c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES — The movie industry is whooshing toward its digital future, but some players are worried about getting stuck in an informational void along the way.

The business has long used box-office numbers, which are publicly sliced and diced ad infinitum. Similarly, disc sales and rentals for years have been monitored by the Rentrak data company and others.

But as consumers shift to new channels like Netflix and Amazon.com, there are no generally available industrywide data on the digital performance of individual movies.

While the studios get some information, it isn’t widely shared with filmmakers, agencies or the public — and those who hold the data have a distinct advantage when it comes to making deals or deciding which movies to back, or what to spend on them.

By and large, public reports of digital performance are currently limited to a handful of films, or they simply report rankings without numbers. As of Aug. 27, for instance, Rentrak’s public listing showed “The Great Gatsby” to be the top performing on-demand film as reported by its participating services, but it offered no stats.

In an address at the Toronto International Film Festival last Tuesday, Liesl Copland, a digital media expert from the William Morris Endeavor Entertainment agency, told a small group of documentary filmmakers about this large, if barely visible, problem.

Movies tumble into “analytic black holes” when they are viewed on subscription services like Netflix, on-demand providers like the cable companies and iTunes, or an advertising-driven distributor like SnagFilms, she said.

“Reporting hasn’t evolved with the rapidly increasing viewership patterns,” Copland noted. “There is still no uniform reporting system that aggregates all data on, say, a film or documentary across all of its platforms.”

This wasn’t some data lover’s plea for more, more, more. A former Netflix executive who now helps to package and sell films for one of Hollywood’s largest agencies, Copland comes to her topic with an insider’s sense of both the problems and the possibilities in movie data-sharing. In her current role, she desperately wants to know more about the digital audience, whose behavior is now crucial to structuring deals and advising clients as to whether a particular project will fly.

“Richer content and more engaged audiences” she posited, might result from access to shared data — and, of course, more deal-making leverage for agents.


Digital distributors, she pointed out, may know infinitely more about their customers than studios could glean from their box-office analytics, even when bolstered by focus groups, exit polls, prerelease tracking interviews and close monitoring of social media.

It is no trick for a subscription or on-demand movie service to figure out what you like, when you like to watch it, how much you’re willing to pay and even whether you are — i.e., sneaking a peak at a film or show, though you’ve promised to watch with a mate.

In making decisions about whether to back series like “House of Cards,” Copland reminded her listeners, Netflix relied heavily on its enormous bank of largely private information.


In truth, on-demand distributors share a great deal of data with the studios from which they’ve purchased films. For the last several years, moreover, the studios, large and small, have been sharing title-by-title information about digital downloads with each other via an arrangement with Rentrak, which collects the data and circulates it among roughly 170 entertainment company clients.

The studios also receive reports with some information on the streaming of individual titles from the NPD Group, another data company. But detailed streaming data are not routinely shared with filmmakers, agencies or news organizations.

Bruce Goerlich, Rentrak’s chief research officer, noted that the wall around digital performance information was simply an extension of confidentiality strictures that have long surrounded video performance numbers.

“Measurement can equal monetization can equal a fight,” he said of the entertainment industry’s tendency to conceal data.


Goerlich, who spoke by telephone last week, seconded what Ronald J. Sanders, the president of worldwide home entertainment distribution at Warner Bros., had to say about the public availability of box-office numbers (which are also compiled under an industry arrangement with Rentrak, then distributed to the press and others), compared with the digital numbers.

“There’s less consumer interest in it,” Sanders said of the home entertainment numbers. If the general public were more interested in on-demand performance, he said, there would probably “be a stronger push to make it available.”


But there is plenty of industry interest. According to the Digital Entertainment Group, which monitors home entertainment spending, revenue from digital delivery of films and television shows in the United States was more than $3 billion for the first six months of 2013, up 24 percent from about $2.5 billion in the first half of last year. The growth rate promises a moment when digital revenue from movies and shows will rival the relatively flat North American motion picture box-office, which was about $10.8 billion 2012.

Recently, the Motion Picture Association of America identified 95 services providing digital access to films and television shows in the U.S., up from fewer than 20 in 2006.

But what is actually happening to individual films on those services? “I can still only guess,” Copland said.

Pointedly, Copland delivered her Toronto address — titled “Digital On Demand: Show Us the Numbers” — to documentary filmmakers. That is because documentarians, whose films rarely perform well at the box office but often have a vibrant digital life, might gain the most from any immediate move toward digital transparency.

Still, documentary makers, feisty but fragile, lack the muscle to realize one of Copland’s more radical proposals: the marking of every film with a bar-codelike identifier that would then be tracked through every viewing in a way that is readily transparent to interested observers like herself.

(The film industry already tags many of its films, but public availability of the resulting information is another matter.)

That kind of change might have to be forced, she theorizes, by the Hollywood guilds, which are now preparing for a round of contract negotiations in which digital issues — of a kind that brought the film industry to a halt during the hard-fought writers’ strike of 2007 — will be central.

“Transparency could have a watershed moment in those negotiations,” Copland suggested, if studios could be boxed into demanding, and disseminating, more information from the digital platforms.

A spokesman for the Writers Guild of America, West declined to say whether digital transparency could, or should, become a bargaining point in that guild’s next round of contract talks.

Until then, digital film revenue will keep growing; but most of us will have no way to know if a tiny documentary became a digital giant, or if a big-screen blockbuster underperformed among those who click-and-view.

“For the moment, this space is equivalent to a landfill in an earthquake,” Copland said. “All the patterns go haywire.”