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On the rights trail

Much has been made of the fact that broadcast license fees aren't what they once were. These days, distributors and producers have to cut more deals and slice available program and territory rights and windows ever-more finely to make productions pay. And in order to make the most of what they've got, these companies need to know, well, what they've got. Undiscovered windows and expiring license deals languishing on un-tracked contracts can mean there's a lot of cash left lying on the table. Add to that the plethora of new rights created by the recent explosion of digital distribution channels, and it becomes apparent that no mere mortal, regardless of their Microsoft Office mastery, can possibly keep up.
March 1, 2008

Much has been made of the fact that broadcast license fees aren’t what they once were. These days, distributors and producers have to cut more deals and slice available program and territory rights and windows ever-more finely to make productions pay. And in order to make the most of what they’ve got, these companies need to know, well, what they’ve got. Undiscovered windows and expiring license deals languishing on un-tracked contracts can mean there’s a lot of cash left lying on the table. Add to that the plethora of new rights created by the recent explosion of digital distribution channels, and it becomes apparent that no mere mortal, regardless of their Microsoft Office mastery, can possibly keep up.

That said, slapping down between US$20,000 and $40,000 on even a modest rights management database and software package to keep the business moving forward isn’t something done hastily. There are a number of considerations to successfully implement RM software.

Do it yesterday
Decode Enterprises director of sales Josh Scherba’s advice to smaller companies that haven’t implemented some kind of RM is to get something asap. The Toronto-based company committed to installing Comet, from LA-based Saturn Software, four years ago and Scherba feels it was almost too late, even though the library was then a fraction of its current 1,000 hours. ‘Even once you’ve got a database installed, when will you find the time to go back and enter data from old contracts?’ he asks. ‘It’s almost like you can never catch up and will be missing out on windows that open up.’

Prior to biting the bullet on Comet, which carried a hard cost of more than $20,000 to install and didn’t include maintenance or special modifications, Scherba and Decode learned the hard way. Once Excel had reached its limits some eight years ago, the distributor commissioned a software developer to create an in-house solution, something Scherba does not recommend. The programmer had limited knowledge of how the business worked, so the system never ran smoothly and quickly reached its capacity, and that of the programmer’s, to make adjustments. When it came time to make the switch to Comet, transferring captured data and entering the stuff that had been missed entirely proved to be the biggest hurdle – it was smooth sailing from then on.

Scherba and his team learned the hard way that the reports being extracted from the system could only be as good as the information being entered into it. In fact, a number of execs stress that careful data entry – preferably performed by someone who understands contract language and the complex web of rights that can be involved in, for example, negotiating a terrestrial and Pay-TV deal in the same territory with overlapping windows – is crucial.

Decode initially had an intern performing the task, quickly spotted the inaccuracies, and realized the report data could not be relied upon. The company then moved to having Scherba and the VP of sales at the time enter the info themselves. This stop-gap measure sucked up too much of their time. So the company ended up hiring a full-time senior manager of operations to administer the info. With all the data passing through the hands of one knowledgeable person, Scherba is now confident of the system’s consistency and accuracy.

Growing pains
That said, rm systems and maintenance are seldom static. As companies grow, needs change and outright switches are not uncommon. Both LA’s MarVista Entertainment and Target Entertainment in London are in the process of moving to new systems. What drove the latter was the July 2007 acquisition of Minotaur International from Virgin Media, which bumped Target’s catalog up to 5,500 hours that now include not only factual, but also a good chunk of kids and drama content.

Target director of finance Gavin Reid explains that the company’s past system, Film Track, was not up to the task, especially when the library’s management was combined with the needs of the company’s growing licensing and merchandising division (that’s a whole other set of licensing rights to track). The idea was to get one piece of software that could handle both sides of the content business, along with ability to manage materials flow and customer relations.

Reid and his team settled on relative newcomer Rights Tracker, also based in London. It came in at the right price and Reid says, along with managing data, it will serve as a powerful marketing tool on the materials side. ‘We have thousands of screeners that make their way around the world, and now we can track who’s seen what, who’s interested in what, record buyers by genre and preference, and tailor emails and marketing accordingly [employing less manpower].’

For MarVista’s part, CEO Fernando Szew says the company’s 2,000-hour library outgrew a system created in-house. The company began the migration to a software program called RightsMax about six months ago. And while Szew says the data transfer went relatively smoothly, the bankruptcy of RightsMax parent company Axium in January, and subsequent sale of the software entity, have left him a little uneasy. He says the new owner, MPS Group, based in Jacksonville, has promised tech support, but as MarVista’s going live with the new system in April and has yet to run into any problems, Szew doesn’t know if the company will follow through. He’s certainly not getting rid of the older backup system anytime soon.

Then there’s the ever-changing industry itself. Both Reid and Szew say they purchased their new rm systems by choosing the most flexible software possible and recommend that prospective buyers keep an eye out. ‘With the rise of digital media rights, definitions are changing regularly,’ says Reid. ‘Our old system didn’t have much scope for change.’ Similarly, Decode’s Scherba says his company is going through an overhaul right now.

‘Using parameters from four years ago on a new contract is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,’ says Scherba. He’s currently supervising the overhaul of Comet section by section and right by right to make it jive with the contracts he’s negotiating now. Comet, he says, allows his team to make some changes, but he finds he’s having to go back to the system’s manufacturer more frequently and it’s getting a little frustrating and expensive as Decode has to pay an hourly rate for custom programming. ‘We’re at the forefront of telling them what we need versus the other way around,’ he notes.

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