Catalog titles more than doubled their share of digital transactional spending in the first quarter of this year, according to the latest DEG: The Digital Entertainment estimates, released late in the day on May 11.
Older movies accounted for 76% of all digital purchases (also known as electronic sellthrough) and rentals in Q1, DEG reported, compared with 37% in the first quarter of 2020.
Very few new films have been released to transactional home entertainment platforms so far this year, as studios hold back films in anticipation that COVID-19 restrictions will be further eased and theaters will soon be operating at full capacity.
For most of the first quarter, movie theaters in Los Angeles — the epicenter of the movie business — were dark. Only in the middle of the month were they allowed to reopen, albeit at 25% capacity.
Among the top catalog titles in the first quarter of 2021: Harry Potter: Complete 8-Film Collection, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Wolf of Wall Street, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Consumers were also drawn to purchase TV titles, with digital sales of TV shows rising nearly 35% during the quarter to an estimated $215 million. Top-selling TV series included “Yellowstone,” “The Office,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “When Calls the Heart” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Consumer home entertainment spending in the first quarter of 2021 rose 10% to $7.8 billion, according to the latest DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group estimates, released late in the day on May 11.
Spending in the first quarter of 2020, mostly before the pandemic, was $7.1 billion, the trade association estimates.
Estimates for the first quarter of 2021 do not include premium video-on-demand (PVOD), which since the pandemic began has been a significant source of revenue to Hollywood as theaters were mostly dark.
As expected, the biggest gains came from subscription streaming, which according to DEG estimates chalked up a 27.2% consumer spending gain, to $5.95 billion from $4.68 billion in the first quarter of 2020. The segment is led by Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+ and HBO Max, services that in March 2021 were joined by Paramount+ and Discovery+.
Streamers gobbled up nearly 77% of the quarter’s total spend, according to DEG estimates. SVOD numbers, the trade group says, come from Omdia, a technology research firm that is part of Informa Plc., a British multinational publishing, business intelligence, and exhibitions group.
On the transactional front, digital sales fell nearly 18% to an estimated $615.8 million, while digital rentals (VOD) slipped 26.7% to an estimated $494 million. Again, it should be noted that these figures do not include PVOD.
Combined Blu-ray Disc and DVD sales came in at an estimated $479.3 million, down nearly 25% from the first quarter of 2020.
Observers note that the first quarter of the year was hampered by a dearth of new movies, as studios held back releases in anticipation of theatrical reopenings and capacity ramp-ups once vaccination rates increase and the threat of COVID-19 is reduced through herd immunity.
Los Angeles, the epicenter of the movie business, could reach herd immunity from the coronavirus among adults and the oldest teenagers by mid to late July, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a May 10 news briefing.
In advance of home entertainment industry veteran David Bishop’s keynote address May 4 at the OTT.X Leadership Development Foundation 2021 Summit, Media Play News reached out to Bishop for a Q&A, the first in a series of conversations we intend on having with home industry leaders past, present — and future.
Bishop is the former president of two major-studio home entertainment divisions, MGM Home Video and then Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. While running Sony from 2006 to 2014, Bishop was one of the leaders in the launch and marketing of both Blu-ray Disc and digital distribution platforms, contributing to more than $20 billion in gross revenue for the studio. For 10 years before that, as president and chief operating officer of MGM Home Entertainment, Bishop played a key role in the launch of DVD, which remains the single most successful consumer electronics product debut in history. He was known as the “King of Catalog” for successfully mining the studio’s rich vault for new DVD special editions.
After leaving Sony Pictures, Bishop began consulting as an advisor to IMAX and began working with numerous startups to launch new technologies. In the financial community, he often is hired to help financial institutions understand the trends in the media business. He is also a consultant to Cognizant, the New Jersey-based multinational technology company that provides business consulting, information technology and outsourcing services. And after earning a graduate certificate in executive organizational coaching from Columbia University, Bishop is working with the Dean of the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California (USC) to create a leadership development program called Third Space Thinking.
MPN: David, tell us more about what you’ve been up to in the seven years since you left Sony Pictures. What made you choose this career path?
Bishop: In addition to my love for the industry, I always had a passion for building high-performance teams. I learned early on that as a leader if you provide a clear strategic direction and allow the team members to contribute to achieving your corporate goals, a couple of things happen. Employee engagement goes up and financial results follow.
