Fast Forward Awards 2019: Keeping the Faith

Digital retailers are revving up their promotional engines and helping studios chase down the Holy Grail: transactional sales and rentals of movies over the Internet. These four Fast Forward honorees are the leaders of the pack.

The rise of subscription streaming has revolutionized home entertainment consumption — and music, as well.

We still pick and choose what we want to watch (or hear), along with when, where and how. But instead of paying for a specific movie, TV show or song, we pay one price for a month’s worth of access to whatever happens to be
available.

The problem with Netflix and other streamers is that while the buffet of entertainment choices appears endless, the really good dishes are conspicuously absent. Big theatrical movies, in particular, don’t show up on subscription streaming services for years, if ever. And the continued appeal of big-screen blockbusters among home viewers is what’s keeping the traditional “transactional” model alive.

As disc sales continue to decline, digital movie sales and “rentals” (a la carte streaming) are on an upswing, thanks in large part to aggressive and innovative digital retailers.

Four standouts are being honored in the second-annual Media Play Fast Forward Awards, which recognize people, technologies, organizations, products or services that move the home entertainment industry forward.

This year’s honorees are Cameron Douglas, VP of home entertainment at FandangoNow; Google Play’s Jonathan Zepp, head of media and entertainment; Galen Smith, CEO of Redbox; and the team at Apple iTunes (the company asked that no individual be singled out).

FandangoNow has been revving up its promotional muscle and is aggressively tying in digital purchases and rentals with its movie-ticket-selling sister company Fandango.

Google Play Movies & TV is on a big 4K push, automatically upgrading customers’ past movie purchases to the new format so they can stream them in 4K, even if the movies were originally purchased in standard- or high-definition.

Redbox has nearly doubled the selection of films and TV shows available on its year-old digital movie store, Redbox On Demand, and last December announced a new deal in which its app is featured on all Vizio SmartCast TVs — in addition to TVs from Samsung and LG.

And Apple’s iTunes service began the year with a game-changing deal with No. 1 TV manufacturer Samsung. New Samsung SmartCast TVs will allow consumers to access their iTunes movie and TV show libraries through a new app. They’ll also be able to buy new movies or TV shows directly through the app.

As an added benefit to consumers, Google Play Movies & TV, iTunes and FandangoNow have also joined Movies Anywhere, the cloud-based movie locker service that allows consumers to access their digital libraries.

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The Media Play Fast Forward awards are an outgrowth of the Home Entertainment Visionary Awards, which were launched in 2002 by the now-defunct Home Media Magazine. Comcast’s Brian Roberts was the 2017 honoree. Warren Lieberfarb, the father of DVD, was the first, back in 2002. Other honorees have included Sony Pictures’ Ben Feingold, Samsung’s Tim Baxter, and Walmart’s Louis Greth and Chris Nagelson.

The first Media Play Fast Forward honorees, recognized last year, were Movies Anywhere and Fox Innovation Labs.

FandangoNow

Cameron Douglas

FandangoNow is a transactional VOD service owned by Fandango, the nation’s leading movie consumer destination, which also owns Rotten Tomatoes and MovieClips, the top multi-channel network for trailers and movie-related content. FandangoNow serves millions of visitors a month, with more than 80,000 new-release and catalog movies, next-day TV shows, and a growing library of 4K titles available to watch on more than 200 million connected, over-the-top and mobile devices.

The business is split fairly evenly between electronic purchases and rentals, says VP of home entertainment Cameron Douglas, and the service’s heavy push into 4K has resulted in 20% of transactions coming from the ultra HD format when available.

FandangoNow — which prior to its January 2016 acquisition by Fandango was known as M-GO, a joint venture launched three years earlier by DreamWorks Animation and Technicolor — doesn’t rely on algorithms. Instead, its entertainment options are hand-picked by in-house film experts, celebrity guest curators and further spiced up by Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer scores and editors’ picks.

The service also boldly plays up the fact that it offers high-demand content not available on Netflix and the other streaming services.

“We’re proud of our differentiated offerings that you can’t find on iTunes or Amazon,” Douglas says. “For instance, each month we highlight a selection of ‘Fresh Picks,’ critically-acclaimed titles that you’ll want to see but aren’t available on Netflix or other streaming subscription services. Each title is rated fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and is only $2.49 to rent. We also innovated a first-of-its-kind rental initiative called ‘Binge Bundles,’ offering multiple titles from fan-favorite franchises and themed collections, bundled together to rent and binge for one low price.”

