Patrick von Sychowski on a conference with the future of entertainment at its core
In Potsdam’s Babelsberg Studio, outside of Berlin, is the largest studio facility in Europe’s mainland. Here, everything from “Metropolis” to “Inglourious Basterds”, Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” to Netflix’s “Dark” was filmed. So it is appropriate that it hosted the first ever Mallen Conference held outside the United States in its 20 year history. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mallen? If you work in film, cinema or entertainment, you definitely should.
The invitation-only Mallen20 — or to give it its full title, the Annual Mallen Scholars and Practitioners Conference in Filmed Entertainment Economics — brings together the elite researchers, academics and professors in the field of economics, management and entertainment. Think of it more as an academic version of Davos or a scholarly Bilderberg Group than IBC or CinemaCon. Founded by Bruce Mallen, a Canadian professor who went on to succeed as a Hollywood producer and real estate developer, the aim of the event is “to get those who study entertainment together with those who make practical decisions about it. Put differently, “to advance the science and practice of entertainment.”
Having previously been held at Florida Atlantic University, UCLA, Yale, Yeshiva University and NYU, this year it was co-chaired by Thorsten Henning-Thurau (University of Munster) and Jannis Funk at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf. A cavernous building, all exposed concrete, steel and glass, it would feel like a futuristic prison were it not for the plants and cafeteria in opposite corners. It also provided good space for presentations by and for the 100-odd delegates.
Kick off with a ‘hackathon’
The first of the two days was billed as a ‘Thought Leaders’ Workshop’. Following a formal welcome by the co-hosts, there was a briefing as the delegates were put into 10 groups and assigned different projects and topics. These would bring together two different communities: the Mallen circle of scholars with representatives from the industry, including senior figures from the likes of Amazon, 20th Century Fox, distributor Wild Bunch and exhibitor Kinopolis.
Each group would come up with a research paper idea that eventually will be published in an academic journal. Brainstorming together, they then presented their work in progress to the larger group. By promoting a dialogue between Industry and academia, the idea was to fuse data and intuition, analytics and theory, with the results published in late 2019. I shadowed Thorsten as he dropped in on different groups to see how they were getting on, as they tackled some of the issues facing the entertainment industry in what came across as The Apprentice with a PhD (NB: from MIT, not Trump University).
How is Disney like LVMH?
It was not an easy or stress-free undertaking “It’s like herding a bunch of cats!” exclaimed one exasperated team leader. But Thorsten was clear and steadfast as he listened in and gave feedback to each group. “As a German you never say ‘That’s great!’” he responded to one presentation in his stern voice, masking a dry sense of humour. Occasionally the exchanges were heated, or as close as possible in academic circles.
Part of the stress came from the scale of the ambition. These were not niche or small subjects. One of the groups looking at Hollywood studios — why do they exist and survive? A particularly pertinent question as 20th Century Fox is swallowed by Disney. Studios have evolved, some over the past century, alongside technological developments. But is the nature of studios changing with new players such as Netflix and Amazon?
Led by the closest thing Mallen has to an academic-rock star, Dr. Allègre Hadida from the University of Cambridge Judge Business, the group delivered insights, such as looking at the ‘portfolio logic of studios’ and ‘brand aggregator’, with Disney being compared to the French luxury conglomerate LVMH. The participants also displayed plenty of flashes of humour, with the title of their paper being “Guardians of the Galaxy or Night of the Living Dead? A Cognitive View of How Studios Make Decisions,” with talks of studios’ “Field of Dreams” strategy versus “Date Movie” strategy.
This ‘Genius of the System’ was contrasted with different legitimizing criteria of new operators like Netflix, whose KPIs rely on metrics like subscriber numbers. Similar insights and papers were put forward for fields that ranged from television and distribution to piracy and social media ‘buzz’. The full findings will be published in due course in partnership with the Journal of Cultural Economics.
Big IMDB Data
Some of the most interesting insights came not from the stage but from discussion in coffee breaks with the delegates, particularly on why filmed entertainment economics appears to be gaining momentum as an academic discipline. A large part of the answer is data — and the biggest source of that data is IMDb.
While most use IMDb to find out where else we saw the actor from that movie, academics deep-mine the internet movie database for numbers that yield insights. This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows [ahem…] more accessible research such as StephenFollows.com weekly numbers-heavy takes on aspects of the entertainment industry.
