Hooked on Classics: With No Theatrical Releases, Studio Home Entertainment Marketers are Getting Creative

When Paramount Home Entertainment on March 9 announced the launch of its “Paramount Presents” line to showcase films from the studio’s extensive library, marketing chief Vincent Marcais had no idea how prophetic the move would prove to be.

Just two days later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared a global COVID-19 pandemic, and over the ensuing days governments the world over issued stay-at-home mandates and ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses.

Vincent Marcais

Movie theaters were among the businesses that suddenly went dark, which meant box office revenues quickly dropped to near zero. On top of that, productions were halted, which meant that not only were there no new movies in theaters, there were no more new movies, period, at least for the foreseeable future.

Home entertainment, thanks to 90-day windows, got a three-month reprieve — as well as an extra crop of high-profile films released digitally to home audiences, at a premium price, due to the closure of theaters. But by mid-June, studio home entertainment divisions were running out of fresh new theatrical product, which had been their lifeblood since the home video business began more than 40 years ago.

So how are the home entertainment divisions of the major studios keeping the lights on?

Mining the Library

At Paramount, says Marcais, EVP of marketing, the studio has been filling the void primarily with catalog product from its rich library of film and TV content, buoyed by the launch of the Paramount Presents line.

“The library is at the core of what we do here at Paramount,” Marcais says, noting that since the end of March weekly catalog sales have been double what they used to be.

Alanna Powers

“Catalog has always been important, but now it’s more important to us than ever,” adds Alanna Powers, SVP of brand marketing, catalog, at Paramount Home Entertainment. “We’re very well positioned to meet demand as new releases continue to dry up.”

With no fresh new theatricals in the pipeline, she says, “we have a very robust release strategy for our library. We continue to explore things like anniversary efforts, or leaning into historical dates or holidays, and we’re also looking at 4K Ultra HD, digging in and looking at opportunities.”

On the digital side, Paramount works in tandem with digital retailers such as FandangoNow, Apple and Vudu to create curated promotions that are marketed primarily through Instagram and other social media channels, such as a collection of family films or series of dancing and singing movies that included Grease and Dreamgirls.

On the physical media side, the emphasis is on finding classic films from the vaults that have never before been released on Blu-ray Disc, such as Roman Holiday, and on the “Paramount Presents” Line — both of which target collectors.

The “Paramount Presents” line of Blu-ray Discs kicked off with the April 21 release of Fatal Attraction; 1958’s acclaimed Elvis Presley drama King Creole; and director Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic thriller To Catch a Thief, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. Subsequent waves have been released monthly. All films in the “Paramount Presents” line are remastered and sent to Blu-ray in collectible packaging that includes a foldout image of the original movie poster and interior artwork featuring key movie moments.

‘Paramount Presents’ is a new premium line of theatrical catalog titles that was launched in March 2020.

“This new label is really a labor of love,” Marcais says. “We’re like a publishing company, in that we take a very diverse group of movies from our library and we publish, or republish, them with the mindset of a really small shop where the focus is on quality.”

Like films in the vaunted Criterion Collection, Marcais says, “Paramount Presents” titles get the VIP treatment. “We go back to the filmmakers and find the best master and really work on the quality of the image,” he says. “We improve everything and then make these films available to the most important people for us — the core Blu-ray Disc fans.”

Paramount may have enjoyed the luck of the draw with the launch of its “Paramount Presents” line — as well as the already-scheduled May release of a special 35th anniversary edition of Top Gun — but other studios are reporting similar upticks in catalog sales, both on disc and digitally.

“From the outset of this unprecedented period, we’ve been seeing a broad lift across catalog,” says Hilary Hoffman, EVP of global marketing, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has one of the biggest catalogs of any studio, buoyed by MGM, HBO and Turner product. EVP of sales Mike Takac says that during the first six weeks of the pandemic, when shelter-in-place orders were in place and businesses were closed, sales of theatrical catalog titles doubled.

“The COVID-19 bump was massive,” Takac says. “So now it becomes a matter of trying to predict how much of it will fall off as restrictions ease, and no one knows. But the second quarter was historic — we hadn’t seen such robust catalog sales in years.”

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For Lionsgate, home entertainment’s moment in the sun is an ongoing thing. Home entertainment packaged media/digital movies at the studio represented 42.2% of the Motion Picture segment’s $1.67 billion revenue for the fiscal year ended March 31 — twice the percentage of theatrical, according to the company’s 10K fiscal filing, which was released May 27. The tally is up 14.1% from revenue of $1.46 billion in fiscal 2019.

Adam Frank

“Home entertainment has always been, and will continue to be, a huge priority for the company,” says Adam Frank, Lionsgate’s SVP of worldwide digital sales and distribution.

He says Lionsgate is in a strong competitive position because of the strength of its theatrical titles and the diversity of its slate, including a longstanding tradition of multi-platform releases. Between box office blockbusters such as the “John Wick,” “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” franchises and original hits such as Knives Out and La La Land, he says, Lionsgate has always filled in the gaps with a diverse portfolio of movies, some of which are released simultaneously across theaters and other platforms. With movie theaters closed, he says, films such as Arkansas and Survive the Night, aimed at home audiences, are posting “amazing results — they’re really outperforming our expectations and ranking in the upper echelon of multi-platform release performance, industry-wide.”

“We were well prepared,” he adds, “and we still have a number of those films that we have not yet released.”

Lionsgate also has a vast 17,000-title film and television catalog that studio marketers routinely mine in partnership with digital retailers, Frank says.

“We have always had an unrivaled dedication to our catalog,” he says. “We are coming off a record $600 million year in library revenue for our company, and we are now seeing weekly run rates up nearly 100% in recent months compared to before shelter-at-home orders.”