What might be FandangoNow’s trump card is its ability to tie in digital movie sales and rentals with movie ticket sales. Most recently, FandangoNow offered a free DreamWorks Animation movie to fans who purchased Fandango VIP tickets to early access screenings of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Another recent promotion offered a free movie ticket for every $20 spent on FandangoNow. “We are a full-service destination for film fans,” Douglas says.

Douglas had been SVP of content at M-GO prior to FandangoNow’s 2016 launch. Before that he held senior positions at top entertainment media companies including DreamWorks, Paramount, Fox and Disney. He began his career in 1986 as manager of affiliate marketing and programming at Showtime Networks, and later held operations, product and merchandising posts at Musicland and Disney Stores. Douglas began his involvement with home entertainment in 1993 when he joined Buena Vista Home Video, at the time Disney’s home video distribution arm, as senior sales analyst and, later, assistant marketing manager. Today Douglas also serves as the chair of the home entertainment industry group, the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA).

Google Play Movies & TV

Jonathan Zepp

Google Play Movies & TV is an online video store that sells and rents movies, TV shows and other filmed content. It is part of Google Play, which launched in March 2012, bringing together the Android Market, Google Music, and Google eBookstore under one brand. Other services operating under the Google Play banner are Google Play Books, Google Play Console, Google Play Games and Google Play Music. Google Play gives customers one place to find, enjoy and share their favorite apps, games, movies, TV shows, music, books and more, on the Web for any device.

Google Play Movies & TV, like the other Google Play services, uses the power of the cloud to manage digital entertainment — so customers can access their movies and TV shows on their phones, and have them available instantly on their computers, tablets or connected TVs.

Google Movies & TV has been particularly aggressive on the promotional front, offering 99-cent movie and TV show rentals around holidays such as Thanksgiving and to power users of its site. In advance of the 91st Academy Awards last month, Google Play offered deals on past Oscar-winning movies as well as the latest Oscar-nominated films. Google Play also featured apps and games inspired by the Best Picture nominees.

The biggest buzz at Google Play, at least among movie enthusiasts, is its 4K upgrade feature. The digital retailer last October announced in a blog posting that when 4K titles are available, the service will automatically upgrade customers’ past movie purchases “so you can stream in 4K, even if you originally bought the movie in SD or HD. It’s all on us, just open the Play Movies & TV app and we’ll let you know which titles have been upgraded.”

Google Play also announced a price drop for 4K movies, with prices as low as $14.99 to own (and $4.99 to rent).

In addition to 4K Sony Bravia TVs, Google announced “you can now watch in 4K using the Play Movies & TV app on most 4K Samsung Smart TVs, and we’re working on adding support for LG as well.” In addition, the Google Play app for Samsung, LG and Vizio TVs was updated.

Jonathan Zepp leads Media & Entertainment for Android & Google Play. He describes himself as “an entertainment content enthusiast fortunate to find my way to Google at a time when the company was broadly considering how to think about entertainment content.”

Zepp is charged with looking after partnerships and business strategy for entertainment, sports and news video content. He and his team also drive business and content operations for Google Pay Movies & TV. He previously led content partnerships for YouTube in the Americas. Prior to joining Google Play in June 2011, Zepp held key digital entertainment leadership roles at Sony Network Entertainment, Paramount Pictures and Napster. A graduate of the Boston University School of Law, he began his career as a corporate and intellectual property lawyer.

Redbox On Demand

Redbox CEO Galen Smith

If you only think of Redbox for its fleet of more than 41,500 bright-red DVD and Blu-ray Disc rental kiosks, stationed outside Walmarts, supermarkets and drugstores, you’re only getting half the picture.

Redbox also operates a digital movie store, Redbox On Demand, that since its launch in December 2017 has “surpassed major milestones to become a real player in the competitive digital home entertainment space,” says Redbox CEO Galen Smith.

Redbox On Demand was established as a complement to the disc-rental kiosks for which the Redbox brand was known. “Our customers come to us for that transactional experience — it’s Friday night, and they want to watch a specific movie,” Smith told Media Play News in January 2018. “We try to satisfy them with our kiosk network, but there are occasions where you might not want to go out and rent a movie from a kiosk. So rather than lose that transactional occasion, we’re giving them the chance to get it online.”

Consumers are seizing that opportunity, Smith says. Nearly 60% of Redbox On Demand consumers are people who have either stopped renting discs at Redbox kiosks or never patronized Redbox before, Smith says.

“We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of customers, including bringing back folks we haven’t seen in a while,” he says. The On Demand service has even surpassed expectations in its ability to bring customers back to the box.

