Fast Forward Awards 2020: Eddie Cunningham Gets Physical

It was the spring of 2014, and the team at Universal Pictures Home Entertainment didn’t quite know what to make of their new boss.

Eddie Cunningham, after eight years of heading international, had just been promoted to president of the entire division, whose scope had been expanded to global. He was moving his family out from London to Los Angeles, and was shopping around for a house to buy in Hancock Park, so he clearly planned to stay awhile.

The new role was played up in a press release all staffers had seen by then, in which Peter Levinsohn, at the time the studio’s president and chief distribution officer, said, “As the home entertainment landscape continues to evolve, we need to ensure that we’re operating as one global team positioning ourselves for the greatest success. Eddie has had tremendous results as head of our international home entertainment division and he will be a terrific leader for our group as we work to shape the future of Universal’s home entertainment business with an even greater global focus.”

At the division’s first townhall-style meeting with the new boss, Cunningham, an imposing figure known as much for his big strides as his Scottish brogue, walked into the room and faced the crowd. A few welcoming pleasantries, then a slideshow honoring employees who are celebrating anniversaries. First one-year, then five-year, and so on. Cunningham broke the ice by remarking that some veterans were apparently using old photos that made them look a lot younger. “I’d never do that, ya know,” he deadpanned.

Just then, the slideshow hit the 20-year mark and a young black-and-white Eddie Cunningham appeared on the screen, bangs cascading over his forehead and his head tilted forward in a classic Yuppie-era power pose.

The room erupted with laughter. The ice had been broken; the new boss, staffers nodded to one another, would be all right.

Six years later, Eddie Cunningham remains one of the most respected executives in home entertainment — even though unlike most of his peers, his focus is solely on the physical disc: Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, and, yes, DVD, the format that started it all and continues to sell among budget-conscious consumers.

That’s why the president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment gets our third annual Fast Forward Award for his unflagging support of the physical disc in an increasingly digital world.

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“Eddie has always been a great advocate for and leader of the home entertainment sector,” says Ron Sanders, president of worldwide theatrical distribution and home entertainment for Warner Bros. “He is as comfortable talking big-picture strategy with a studio head as he is discussing an out-of-stock with a store clerk. He’s probably one of the foremost experts on all aspects of our business, and his strong results demonstrate that.”

“Eddie is a consummate professional who has been helping to drive the global home entertainment business for the last two decades,” adds Bob Buchi, president of Paramount Home Entertainment. “His vision and expertise raise the bar for everyone.”

Galen Smith, CEO of Redbox, says Cunningham “has been an incredible partner. It’s clear to anyone who works with Eddie that he loves entertainment, understands the value of the physical business to consumers, and is always developing new and creative ways to maximize value of movies for UPHE. His commitment over his career continues to benefit retailers, distributors and, most importantly, consumers.”

Under Cunningham’s leadership, UPHE has scored a steady string of best-selling Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, spanning such global blockbuster franchises as “Jurassic World” and “Fast and Furious” as well as the breakout film sensations Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainUs and Downton Abbey.

In an effort to further innovate for the industry, UPHE last June unveiled a completely reimagined bonus content menu for its physical disc offerings that is more easily accessible and navigable — a move the studio introduced to provide viewers with a more visceral and engaging experience for Blu-ray Disc and DVD bonus content, which Cunningham and his team believe is a key selling point for its physical product offerings.

And when Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures in January 2020 announced plans to merge their domestic disc distribution businesses, Cunningham was chosen to lead the joint venture that pending regulatory approval will begin operation in early 2021.

“I am delighted to have been asked by Warner Brothers and Universal to lead the proposed joint venture and look forward to building a team to take us into the next exciting chapter for the market, working closely with our retail partners,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham is also known as one of the industry’s true gentlemen, to use a term that might be a little antiquated and not so politically correct, but remains appropriate. People who work for him have nothing but high praise, noting that he has helped create a culture that is at once welcoming and challenging, where everyone feels valued and appreciated.

Asked about his management style, Cunningham says, “I always talk about the three things that I believe will make most businesses successful: the right strategy, the right people and creating the right environment. I spend most of my time making sure those things are in place and that we keep improving. I believe in measuring yourself properly and in keeping yourself honest.”

Cunningham says he likes to think of himself “a bit like a conductor of an orchestra.”

“Some leaders think they can play every instrument better than everyone in the orchestra,” he says. “I prefer an approach where everyone brings their own skills and talent to the team and my job is to point them in the right direction and help them make great music, and in perfect harmony with each other. I prefer to help people build on their natural strengths … and I like to empower people as much as possible. It is often amazing what people can accomplish if you support them and show belief and trust. As a leader, you just need to check every so often that the trust isn’t misplaced. I like to be in it with the team when we try things. I always want people to know that they are not on their own if things don’t go well, provided there was good communication up front and that we haven’t failed because of poor execution. I don’t like the blame game.

