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Content is king, but packaging rules

By Martin Baker

There's an old British saying that no man is a hero to his valet. It's an anachronism, of course. Servants as part of a routine lifestyle disappeared with the British Empire over half-a-century ago. But there's truth in that timelessness: if you're foolish enough to believe in the idea of heroes, you can expect to discover that they may well have feet of clay.

I'm not one to regard movie stars as special in any meaningful way – I certainly don't see them as heroes or heroines. They are merely prominent parts of an impressive system that has made its mark on the world; the American movie is undoubtedly the dominant cultural icon.

So when I went to one of Los Angeles's most famous restaurants, Spago's, I felt that I had taken my inoculation against disappointment. Yes, I expected I might see a movie star or two.

But I also knew enough to know that the pretty girl you see in the poster might have an unpleasant skin condition that somehow got lost on computer.

Spago's is famous for its post-Oscar parties. The banquettes along the wall in the main dining room are the most prized tables.

It truly is one of the most important places to see and be seen in a city where seeing and being seen is just about the most important thing anyone can do.

I went on a whim with six other people – the concierge at my hotel was stupefied that such a large party should be given a table at such short notice. Sure enough, sitting at one banquette was a well-known female star with a male friend.

And sure enough, the physical reality was less glossy than the image (this particular star is going to have stop tucking in to the veal chops quite so enthusiastically if she wants to continue to open movies).

The decor did not disappoint – the walls of the big, boxy main dining room are adorned with amusing pointillist depictions of Tuscan peasants in a style not dissimilar to that of the English artist Beryl Cook. And the conversation was a classic, Tinsel Town joy. Power-babble in restaurants such as Spago's is a form of verbal wallpaper. The talk is designed not primarily for the edification of one's dining partner, but for the benefit of the whole room. It's important to be seen to be engaged in a violently animated conversation about a movie that will probably never get made. Lots of hand gestures and occasional bouts of loud laughter are standard form.

Still, the food is good in Spago's (it's basically Italian, as you've probably gathered), and the level of noise and general nonsense going on is as good an indicator of what's going on in the economy of the movie world as any other. It's probably better than most of those polls of business people's levels of optimism and confidence about the future, come to think of it.

There's a compulsory service charge of 20 per cent added to any bill – if you want to pay more as a tip after that, it's up to you.

But the place is always packed, with a permanent scramble to get a table. So all is well, at least for the moment – and the excitement is mounting ahead of the next Oscars and the big party that will follow. If the crush to get into Spago's is an indicator of where things are right now, exactly, you have to look harder and further afield to work out what's coming up for the industry.

A common theme of recent columns has been the importance of distribution and mode of consumption in the media world.

Simply put, the way people consume content is really important – on iPhone or newspaper, Kindle book-reader or PSP, iPad or paperback? For the moment, the movies seem immune from the trend to miniaturisation (watching films on phone screens, for example, isn't a threat – yet).

As I was leaving Los Angeles, I saw the latest example of the importance of distribution and mode of consumption.

The local media were reporting the tale of two gaming companies whose fortunes were vastly different for this very reason.

The companies in question made conceptually identical products – games that adolescents and young adults like to play on their computers.

Specifically, these were online games, often played against friends miles away.

Given that online gaming is the type of content currently in vogue, you'd probably imagine that both companies would be doing well in providing such games. You would be wrong. One company had just announced a massive profit rise and was publishing plans to expand. The other had just laid off a couple of hundred employees and was suffering badly.

How could this be? The answer lies in the distribution. The struggling firm distributed its games by selling discs. To buy the discs consumers have to go to a store, pick up a box and pay at the check-out. It seems that people just don't want to do that anymore.

They do, however, seem to want to download games. The company that was doing well distributed its product online, for free. But, of course, there's a revenue catch here. Consumers can download the games at no cost, but if they want to play them effectively, they have to pay for the virtual kit – the tanks, the rocket-propelled grenade launchers and the like.

So the moral of the not-so-new economy that content is king, now requires considerable modification. Companies providing more or less identical content can have vastly different fortunes because of the way they distribute it. It's not about what they do, but they way they do it, how it's all showcased.

Which explains, in a way, why it's silly to expect movie stars eating pasta in Spago's to look glamorous. A restaurant is about dinner – and what you see there are diners. If you want to see a movie star, go to a movie.

Martin Baker is a journalist, author and commentator on international business affairs


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