Long-tail value of content on display at TCM Classic Film Fest

Sitting among enthusiastic film fanatics this past weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood got me to thinking about the value of content, brands and curation — in that order.

I was impressed that the fest in its third year drew a range of adult demos to the screenings and exhibits spread mostly among Grauman’s Chinese, the Egyptian Theater and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Despite the prevalence of movies from the “Mad Men” era and before, this was not a strictly gray-haired gathering, by any means.

The chatter I overhead from festgoers was so telling about the intrinsic value of intellectual property. Attendees sorted through the four-day fest’s ample screening sked by seeking out favorite brands, whether defined by genre — screwball comedies, noir, melodramas, epics — or by star power — Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow, Carole Lombard, Peter Sellers, et al. The group of four 40-something femme friends that I sat next to at Sunday’s screening of “The Pink Panther” had kept a checklist of all the films that featured costumes by Travis Banton, the designer who taught Edith Head how to dress starlets.

The fest in essence is a testament to the long-tail theory. Even long-forgotten B-movies and 1920s Baby Peggy shorts have their audience, so long as the people who seek those pics can easily find them. TCM excels at curation — partly because it has the goods in its vault, and because it is run by people who know how to program a Banton sidebar to speak to the faithful.

The TCM example is instructive in trying to make sense of the exploding world of original digital content. Variety gets a press release seemingly every hour about a new Web series being produced for this or that platform. My first thoughts on 99% of those announcements are always: How in the world will anybody find it, and more importantly (from a business perspective), how will it ever make money?

YouTube has upped the stakes (and the volume of press releases) with its initiative to launch 100 dedicated channels with a wide range of content partners. It’s an acknowledgement that for all its size, YouTube needs brands and curation to help tame its wilderness. And it clearly feels the urgency to harness that platform to make it more attractive to pros from the creative community.

YouTube and Google execs have been careful to describe the push as a “content” strategy rather than a “channels” strategy for the Internet vid behemoth. Although YouTube still dwarfs all others in terms of overall usage, it has seemed a lumbering giant as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others refine their selling points to consumers as purveyors of acquired and original programming.

YouTube has emphasized that the channels and the content produced for them are owned entirely by its partners. YouTube’s $100 million war chest for the channels initiative provides seed money for creatives to build the basic architecture of a channel, and it gets a split of any advertising revenue. But for a company that hauled in $10.65 billion in revenue in the first quarter, that’s sure to be worth only pennies by comparison to the big money it earns from search revenue. (Google’s earnings statements do not break out info for YouTube, unfortunately.)

Among the latest additions to the YouTube channel roster — which range from niche lifestyle outlets to celeb-programmed vehicles — is original toon-centric Shut Up Cartoons from a unit of Alloy Digital. This release caught my attention last week because Alloy has been successful in building media brands, taking “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “The Vampire Diaries” and other properties from books to screens.

Branding and curation might be the easy parts compared the question of how to make real money (by Hollywood’s traditional standard) from made-for-digital content. Advertising? Subscriptions? I think for the foreseeable future the practical question will be how to make sure you don’t lose too much money while the economics of digital production are sorted out.

The TCM fest experience was a good reminder that distinctive content has a way of enduring. In 75 years’ time, who knows, maybe there’ll be a fest saluting the Golden Age of YouTube channels.

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