Wednesday, December 25, 2013


The holiday season is all about traditions.

Some have developed over generations of family gatherings, broken bread and, inevitably, annual drunken feuds. Loathe or adore them, they're our customs, and that makes them special. Part of our DNA.

Even here, in our little micro-community of 'Tales From the Opening Act', we have our own tradition. You've waited almost a year, but it's finally returned.

The year in review.

For those of you who have joined us this year, I take a different slant on the annual review genre. You see, most pundits use November/December to review the year that is winding down.

I contend that this is folly.

The past is over and, as I wrote when I started this little tradition, 'The time to reflect, and the lessons you feel you need to learn, surely are your own.'

Instead, I review the year ahead. Call it an existential exercise in looking back on a year that hasn't yet started. Call it prognostication, if you prefer. I call it 'Looking forward with an open mind, instead of backward with nostalgia.'

And so, getting finally to the point, I bring you 'The 2014 Review'.

What to expect over the approaching new year?

Let's start with the big picture.

On the economic front, all important for the film/content industries given people need to have spending money for our survival, the global situation will actually have improved dramatically. The U.S. will have had significant job and economic growth, and the first push for a rise in the minimum wage in years. Europe will have stabilised as well, although the difference between Germany and Spain within that overall stability is still an enormous chasm of unemployment.

Which brings us to Australia. I would like to tell you that 2014 will see 'The Great Southern Land' progressing at a boringly comfortable rate, however the new Australian government's economic policy impacts are not clear as yet. A focus on mining expansion may offset the inevitable austerity measures this conservative government introduces, but we'll have to wait and see. In the mean time, you'll have all year to enjoy the effects of the enormous expansion in Australia's coal production on the world. Who needs lungs anyway?

Now, the bad news.

For film-goers, it's going to be 'sequel-o-rama' in 2014, as the major studios aim to play it safe. Captain America, Optimus Prime, Caesar the Ape, Spiderman, Xmen, Bilbo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen all make a big-budget screen return.

For film-goers wanting original fare, or for those who simply abhor the wet sock beating experience of Hollywood franchise marketing, this will be a difficult year in cinema. On the other hand, if your heart sang with delight at each of the character names I mentioned above, then you are either 14 years old, or you enjoy spending $24 on a film where you inevitably say 'the original was better'. Perhaps this won't be such a bad year for you, after all.

As always, there will be flops. Big budget flops are the ones that ripple the most, because they cause general risk aversion in film investors and scare away flighty audiences. While there seems to be a fairly vanilla approach to blockbusters in 2014, the one that stands out, and the one that I think will wear the dunce cap of box office failure, is the 'Robocop' remake. It pains me to say it, because I am a devoted fan of the original film, but I just don't see it making a dent against such well founded existing franchises. With a reported production budget of $120M, I think it's only a matter of how much Sony/MGM will have to write off.

And speaking of blockbusters, be prepared for more, more, MORE.

'Sequels and blockbusters' will be the 2014 ethos for cinemas, as the Hollywood studios try to minimise risk, yet make a massive financial return. Historically, there have been roughly 9 to 13 blockbusters released during the U.S. summer. There were 17 blockbusters released in the U.S. summer in 2013.

There have been 14 announced for 2014 already, with more announcements to come.

If you thought there were too many trailers, TV ads and billboards now, be prepared for mass marketing that never ends.

In an area that has actually been quiet for a while, 2014 will also see the 'filmmakers vs piracy vs internet service providers (ISPs)' tussle, move to the UK. While ISP's have, globally, resisted attempts to make them responsible for piracy conducted on their internet services, the UK is finally implementing a new enforcement law, The Digital Economy Act. The DE Act contains a requirement for online copyright infringers to be given 'three strikes' before facing internet disconnection and ISP blacklisting. The ISPs, in this legal framework, will of course have to play a role, but are still resisting.

Many industry players are watching this situation as it evolves, because it will be the test tube for future laws worldwide. Watch this space.

And finally, 2014 will also see the bad news of the virtually global roll-out of Netflix, the leading streaming video-on-demand (VOD) service. Netflix is in America and Scandinavia, completing its roll out in Europe, and will likely start its Australian expansion early, in 2014.

Why advance their Australian plans?

Because 20,000 Australian subscribers already exist, having individually worked out ways to avoid geo-blocking. Clever Aussies.

