Monthly Archives August 2011

Interview: Hank Kanalz, Senior Vice President of Digital for DC Entertainment

DC Comics – home to classic superheroes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and more – made headlines this summer with the announcement that it would be rebooting its entire line with 52 new No. 1 issues. In “The New 52,” characters are being de-aged (and in Superman’s case, de-married), redesigned and revamped in efforts to connect DC with a wider audience, and hopefully reverse the trend of the industry’s rapidly declining sales. It looks like DC might be onto something; according to USA Today, pre-orders for the debut issue of the new Justice League have passed 200,000 copies, already making it the year’s biggest seller. In another big move coinciding with the relaunch, DC, which is owned by Time Warner, will now release every comic in digital on the same day as the print version, marking a true acceptance of the format as playing a key role in the future of comic books.

In advance of tomorrow’s historic launch, we spoke with Hank Kanalz, Senior Vice President, Digital of DC Entertainment, about the decision to go same-day digital, fighting piracy, and why he’ll never get rid of his print comics.

Flightpath: We’re right around the corner of the big relaunch. What’s the feeling around the DC offices right now?

Hank Kanalz: You know, not to sound cliche, but it’s positively electric. We moved into a brand new space, we’re all under one roof working on this incredible project. It’s so exciting. We’ve had daily updates on what’s going on, hourly check-in points on moving towards this launch. I’m knocking on wood – everything’s going according to plan.

Flightpath: The relaunch represents a real move towards embracing digital with same-day digital and print releases. What made now the right time for that?

Hank Kanalz: It was a very clean time, you know, with the 52 new number ones as a jumping on point for new readers. So what better way to get new readers than to go as wide as possible with all these number ones? And to go as wide as possible, you have to go digital. We could’ve kept this all in print, but if you want to reach an audience that can’t necessarily get their comic books, digital is the way to get to that audience.

Flightpath: I know that the whole industry had kind of resisted same-day digital releases for different reasons – not wanting to anger retailers, not wanting to cannibalize sales of the print version. Was the decision to go same-day digital a no-brainer with the relaunch, or was there some internal debate about it?

Hank Kanalz: From my perspective, it was definitely a no-brainer, and it’s something that we’ve been pushing for for quite some time. We were pushing for this, in my group, obviously long before The New 52 was announced. As a company, historically speaking, it’s something that we’ve always been looking at. And when we restructured, it became a top priority for us, so we went from 0 to 100 miles an hour in a matter of minutes.

So yeah, it was very much a no-brainer. But if you take a look at what’s out there too, we’ve been noticing that there’s a lot of the pirate sites, so we were already losing some of our audience to piracy. So why not give people an honest alternative to get their comic book material, right?

Flightpath: Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. How big a problem is comic book piracy? I remember years ago, a friend of mine sending me a PDF; someone had just scanned their comic and uploaded it, and I never would have thought in a million years that anyone would do that. Do you see that as something impacting your business?

Hank Kanalz: Oh, absolutely. It impacts the entire entertainment business, not just us. We’re certainly not alone, and we’re fighting this together as a company. Warner Bros. – Time Warner specifically – we take a big stand against piracy. I don’t know if we’ve ever done a study to look at the financial impact, I don’t know if that’s possible, but clearly it’s impacting our business in general.

Flightpath: The LA Times says that print comic book sales have dropped consistently over the last three years, and they’re down 7 percent in 2011. Why do you think that is, and do you think that releasing them same-day digital, and just having more digital initiatives, will help reverse the trend?

Hank Kanalz: I definitely do. I mean, that was a very candid article. I read it, and I was like, “Wow, I’m really surprised at how candid the article is!” [Laughs] But, you know, it’s the world we live in. Obviously, as the SVP of digital, I firmly believe that this is additive and this is definitely something that grows the entire business. This is not just, “Here’s another way to turn a buck.” This is something that I think will have a very positive impact on the industry in general, print specifically, and then comic shops as well. This is a terrific way to get new readers into our business.

You are never going to replace that tangible feeling of holding a comic book. You know, we have an archive library here too. Walking into that library, there’s this terrific smell of collected paper comics. And for that reason, I will never get rid of my comics. It’s my collection. It’s part of who I am, and the years I’ve been collecting.

But yeah, we absolutely believe it’s completely additive, and it raises all the boats. We’re talking about DC, but this is not just a DC thing.

