The Eyeball Economy And The Value Of Visibility

April 27, 2015

At CinemaCon 2015, an annual star-studded gathering of movie-theater owners where studio heads come to hype their upcoming movie slates, there were a lot of the standard sales pitches. Every studio, one by one, talked about their upcoming films, showed trailers, had stars come out to woo the crowd, and dropped as much awe and surprise on the exhibitors as possible. Sony, for instance, trumpeted their prestige fare, like Ang Lee’s military homecoming drama, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” However, what was most striking were not the individual films or a single presentation, but instead a single photo Disney showed that laid out their films coming out from now until the summer of 2017.

What was so striking about it was the sheer density of pop-culture-swaying billion-dollar films has on the horizon. Ever since Disney acquired Pixar, Marvel, and most recently LucasFilm, this has been their master plan. They are through with small original films that could turn a decent profit — genre films for instance — and only want giant franchises that are going to be seen by a large portion of the movie-going population on Earth.

Of the 24 films coming out in the next two years alone, they have:

  • Three Star Wars films
  • Five Marvel films
  • Four Pixar films (including “Toy Story 4”)
  • Two original Disney animated films
  • Four adaptations of previous Disney properties (“Tomorrowland,” “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Pete’s Dragon”)
  • Sequels to two Johnny Depp-led billion-dollar franchises (“Alice in Wonderland” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”)
  • Two Steven Spielberg films

It becomes clear they’ve abandoned not just the idea of “small” films, but also “original” ones. Instead, they’re opting for mythologies and universes that can be endlessly exploited, built upon, and mined for adaptations in whatever form they please. To Disney, these movie represent a beachhead in the pop culture wars, a way to capture precious attention and brainspace from consumers all around the globe. The idea being that while these movies will be wildly profitable, they represent a tiny fraction of the possible revenue generated from the IP. So, the more consumers are aware of the individual brands, the more they will be to keep consuming down the line, in whatever form that may take. So on and so on, ’til the end of time.

What makes these particular films have a slightly old-school feeling to them them is they are still a fairly basic consumerist exchange, roughly a “give us your money to consume a thing” model. While that exchange of dollars for content lead to an increasing awareness of brands, it is only indicative of the ever growing “eyeball economy” where all that maters are the views themselves, decoupled nearly completely from the direct exchange of revenue.

While Disney is clearly betting on a nearly unrivaled, worldwide viewership arms race, other companies are as well. The value of eyeballs and visibility has skyrocketed, and Hollywood is no longer the arbiter of pop culture in and of itself. Now, Silicon Valley is the king of the hill. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp are not just the medium but the message of pop culture itself. They are the things the drive the conversation — and are therefore the things that become the most valuable.

Yet, there’s still confusion around the non-quid-pro-quo business models of high-valuation startups with nearly zero revenue. How can WhatsApp, for instance, be acquired by Facebook for $17 billion, a sum that makes it roughly as valuable as Southwest Airlines or General Mills, and yet have no real revenues? The answer is that it had over a billion users. More than a seventh of the world is using WhatsApp and interacting with it on a daily basis. When that sort of collective experience is taking place, it’s impossible for a culture conversation to be pushed in one way or another. Technology has the power to move large swaths of humanity in the same way that movies did, and Disney still is banking heavily that it can.

But where there are one billion eyeballs, the thought goes, so to revenue will follow. Yet this doesn’t need to be directly from consumer to WhatsApp, because as arbiters of pop culture, brands will always want to get integrated in the stream. With the combination of data that can create hyper-focused audiences, and a gigantic platform that creates patterns of behavior in its users, companies will always want a piece of the action. This “if you build it, they will come” model is increasingly the norm. All that matters is that whatever thing is being constructed, be it content or app, that it be the brightest neon sign on the Vegas strip. Revenue is negligible, at least initially, where eyeballs are concerned.

This is also why, as tech companies increase their prominence in the psychosphere, movie studios will become less and less viable in fighting for a slice of consumer attention spans. Outside of Disney, which has cemented its permanence and necessity into the distant future, other movie studios don’t have any good reason to be around. Sony Pictures, for instance, exists only to schlep the mediocre technology hardware of its parent company, which is increasingly debilitated from hacks and running an unwinnable race with Apple. Google or Facebook will buy a movie studio in the next five years — most likely Sony, because content still matters — even if it’s there only to draw attention to the various platforms on which its content is released. Google needs to serve Google Play, Facebook is constantly trying to lure more publishers to publish natively on their site, and it is, after al,l why Netflix and Amazon are trading multi-billion dollar shots across each other’s bows by ravenously buying new content each year.

At the end of the day, all that matters is how many people look at your thing.