There are a lot of ‘Which is better, cinema or television or Youtube?’ posts out there:
- Cinema is better, by Slate
- Cinema is better, by Vanity Fair
- TV is better, by The Guardian
- Cinema is better, by New Yorker
- Television is better, by Slate
- Youtube is better, by Huffington Post
- Youtube is better, by Google
Some of the authors make great points, but most of the arguments put forth are disappointing for one simple reason:
They cherry pick a small slice of successful shows (Breaking Bad, The Americans, etc.) against a small slice of movies (What got nominated for the Oscars). Then they base their arguments on the perception of success of these shows or movies year-on-year. One year it’s TV and the next, cinema, ad nauseum.
You can’t blame them. They are writing for the audience that watches these movies and shows. My concern is for the filmmakers who make these shows or movies. Actually, my concern is for those filmmakers who must survive and thrive making shows and movies that don’t fit the ‘blockbuster success’ category.
An analogy to help you understand the complexity
Which is the bigger or more lucrative ‘industry’: Hollywood or wedding videography? People get married all the time, and the net profit per wedding earned by the filmmakers combined (the industry) might or might not be greater than the combined revenues of the Hollywood industry.
The total Hollywood domestic gross for cinemas is about $4 billion, while the total revenues in all media (including TV, discs, etc.) is $7 billion. Let’s use the latter figure. Out of $7 billion, the net income is usually only 10-15%. Let’s say it’s 20% that goes into the pockets of the studios. That’s a net income of $1.4 billion.
On the other hand, there are about 2 million marriages in the US each year. If the average profit earned by a wedding videographer is $1,000 per wedding, then the net income is $2 billion.
There are a lot of factors that go into the ‘bigness’.
- Money is just one angle.
- Most of the money earned from films goes into the pockets of a select few, while the earnings of the wedding industry goes into thousands of pockets. One could say, as far as filmmakers are concerned, wedding videography is more democratic.
- On the other hand, more people go to cinemas to watch movies (even excluding television and VOD) than people who watch wedding videos. Even if 10 people watched a wedding video per wedding, that’s only 20 million viewers a year. Cinema has about 200 million. In this case, as far as viewers are concerned, cinema can be said to be more democratic.
Which is bigger? Depends on what your agenda is. Mind you, this example is only to illustrate the complexity of the problem. In it, we are comparing industries, while this article eschews that to compare media (more later).
I side with the filmmakers and their livelihoods. The goal of this article is to uncover the medium that holds the most opportunities and greatest promise for current and future filmmakers.
What information do we need to know to declare the winner?
To answer such a question with some certainty, one must have hard numbers. I’ll try to keep my opinions to a minimum.
How do we know if a medium is the best? Money always talks. Here are some of the variables that I think are important:
- Eyeballs – Which medium will generate the most eyeballs? Which medium is ubiquitous and can reach all corners of the earth?
- Money – Which medium offers the greatest return on investment? Which medium offers the most advertising revenues? Which is the most sustainable business model?
- Failure threshold – Which medium is the most resistant to failure? In other words, can you test a product and improve it as you go along? E.g., you can write a play, have a rehearsal and keep making it better. Movies don’t allow that unless you’ve already shot enough footage. Therefore, the market should be tolerant of failure, and your business must be able to sustain a few without going kaput.
- Threats – Which medium is the best for long term archivability and data retrieval? Which medium is in danger of becoming extinct itself, by nature of the technologies used?
- Pain – Which medium offers the most painless and fastest ‘find and watch’ experience?
- Opportunities – Which medium offers to support every type of film and video making out there? Which is the most democratic? Which has the least barriers to entry?
- Scalability – Which medium can become automated, diversified and involve more individuals?
Knowing the answers to these variables should tell us which medium is the ‘best’, not in a universal sort of way, but for our own individual businesses.
To put it plainly, if a medium is wanted by most of the population and they are willing to pay good money for it, and it is sustainable, then that’s the medium for the profit-minded filmmaker.
