Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kidscreen, The Social Network, Moshi Monsters

An interesting week last week - I was in New York for the Kidscreen Conference which means I got to chinwag with friends and colleagues about our industry and to watch a lot of films on the flights there and back.

I watched Inside Job which was great but has nothing to do with this post though a lot to do with my last one about the banks. See the film and get angry.

More importantly for today’s business I also watched The Social Network about the genesis of Facebook. Yes, I’m going to tie the conference and my airborne entertainment together to make a point about our industry. Bear with me.

At Kidscreen, Michael Acton Smith, founder and CEO of the wildly successful Moshi Monsters gave a talk about his business and his business maxims. If you’ve been drunk for the past three years you might not know that Moshi Monsters is the website for 5 to 11 year olds that is a sort of Tamagochi/Facebook hybrid - you get to adopt and customise a monster and socialise in a moderated environment with other monster adopters.

StJean - my Moshi Monster ...  named
after the middle name that my parents
nearly gave me but thankfully didn’t

Acton Smith came out and said that the kids TV model is broken and that the next wave (he said ‘tsunami’) of ideas was going to originate online and that traditional media and retail buyers had little clue about what was about to hit them. It was inspirational stuff.

Smith is a serial entrepreneur and risk taker, he talked about how he has taken two of his companies to the brink of insolvency and, in the case of Moshi, turned it round at hour 11, minutes 59. That’s entrepreneurs for you - they push the envelope, they stretch the rules, they take no prisoners - it’s what makes them successful.

Moshi Monsters has a total of 35m subscribers which will rise to 50m by the summer and a healthy proportion of them pay the $6 per month subscription fee to access the really cool parts of the Moshi website. He was quiet about how many paying subscribers he has but if this article is to be believed and their sales really were £10m in 2010 then we are talking about a few hundred thousand subscribers, a number that’s probably growing fast. Nice.

I kind of agree that parts of the kids TV business model are broken but I don’t think Disney, Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network are going anywhere fast. After all, one of them will probably end up buying Moshi Monsters. I did hear some disturbing things at Kidscreen including how there are now kids networks that expect producers to pay to support their shows on air. Yes, they are asking us to pay cash to get our shows broadcast, effectively treating kids programming even more like advertising .... I don’t think that will end well for anyone in the long run but it will probably catch on.

However, that’s not the thing that’s interesting or scary about the new wave of content creators like Acton Smith and his Moshi Monsters. What’s impressive and scary about them is the speed with which they can execute their ideas and translate them into products.

Which brings me to ‘The SocIal Network’. As soon as I got home I googled Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker  to see what the people that I had just seen fictionalised in the film were like in real life.

Apart from the fact that TSN is a really good film (it was a good flight, film-wise) one of the things that really struck me about the whole Facebook culture, Michael Acton Smith alluded to it too, was the importance of ‘The Hack’ which it seems is not so much about the thrill of breaking into institutional mainframes but more about the commitment to a  quasi-frenzy of coding - pulling all-nighters and writing code to see an idea go live in the shortest possible time.

At Mohsi Monsters they are going to be piloting a Moshi TV platform  within the next couple of weeks. They have had an idea, they are attacking it with great energy and they will get it live in its simplest form incredibly quickly. “If you’re going to fail, fail fast” was one of Acton Smith’s dictums. They will pilot the Moshi TV idea, if it works they will add features and functionality at a blistering pace and if it doesn’t work they will let it die and move onto the next idea.

The video player looks like it will go on the free rather than the pay part of the site and it will need to if it is to make a difference. A few hundred thousand subscribers may generate a tasty revenue stream but it’s the potential audience of 35m that you want if your video content is going to get noticed. No doubt, if the player is successful, we producers are going to have to pay to get our content on there too but I could see our series Shaun The Sheep doing well on Moshi TV if we were able to place it there and could figure out all the rights implications.

It would be a curious marriage of cultures. At Aardman we can probably match and maybe even out-punch those Moshi guys for creativity but we can’t get near them for speed of execution. If we have an idea for a TV series it can be 4 years before it hits the screen and another year before we dare start talking to retail about stocking our products and DVD’s. When we have an idea for a movie it takes us at least 5 years before we can put on a bow-tie and walk up the red carpet at the premiere.

This is what I fear most about the online content creators. It doesn’t matter how brilliant Shaun The Sheep is (the series picked up 4 awards at Kidscreen to follow on from an Emmy, BAFTA and Writer’s Guild Award in the last 3 months) - we just can’t get the series out fast enough.

OK, so we do build up a head of steam and eventually get onto a roll but its a slow start. We’ll see if Shaun The Sheep has more staying power than Moshi Monsters but that may not be the point. By the time I get to say to Michael Acton Smith, ‘See, we’re still here and doing very nicely thank you’ he will have sold Moshi to AOL for a fortune and they will have f*%ked it up and shut it down.