Last December, Redbox On Demand celebrated its one-year anniversary with a most welcome development: Redbox apps are now featured on all Vizio SmartCast TVs. Without apps, it’s hard for digital retailers to sell or rent movies over the Internet. Redbox apps are also available on TVs made by Samsung and LG, and the addition of Vizio — also a top 10 brand — is significant, says Chris Yates, general manager of Redbox On Demand.

Redbox continues to aggressively seek out partnerships with consumer electronics companies to install Redbox On Demand apps on new TVs and devices.

The company also continues to expand its library of content “to include more titles we know our customers want to watch,” Smith says. “Since launch, we’ve added about 5,000 titles, and now have more than 12,000 curated titles in our library. We are focused on providing consumers the content they want most.

“As the industry continues to evolve, consumers are inundated with more entertainment choices, but Redbox and our Redbox On Demand operate in a unique position offering choice across a wide variety of formats and price points. We’re pleased with the momentum we’re seeing with Redbox On Demand — particularly in bringing people back into the Redbox ecosystem.”

Smith was named CEO of Redbox in 2016 and is the architect behind many of the company’s major achievements, including Redbox On Demand and removing delays in studio windows at the kiosk. A former Morgan Stanley investment banker with an MBA from the University of Chicago, Smith, 42, joined the finance team at Redbox in May 2009 as director of corporate finance. Coinstar, the operator of a network of coin-cashing machines, had just acquired the other half of Redbox from the McDonald’s Corp. Within two years, Smith had become SVP of finance for Redbox. “I loved being in the business,” he told Media Play News. “I started negotiating studio contracts and building relationships across the ecosystem.”

Smith was the CFO of Outerwall (Coinstar’s new moniker) when the company was sold to private equity investor Apollo Global Management in September 2016, and Smith was named CEO of Redbox.

“With this offering, we are giving consumers more choices than ever before,” Smith says of Redbox On Demand. “We are bringing them back into the Redbox ecosystem and reminding them of the great value we offer at the box at $1.75 a night.”

Apple iTunes

Less than three months after the June 2006 launch of Blu-ray Disc as the next-generation physical media product, Apple’s then 3-year-old iTunes Store birthed the digital movie sales business.

“Today, we are making more than 75 films available online, and we will be adding more every month,” the late Apple founder Steve Jobs told reporters at a September 2006 press event. The first batch of films were from Disney, Pixar, Touchstone and Miramax, “including Pirates of the Caribbean and Cars,” he said.

Two years later, in his Macworld 2008 keynote, Jobs announced iTunes would begin “renting” movies over the Internet, as well.

Since then, the iTunes Store has continued to be among the most aggressive digital retailers, with a growing library of what now numbers about 112,000 movies and 300,000 TV shows for sale or rent, playable across a broad swath of Apple devices. A “Family Sharing” feature lets up to six people in a family share each other’s iTunes purchases.

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple’s share for selling and renting movies, TV shows and other video content had dropped to between 20% and 35% — down from over 50% as recently as 2012. Despite the percentage drop, Apple told the Journal that its movie rentals and purchases had risen over the previous year and had reached their highest level in more than a decade.

Apple keeps a sharp eye on what’s going on in theaters. For the release earlier this month of Captain Marvel, the iTunes store discounted numerous Marvel movies, dropping the purchase price to $14.99 for such recent hits as Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man.

On the eve of the January CES in Las Vegas, Samsung Electronics announced it will offer iTunes movies and TV shows, and provide Apple AirPlay 2 support, on 2019 Samsung Smart TV models beginning this spring. In what is believed to be an industry first, a new iTunes Movies and TV Shows app will debut only on Samsung Smart TVs in more than 100 countries. AirPlay 2 support will be available on Samsung Smart TVs in 190 countries worldwide.

Speaking at the Samsung “First Look CES” preview event at the Aria Resort & Casino, Andrew Sivori, a VP of TV product marketing at Samsung Electronics America, told members of the press, “For the first time, users in more than 100 countries will be able to access the iTunes Movies and TV Shows app. … Users will be able to access their iTunes Movies and TV Shows purchases as well as buy or watch something new from the iTunes store.”

Q&A: 10 Questions

We sat down with three of our Fast Forward-winning retailers — in a virtual way, of course — for a discussion of key points affecting the digital movie sales-and-rental trade. (Jonathan Zepp was traveling; his quotes are from an earlier interview with Thomas K. Arnold in Variety.)

How do we get across to consumers the value proposition of buying or “renting” a digital movie when they are used to an all-you-can watch “buffet” from Netflix and the other streaming services for a little more than $10 a month?