So, when I decided to leave Sony, I eventually made my way on a path to support emerging leaders and their teams. That has led to many satisfying experiences. I’ve helped CEO/founders in Silicon Valley and around the world transform their businesses and cultures. I’ve facilitated workshops and provided coaching to companies such as Disney, Google, Alibaba, United Airlines and NBC/Universal, to name a few. I became a fellow and strategic advisor for Harvard University’s Institute of Coaching. We just completed a white paper on the impact the pandemic has had on leadership and organizational dynamics. Along with two former Sony executives, Aodan Coburn and Miguel Geli, we’ve built a firm called Global Coaching Delivered, which provides leadership and business support around the world.
How does what you’re doing now compare to the studio life? Do you ever miss our business?
Of course I miss my team and the community we created. This is a unique industry where even your competitors become friends. However, growth sometimes calls for pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, and it was time for me to pursue a more diversified path. I still stay involved in the industry through my work as a founding board member for Parrot Analytics, my work as co-chair for Pepperdine’s Entertainment, Media and Sports MBA program, and occasional consulting gigs. However, my overarching mission now is to make the working environment fun and productive. That’s what drives my leadership and org-development practice.
Looking at the industry you grew up in from the outside, what are your thoughts on its evolution?
I think the industry has largely followed the consumer’s needs. At Sony, we had a reverse mentoring program where we paired senior executives with millennials. The purpose was to help the leadership team keep pace with changing habits. I habitually asked, “What’s more important to you, ownership or access?” Increasingly, the answer was access.
The passion for content continues. The way people interact with movies and TV programming has evolved dramatically.
What do you think were some of the smartest moves our industry leaders made as the business began to shift toward digital?
Obviously, Netflix changed the landscape. I remember when they were just starting to stuff DVDs into mailing envelopes, Reed Hastings was asking me about streaming rights. The vision was clear and bold from the beginning. I’ve been impressed with Disney’s execution and rapid expansion of their service. It’s also noteworthy to see how studios who haven’t joined the “plus” trend have benefited. Sony is a prime example of that.
And on the flip side, what things could have been handled better? We’re thinking the mass sale of movies to Netflix, which helped the company grow and ultimately disrupt the traditional transactional model?
Yes, there were many heated debates about what titles and how much programming should be sold to Netflix in the early days. We were caught in what’s been called “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” We were trying to protect the current lucrative model and resist change. But the market is fluid and ever-changing. If you resist it, you get swept away. You never win by trying to frustrate the consumer, by forcing them to consume your product by your rules. You must be willing to dismantle one model as another emerges. It’s not easy, but we will continue to be in a world of volatility.
What do you see as the future of home entertainment? Will it be all streaming, or is that model simply not sustainable?
I think the transactional business is still viable. As it has moved to digital, there’s an ease in watching a movie by pointing your remote that is compelling. There will certainly be a battle over rights as streamers will look to buy out that window or use their own titles to expand services or reduce churn.
The consumer now needs a way to find the movie and TV shows they are looking for. The clutter and fragmentation confuses them.
Do you see a continuing place for physical disc? If so, for how long?
The physical disc can continue as long as it maintains its reputation of being the gold standard of audio and video quality. As compression technology continues to improve that will become a difficult lead to maintain. Of course, as sales decline the ability to actually find physical goods at retail will diminish. Places like Amazon will end up being the main outlet for purchase. So, I guess I’m saying I don’t see much long-term viability for the format.
And what about David Bishop’s future?
As for me, I’m laser focused on several key areas:
Business: It’s my intent to continue to support leaders around the world. In Silicon Valley, having a coach is part of the game. Steve Jobs had one, Eric Schmidt at Google had one. Not for a six-month engagement, but as a permanent member of their support staff. That attitude needs to be the prevailing approach. There is always a need to have someone who is not your employee or your boss where you can air out your thoughts and co-create a future where you can realize your full potential.
Family and friends: The pandemic has taught us how important community is. I make sure I spend meaningful time with my immediate family and my “family of choice.”
Charity: I’ve been involved with ending hunger since I co-founded an organization with Jeff Bridges in the early 1990s. I’m now a board member and former board chair of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us.
Music: I’m taking online classes through Berklee where my goal is to move from mediocre guitar player to a slightly above average musician.
Health and wellness: At the core of supplying the energy to get the stuff done that I’ve listed is my daily ritual of physical exercise and meditation. That is central to building my future.