“And I have always tried to get myself away from negative people as they drag everyone down. We all need to let off a little steam occasionally, but I always try to have a ‘glass half full’ outlook to both business and life in general. I also love fun. I like a sense of humor. Business is serious, but let’s enjoy ourselves while at work.”

His office reflects that philosophy. Two side-by-side computer screens are flanked by a photo of his family and an NBCUniversal calendar on one side and several binders and a stack of Blu-ray Discs on the other. Up above are shelves packed with more discs, the top two reserved for special editions, boxed sets, promotional mugs and a “Fast and Furious” remote-control car, still in the box.

Fun and games aside, Cunningham says he is “absolutely fanatical” about hiring. “It’s one of the most important things you will ever do,” he says. “Get it right and you are in good shape; get it wrong and you take several steps back. You can’t just hire the most talented people — you also need people who are best suited to your culture.”

Cunningham says that “as a bit of a business student, I studied the late Jack Welch closely in my early career. He used to talk about ‘the numbers and the values.’ Later, that became my guiding principle when hiring. What does it mean for me? The ‘numbers’ is really the day job. A marketing hire might need to combine experience with creativity and some science. An accountant might need to have certain financial qualifications and controllership or compliance experience to help guide the business.

“The ‘values’ are equally important, although too often they don’t get enough attention. I try to have a very clear sense of the values that will be required to be successful in a team that I lead and I often spend as much time looking for the fit as for the technical ability or experience to do the day job.

“Almost everyone tries to get a reference from a potential recruit’s previous bosses. I am just as interested in talking to people who have worked for the recruit. What kind of leader was he or she? What kind of person? What was morale like in the department? Did you feel like you were in an environment where you could contribute and grow? Was there a lot of wasteful nonsense or politicking?”

What advice would Cunningham give to a junior member of his team who’d like to advance and grow professionally?

“Three things,” Cunningham says. “First, do a great job where you are today. Treat each job, even if it is a menial one to begin with, like a degree course that will qualify you for your next bigger role. Be the best at it, always. It’s not a rehearsal.

“Second, build your network inside and outside the company. People can often get too internally focused working through their ‘to-do’ lists, their very busy lives, and don’t keep their heads up and work on building relationships outside their own immediate area.

“And, third, don’t spend too much time thinking about where you will be in five or 10 years’ time. Keep your head up and when you see the next role that you feel is right for you, kick the door down to try to get it.”

Eddie Cunningham (Photo by Bobby Quillard)

Joseph Edward Cunningham was born in a Leap Year, on Feb. 29, in Paisley, Scotland. He was the eldest of three children; his parents were older, his dad 56 and his mother, or “mum,” 41. He loved music and movies, and played a lot of soccer.

He enrolled in the University of Strathclyde, studying architecture. “But after a two-year flirtation with becoming an architect, I joined a retail business in the U.K. — Woolworths,” Cunningham recalls. “I managed several retail operations before being moved into the head office, where I took on a number of buying roles, including music, where, at the time, we had a huge 25% share of the U.K. disc market and an incredible 40% of the singles business.” (This was before CDs, when music was primarily sold on 7-inch singles or 12-inch albums.)

Woolworths eventually bought its biggest supplier, Record Merchandisers, and later renamed it Entertainment U.K.

“I became business development director initially and, later, as commercial director, was responsible for buying and sales and marketing,” Cunningham says. “In that role, we were everyone’s biggest European customer in the music and home video markets, so I was lucky enough to get headhunted across to one of our biggest suppliers, PolyGram, overseeing their fledgling home video business and a couple of catalog music labels.”

In 1999, five years after Cunningham was hired by PolyGram, the company was acquired by Seagrams and integrated into Universal Pictures. Cunningham became chairman of U.K. Operations and regional managing director for the Nordic countries as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Cunningham was promoted to president of Universal Pictures International Entertainment in 2006, overseeing the company’s home entertainment activities across Europe, Asia and Latin America. He played a key role in elevating Universal to market leader in most of its operational territories and introduced groundbreaking, non-traditional growth initiatives in the international home entertainment sector.

“We went to a lot of retailers who weren’t engaged in the category at all and persuaded them to come into it,” Cunningham recalls. “It depended a lot on which territory, but we spoke with clothing stores, sporting goods stores, small grocery chains — any retailers that had significant traffic flow.

“Our theory was that the business was going to plateau and decline at some stage, and if we just sat waiting for existing retailers to take space out, the decline would be faster. Consumers still love physical content, but we were starting to see fewer places to buy it, so we decided to try to broaden distribution.”

So, in essence, Cunningham was thinking “out of the box” before it became a popular catchphrase. It’s also known as being creative or, simply, thinking smart — and being strategic.