Flightpath: I’ve been waiting for a day where I could buy graphic novels and download the single issues. At the same time, I do still love the single issues that I had growing up, and I’ll always keep them. If you look at the music industry, vinyl is making a comeback. I don’t think print will ever go away, in the same way that vinyl still means something to people.

Hank Kanalz: I don’t think it will ever go away either. But this is a great sampling opportunity. How unique is it to get someone to try something for free, or for 99 cents, or $1.99, or even $2.99? Here, try this one thing, it’s only gonna cost you two bucks. If you like it, you can buy a whole bunch more in the same format, or push this button here, and we’ll tell you exactly where your closest comic book shop is. And go there, and pick up everything that you can get your hands on and can afford to.

What if someone says, “You’ve got to read Planetary. It’s an amazing series.” You’ve got a couple of options. Find a comic shop, get a back issue, try it, and then purchase your trades or your hardcovers. Go to our app though – real easy, and sometimes we run that first issue for free or 99 cents – try it, if you like it, you can buy all 27 issues right there. Or you can go to your bookstore, and now you know that if you’re going to invest the money in it, that you’ve tried it and you liked it and you want to buy more. I can’t see how it’s not additive.

Flightpath: It seems to me that all the digital stuff you’re doing is a way to break down the barrier of having to go to a comic book store or having to find this stuff on your own. It just makes it a lot easier.

Hank Kanalz: It really does. I actually have some friends who thought that Green Lantern was a movie character. They had no concept that it was based on a comic book. It became the topic of the barbecue. “How could you not know he was a comic book character?” They don’t have access, so they didn’t know. And they loved the movie! “So if you love the movie, then step into my library.” So I set them up, and then I was realizing when I was stacking some books [for] them, it would be easier if I just got them the digital [copies], so they don’t have to carry it on their vacation. It’s just so convenient.

There probably are people who don’t realize that Batman is a character that comes from the comic books. They know him and were introduced to him by either the cartoon show or the movies. There’s a generation that was introduced to Batman in the ’60s with the Adam West version. It’s a completely different entry point. So I would like to have our material readily available, and the best way to get it readily available is this, as digital. So you’re looking at your DVD, and in there you can have a preview of a book. It’s great.

Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about the actual digital delivery? How’s it going to work, from what’s available to actual ownership of digital files?

Hank Kanalz: When you make your purchase, you’ll be able to download the files to read onto your device. If you’re going to be reading it through the Web, it streams, so you don’t actually have the files downloaded to your hard drive. But if it’s on your iPad or on [other platforms], it downloads the file. So you can load up your iPad and then get on a plane and read an entire series, depending on how you’ve structured your memory allocation on the device itself.

We’ve been experimenting with different ways for people to purchase in bundles or series or collections. There will be more developments with that over the next couple of months, but right now we’re selling the backlist as individual issues. We run the occasional sale, where you can buy everything in the sale or you can select the different items that are for sale. We have character 101s, so there’s a “Batman 101,” which is basically your introduction to Batman and then 101 of his essential books that we have available digitally, that we recommend you try. So we do that with all our characters, and we rotate those through. And we get new customers that way too, so whenever we get new customers, they start their library with this great sale and they add to it after that.

Flightpath: And what about price-point?

Hank Kanalz: Our standard price is $1.99, and then we have select backlist items that are either free or 99 cents. For the same-day digital books, we’ll be matching the price for the first month as the [$2.99] print price. It’s very interesting. I really thought that people would wait until the price drops, but people want their comics and they want them now. So they’ve been purchasing at the same price. And we want price parity because we want people to choose, but we don’t want them to choose because of price-point. We want them to choose because of their preferred format. Some people actually don’t want a big long box in their apartment or house; they don’t have the room, their spouse won’t let them, they just don’t want to deal with moving it – they prefer to keep their comics digitally. So we want to give them that choice. But then after a month, which is pretty much the period of time that comic shops will sell their frontlist books before they put them in the back bins, we’ll drop it to $1.99, and it becomes a backlist title. If the comic book happens to be $3.99 on the stands, then it will drop down to $2.99.

Flightpath: On an iPad, double-page spreads might not fit the aspect ratio of the screen perfectly. Do you think the digital format will cause the art form to change and evolve?