OTT.X, the trade association for streamers, on May 4 will hold its second annual OTT.X Leadership Development Foundation Summit.
The keynote speaker for the one-day virtual event is David Bishop, a home entertainment industry veteran who served as president for two major-studio home entertainment divisions, first MGM Home Video and then Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and is now a professional leadership coach and consultant.
Also on the agenda are panel discussions with industry leaders, executives and HR professionals about mentorship, career advancement, diversity and inclusion.
The OTT.X Leadership Development Foundation was formed by OTT.X to develop leaders in business and technical roles, especially focusing on diversity and inclusion.
“Through the LDF, leaders share their experience, knowledge and professional networks to support and inspire those growing into leadership roles,” said Eric Hanson, OTT.X EVP.
Kristen Bedno, VP of distribution and marketing at Vision Films and LDF Summit chair, said the foundation’s overall mission “is to grow and nurture the future leaders of our OTT industry, with a specific emphasis on providing women and underrepresented minorities tools to help them earn their seat at the decision-making table.”
Admission to the May 4 OTT.X Leadership Development Foundation Summit is free. Register here.
The success, and rapid growth, of ad-supported VOD, particularly if it’s free, doesn’t surprise me. Nor is the expected comeback of the transactional business, which has been kept alive during the pandemic by inventive catalog and anniversary releases and marketing campaigns.
As I’ve said on numerous occasions, consumers are primarily driven by cost and the ease of the transaction.
That’s what led to Netflix’s meteoric rise — when they started streaming, it was all the movies you could watch for 10 bucks a month, with just a click of the remote to get you going.
Similarly, the record industry’s inability to understand these two basic tenets of consumer behavior led to the industry’s downfall: They killed off the single, denying music fans a low-cost entry point to sample new music, and failed to pry their greedy little hands away from the CD, even when it became clear that consumers wanted to acquire their music digitally. As a result, consumers began swapping song files, for free, to make up for the loss of the single — and when record companies responded by jacking up the list price of CDs even higher and offering no digital alternative (until Steve Jobs came along), music fans began assembling their own album-length playlists of pirated songs.
Free and easy.
Subscription VOD is certainly a wonderful, and monstrously successful, business model. But despite the low monthly charges, not everyone is in a position to pay, particularly as these services keep stacking up. Paying 10 bucks a month is fine, but in the real world — not the bubble we live in here on the West Coast — shelling out $40, $50 or $60 a month for two or three SVOD services might not be feasible. Subscription fatigue is a real thing, and my hunch is that sooner or later the novelty is going to wear off and these high growth rates we’ve seen over the past year or so are going to reverse course. The average household might have one go-to general SVOD service (most likely Netflix), supplemented by maybe a cheaper niche service like PBS Masterpiece, Britbox or Shudder.
And given our thirst for something new, something different, a growing chunk of viewing time will go to either free streaming services — I hate acronyms such as FAST, but you know that’s what I’m talking about! — or transactional, where the inventory of movies, TV shows and other content dwarfs what the streamers have available.
And this huge, marvelous content library is constantly being refreshed, particularly as theaters reopen and productions start up again.
Now, the transactional side of the business isn’t off the hook just yet. To the average consumer, a $2.99 digital rental is probably looking more and more appealing now that the typical monthly subscription nut has grown from $10 to $50. But asking consumers to buy a digital movie for $20 is still a stretch. Just look at the physical market: Suppliers are releasing more and more movies on DVD only because consumers are buying more DVDs, and the reason consumers are buying more DVDs goes back to my original premise: DVDs are cheaper.
There’s going to be a Comic-Con this year, after all.
Organizers of San Diego International Comic-Con in a press release issued late on Saturday, March 27, announced “Comic-Con Special Edition” will be held as a three-day event over the Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 26-28, at the San Diego Convention Center.
“It is our hope that by Fall conditions will permit larger public gatherings,” according to a news release.
Comic-Con is traditionally held in July and draws more than 150,000 fans to the San Diego Convention Center. The annual show began in 1970 as the Golden State Comic Book Convention and in its early years consisted mostly of comic book collectors selling, buying and trading rare and underground comics.
Over time, the show shifted focus to embrace all things pop culture and is now dominated by studios, and streaming services, who set up elaborate displays to promote their latest movies and series.
