Tuesday, February 5, 2019

AN M-NET MOVIES POP-UP CHANNELS ORAL HISTORY. M-Net’s delicate dalliance with international movie distributors: ‘When they hear M-Net, everyone sees dollar signs’.

For over 30 years in South Africa and across sub-Saharan Africa, M-Net has remained the premier and premium first-TV window for Hollywood’s films straight-off-their cinema run.

And while the pay-TV outfit’s unrivalled feat is every so often erroneously criticised as exclusive content hoarding, the reality is that major studios’ content and films don’t simply fall into M-Net’s lap, with M-Net that’s been involved in a decades-long, and ongoing, delicate to-and-fro dance to buy film rights as it tries to license everything from blockbusters to art house movies without getting exploited in deals that won’t break the bank.

The truth – that uninformed viewers, DStv subscribers, as well as broadcasting rivals don’t know, won’t say and that M-Net wouldn’t readily admit – is that acquiring not just the best but almost all of Hollywood’s latest theatrical releases for a quick, first pay-TV window run on its M-Net (DStv 101) and M-Net Movies channels subset on MultiChoice’s DStv satellite pay-TV platform, is expensive (and sometimes too expensive), not always a given and often fraught with difficult negotiations.

It’s something that M-Net learnt to do the hard way, over many years, through many mistakes and successes.

It’s also something that M-Net keeps doing – better than the struggling SABC and commercial free-to-air broadcaster, e.tv and MultiChoice’s biggest rival, the Chinese pay-TV rival StarTimes/StarSat.

It has helped to create a perception in some quarters, quite unfairly, that M-Net simply bulldozes through; throwing wads of subscriber cash to get what it wants, as it pays its way for play.

To borrow the title of the American president Donald Trump’s erstwhile bestseller, the reality of the matter is that M-Net doesn’t just get everything it wants – or everything easily – when it comes to securing film rights for, for instance, its institutionalised Sunday night 20:00 movie slot on M-Net or its litany of M-Net Movies channels.

It’s that M-Net when it comes to securing movies, managed to learn and master “the art of the deal”.

Far from simply and easily gobbling up whatever hot new content and films exist to show it for Africa - carpetbagger style - the Randburg-based pay-TV’er, that contrary to appearances doesn’t sit with an unlimited pot of cash to splash, does manage for margins within set budgets, must think carefully, and must constantly exercise vigilance through a delicate dalliance with a litany of distributors as it tries to secure the biggest raft of new films exclusively through independent, studio output and other structured deals.

Lynn Fourie, the senior manager for acquisitions and scheduling for M-Net Movies, says one of the most important and trickiest questions for M-Net with film acquisition remains: “How much am I going to pay for it?”

“Because they hear ‘M-Net’ and it’s like dollar signs suddenly going up – ‘Ooh, M-Net wants this movie,’ she explains.

The past few months the new subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) streaming service from Cell C, Cell C black, has also started to dabble in hot-out-the-oven film releases – the first real competition and competitor for M-Net in decades on the movie front.

Cell C black has smartly been making hay from and exploiting the video streaming release window that didn’t really exist before and that follows after a film’s off-circuit run but is slotted before the traditional, linear pay-TV run.

Make no mistake: Cell C black is paying – similar to what M-Net had done and carefully managed for years – a pretty penny to make a feature film like Marvel's Black Panther available to subscribers.

It is possible for rivals to play M-Net’s movie game in South Africa – if they’re willing to put substantial money on the table and invest in whatever long-term strategy they have, for the long haul.

It’s just that besides Cell C, until now, nobody really wanted or wants to.

M-Net’s success, consumer perception, and commercial and reputational lead regarding showing “all of the best films first” isn’t unassailable. It’s that M-Net went to the field and continues to bat with a plan.

M-Net Movies pop-up channels on DStv: An unfolding journey
M-Net Movies is continuing its journey of expansion, learning, making mistakes, and of trying and trying again of packaging and running limited-period, themed, M-Net Movies pop-up channels on MultiChoice’s DStv.

These have ranged from channels like Star Wars and Harry Potter, to 2019's M-Net Movies Game On sports films pop-up channel and the upcoming M-Net Movies EPIC pop-up channel that will revolve around war films and battle movies.

“We launched the new set of M-Net Movies channels in 2012 and we thought that we had to do something new to invigorate the channels and offer something to DStv subscribers,” says Lynn Fourie.

At M-Net’s comprehensive 3-day programming upfront for the press in mid-February that took place at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg, Lynn Fourie, during a panel discussion session about M-Net Movies, gave an oral history and insider’s perspective as she talked about the gestation, background and ongoing growth of the M-Net Movies pop-up channels.

“We knew that pop-up channels had happened in the world before, where Sky in the United Kingdom for instance had pop-up channels, so Jan du Plessis, director of M-Net channels, gave the instruction: ‘Lynn, go forth and launch a pop-up channel.”

“So it was a learning curve for us as well because we’ve never done that before, but basically it was to offer something new to our viewers and our subscribers.”

As to why M-Net is doing M-Net Movies pop-up instead of scheduling films on M-Net and on the existing linear M-Net Movies channels available on DStv, Lynn Fourie says “the thing is – and we find this from feedback as well – is that a pop-up channel is very specifically curated around a theme”.