Hank Kanalz: I don’t think so. We don’t have any intentions of limiting double-page spreads; they’re just too spectacular and fun. All we really do when we prepare for digital is we set it so that all you have to do is turn your iPad to landscape, and then it really does look beautiful. And depending on how the artist constructed the pages…if it’s a full-bleed page, we really try and accommodate that, but then we have the black framing, so it’s really not noticeable that it doesn’t fit perfectly in there. It has the same dramatic impact, I think. And then the difference though, is now that with the iPad, you can zoom in and you can see all the stuff that you would otherwise miss.

Flightpath: Let’s say someone might love comic book movies, but they don’t buy comics or they don’t know where to start. Is there one title from the new DC relaunch that you’d recommend as a good place to get on board?

Hank Kanalz: Oh, goodness. It’s so hard to be objective. We’re so immersed in it. My entry comic book that really got me hooked was Justice League, because it has all the characters. [Justice League No. 1’s] got such a nice feel, and it really is drawn cinematically and paced cinematically. I’m not just saying that because it’s coming out [tomorrow], and we’ve been working hard on this issue. It looks terrific. That’s a great starting point. I would say that, obviously if they’re a fan of a particular movie, then stick with that. If you’re a Batman movie fan, then Batman and Detective Comics are obviously the way to go. But Justice League has it all. It has all the characters, it’s a great starting off point, and you don’t need to know anything that happened prior to that point.

Our Favorite Websites

What makes a great website? Sure, there are basics like quality navigation, layout, design, and content, but there’s also personality, smarts, and the ultimate barometer: does it have that special something to make you return?

There’s a wide array of content and style to the thousands of web sites floating around, yet they all co-exist in the same space. When you find one that hits all the right buttons – and it can be completely different from your other favorite destinations – chances are you’ll be a fan for a long, long time.

Here’s a short list of what we feel are some of the best sites on the Web that fit the above criteria, ranging from e-commerce to fan-made experiences to professional news.

The Onion A.V. Club – The Onion A.V. Club is, far and away, the best pop culture/arts periodical in publication today. It features a stunning collection of interviews with comedians (Louis C.K., Tracy Morgan), rock legends (Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe), filmmakers (John Carpenter, Christopher Nolan) and more; reviews of albums, movies, books and comics; a lively community of readers who comment in droves on stories; lengthy dissections of television shows in its “TV Club” section; “Random Roles,” where actors discuss parts they’ve played over the course of their careers; and lots, lots more. The writing is smart across the board, and there’s always some new feature popping up that’s creative and fun (I particularly love Pop Pilgrims, a video series where the A.V. Club travels to actual places that have a place in pop culture history, such as the Chicago towers that are featured on the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). The best part: it’s updated pretty much throughout the day, on a constant basis. Essential. – Dan

NeoGAF – This one is a little niche, and it maybe stretches the definition of “website,” but in terms of popularity, usage and content, it’s astonishing. NeoGAF is a videogame message board. That’s it. But it’s the place to go if you’re into gaming. News breaks here first (“leaks” may be more accurate a term), industry professionals are known to lurk or even post, it’s moderated tightly and professionally, and it’s filled with fun topics like people posting photos of their collections, media setup, rare gaming finds, shopping hauls, and more. The comments and discussions – the core of the NeoGAF experience – are often lively, very funny, and just a little crazy. Together, it all makes for a good time, and the very best destination for gaming news and discussions on the planet. – Dan

X-Entertainment – Never mind the unfortunate you-may-be-getting-a-call-from-your-IT-department website name and URL; this site is a gem. X-Entertainment is part-time machine, part-autobiography, as it features one man’s recollections and explorations of 1980s pop culture, including cartoons, commercials and toys, and what they mean to him. You’ll be delighted and amazed at the screen grabs of He-Man commercials and the lengthy essays on the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and you’ll wonder how you ever missed Garbage Pail Kids Tacky Snappers. What’s best about this site, however, is its honesty; there’s a love for lots of this junk that charmingly shines through in the writing, but there’s also an acceptance that a lot of what we loved when we were kids was, indeed, junk. Check out X-Entertainment’s blog for its latest content. – Dan

Nike – Makes you feel like you’re in a Niketown store. Easy to navigate, see what’s new, find clearance deals and check out, and the highlighted free shipping offer (over $100) is appreciated. Clearly my fave e-commerce site, and they have the best customer service call-in group this side of Zappos…must be a foot thing! – Cliff