The 2020 Comic-Con was replaced with the virtual Comic-Con@Home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Plans for a return this summer were dashed on March 1 when Comic-Con organizers said the 2021 edition would also be canceled as a result of the pandemic, with fans instead once again getting a free virtual show.
At the same time, organizers said they are hoping to stage a smaller, three-day in-person convention in San Diego in November — plans that have now materialized.
“Comic-Con Special Edition will be the first in-person convention produced by the organization since Comic-Con 2019, and the first since the onset of the global pandemic COVID-19,” according to the March 27 press release.
“The Fall event will allow the organization to highlight all the great elements that make Comic-Con such a popular event each year, as well as generate much needed revenue not only for the organization but also for local businesses and the community.”
“While we have been able to pivot from in-person gatherings to limited online events, the loss of revenue has had an acute impact on the organization as it has with many small businesses, necessitating reduced work schedules and reduction in pay for employees, among other issues,” said David Glanzer, spokesperson for the nonprofit organization.
“Hopefully this event will shore up our financial reserves and mark a slow return to larger in-person gatherings in 2022.”
Details are still being finalized as to badge cost, attendance capacity, and other information.
Amanda Kozlowski, a onetime home entertainment marketing chief, has been promoted to EVP, head of data strategy and innovation for the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group.
Kozlowski will report to Jen Hollingsworth, Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group COO.
According to a press release, Kozlowski “will be a key leader on Hollingsworth’s strategy and innovation team, which is working to further data- and measurement-based decision-making inside the Motion Picture Group, help the organization adapt to changing needs and priorities in a time of rapid industry transformation, and launch new systems, tools, and processes to deliver on the goal of making the Motion Picture Group a workplace of the future.”
Kozlowski’s team will be charged with designing and managing data and technology solutions, consumer and market research, and advanced analytics across the division, servicing all functions and windows. The group will also spearhead change management initiatives, business transformation efforts, and people and culture programs — the latter in close partnership with Lionsgate’s human resources department and the Motion Picture Group’s new inclusive content group, also under Hollingsworth’s strategy and innovation team.
“This promotion recognizes the importance of the work Amanda is doing to drive transformational change and leverage data across every aspect of our business,” Hollingsworth said. “Amanda’s incredible vision and advanced leadership skills have already established her as one of Lionsgate’s key executive team members. With this change, Amanda now turns her innate abilities to innovate and inspire toward helping the Motion Picture Group achieve our goal of being a workplace that champions inclusion, empowers staff, and continues to drive progress toward the future.”
Kozlowski joined Lionsgate in 2008 as a junior manager in the marketing department and has since held a series of progressively more responsible roles. Most recently, she oversaw Lionsgate’s marketing efforts across traditional and emerging platforms and technologies for the entire home entertainment and digital distribution division, including Lionsgate feature films and TV titles, original Starz programming, the company’s 17,000-title library, and third-party titles from such content companies as StudioCanal, Amazon Studios and CBS Films.
Prior to joining Lionsgate, Kozlowski oversaw campaigns for marketing agency A.D.D. Marketing + Advertising as well for the nonprofit organization Film Independent. Kozlowski holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina.
Ronnee Sass’ storied career in entertainment publicity goes back 40 years to when she worked in film distribution in her native Baltimore. For nearly 20 years, beginning in 1995, Ms. Sass — who died March 20 after a battle with leukemia — was a core member of the publicity team at Warner Home Video, now Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Her focus on theatrical catalog put her in touch with many famous stars, from Clint Eastwood to Lauren Bacall. Here is a photographic retrospective of Ms. Sass’ career. Thanks to home entertainment industry veteran Carl Samrock for helping us assemble this collage.
Veteran Hollywood publicist Ronnee Sass, who left her mark on home entertainment through lavish release campaigns for classic Warner Bros. movies such as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz — and an engaging, ebullient personality that made her a favorite among talent and journalists alike — died March 20 at the age of 72 after a battle with leukemia.
She is survived by her husband of 23 years, Evan Diner, a brother and two nieces.
Acclaimed director Richard Donner (The Omen, Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) said of Ms. Sass, “In all my years at Warner’s, many of the brightest days were dealing with Ronnee Sass, because she cared for the people as much as the project. And she cared for both a tremendous amount.”
Ms. Sass began her home entertainment career at what was then Warner Home Video in 1995, after working in film distribution and co-founding an independent PR and advertising agency in Baltimore — Wolff, Freed and Greenberg.
