BEVERLY HILLS, California — Content is king, and its dominion is bigger than ever.
Tinseltown took center stage Wednesday afternoon at the Milken Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton — or in Hollywood context, the home of the Golden Globes — as a star-studded panel held court on what it’s like to hold the microphone when all the world’s a stage.
Their point: There’s a limited amount of really good stuff to watch and more people than ever before tuning in for it — especially in Asia. In other words, the potential market size for quality content just got a whole lot bigger, and there’s a really high barrier to entry: star quality. And Hollywood’s got it.
A stable of proven content that plays extremely well in Asia played a big role in this year’s biggest Hollywood M&A deal yet, when Comcast Corp. unit NBCUniversal bought DreamWorks Animation Inc. for $3.8 billion last week.
DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda 3,” which made more money in China than in U.S. theaters, was prominently featured in the panel’s opening video. Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal’s movie division, “absolutely” agreed that China was a key part of DreamWorks’ value.
“In the theatrical business, the U.S. is basically stable,” Shell said. “The growth is in Latin America and Asia. In China, we didn’t even have a single employee there two years ago. Now we have a distribution outlet.”
Quality Remains Rare
Mellody Hobson, DreamWorks’ chairwoman and president of Ariel Investments, said that even as the audience has expanded, top-tier content remains rare. And Hobson believes the emergence of digital streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and their analogues in other countries, only adds to the opportunity. She does not see the emergence of Netflix as a force in television as part of a “zero-sum game” for existing outlets.
“Digital is just another way content will be shown,” she said. “There are not a lot of great ideas. It’s not like there’s a bunch of great storytellers who are a dime a dozen. Because brilliant ideas are so rare, it makes them so much more valuable. And people will get paid.”
Les Moonves, chairman, president and CEO of CBS Corp., said the means of distribution have changed more in the last 18 to 24 months than at any other time period he can remember, as the Netflixes and Amazon Primes of the world have completely transformed syndication. CBS has its own streaming service, CBS All Access, where you can binge-watch the “I Love Lucy” catalog on an iPad — and also catch the network’s upcoming “Star Trek” series. But that means programming that will hook people with so many other options available is more valuable than ever, and CBS seems to have that in spades right now.
“Wireless is useless if you’re hitless,” Moonves said. “But if you have premium content, you can sell it around the world. It’s a great time to be in the content business.”
'Hungry to Do More'
Moonves also said he’s certainly amenable to adding premium content through acquisition, as well.
“We’re hungry to do more,” he said. “We feel like we’re a company about to explode and we are looking for assets to do that with.”
And if content itself is more important than ever, that has to help the people who produce it, said Richard Lovett, president of Creative Artists Agency.
“Content is king and talent creates that content,” he said. “I would argue talent is the most necessary and scarce resource.”
Tapping that resource can pay dividends worldwide. Lovett mentioned CAA’s work in tying actor Vin Diesel to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which has a cult following and prints money around the world. The latest installment, “Furious 7,” is the highest-grossing Hollywood film of all time at the Chinese box office.
Hobson, who called China “a land of opportunity” for DreamWorks, emphasized the importance of creating content that appeals to an audience beyond the average (white) American family that’s been at the center of the TV and movie world since inception, and not just to make a few more yuan at the ticket counter.
She mentioned DreamWorks’ “Home,” which stars a mixed-race character and features the voices of Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna — and made $386 million worldwide on a $135 million budget.
“It’s common sense and dollars and cents,” she said. “We had a tremendous amount of feedback from mothers who were so happy to see a child who looked like theirs.”