“You also find all the movies in one place on one channel. You don’t have to wear out your finger with the remote control to find the content”.

“What’s also worth to know is that with a particular pop-up channel around a theme, we might get movies that we don’t usually license, or that we might not have a licence for, so it just makes it exciting for us then to go and source all this content – to package and curate something that’s a bit different from what you might normally see on the movie channels.”

So how does M-Net come up with the themes? “It draws from what’s happening in the world around us,” says Lynn Fourie.

“So we know superhero movies are the flavour of the month, the year, whatever. So it’s ‘Let’s see, why can’t we do a DC movies pop-up channel?’ for instance, like we did in November 2018; the same that we had with Marvel – or even the franchises. There was a Harry Potter pop-up for instance with all of the movies. Fabulous! Let’s curate another package like that.”

“Then what we do is the process. That is the fun part,” says Lynn Fourie. “It’s not just me deciding ‘We’re going to have this movie’. It’s a team. We have marketing guys, publicity, even our promo schedulers and schedulers weigh-in with ‘What about this movie? What about that movie?’ So it’s very much a team effort as well.”

Lynn says it’s also driven by what audiences like. “There are a couple of movies that are just proof of what we say, for example, Titanic. Or Braveheart. You can slot and schedule that movie every single week and DStv subscribers watch it. So you look very much as well at what people are saying.”

“So for example, when we spoke about the M-Net Movies Game On sports films pop-up channel, people in the building for instance immediately started asking ‘Are you getting Friday Night Lights?’ And I would go: ‘Yes, we are.’ So it’s that input from everybody that helps us to make sure that we offer the best that we can,” says Lynn.

On breakdowns, can’t gets and Plan B’s
“What we discovered is that the franchise M-Net Movies pop-up channels work extremely well,” says Lynn Fourie.

“So it’s the ones that have a very specific theme – Harry Potter, Marvel, DC, Fast and Furious – those are a given.”

“But the pop-up channel that really challenged us and which we found to be a lot of fun after the nervous breakdowns and everything else was the 100 movies to see before you die which was the M-Net Movies Bucket List pop-up channel.”

“We then started, there were about 20 people in a very small boardroom, and Jan du Plessis was in charge with a whiteboard and a pen. People started tossing titles out, and we started writing them on the board.”

“Literally people got very emotional, people were ready to almost hit each other at some points with ‘Why can’t we have this movie?’, ‘Why is this number 10?’, ‘Are you crazy?’ So you pull up a wishlist – and I end up with maybe 200 titles – but what’s very important as well is that not all the titles are available to license.”

“In my heart of hearts I felt that I really wanted this film for the M-Net Movies Oscars pop-up channel, but I couldn’t get it because legally, due to licensing rights, it was just not available and I had to make a Plan B.”

“In 2017 and 2018 we did four M-Net Movies pop-up channels on DStv each year. In 2019 we’ve got M-Net Movies Game On as a sports pop-up; we are still planning the year ahead.”

“I must mention that I don’t live in the present,” says Lynn Fourie. “I’m in the future. I’m working on what’s happening in November 2019 and into March 2020 already.”

“We are working furiously and frantically to get the ideas for pop-up channels locked down. I’m very excited about it, one particular channel is going to take a lot of legwork, I’m 30% there, I just need to push through to the other 70%.”

“Looking at how the M-Net Movies pop-up channels have performed and some of the channels – I can’t say exactly which ones – but some of them were the number one rated on DStv if you look at all the movie channels at that given time, even if for some the focus wasn’t quite there, for instance M-Net Movies Inspire that we did in December 2016. That was a slightly difficult one,” admits Lynn Fourie.

“The content was … exactly what is inspirational?”

“But we found that for that time of the year, people wanted fuzzy and warm. We always learn to focus our plans for the next pop-up channel better.”

“That’s why with M-Net Movies Game On, it’s very specific. What’s nice about it, is that it’s not just the big sports movies that are just for older people. We also have content in there that’s aimed at a younger audience. So the channel’s content is for an across-the-board audience to watch.”

“The learning is that franchises are great. And if you do a pop-up channel that’s slightly longer, with a different theme, it’s just about what you curate, and how you schedule.”

"Difficult but rewarding," Lynn Fourie says about the M-Net Movies Bucket List pop-up channel.

“I can keep you going for hours just about the backroom issues because you had 100 movies, where the top 10 were secret.”

“It just caused huge problems on MultiChoice’s DStv electronic programme guide (EPG) for instance. When you press “i”, normally you see the name of the movie, the cast and everything else. In this case, we couldn’t do that because we didn’t want to give away the top 10.”

“So everybody who was involved with that – from on-air to the people doing the processing of the materials, to marketing – it was just such an amazing achievement and I can’t express how much I appreciate everybody who worked together to just make this work.”

About the time it takes to do a channel, Lynn Fourie says “you need a minimum lead-time of 8 months”.

“What happens is you end up with a list of content. Then I have to source the content; find out who holds the rights. Does it lay with a particular studio? Is it an independent? I then have to approach them.”

“I have to structure a deal. You have to negotiate the rights. How many times can you exhibit it and more importantly how much am I going to pay for it? Because they hear ‘M-Net’ and it’s like dollar signs suddenly going up, ‘Ooh, M-Net wants this movie’. So that can take an incredible amount of time.”