For most of her Warner Bros. career, Ms. Sass’ focus was on publicizing the studio’s rich library. Over the next 20 years Ms. Sass was instrumental in big anniversary campaigns for such storied classics as Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Blade Runner and The Wizard of Oz. She even brought the surviving Munchkins to Beverly Hills for a gala DVD release party for the latter film’s 65th anniversary in 2004 — and to New York five years later for the movie’s 70th anniversary release, a campaign that included a nationwide balloon tour. In January 2006 Sass was promoted from executive director of publicity and promotion to the newly created position of VP of publicity and promotion for theatrical catalog, under Jeff Baker.
“She was the best, most passionate, most beloved publicist in the history of home entertainment, up there with my friend Fritz Friedman from Sony,” Baker recalls. “You lived to see and experience her persona — what a woman! While many of our projects and events were worth covering, Ronnee took them to new heights and the press was never disappointed as she always delivered.”
“Ronnee was a consummate professional, working across the industry to bring the Warner Bros. library to fans everywhere,” said Jim Wuthrich, president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “But more importantly, she was a ray of sunshine, always smiling, lighting up any room she entered. She will be missed.”
“Ronnee had multiple talents that included the professional characteristics of an excellent journalist, and a unique forte in relating to people of all walks of life, from the most important celebrity to the average person,” said former Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb, the father of DVD. “She will be missed, but always remembered.”
Ron Sanders, a longtime Warner Bros. executive who most recently served the studio as president of worldwide theatrical distribution while remaining president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, said, “Ronnee was that rarest of breeds who was so effortlessly good at solving the communications crisis of the moment, while being a genuinely wonderful human being. She always had a smile or a laugh and made all of us enjoy life more.”
Ronnee Lynn Sass was born in Baltimore, Md., on May 26, 1948. She graduated from Pikesville High School in Baltimore and went on to attend the University of Maryland, College Park. In the early 1980s she worked in film distribution for studio field agencies in Baltimore.
“I first met her in 1982,” said publicist Carl Samrock, who worked for Warner Bros. from 1982 to 1997. “I remember her incredible personality, her ability to relate to people — she just had this way about her, and when I had my own agency between 1997 and 2017, she was our first client. It was just amazing the way she dealt with people like Clint Eastwood, Dick Donner and Billy Friedkin.
“I still remember an event with Warren Beatty — we took a picture of Ronnee with Warren and hung it up on our wall with the caption, Ronnee and Clyde.”
After she left her Baltimore agency and joined Warner Bros., Ms. Sass initially handled aspects of the studio’s theatrical Oscar campaigns. Each year, publicity team members throughout the department would be assigned to staff the broadcast/event, and the Warner costume department would lend out dresses for the women and suits, if needed, for the men.
Ms. Sass left Warner Bros. in 2014.
As word of her death spread, tributes flowed in to her Facebook page, many from the home entertainment community.
Amy Jo Smith, president and CEO of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, wrote, “Ronnee’s smile could light up any room. Such a wonderful and lovely person. She will be missed by all but never forgotten.”
Smith was at Warner Bros. in 1997 when DVD was launched and the DEG was founded as the DVD Entertainment Group.
Producer-director Chris Roe, who has produced documentaries on “Creepshow” and The Night of the Living Dead and currently represents legendary actor Malcolm McDowell, wrote a lengthy tribute to Sass.
“Words cannot express the extreme sadness I feel at this time after learning that my good friend Ronnee Sass passed away today,” Roe wrote. “Ronnee was an extremely extraordinary human being. She was the best publicist I ever worked with. We became very close friends during A Clockwork Orange’s 40th anniversary activities for Warner Bros. 10 years ago.
“Ronnee was a force of nature. … In a business where so many go out of their way to brag about how good they are, Ronnee simply showed her brilliance through her thoughtfulness, creativity and work. She had a fierce work ethic. She would work around the clock to get things perfect. … She was a shining example of excellence in her profession.”
Karen Penhale, a longtime associate of Samrock, wrote that Ms. Sass “was a stellar publicist for Warner Bros. who led us through countless amazing and successful publicity campaigns for all of the studio’s great classics. We worked hard, traveled together, laughed, cried, got yelled at by some talent and applauded by others and became dear friends in the process. Having worked with many of the best film directors in Hollywood, we were looking forward to lots of lunches in the future to remember all our great adventures together. I will miss her as will so many, many others as her friends and family now do. RIP dear friend, RIP.”
