as various opportunities arise. You don’t benefit yourself by being fully invested all the time, simply to keep your portfolio “balanced” amongst different business types.

Selling Is The Hardest Part

As the legendary Tom Petty once said, “the waiting is the hardest part” and while that’s certainly true of investing for some, what people consistently struggle with even more is knowing when to sell.

There are two times to sell:

  • when your investment has closely neared, met or exceeded your estimate of fair value
  • when the business you’ve invested in has developed some serious problems that will affect its present value and its future ability to generate cash flows

In the first situation, you must avoid getting greedy. If you had an estimate of intrinsic value when you bought the company (at a discount) and over time your forecast bore out, and if there is no completely new developments in the business which would cause you to drastically re-appraise upward the future value of the business, you sell. That’s it.

Similarly, if you make a forecast for the business’s prospects and you later realize you’ve made a big error in your conceptual understanding of the business and its value, you sell. Short term price volatility is not a “realization of your error”. Realization of your error would be the company generating significantly lower owner earnings than you had anticipated, or worse.

Finally, if you feel full of confusion and can’t sleep easily at night about your investment, tossing and turning trying to figure out what is going on, you sell. It’s not worth the stress and you won’t make good decisions in that state of mind. Just sell it and look for something you can understand a little easier.

And don’t be afraid to take a loss. You will not get every decision right. Luckily, you don’t need to– if you invest with a margin of safety, the reality of an occasional error is built in to the collective prices you pay for all your businesses. Never hesitate to sell simply because you want to avoid a loss. You will screw up now and then. Accept it, sell, and move on to your next opportunity.

F-ing Wall Street All Over The Place

There’s still more to this outstanding introduction to value investing but I don’t have the time or interest to go into all of it right now. In the rest of the book, Ponzio discusses arbitrage, workouts and other special investment scenarios and provides a great “how-to” on getting involved with these investments and taking your game to the next level. He also provides a short primer on bond investing and an exploration of the “different types of investors” ala Ben Graham’s conservative versus enterprising investor archetypes. Rounded out with an investor glossary and a short Q&A and this book is a true gem trading at a significant discount to intrinsic value.

More Warren Buffet than Ben Graham, Joe Ponzio’s F Wall Street is a classic and a great starting place for anyone who wants to jump into value investing head first.