The Netflix expansion, however, is horrible news for every existing provider either offering or developing VOD in Australia, including: Foxtel ('Presto'), Dendy Cinemas ('Dendy Direct'), Quickflix, and Telstra ('Bigpond Movies'). What is also unclear, is how the Netflix arrival will affect existing deals film/content makers have with current Australian VOD providers, particularly if, god forbid, it's an exclusive arrangement?

But enough of the anxious hand wringing.

If you've made it this far, you deserve a dose of positivity. Don't fret. There will be good news amongst 2014's banal content, piracy debates, disruptive business moves and blockbuster flops.

Ironically, the good news is actually the inverse of the bad news.

'Sequel-o-rama 2014' will produce some of the most highly anticipated films of the year, not just by 14 year olds, but by critics as well. 'Hunger Games 1' received a very positive 84% rating on the critic's site 'Rotten Tomatoes'.

'Hunger Games 2'?

An outstanding 90%

So, as much as my cynicism is my finest asset, 'sequel-o-rama' seems to be producing films actually worth watching. Cliche's were made to be broken, after all.

And, while the combination of sequels and blockbusters may seem enough to make your eyes bleed, it was the blockbusters that actually rescued the 2013 U.S. summer from being 12-15% down at the outset, to a record year at the box office. While 2014 won't hit those record numbers, because there just isn't a franchise big enough to match the heady heights of Iron Man 3's $1.2 billion box office gross, expect the blockbusters to again buoy the box office worldwide and continue to keep the industry profitable.

That's a good thing for audiences and filmmakers alike, in case you were wondering.

My very flimsy prediction is for 'Hunger Games 3' to be the biggest box office smash of 2014, however 'The Hobbit 3' could just as easily sneak in; given it's the concluding film of the trilogy. If 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' is the highest grossing film of 2014, at least Michael Bay will finally stop making films, having been at last claimed by hell for his Faustian success contract.

Meanwhile, on the classier end of the spectrum, the 2014 Awards contenders will be difficult to separate.

While 'Gravity' and '12 Years a Slave' are the favourites, the momentum seems to be with 'American Hustle' for the 2014 Best Picture Oscar. Never underestimate, however, the power of Oprah Winfrey and the Weinsteins to wrangle 'The Butler' into the winner's circle.

On the Australian front, the Australian Academy Awards (The AACTA's) are shaping up as a battle between the overcooked drippings of 'The Great Gatsby', and the quirky Laotian charm of 'The Rocket'. If its industry and audience response at the Sydney Film Festival premiere are anything to go on, look to 'The Rocket' to sweep the AACTA's in 2014.

Which leaves us, finally, with the good news of Netflix's expansion into Australia. But how can the bad news of Australian VOD providers' business disruption in 2014 possibly have an inverse good news story?

For audiences, of course.

While Foxtel, Telstra and the rest treat Australia like their personal ant farm, where they can experiment with video-on-demand but not provide a service anywhere near what the audience wants, Netflix arrives and blows their experiment to pieces. Audiences will finally be able to really experience the service of: content they want; when they want it; how they want it.

And trust me, audiences will be hooked; which is only good news for film and content makers.

So, are you now suitably confused? Wondering what this murky 2014 picture of interrelated good and bad news stories mean for you?

The easiest way to comprehend it is in the continuum.

2013 was the year of 'question everything'. There were so many unanswered riddles, so much uncertainty, so many changing paradigms, that the only real approach was to interrogate the entire mess, and see what truths fell out.

2014 will be the year of 'perspectives'.

The global economic recession is receding. Money is flowing again. Tentatively, but it's flowing.

There are a lot more answers than there were a year ago. For example, regarding the prevalence of blockbusters, on the health of the box office, and on the level of demand for video streaming services like Netflix.

What determines whether these answers are 'good' or 'bad' news, however, is you.

It depends on your chosen circumstances.

How adaptive you can be.

How open to taking the new opportunities, and running with them, you are.

In short, your perspective counts now more than ever. It's the prism by which the events of 2014 will either be a blessing or a curse.

Yes, the bleak shadow of the GFC is finally behind us. But now the work really starts.

2014 can be a big year for you. But are you ready?

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The 2013 Review (written in 2012)

The 2012 Review (written in 2011)

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