Ms. Sass was an avid gardener, creating elaborate flower arrangements and centerpieces whenever she could.
In addition to Mr. Diner, Ms. Sass is survived by her brother, Steven, of Baltimore, and nieces Lauren Sass Jacobson of Baltimore and Felicia Greenfield of New York City.
A private family service will be held, followed by a celebration of Ms. Sass’s life, to be scheduled at a later, safer date. Donations in her memory may be made to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Andrea Downing was working in a multi-platform world long before the pandemic — and before “multi-platform” became the new paradigm in home entertainment.
The president of PBS Distribution (promoted March 11 from co-president) has been juggling content and windows for years, picking and choosing the right platform for the right product to maximize revenue to support public television and PBS member stations.
Downing notes that all net income from PBS Distribution supports the public television system and its mission “to amplify diverse stories, foster dialog, encourage creativity and spark curiosity in its viewers.”
“While PBS Distribution is one part of a much larger system of contributors,” she says, “our ability to collapse windows over the years in response to consumer behavior has been incredibly beneficial.”
Today, most PBS programs are released on all three home entertainment platforms: Blu-ray Disc and DVD, transactional VOD, and streaming — often on, or near, the same day.
Even celebrity documentarian Ken Burns’ 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War, a big hit on Blu-ray Disc and DVD, was made available at the same time for digital rental and purchase and, six months after its broadcast date, was licensed to Netflix for streaming.
Conversely, the historical drama “Jamestown,” from Carnival Films helmer Gareth Neame, launched on the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel and later expanded to DVD. And “The Great British Baking Show” was licensed to Netflix while also topping the TVOD charts.
“We release product simultaneously across platforms, in most cases,” says Downing, this year’s recipient of Media Play News’ Fast Forward Award. “We think it makes sense because it really gives consumers a choice about how they want to enjoy our content.
“So, for example, Hemingway, broadcasting in April, will then go to Blu-ray Disc and DVD for those who want to own it. It will also go to electronic sellthrough for those consumers who are building digital libraries of collectible content, as well as to our PBS Documentaries streaming channel for those who just want to pay $4.99 a month and watch whatever, whenever they want. At the same time it will be available on the PBS Video app for a limited window before moving into PBS Passport — a member benefit.”
Downing notes that PBS broadcast and streaming on the PBS apps “is our theatrical — it’s our first window.”
“We typically release physical goods, TVOD and on our SVOD streaming channels immediately after broadcast when awareness is high,” she says.
Releasing programs on all three platforms, she maintains, makes sense “because we go where the consumer goes — and lately that’s pretty much everywhere — and our work expands the reach of our stations’ content to new audiences.”
Following the consumer is always smart business, but Downing’s advantage over studio marketers is that every commercial after-market distribution channel falls under her purview. A 25-year industry veteran, she’s being honored with Media Play News’ fourth annual Fast Forward Award for her broad and groundbreaking role at PBS Distribution, where multi-platform releasing has long been the order of the day.
She has grown PBS Distribution from a start-up focused on physical products to a global distribution company of public media content around the world. Her focus on adapting to the media landscape has led to multiple subscription streaming channels — PBS Masterpiece (United States and Canada), PBS Kids, PBS Living, PBS Documentaries and PBS America (U.K.). In addition to DVD and Blu-ray Disc, she spearheaded the company’s move into transactional video-on-demand, subscription video-on-demand and theatrical releasing. Under her leadership, PBS Distribution’s educational, non-theatrical, in-flight, and international program sales and co-productions businesses have thrived. Additionally, the portfolio includes a commercial linear channel in the United Kingdom — PBS America — and a PBS Kids-branded channel in Africa.
Most recently, PBS Distribution has entered the AVOD space. The company just licensed some catalog content to Pluto, Tubi and Roku, and “we’re also doing some experimentation internationally with kids product Kidoodle,” Downing says.
“It was a natural progression for us to have all aspects of home entertainment under one roof,” she says. “We started with physical goods, transitioned into transactional digital and then into streaming. Along the way we have organized our structure to ensure that we have one centralized team that provides transparency across all platforms and departments. While that is an ongoing operational effort, it allows us to adapt as we anticipate where the market is headed. It really serves us well.”
When PBS Distribution launched in 2009 as a joint venture between PBS and GBH, 90% of revenue came from DVD. Today, Downing says, “roughly 10% of our business is from physical goods, with SVOD channels being our largest and fastest-growing business.”
