The Business of Media Distribution: Monetizing Film, TV and Video Content in an Online World
by Jeffrey C. Ulin

It seems cheeky at the moment to announce on the cover of a book how to “monetize in the online world” “from concept to $1 billon” — no one has been able to make money on the web at the same scale that conventional distribution offers, near as I can tell. But I do appreciate that Jeffrey C. Ulin, a former distribution manager at LucasFilm, Paramount and Universal, is offering a theoretical framework.

Right up top he presents Ulin’s Rule:

Content value is optimized by exploiting the factors of time, repeat consumption (platforms), exclusivity and differential pricing in a pattern taking into account external market conditions and interplay of the factors among each other.

If your eyes just glazed over reading that, you are not alone. Although the bulk of the book is not as dense and jargon-heavy, I would have found a breezier tone helpful in slogging through some of the unsexy topics it covers.

And like a strong distributor, the book covers a large territory. Taking the “from concept” literally, there is a chapter on development (and a short discussion of how PIXAR manages to have a greater success rate with the stories it develops than any other producer in history). Also of wider scope are a chapter on financing, one on Hollywood’s creative accounting, and a chapter on marketing. But the heart of the book remains media distribution, and the remaining chapters break it down traditionally according to outlet: theatrical, home video, television and ancillary (merchandising, video games, airlines, etc.).

This book itself is remarkably difficult to put into a distribution category. There is a great deal of material in here that independent filmmakers need not concern themselves with, except out of curiosity about how things are done by conventional studios, who can avail themselves of much greater resources. Those working in distribution in the big media companies, on the other hand, will probably already be familiar with much of this, and might desire both more technical information and more outside-the-box speculation about radical ways to restructure operations. Film students would do well to tackle overviews of the industry that do a bit more hand-holding such as The Filmmakers Handbook or are designed as textbooks, such as Entertainment Industry Economics, although there is an encyclopedic quality to this book that makes it read better as a reference than a cover-to-cover experience. I definitely think that industry observers, such as business reporters and market analysts, would find the whole of this book beneficial.

Reading the book did spark some thinking about the nature of this strange industry. On p. 49, Ulin points out that, unlike with other industries, the consumer can’t truly know if they will like the product until after it has been consumed: “If you accept this proposition, then development and distribution may be less bookends than the blind leading the blind.” While the film industry is highly chaotic, accepting that proposition may be going a step too far. I think there are some factors that will indicate if a script will make a good film, or if a given viewer will enjoy a movie.

Ulin seems to equivocate on the subject. Quoting Art DeVany’s Hollywood Economics, he notes that herding and information cascade effects make ‘word of mouth’ unpredictable. On the other hand, Ulin’s Rule would seem to imply that a distributor can figure out the best way to position a film, presumably because there are indicators which give clues about how best to do so. That he believes the subject merits a book is a hint that perhaps he does not truly assert that the driver at the wheel the school bus is blind — maybe just in need of some sun glasses?

Often to the chagrin of film producers, the art of a distribution executive is not to give each film the best shot it can have at ‘catching fire’ but to allocate limited resources for a slate of films to maximize returns for the whole shebang. Ulin covers many tools which distribution professionals have at their disposal, among them licensing models, trailers, press and PR, joint ventures and profiling release patterns.

Ulin emphasizes the ‘known knowns’ of distribution, how it has conventionally been done up until this age of the internet. The history lessons are well-chosen, but there are few examples from other industries which might shed light on how the unstable current system might shake out. And Ulin’s Rule and other rules of thumb presented in the book would be much more useful if put into mathematical terms, even if only in an appendix in the back. It’s one thing to say that a distributor must balance exclusivity with differential pricing, but a formula that attempted to quantify the balance would provide a great deal more information.

The few times I get a sense of point of view from Ulin, I strongly disagreed with his take. For example, in discussing piracy, he uncritically quotes figures from the MPAA about lost revenues. There is no discussion of whether the premise that every person who pirates a movie would have paid full price in the first place is a valid one, nor of the effects of persecuting potential customers, nor if it is even possible to reduce piracy beyond a certain level, much less completely eliminate it. (I did agree with Ulin’s suggested anti-piracy strategy, which is to undercut or co-opt the pirates, making legal partners of them when it is in the capitalistic interest of both parties.)

Brief flashes of personality aside, The Business of Media Distribution is flat and journalistic. It is well-researched and clearly comes from someone with a deep practical knowledge of the world of distribution. Because it lacks a strong point of view on the subject, however, I can’t recommend it for casual readers. Those with a deep interest in the subject probably have their own point of view, so I recommend they bring it along.