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Best of 2010: Movies February 24, 2011

Posted by David Card in Media.

Yikes, the Oscars are this weekend and I haven’t posted my usual “best of” yet. Here are my faves of 2010:

  • The Social Network. High craft. Will launch a thousand start-ups.
  • Toy Story 3. Huge heart. Up there with Pixar’s best.

I gave each of these 3.5 stars out of 5 on Flixster. Last year, I handed out five 3.5 star ratings and in 2008 one 4-star (The Dark Knight) and two 3.5’s. I reserve five stars for absolute classics like Casablanca, Duck Soup, The Big Sleep, and Chinatown.

Best of the rest (each gets a 3-star rating):

  • Winter’s Bone. Ozark neo-realist gothic.
  • I Am Love. Boy, those rich Milanese know how to live. And make sensuous, operatically over-the-top melodramas.
  • Red Riding Trilogy. Like a great Mystery series touched with evil: This is the North, where we do what we want.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Quite possibly better than the book.
  • Kick-Ass. Silly, silly critics, it’s not a satire, it’s po-mo fanboy superheroics taken to their logical conclusion
  • Valhalla Rising. Undoubtedly awesome if one is on drugs: stoner Christian Vikings meet the heathen on the edge of the world.
  • The King’s Speech. Three good leads; takes no risks. Will win many Oscars.
  • Potter 7A. If you love our three heroes, you’ll love this installment; otherwise it may seem long and a little lonely.

I liked How to Train Your Dragon and Unstoppable also, but not quite enough to put ’em in the top 10. The Academy nominators agreed with four of my favorites, one less than last year. Like the newly enlarged Best Picture noms, I like a mix of movies aimed at kids and grown-ups, with a range of budgets and box office performance.

A slightly encouraging sign: some good movies for adults actually made money this year. Toy Story 3, that appeals to both kids and adults, topped the charts.

It’s always fun to look at the year’s box office. Not a lot of movement on the hits vs. long-tail, kids vs. grown-ups, or “Can’t Hollywood Do Anything Creative” fronts. Last year’s total dollar take was roughly flat with 2009, though boosted by 3D ticket prices. There was one $400 million hit in 2010, and roughly five $300 million sellers, with 29 over $100 million. In 2009, Avatar was a $750 million monster, with a single $400 million seller and a few at $300 (32 over $100 million). There were five or six franchises in the top 10 both years, though more animation in 2010.

Where Will Zynga Go Next? February 21, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week began with stories that social game maker Zynga was raising $250 million at a valuation north of $7 billion. By the end of the week, the company was close to raising twice that, at a $10 billion figure. But bubble talk aside, why would anyone think Zynga was worth that much?

“Gamification” is an early contender for this year’s buzzword, as companies apply game mechanics to businesses as diversified as media, shopping and job hunting. Zynga is the most prominent exemplar of social gaming. Bing Gordon, who used to head marketing for Electronic Arts and is now a Zynga investor, says Zynga combines four disruptions in one: social media, analytics, alternative payments and apps ecosystems. And Zynga may only represent the tip of the social gaming iceberg.

Why Zynga Dominates Social Gaming

Zynga says 45 million users play its social games on a daily basis. Building off Mafia Wars and poker, the company has delivered a consistent string of hits with franchise titles like FarmVille, and spun off even more successful sequels like CityVille.

Its games run primarily as apps on Facebook, where it dominates the apps charts. Zynga coexists successfully — if a little uneasily — with Facebook. When Facebook changed how games could access its news feed, Zynga had to find other customer acquisition tricks. Now it combines lots of Facebook advertising with aggressive cross-promotion. When Facebook required apps companies to adopt Facebook Credits as their currency system, Zynga integrated the one it had built for itself.

Another factor in Zynga’s success is its multiple revenue streams. Most of its estimated $850 million in sales comes from selling virtual goods like power-ups and farm critters. But the company is growing an advertising business based on sponsorships, and even has licensed accessories.

Competitors abound, but so far Zynga has fended them off. Disney has struggled to master social gaming even after acquiring Club Penguin, and traditional videogame leader Activision doesn’t want to get in the business. Electronic Arts does, via its Playfish acquisition, but only 20 percent of its revenues are online or digital.

What’s Next for Zynga?

Here’s what Zynga’s likely to do to maintain its momentum:

  • Expand its distribution channel: Zynga will add complementary channels to Facebook. It has signed up Yahoo and may be working on establishing its own site. A Zynga gaming hub would help in launching more mobile games and might even attract third-party studios.
  • Improve its advertising platform: Others are experimenting with offers as virtual currency “cash,” and Zynga hasn’t done much with in-game product placement. I’m skeptical that its customer data is useful for ad targeting yet, so an analytics play may require Zynga to deliver different styles of interactivity via quizzes, other entertainment formats, or shopping.
  • Create an affiliate network: if Zynga creates a gaming hub, it could achieve and track that needed variety of activities. Likewise, its virtual economy could embrace other kinds of goods, both digital (music, books, videos) and otherwise (offers, affiliate e-commerce, coupons).