ESPN – As a sports nut, I would be remiss to not mention ESPN as one of the top online destinations that I frequently visit. The navigation is easy to follow and it’s the premiere source for breaking news on all things sports. The combination of its use of video and images to complement stories make every visit engaging and entertaining. Whether I’m there for the latest trade rumors, or to update my fantasy team each week, ESPN always gets a daily visit from me. – John

Mashable – So you like technology and social media? You better know Mashable. It has grown into one of the leading sources of information for all things digital, and with their constant stream of stories, it is no wonder. They’ve done a great job of including various social elements as well making it easy to not only read the information, but also share and add your two cents very quickly. The site is divided into sub topics which makes it incredibly easy to use and find exactly what you’re looking for. The writing is great, and breaks down sometimes complex information into everyday language that is easily digested. – John

And that’s our short list. What do you think? What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments section below.

The Importance of Disruptive Messaging in Social and Digital Media

disruptive-marketing

There is clearly more information trying to enter our head and heart space than ever. Streams and reams of Tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube content combined with commercial messaging in every shape and size, trying its best to influence an attitude or transaction. Before social media and mobility, the noise level was high on a seasonal basis during things like holidays, but manageable the rest of the time. Now, as the cliché goes, it’s “24/7” noisy. It’s amazing that any brand has any significant recall or unaided awareness or is able to capture eyeballs, let alone get someone to blink!

The original idea of “disruption” centered around shock value in service of getting attention or market share. Disruption occurs only if the brand “activist” can say “got ya.” Got ya to pay attention or most poignantly, disrupted the individual from another engagement and got an action/transaction. Hip hop artists including EMINEM and energy brands such as Rockstar and Monster were disruptive from the get-go and the status quo. It’s not that EMINEM is just an in-your-face artist, it’s that he’s a down-your-throat lyricist that motivates his fans and adversaries to listen forcefully (not passively) and react. Simply, if there is no reaction, there’s no disruption.

So what exactly is disruptive messaging and what makes something disruptive or not? On YouTube, a video goes viral because it is crazy funny, outrageously stupid or in some other way uniquely entertaining – or maybe because it’s commercially/financially supported. Given disruption is all about the status quo being manipulated – in all forms of content today – Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is the it girl of disruptivity because it pushed people’s buttons in a way rarely seen. The reaction by way too many was over the top mean, but the millions of aggregated views and of all the knock-offs and parodies illustrates today’s reality that commercial or otherwise manufactured content, for better or worse, can be wildly disruptive through social channels. Old Spice, with the “Your Man” campaign, gave the world a smell of disruptive engagement with an over-the-top idea that mixed inventive production values with social and traditional media. While the brand had made significant strides in reinventing itself before the Old Spice dude came on the social seen, it really lost all of its historical baggage (of belonging/smelling like dad) through him. It was beyond disruptive.

While some love to say that with social, the “medium is now truly the message,” I say just the opposite. Facebook is no more the message than ESPN; content (user or commercially generated) is what makes both of these the category killers of their respective and intersecting platforms. What’s true is social media enables commercial messaging to be more strategic, targeted and engaging, and therefore, compelling. But truly disruptive messaging provides the breakthrough element against competitive realities, let alone high decibel reality.

There are three simple things that make for successful disruptive messaging in traditional and social media:

1) World Play – Puns, provocative hooks, profanity, entendres, acronyms, broken up words (to-get-her), and the slight/unexpected word in a sentence that grabs attention and gets a re-look. The highly successful brand, Kind, has used “nuts” in almost all of the above ways to its advantage, be it in its Kindness truck tour, outdoor boards, web-site and social media.

2) Visual Intensity – Photoshop and computer aided design/manipulation has made it common to be and see outside reality. Design language is so good and consistently original across media and virtually all consumer categories that, in a nutshell, we are living in a disruptive design age where so much of what grabs us only has us for a second until the next grabber.

3) Playing to Interrupt-ivity – Social media, especially Facebook, engages us in a totally interrupt-ive way with friends, family and cravings. Unlike sequential media (like a movie or book), the wall on Facebook is in a constant state of “posting interruptions,” and to get noticed, the human in us needs to respond with provocative/OMG language, ridiculous photos and all kinds of updates.

So remember, if you’re looking to grab attention or make an impression, in social media or an encyclopedia – a little play on words – don’t be literal, be satirical. Or be silly or a little bit snarky. Regardless, let’s all give it up to those who disrupt!