What media are we comparing
I’m going to look at ‘cinema’, ‘television’ and ‘Internet video’:
Cinema is a large or medium sized auditorium declared as a commercial enterprise legally, with the sole objective of earning revenue from patrons watching movies. It doesn’t matter if it’s part of a multiplex or IMAX, or if it’s showing four quadrant tentpole summer blockbusters or indie film or porn.
To be a part of the cinema industry, you must have the wherewithal to display your movies in a real cinema(s) – what we call a theatrical release.
Television is the display of videos via monitors or TV sets in non-commercial locations (homes, workplaces, etc.) using broadcasting technology, both digital and analog. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying a monthly bill, or paying by-demand.
To be part of the television industry, your work must be visible on television networks. Local cable counts.
Internet video is the display of digital videos via monitors in commercial and non-commercial locations (as the case may be) using Internet streaming technology. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching live streamed content or video on demand.
To be a part of the Internet video industry, your work must be visible on a web browser or application (mobile or desktop).
What about DVDs and Blu-ray?
DVDs and Blu-ray constitute video on demand, both encoded using television technology. I will ignore this medium, but only because storage is something you can do with both TV and Internet video too. E.g., movies are stored on DVDs, but it is in fact, just digital data. The same thing can be stored on hard drives. Instead of individual hard drives, you can store many movies on one hard drive. This technology is already offered by television and Internet video. Similarly, a movie master DCP is also stored on a hard drive.
Where do you draw the line?
In other words, it does not constitute a medium in the same sense the others do, and it’s more of ownership of the content and archival. How do you want to own your video – DVD, Blu-ray, film reel or hard drive? If I include one storage system, I’ll have to include all of them. I’ll pass. However, just because I’m not including it my comparison doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.
Let’s start with our variables.
Which medium generates the most eyeballs?
It’s all about space and time. Let’s start with a chart (click to enlarge):
By space, I mean the total number of physical devices or screens possible, and the total number of people that can watch it. It’s not hard to guess, but the maximum potential of any country is the population of that country. If you look at the above chart, you’ll see the total people watching per year in the USA is all about the same range (200-300 million).
Television is watched by 96% of the population, and some form of Internet video (which is why I included Netflix) is watched by as many people. Cinema viewership is way lower, though not a small number by any means.
The most distinguishing statistic is the people per screen number. Both Netflix and Television markets to the household, while Youtube markets to the user. Cinema screens, seemingly, market to the mob (not that mob, the human mob). It doesn’t take genius to figure out that cinema can never be personalized. Sure, you’re watching in a dark auditorium but you have no control over the media being played. Neither can messaging or information be displayed that addresses you personally.
The other important statistic is the number of hours watched per person per day. This is the ‘time’ factor. Television is the leader here, with twice as many hours viewed per day as cinema or Netflix. Youtube lags far behind, and you can tell, after a while people just stop watching stuff on Youtube. Why this is, we don’t know yet. It could be just Youtube (Netflix has better numbers, so it can’t be Internet video as a whole) or the kind of videos found on Youtube. The why part is only known to Google, and they haven’t released hard stats about that aspect of their business.
The total number of hours that can be watched is only about 5. I really don’t see how people (on average!) can watch more than 5 hours of video content in a day. Any more than that and you can’t any work done!
If I had to declare a winner based on today’s numbers, the winner is clearly television. Nothing garners as many hours in a year as television.
What about the future? The number of television sets can’t increase. It’s already at 96% of households. Cinema has two strikes against growing:
- Image quality isn’t getting better any time soon (unless all movies are converted to 8K IMAX dome screens!)
- It has reached almost all corners of the earth, but not in a way that television has.
Internet video on the other hand, can at least match television’s performance. It can also jump into your hand via a mobile device and be as close to you as possible.
For the future, as far as eyeballs are concerned, both television and Internet video have equal potential. It’s a war.
Sources for the chart:
Television numbers: New Media Rockstars
Netflix numbers: Statistic Brain
In Part Two, we’ll cover the rest of our variables.