How Others Can Respond

Social gaming has moved beyond critical mass into mass-media territory. There’s room for innovation from Zynga competitors like the gaming companies named previously, as well as companies like Google, MySpace, and others:

  • Without a hub, Zynga has to rely on advertising and cross-promotion. Consumers recognize the brands of entertainment titles and artists, not studios  — aside from Disney. That means others can build hubs, and/or use Zynga’s own distribution tactics.
  • Unlike previous online casual games, social gaming attracts both genders. Besides poker, there should be social gaming genres that appeal to hardcore-gamer guys but aren’t World of Warcraft. How about fantasy sports on social networks?
  • Likewise, someone should aggregate other time-wasters, and perhaps specialize them for women. GetGlue’s check-ins for watching TV shows, movies, and music could play here. And LivingSocial is missing an opportunity to integrate daily deals with its Facebook apps like Visual Bookshelf.
  • SCVNGR and, to a degree, FourSquare, mix location-based services with games around collecting things and leaderboards. They should add more rewards and loyalty programs, and explore other gaming experiences, like gambling and multiplayer competition.

Question of the week

How can companies compete with Zynga?

Are Comments Facebook’s Next Big Service? February 7, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Speculation didn’t quite reach Facebook phone level, but the buzz around last week’s CNET story pre-announcing upgrades to Facebook’s nascent comments service makes it sound as if the social network is about to launch another potentially world-dominating technology and crush companies like Disqus and Echo in its wake. Which would be tough, since there’s still plenty of room for competitive innovation as far as comment systems go.

Facebook has a comments plug-in for its widely-adopted Connect service that sites like People magazine are using. It added voting and threading to the plug-in last year, and may be working on a very basic credibility scoring system for commenters. Like Facebook Likes and Connect, a comments system could weave Facebook threads far beyond its own site, while potentially providing rich data for Facebook ad targeting. So far, Facebook doesn’t charge for any of these services, but rather uses them to enhance the overall Facebook platform, make its services and brand ubiquitous for its users and lock in other companies’ sites to its network.

Competitive Comments Landscape

Sites can choose from many full-featured third-party commenting systems that can often pull in related content streams from professional or social media sources, including other comment tools. They typically support multiple log-in mechanisms, and commenters can post and share comments through Twitter and Facebook status updates. Some maintain their own ID system and all create a network of comments across their customers. Players include:

  • Disqus has been around since 2007. It offers online publishers tiered levels of service ranging from $19 per month to $1,000 per month and up. The higher-priced services include analytics, single sign-on, theme customization, better API access, guaranteed uptime and customer service. Customers include CNN, Fox News and Engadget.
  • Echo started life as widget maker JS-Kit in 2006, and has a new product launch event scheduled for February 8. Part of its pitch to publishers is that it won’t compete with them with its own ID system, or by hosting experiences on its own domain. Its customers include a few Time Warner properties (Time, Sports Illustrated), the Washington Post and Technorati.
  • IntenseDebate is owned by Automattic, the company that owns the big blog platform WordPress (see disclosure), which acquired IntenseDebate in 2008. Many WordPress blogs integrate its comments. IntenseDebate also supports Blogger, Tumblr and TypePad.
  • Livefyre is one of the newer players. It uses the FriendFeed engine and promotes itself as the comment network that’s closest to real-time.

Outlook for Facebook Comments

Likes and Connect caught on like wildfire, and if Facebook is serious about comments, it will get plenty of attention from publishers and other sites that embrace consumer comments (e.g., retailers, corporate sites, financial services). Comments could even play a role in enterprise collaboration. Comment competitors and companies evaluating alternatives should realize Facebook’s advantage in this space is limited to its user base and potential distribution. How can other comment systems differentiate themselves? Here are a few ways:

  • User identity: Current players use the old familiar “embrace and extend” strategy by enabling and integrating Facebook log-ins with those from Google, Yahoo and the publisher’s own. To date, Facebook has not integrated other log-ins, and it delivers single sign-on by superseding the native log-in system. Nor does Facebook share “ownership” of the customer, or data about him. Some sites may want to preserve user anonymity or support different user personae.
  • Customer service: Facebook’s developer resources aren’t infinite. Companies can likely do better customization and integration with content management systems, and offer white-label unbranded options.
  • Moderation and ratings services: Comment systems should invest in tools supporting moderation and commenter credibility, and even consider offering professional human-based moderation. Livefyre has a clever points system to encourage quality and prevent flames and off-topic commentary.

DisclosureWordPress is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Question of the week

How can companies compete with Facebook comments?