Cameron Douglas, FandangoNow: “Premium content for purchase has always coexisted with subscription services. When I worked at the studios, we always knew our titles would hit the pay window on HBO or elsewhere at some point, but we still had reliably significant volume for the physical DVDs and Blu-ray Discs for a long retail lifecycle. As subscription offerings continue to grow, so too does consumer comfort and familiarity with streaming. You soon discover that the breadth of content out there requires the frequent tap of a ‘Buy’ or ‘Rent’ button, even if you already have access to one or more subscription services, because those subscription services often don’t have the movie you want.”

Galen Smith, Redbox: “Redbox — at the box and On Demand — offers new-release movies that subscription services won’t have for months, years or ever. ‘Back to the Movies’ is a Redbox initiative that was soft launched in August 2018. It speaks to and reminds people what movie watching used to be, the nostalgia it creates for so many people, and why we need to get it back. Entertainment consumption has become a solo event of endless scrolling, binging for hours, or sitting in a room with everyone on their own devices. But being together is missing. So with our Back to the Movies initiative, we are encouraging consumers to take a step back. Watching a movie used to bring people together, and we need to make an effort to do it again. And just because you have an all-you-can-eat solution, some of the best content is not available in subscription. Redbox provides the best content at the best value.”

Jonathan Zepp, Google Play Movies & TV: “The subscription streaming model offers a compelling value proposition for many users, but a lot of great content is not available in that model. That is especially true for users who value earlier access to the most popular new-release movies. I’d love to see the industry articulate the value proposition of the transactional model relative to subscription and ad-supported options, especially around content availability. We are thinking a lot about how to make this awareness more intuitive within our ecosystem.”

What makes your digital service unique?

Douglas: “Fandango is the only company out there in our space solely dedicated to the full entertainment lifecycle, from pre-release awareness and trailer buzz through Fandango MovieClips to the first reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, advance tickets on Fandango to home entertainment on FandangoNow. One might guess that’s just an internal operational benefit, but it’s actually a boon for consumers too. For example, this year we were able to be a big part of the awards season conversation, across Fandango, FandangoNow, and of course Rotten Tomatoes as well. Fans flocked to our network looking to catch up with the year’s best movies, knowing that Fandango could give them access to all the awards contenders in one place, whether the films were only playing on the big screen or already available at home.”

Smith: “Three things. First, choice. Redbox is dedicated to making Movie Nights memorable and meaningful events that can be enjoyed across a wide variety of formats and price points. DVD rentals start at $1.75 a night, Blu-ray Disc rentals start at $2 a night and 4K UHD rentals in select markets for $2.50 a night. Via Redbox On Demand, Video On Demand rentals start at $3.99 a night for new releases. Consumers can also purchase previously rented movies and games at the box or through On Demand via electronic sellthrough.

“Second, value. Enhancing our value at the box, our loyalty program ‘Redbox Perks’ rewards customers with points for free rentals when they rent or purchase movies at the box or On Demand. The program now has more than 32 million members, with more than 3 million new customers joining in 2018 alone.

“And, third, marketing. Recent promotions, such as ‘Stream On Demand, Get a Free Physical Rental’ have proven to drive both On Demand and physical rentals from new and lapsed customers. Redbox Perks includes three tiers (Star, Superstar, Legend) to recognize our most valuable customers with special benefits; and badging that gives them fun challenges to earn serious bragging rights. Related to our Back to the Movies initiative, a new ‘Family Fun’ badge is earned when Perks members watch three movies that bring the family together for Movie Night. Also, our incredibly popular ‘Spin’ series offers gamified promotions like Summer Spin and Winter Spin that give customers the ability to win instant prizes and be entered for larger prizes (entertainment packages and fun trips).”

Zepp: “Since our launch we have worked to constantly iterate and improve the experience for consumers. This includes establishing a global footprint. We are … available in more markets than any other transactional service in the world right now.”

What key moves/strategies have helped grow the transactional business at large and at your service in particular in the past year?

Douglas: “We were early adopters of 4K back in 2014, and it was a good bet for us to be first-to-market in 4K in those early days. That part of our business has grown over the years to become a truly significant part of FandangoNow in the past year. 4K has become one of the main ways that mainstream consumers make the transition from physical to digital. Last year, we also began a concerted effort to converge the FandangoNow experience across all of our apps, whether you are using Web, mobile, one of our connected TV apps, or of course our native experience on Roku. I’d say right now, our 10-foot experience on connected TV’s is the best in the market.”

Smith: “We’ve built out a talented and dedicated team to support the Redbox On Demand business across product management, technology, content acquisition, merchandising and marketing. Further, our service offers access to consumers that no other digital retailer can provide, which makes us an incredibly valuable partner. We are expanding the category, and for that I am excited about the year ahead.”