That’s how Eddie Cunningham works, and it’s also the best way to get ahead in the entertainment business, he maintains.

“As in any business, you have to consistently achieve results and be highly competitive,” Cunningham says. “You can’t always be the best at everything, but if you’re not, know who is and learn from what they are doing. I see the entertainment business as a people business, so relationships are very important. It sounds a bit obvious but treat everyone the way you would want to be treated yourself. It sounds simple but do what you say you are going to do. Follow up. Be reliable. Build trust. If you screw up occasionally, don’t be afraid to apologize and make it good — and quickly!

“And always remember the second-best answer in the world is ‘a quick no,’ so don’t leave people dangling for answers. If, for example, you say to a distribution partner that you are going to treat their content in exactly the same way as your own, then accept nothing less from your organization and create a culture that believes in this as a core value of doing business. If you promise something to a customer, then make sure you deliver it 100%.”

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Like many high-ranking executives, Cunningham has had his share of triumphs and disappointments. His single biggest achievement, he maintains, “is probably surviving eight major takeovers in my career.”

“While I have likely been close to becoming a casualty on a few occasions, I somehow managed to earn the trust and respect of each of the new owners,” he says. “I could write a book on that one, but you must always remember that the acquirer has usually brought you on to improve you, or maybe even ‘fix’ you. They have usually invested a lot of money acquiring you. What you have achieved prior to the takeover counts for very little, if anything. You need to park any ego you have at the door, start again, and earn their trust and respect. If you are not prepared to do that, then go and do something else. I often say ‘You can stay, or you can leave, but don’t stay if you have a chip on your shoulder.’ That’s no good for you, your family, the company, anyone.

“I think I take the biggest pride in seeing so many people from my various teams over the years progress throughout their careers. Feeling that I played some part in their personal success and development feels good. Seeing someone who was a trainee manager for me at retail go on to become a retail giant, seeing a young marketing assistant progress and go on to become an EVP, is very satisfying for me.”

On the downside, Cunningham says, “I never really focus on failure. Sure, there have been lots of disappointments along the way — we are, after all, in the movie business. But each failure or mistake represents an opportunity to learn something and move on. Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’ I wouldn’t go that far, but you get what he meant. Someone else said, ‘Failure defeats losers, but inspires winners.’ I genuinely believe that if you are not making a few mistakes, then you are not trying hard enough.”

Reflecting further on his career, Cunningham notes that he has had 18 bosses “and I’ve been really lucky enough to have had a lot of really good ones and some truly great ones — along with perhaps one or two who were not so good! The good news is that you can even learn from the bad ones, by remembering how it felt being on the receiving end and taking those lessons with you and making sure that you act differently when you are in a position of power.

“My first manager in retail was a great, wise, mature leader who left a lasting impression on me. He is now well into his 80s and I still speak to him from time to time, and he still has good advice for me. Ron Meyer is a standout for me. He just has this personal touch which is difficult to explain. If I could bottle it I would. He is incredibly open. He treats everyone as equals. He makes people feel great. He responds to everything. He has built a great culture at Universal. You would follow him to the ends of the earth. Jeff Shell is another one. I was lucky enough to have an office two doors away from him in London for three years after Comcast bought NBCUniversal so I would speak with him most days. He has a planet-sized brain and always challenges you to think differently. He is a great communicator who is prepared to take risks. He is always pushing the envelope, and he is also very open and transparent.”

Cunningham’s rules for life are simple, straightforward — and from the heart.

“For me, life is mainly about family and work,” he says. “I have a lovely wife, Sue, and three ‘grown-up’ children who are great — the oldest graduated from the London School of Economics and works in business development, in London; my daughter just graduated from the University of California, Berkeley; and my youngest is a junior at Pepperdine. I occasionally play golf, but not too much. I always remember Jim Davidson, who was a huge TV personality and comedian in the U.K., once say to me that ‘three into two didn’t go.’ Noting that I had a very demanding job and a big family, and that I enjoyed the odd game of golf, he said, ‘The best one to lose was the golf.’ As Jim had four previous wives at that stage, I took that to heart and therefore my golf handicap is still very high.”

As a business leader, Cunningham says, “I demand loyalty to the company, to the team, to each other — always. Respect is different. I don’t believe that any leader has a right to demand respect. Respect needs to be earned both ways, regardless of the divergence in titles or status within an organization. Leaders can’t just demand respect; they need to work at earning it from even the most junior member of the team.

“I also try to live by the motto, ‘Take the company seriously, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously.’ I abhor big egos. We are all here partly because we are lucky enough to work in a great business. Finally, tell the truth, don’t spin, no B.S. please! Usually, if you can get to the truth, you can manage most things.”

 

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