While academics don’t just rely on IMDb, several highlighted the outsize difference the online resource has made to academic research in this field. Just how much came from the example of one academic whose colleague was offered tenure at UCLA, but turned it down because a better offer came form Disney’s Pixar. It is not that Pixar was offering more money, but because the animation major was offering the chance to work with and access almost unlimited amounts of data. In the same vein, China is busy reversing its brain drain by tempting academics with offers of vast treasure troves of data in every academic field.
The outlines of the papers were presented at an evening event held in central Berlin. This is where academia and entertainment met the tech start-up scene that has made the German capital the ‘Silicon Allee’ of Europe. The event was part of the FilmTech MeetUp that has been going on for over a year, which focuses on the meeting point of film media and technology.
The presentation of papers was preceded by more networking and discussing. It was a privilege to eavesdrop on conversations — in one group, a researcher explained how their paper on the effectiveness of trailers was hungrily snapped up by an exhibitor who proclaimed, “I’m off to beat up [well known Hollywood studio], because this is what I’ve been telling them for years!” There is clearly nothing like going into a business meeting negotiation armed with research vetted and published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
Day 2: Getting scholarly
The second day of Mallen20 was devoted to research presentations. No fewer than 19 different papers were slotted in between 09:00 and 19:00. The roster of speakers came from an elite of universities and management schools and the topics covered a smorgasbord of areas. We were treated to “Binge Yourself Out: the Effect of Binge Watching on the Subscription of Video on Demand,” and “The Impact of Piracy Notice Sending on Motion Picture Purchases: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment in the UK” and “Decomposing the Releasing Timing Effect of Hollywood Movies in International Markets: Evidence from China”. Even if I had understood all the underlying maths, I would not pretend to be able to summarize them. You can head to themallenconference.org.
Then there was the third element to the conference. Not the evening reception and awards ceremony that concluded the day, or even the following day’s “where-the-wall-was” Berlin tour, this instead was the 900- page tome: “Entertainment Science — Data Analytics and Practical Theory for Movies, Games, Books, and Music” from Springer Verlag that was a gift to each delegate. The ambitious aim of Dr. Hennig-Thurau and Dr. Mark B. Houston’s book is to go beyond William Goldman’s famous “Nobody-Knows-Anything” mantra. The work also argues against purely data-driven decision making and “false precision” traps, instead making the case that combining “intuition with data analytics and rigorous scholarly knowledge provides a source of sustainable competitive advantage,” which is what has helped the likes of Netflix, Spotify and also Disney. You will know that you are dealing with a business with an eye to the data-driven future if you spot a copy in the office.
Yet not everything in entertainment economics academia centres around films and television, with another fascinating coffee break insight coming from Professor S. Abraham Ravid of Yeshiva University New York, who in a recent paper discovered that on Broadway well-known theatre actors have a net positive impact on the box office of a play, while celebrities and movie stars typically do not. Another of his papers had found that the most profitable genre is sequels to family films, while remakes could be profitable, but primarily if the source material was strong but the first adaptation was poor. It might seem intuitive, but as “Moneyball” proved, there is no excuse for ‘gut feeling’ not being supplemented with a solid statistical cost-benefit analysis.
Academia: a part of the equation
I came away from Mallen20 with a bad cold but primarily a greater appreciation of what academia has to offer the entertainment industry. The challenge is not that academics are not prepared to come down from the ivory tower to engage with business, but that when they do they often experience resistance. Thorsten recalls that upon publishing a media entertainment piece of research a few years ago he got major pushback from a well-known German cinema trade publication, effectively ‘who are you to tell us this?’
The answer is: somebody you should be listening to. The Mallen Conference has never been more relevant or needed than today, fulfilling the ambition of Bruce Mallen “to get those who study and teach entertainment together with those who make practical decisions about it — the managers that pull the strings in Hollywood and elsewhere in filmed entertainment.” Cinemas are now used to hearing about the importance of Big Data. In the next step organisers of both big and small film festivals and cinema conferences need to start inviting and listening to academics. Even if you can’t follow the equations, don’t worry, there is usually a good film title related joke to end each presentation.