Everyone can see that the media and entertainment industry is undergoing a seismic transformation, but the huge bets being placed on its future in some quarters may not be universally shared. There are sizeable financial rewards at stake at the same time that there are snake pits to avoid. Preparing for the journey need not be done without a map.
Experienced facility chiefs and entrepreneurs alike are able to read the runes. It doesn’t take an analyst to divine where the trend toward exponentially rising content costs might lead. Netflix continues to lead the charge, ramping up its annual content spend above an incredible (and possibly unsustainable) $15 billion this year, and in doing so racking up 150 million subscribers worldwide and pulling rival content owners, broadcasters and SVOD players in its wake.
The bulk of this unprecedented spend is not happening on feature film but to episodic TV where consumer expectations for quality and production value just get higher and higher. Virtually every part of the pipeline, from production to VFX, sound mixing and editorial, is impacted. More demand, more content, more need for services. That demand is not going to abate, at least for the foreseeable future.
For example, high-end VFX was once the sole preserve of theatrical spectaculars like Avengers: Endgame or major episodic investments like Game of Thrones, the tentpole stories being commissioned for the small screen like Amazon’s Lord of the Rings adaptation or Disney’s live-action Star Wars series (The Mandalorian, destined for Disney+) are likely to be VFX showstoppers on a par with anything we have seen to date.
Disney+ is just one of dozens of OTT services entering the fray, multiplying the number of outlets for high-grade digital storytelling. The ad landscape is splintered too as personalised and geo-specific ads follow content in targeting eyeballs across social channels from Facebook to Snapchat as well as continuing to cater for traditional broadcast and VOD offshoots.
Making, managing (and monetising) all of this content at an affordable price whether for features, episodics or commercials is not possible without advances in technology and workflow. The primary tools at the disposal of facilities, and especially VFX facilities charged with accommodating the surge in demand, are cloud compute and storage and the connectivity in between on top of which artificial intelligence/machine learning can be deployed to deliver even greater time and cost saving benefits.
We believe there will be a continued drive to public cloud resources to access compute and storage resources and, increasingly, for creative applications used by the artists themselves. Over the next few years, we can expect continued improvement in average connectivity speeds combined with affordable software tools and the availability of a professional freelance workforce which will yield a revolution in post-production and VFX.
Gone will be the static business models based on fixed premises and large capital outlay replaced by dynamic ‘VFX as a service’ facilities able to scale up production in the cloud within minutes and site themselves anywhere to take advantage of VFX tax credits and talented freelance labor. The editing room will be increasingly connected, and increasingly mobile; keeping editors near production, or near home.
Long heralded, this will be the era of the virtual workstation and a truly distributed workforce offering work-life advantages to freelance talent and studio heads alike while improving the speed and cost-effectiveness of the content creation itself.
Technology does need to continue to advance. For example, the management and collaboration tools in such a dispersed remote production environment need further refinement, but there’s no doubt this will happen.
And happen soon. The narrative arc we often hear is one that will take less than a decade. Indeed, we think that the continued explosion of file transfer at an individual contributor level will fuel a revolution in the distributed workforce in VFX and wider post-production by 2023.
No matter if you are a start-up digital boutique or 700-seat international powerhouse, the importance of trying to understand these trends in order to capitalise on them shouldn’t be lost.
We’ll be digging into these topics over the next few weeks with the intent of stimulating further thought and conversation in our industry.
Chuck Parker is chief executive officer at Sohonet.