Ted Hope, producer and former co-head of movies at Amazon Studios, offered a glimpse of hope for the documentary film industry while discussing streaming opportunities at Danish doc fest CPH:DOX on Tuesday.
The discussion was part of the festival’s CHP:Conference program and its series of talks entitled “Redistribution:Economy,” which seeks to explore new economic models in the wake of the COVID pandemic that has laid bare the unequal nature of the global economy.
Documentaries stand to benefit from both big global streamers that are constantly looking to build their audiences as well as from specialized platforms targeting specific viewers, Hope said. He cautioned, however, that the big players prefer documentaries with mass appeal. The proliferation of niche platforms catering to specialized audiences is offering greater opportunities for more distinct fare.
One of the key things to recognize is the streamers’ need for a “targeted audience at a low price point,” he stressed. “That’s basically the equation for efficiency. The most valuable type of audience member for a streamer is the new audience member. How do you attract new people to the platform? People that are not only passionate about something but have actually displayed their passion in a predictable way, are ripe precisely for that acquisition.”
Hope emphasized how different the business goals of streamers are from the world of exhibition. “It’s not profit and loss so much as customer acquisition. Drilling down to what that means I think reveals a lot.”
While documentaries may not cost a lot and they may bring on a specific new audience to that platform, streamers have to contend with the fact that that a specific audience is not very large and will have to ensure similar or related content is available in order to retain them, he said.
“The question then becomes, is documentary itself a strong enough cohort to allow the multitude of titles to keep somebody on that platform.”
He added, “The global streaming business is not about curation, it is not about discovery, and it is not about adding value around a specific title. That’s a nice dream that all cinephiles have, but it’s something much different than that business because the business of global streaming is about customer acquisition and the best way to do that is to get people to all do the same thing.”
The interfaces, Hope noted, “are all designed to promote the shiny and the new.” The algorithm is not giving you more of what you actually want, he explained. It’s more about designing a system to make everyone like what they get, not get what they like.
That results in a bias for the widest possible audience, which in turn leads to more conceptual and high-concept fare, such as “Tiger King” and even “My Octopus Teacher.”
“As much as those shows or films have been lauded to some degree, you see that what they’re aiming for is very clearly a wide audience. It’s not surprising. That is of course Netflix’s business goal.”
“That’s a super big challenge for us as creators,” he added. “How do we continue to have an emphasis on quality, on impact, on uniqueness and distinction in a world that is dominated by eight global streamers and they are all trying to get the widest possible audience?
“How long will it take till we actually start to care about the retention of those customers and matching people with the right things?”
That is when a secondary platform with curation, discovery and value enhancement comes into play, he added.
Hope stepped down from Amazon last year and is set to join the faculty of Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management to co-lead a graduate program in Los Angeles this fall.