Now in its 12th year, PBS Distribution is one of the largest independent content distributors, with upwards of 400 releases and 1,500 individual episodes each year.
“We have a really close relationship with our parent companies,” she says, “and we jointly work to ensure that we change and grow together to benefit the entire public television ecosystem.”
Aside from her role as president of PBS Distribution, Downing is actively involved in DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, speaking at seminars and webinars, mentoring women in the industry, and is on the steering committee for the D2C Alliance.
“Andrea’s leadership has been invaluable to DEG’s Board of Directors, to our D2C Alliance and to the Canon Club,” says Amy Jo Smith, the DEG’s president and CEO. “The fact that she’s involved with all three shows how generously she shares her time and her knowledge with a wide swath of our community. I’ve observed over many years the way that Andrea truly cares about both the products and the people she works with at PBS Distribution. She has a vision for the future, and she understands the need to take some risks to grow a business, and she does what is needed in the smartest possible way.”
“Andrea is a natural leader dedicated to help cultivate and educate women in entertainment and technology. Her passion for the industry, and dedication to the DEG Canon Club and the Hedy Lamarr Awards for innovation and emerging leaders are exemplary,” adds Meri Hassouni, co-chair of the DEG Canon Club and VP of client relations at Giant Interactive.
Downing is a single mom who has raised two daughters, now in their late teens. The youngest, Riley, is a freshman at San Diego State University; the oldest, Cassandra, gave Downing her very first grandchild, a 1-year-old girl named Zoey.
“I’ve worked hard to find the right ‘fit’ for my family and my career,” Downing says, “and have learned that it’s important to recognize that the ‘right fit’ changes as we and our families evolve, and can sometimes change every day. For many years that meant long days during the week juggling both job and family, with a focus fully on family during the weekends. As my daughters became increasingly self-sufficient, it’s shifted to a greater focus on my job and hobbies.”
Downing says a key part of her success is “a willingness to work hard and deliver quality work.”
“I’m a ‘yes’ person,” she says. “I always said yes to any project or task. I learned a lot from that, and it gave me a lot of opportunities.”
“I also can’t stress enough the importance of learning how to manage up, across and down,” she adds. “Communication is key in this, and you can’t repeat the important things often enough.”
“And sometimes,” she says, “it’s just being in the right place at the right time.”
Downing developed an entrepreneurial spirit early on during her childhood in Wisconsin. “When I was a kid, I lived near a golf course and I would pick up golf balls from the range,” Downing says. “For every five balls I picked up, I got a penny. But by picking up 250 balls, I earned enough money to buy a popsicle.”
Downing attended Michigan State University, and while her parents helped out with tuition, Downing says, “I knew I was going to have to work and save money to pay for most of it.”
During high school, she says, “I was already working each summer, having worked my way up from picking up golf balls to working in the Pro Shop, and even making custom golf clubs.”
Once she arrived in East Lansing, Mich., Downing said, she had no sooner moved into the dorm than she began looking for work.
“I was the ‘dish dog’ in the cafeteria, an affectionate term for the dish room supervisor, and eventually became a student supervisor,” she recalls. “It was not the most glamorous work, and I was usually covered in grease by the end of the shift.”
She worked one summer as an intern for Speed Queen, a Raytheon company that made commercial washers and dryers, scheduling the semi-trucks to deliver the machines from the factory to customers.
Another summer, she recalls, “I worked three jobs and averaged about 80 hours a week to save enough money to go back to school in the fall. I worked the night shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the Jolly Green Giant plant in the QC (quality control) department. Each day the machines would pick corn and peas in the field, and trucks would bring the vegetables to the canning plant. I was responsible for counting the prickers and thistles in the vegetables. If there were too many in the batch, I would call the field and tell them to modify the settings on the machinery.
“After I left the plant in the morning, I would go home and sleep for about four hours before getting up to go to my second job at the golf course. You can imagine that it was a little surreal to go from the canning plant, where I would often be lying in gutters, clearing out food waste from machines, to the golf course, where I wore my preppy plaid shorts and my pink polo shirt.
“And when I wasn’t working at the golf course in the afternoons, I worked at a local pool as a lifeguard.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business in 1990, Downing moved back home.