Netflix Increases Prices: Reason to Get Angry?

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Much has been made over the last few weeks about Netflix’s announcement that prices would be increasing: unlimited streaming and unlimited DVDs (one at a time) combined in one plan has gone up from $9.99 to $15.98, or you can get either for $7.99. Netflix was always seen as a trustworthy underdog, cutting-edge and young. The Apple to Blockbuster’s Microsoft. But now, people are mad. Many feel the price increase is too steep, too soon, and with no major additions to the streaming library, too unjust. Has Netflix become everything it once set out to destroy, or at the very least, that we hoped it would destroy?

The reaction online – Twitter, Facebook, news sites, and seemingly everywhere it was covered – was pretty vitriolic. Here are some selections from the Netflix blog (grammar kept in the posts’ original form):

“Dear Netflix,

Individually your DVD and steaming services do not offer enough to justify their expense. As a bundled service they supplement each other and provide the value that made Netflix wonderful. DVDs allowed you to view newer releases in a fairly timely manner. Streaming allowed for viewing of the older catalog of movies that come up when you think of it but might not be worth waiting for to arrive in the mail.

I average 5 DVDs a month. I can replace these rentals with RedBox for $5 and save $3 based on your subscription prices. This replacement would also remove the 28 day wait that comes with most new releases available through Netflix. Likewise, I can replace your streaming service with Amazon Prime and save an additional $2 a month. Again, this would eliminate the unnecessary delay in availability of newer releases.” – Willie Williams

“Dear Netflix,
After 3 years, I’m sorry but it’s over. If I switch to blockbuster I will have a greater streaming selection, with newer movies, plus games, and it will cost me only 75% of your new rates. Its been great, but its over. It’s not us, its you. Enjoy the bankruptcy.” – Adam Lundquist

“You can spin this any way you want, Netflix, but it comes down to simple greed. With limited new content on your streaming service, I will be definitely be canceling that and will probably cancel DVD service as well just on principle. Time to sign up for Hulu Plus! Go ahead and change your name to Blockbuster, because with more stupid decisions like this, it’s only a matter of time before you go by the wayside like they did.” – Anonymous

And now some comments from The Onion AV Club (again, grammar kept in its original form):

“Their streaming catalog isn’t nearly vast enough to justify dropping the physical disc aspect of the service. There’s too much content only available in disc form, including most new releases. People aren’t going to go for a streaming only service until they add more worthwhile content.” – realmike15

“we can start our own company! we’ll call it Webfilmz. we’ll be the little guy at first, pounding the pavement for sales, but with lots of hard work and luck, our plucky company would succeed in bringing affordable entertainment to everyone!

then, once we have the trust of our clients, we can jack up the prices and live like kings! it’s the american dream!” – Or

“I, for one, have decided to switch to gulp Blockbuster Online for Blu-ray rentals and Amazon.com for streaming. You can join Amazon Prime for $79/yr and basically get the same old crap that Netflix streams plus you get free 2-day shipping from Amazon. I’ll still come out a few dollars ahead of the new Netflix rate.” – The Jewish Brad Pitt

My opinion? The price hike is annoying, but it’s no reason to storm the castle in the way we’ve seen. $15.98 isn’t a bad deal for the selection provided; in fact, while it’s 60% higher than what we used to pay, it’s actually still a pretty good deal. I can catch up on Breaking Bad via discs, while at the same time stream every season of Futurama, weird Troma horror movies, and Wet Hot American Summer whenever I want, for less than what I pay for HBO and HBO On Demand? That’s not bad. As Willie Williams mentioned above, I can combine different services to save a couple of bucks compared to this new pricing structure, but A) I’m too lazy for that, B) the convenience of having it all come from one place outweighs the money I’d be saving, and C) I can stream Netflix on my PS3, which I do almost daily. Plus, I still like the company. I don’t think Netflix has gone to the Dark Side yet (I blame the cost of shipping and the movie studios as the main culprits in the price increase) and when this all gets to where it’s going – a complete, streaming library – my hunch is that Netflix will be leading the pack in terms of content and affordability. They’re really the ones who’ve led us this far, and I still respect them for offering an easy, enjoyable alternative to the old ways.

So, I’m still on board with Netflix. Just so long as they don’t remove Futurama from streaming. Then I might have to grab my pitchfork (which is weird that I have one, considering I live in an apartment in Brooklyn).