Has the studio strategy of giving digital movies a two- or three-week window over the DVD and Blu-ray Disc release proved effective? What else would you like to see the studios do?

Smith: “Each of the studios would need to opine on its effectiveness across the broader base. For our segment of the market, many of our consumers simply cannot or are not willing to pay $15 to $20 for a movie. It’s one reason our rental business is much larger than our electronic sellthrough business. There is a marketing benefit in letting our consumers know a movie is on its way to the kiosk and VOD.”

What have been your key marketing/promotional efforts in the past year?

Smith: “Redbox recently relaunched the brand, including digital and TV spots as well as sponsorships, such as the Redbox Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Our Perks loyalty program has become a major marketing engine for Redbox with new badging opportunities that range from seasonal and title-specific marketing to promotional support. We’re proud of our Back to the Movies initiative that has launched across Redbox social media channels and through media partnerships with Attn: and Scary Mommy (media companies leveraging social media).”

Netflix has made content recommendations a hallmark of its service. Can that technology be applied to the digital retail market?

Douglas: “Recommendations are already part of what we do at FandangoNow, and it continues to get better and better. In the case of Fandango, it comes down to personalization more than discrete recommendations — this is a big focus for us.”

Smith: “Definitely. Personalizing an experience for a consumer is important. Even though we try to curate content for consumers, we want to make sure that the most relevant content is recommended to improve their experience. To accomplish this, we have a new recommendation engine rolling out to all of our platforms that leverages our history of rental occasions over the past 16 years to suggest the content the consumer may want to watch most.

“To augment this, we have invested heavily in our Marketing Analytics team to help refine the algorithms that drive our recommendations. In 2018 we developed an enhanced customer segmentation and targeted marketing programs aligned with these segments. These campaigns are designed to drive repeat visits for new customers, increase frequency for engaged customers, and grow retention among our long-tenured customers. We continue to build additional machine-learning models (artificial intelligence) to optimize our promotions and deliver personalized recommendations to our customers across our storefronts. In the process, we are driving incremental trips and making the customer experience better by surfacing the most relevant titles to our customers in our outbound marketing and on our storefronts.”

Uniform pricing remains a mandate among digital platforms — unlike among packaged-media retail. Will there ever be loss-leader pricing on new-release digital titles?

Smith: “Redbox is in a unique position to drive value through our Perks loyalty program that earns physical rentals for On Demand and box transactions. We also work closely with studios to offer and promote promotional temporary price reductions on specific titles.”

A hallmark of packaged media has been special features and bonus material. Why aren’t those features included and/or marketed for digital?

Douglas: “They are included to some extent, and most of the digital retailers, including FandangoNow, have tried and tested various ways of surfacing this content. It certainly was a great way to entice consumers to buy in the physical era, whether or not the content was ever watched by most buyers. I think the bar is higher for digital and as an industry we need to make this marketing tactic even more relevant in the digital era.”

Smith: “That’s a great question. We love having the special features on our physical discs but would also love to have them on digital purchases as well.”

The Sky Store in the U.K. includes a DVD with any digital movie purchase. Any plans to replicate that strategy in the United States?

Smith: “We don’t have that strategy specifically, but if you think about our loyalty program, we are trying to encourage consumption on both digital and physical by awarding points for digital transactions that can be used on physical product. We think we can uniquely bring the two worlds together.”
Netflix is partnering with telecoms and pay-TV operators to offer discounted and/or free service in exchange for access to new subscribers.

Would digital retail consider partnering with SVOD to sell the latter’s original content in addition to including free Netflix access with each digital transaction?

Douglas: “Everything is on the table, as long as it supports our core Fandango consumer brand promise, which is to provide premium content, whenever and wherever fans want to see it, whether it’s the theater or at home. We’re seeing new models — and more acronyms! — every day, and I’m so grateful to be a part of such an exciting era of growth and innovation at Fandango.”

Smith: “Unlikely. It makes sense for someone selling bandwidth and data to partner with Netflix so that their consumers use more bandwidth (Comcast, T-Mobile). For Netflix originals (or Hulu or Amazon, for that matter) we would happily offer their content to our consumers at the kiosk or on VOD as available. In fact, we offer a number of their originals today. It is great for us as it offers consumers the opportunity to try an original at a great value, and if they like it, we can be a great acquisition channel for the respective SVOD service. Not every consumer will want to commit to a monthly fee, let alone multiple services, so we think we can stand in the gap and offer content on a transactional VOD and physical basis to help extend reach.”

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