“After I graduated, I didn’t have a job so I went home to live with my parents,” she said. “Every morning my mom made me get up and go to work with her. And — now I’m aging myself — she sat me down in an office with a typewriter and the classifieds and told me to apply for every job I could find. She did that every day until I found a job in a picture frame factory. I started out working the second shift on the shipping dock, but management started asking me to come in early to take care of other things, and I was soon promoted to master scheduler. This was a senior level position that was responsible for scheduling everything that was going to be produced on each machine each day. It was a constant battle to keep my schedule on track while the line supervisors were trying to meet their quotas. But it was also an important education in how to successfully juggle multiple stakeholders with varying agendas.”
Within a couple of years, Downing was ready for a new adventure. She packed up a U-Haul and moved to Washington, D.C., to be in a region with more of her peers. But moving to a region with little manufacturing forced her to start over.
Downing found temp work as a receptionist at an association in the capital and several months later took a regular gig managing a print shop. A few years later, Downing recalls, “A friend recommended me to someone at the Discovery Channel, which was still in its early growth years. At this point I was about five years out of college, and I’d had increasing responsibility in my jobs. But the position at the Discovery Channel was as an admin/coordinator, so it meant starting all over again.”
Still, Downing says, “I wanted to be in a bigger, more entrepreneurial organization so I accepted the position. I started out in the multimedia department, and this was when CD-ROMs were really taking off. The department was young — it was run like a startup — and I just did everything that I knew needed to be done. I moved from the coordinator position to operations, and then worked with the international team. I started a localization shop so we could translate the multimedia discs they sold around the world into multiple foreign languages. I eventually ran operations for Discovery’s Consumer Products business.
“When my boss moved to PBS to run their Ventures division, she called me about six months later and recruited me to join PBS as a vice president.”
Downing joined PBS in June 2000 as VP of home entertainment and partnerships, with responsibility for e-commerce, catalog, education, operations and creative services.
Shortly after joining PBS, Downing says, “I found that I was pregnant with my second daughter.”
Fortunately, she said, the culture at PBS was such that she was afforded flexibility and plenty of support.
“Knowing how important that is for so many women, and men, in our workforce, I have focused on paying that forward in our culture at PBS Distribution,” Downing says. “One of my key takeaways in life is how important it is to make the time for those that mean so much to you, no matter what your career journey is — and to make sure your team knows that you want them to value time with their family, too.”
During her tenure at PBS, Downing says, she continued to grow her responsibilities. “When I began at PBS, I was managing about half of the home entertainment business,” she says. “Within a couple of years, I was responsible for the entire business. I also managed the licensing, merchandising, and interactive businesses, and began the evolution from physical goods to digital.
“Some of the most difficult things I had to do involved making changes to the team and how the business was run, like reducing our efforts in some areas and closing others down completely. It was particularly difficult having to let go of team members, even when it was the right decision for the business.”
In 2007, Downing says, David Bernstein at GBH in Boston “reached out to me and we started talking about how we might collaborate.”
“We decided to form a separate for-profit LLC to raise income for the public television system, creating a more robust distribution portfolio, a deeper content library, and greater efficiencies, all of which propelled us to grow — especially as the business began to transition from physical to digital,” she says.
Downing and Bernstein ran the business together as co-presidents. “We have different styles for managing and leading, but have complementary skill sets and we always agree on strategy,” Downing says.
After 12 years of leading PBS Distribution, Downing says, she continues to look for opportunities and face challenges.
“One of our biggest challenges is standing out in a crowded market when there are so many options for consumers,” she says. “The big companies are spending so much money on marketing with their launches that it is easy to get lost as a targeted service.”
And yet there are plenty of opportunities, as well. “One of our biggest opportunities is being on the Prime Video platform, where we have a strong partnership and can take advantage of their significant reach,” Downing says. “Our SVOD channels are competitively priced and are unique enough that they are complementary to the general entertainment services. And, of course, there’s our content — we have great, quality content and an audience that knows and appreciates our programs.”
As for the future, Downing sees so much opportunity that she believes the best and smartest strategy is to remain nimble and flexible — and be ready to follow consumers down whichever path they choose.
“While the market has changed significantly over the last 10 years, it is still in its infancy,” she says. “Consumers are becoming much more comfortable, but it’s still so early it’s hard to predict what will happen long-term.
“So we will continue to navigate the changing dynamics of the market, test strategies and adapt as needed, and continue to position ourselves to be as resilient and successful as possible.”