Creating a Buzz

As the theatrical pipeline has dried up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, home entertainment divisions have turned to their marketing gurus to create excitement around the catalog releases filling the void.

Jason Spivak, EVP of U.S. distribution at Sony Pictures Television Distribution, says the studio’s home entertainment marketing team, headed by senior EVP of worldwide marketing Lexine Wong, has been “getting really creative when it comes to catalog.”

Wong says Sony has been mining its vault for product appropriate for “seasonal events — finding little gems that we can elevate and create a buzz behind.”

Jason Spivak

“As Easter was the first major holiday in this new period of uncertainty, we worked quickly with our theatrical counterparts to create a Pinterest hub of Easter-themed activities to ensure that families would be able to celebrate the holiday at home with perennial favorite Peter Rabbit,” Wong says. “The activities were seeded to parenting influencer and bloggers to help foster excitement not only for the first “Peter Rabbit” film, but also for the upcoming second installment, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.”

Sony Pictures also has been closely monitoring fan conversation on social media.

“Shortly after quarantine began, we noticed that the 1993 film Groundhog Day had entered the social media zeitgeist in a major way as people settled into the repetition of stay-at-home routines,” Wong says. “To join the conversation and invite those at home to revisit the movie, we created an official Instagram account for the film that encouraged fans to post their own Groundhog Day moments and launched a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a ‘sequel’ …oddly similar to the first film’s trailer.”

Lexine Wong

Social media watch-alongs featuring classic Sony Pictures films “also proved to be an invaluable tool in allowing movie fans to maintain the communal watching experience that they love, even during a period when we aren’t physically able to be together,” Wong adds. “We worked with editorial partners like Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, Nerdist, ComicBook.com and others in collaboration with film talent to help host live viewings of fan-favorite titles while viewers posted reactions in real-time via social media.

“While these watch-alongs initially began with new release titles like Bloodshot and Bad Boys for Life, selections have since delved into catalog favorites like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Hook, Center Stage, War Room, The Mask of Zorro and This Is the End — catering to a wide range of viewer tastes.”

Another initiative at Sony Pictures was the launch of the Sony Pictures Kids Zone YouTube Channel. “The hub was the brainchild of moms and dads on our team who found themselves in a brave new world of juggling work-from-home with parenting duties,” Wong says. “Our content team had hours’ worth of kid-friendly activities, educational content and sing/dance-alongs that had been created for past titles, so they set about curating playlists to help parents who were in a similar position of looking for ways to entertain and educate their kids. The launch saw coverage from dozens of press outlets, exhibitor partners, prominent celebrity moms and social media influencers.”

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Universal’s Hoffman notes that “with the current resurgence in catalog interest, we have used this time to create compelling new collections and promotions at retail to keep the space fresh and updated and have sought to further heighten exposure through creative marketing.”

To that end, she says, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment generated millions of impressions by employing a Twitter catalog watch-party series, which spotlighted several library classics and anniversary releases such as Halloween, Apollo 13, Breakfast Club and Jaws. The studio was able to enlist the help of cast members, filmmakers and special celebrity guests such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Howard and Anthony Michael Hall, and partnered with notable filmmaker Kevin Smith to produce a special podcast for the 45th anniversary of Jaws.

Mike Takac

Warner Bros. routinely partners with digital retailers and in June has teamed with Apple TV and iTunes to promote top catalog films with new key art that features a travel postcard line look. “It’s a fun, creative way to re-position our titles to evoke the feeling of summer travel at a time when most people are stuck at home,” Takac says.

Looking ahead at the rest of the year, Takac says, “We know our success is going to ride largely on our ability to monetize our catalog. We’re fortunate to have some national promotions. We’re going to drive around DC Fandom, we’ll have a ‘Back to Hogwarts’ push, and of course we’re going to drive Halloween and holiday really hard, with a little more consumer marketing than we’ve done in the past.”

Takac says Warner Bros. also is working on a promotion to encourage consumers to buy and rent movies they’ve always been meaning to watch. “We’re still working on that,” he says. “But we can probably bubble them up in a more meaningful way.”

To boost interest in its DC content, Warner is planning a big promotion called DC FanDome, a company-wide initiative that will take place Aug. 22.

Jessica Schell

“It’s a free virtual fan experience celebrating all the superheroes and super villains in the DC Multiverse and will include panels featuring past, present and future talent; filmmakers and creators from DC properties; announcements on upcoming projects; exclusive content debuts; cosplay and fan art; and much more,” says Jessica Schell, EVP and GM, film, for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “It will be a 24-hour immersive global event designed to appeal to fans, families and kids, and the virtual themed worlds will be full of special presentations and localized content to appeal to a worldwide audience. This is a truly massive undertaking and all of WarnerMedia is coming together as one to produce this special event.”

Let’s Make a Deal

Warner also has been testing “pricing elasticity,” Takac says, for titles “deep in our catalog that we normally don’t promote. We’ve been working on that for many months and may be able to leverage that in the back half of the year.”

The Walt Disney Co., which owns both Disney Media Distribution and Fox Home Entertainment, also is focused on special pricing for its catalog as well as partnerships with retailers, says SVP of marketing David Kite, Disney Media Distribution.

Early on, says Kite, “we partnered closely with all divisions across the Walt Disney Co. to align our strategies and act responsively to the disruptions in the market.”

David Kite

Initially, he says, “we achieved a great amount of success with the early in-home releases of Onward and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which reaffirms the value and appeal of both our content and the window.”

More recently, Kite says, “our team has created unique monthly in-home promotions in collaboration with our digital and physical retail partners, offering consumers access to the movies they love at special pricing while they’re at home with their families.”

Lionsgate’s Frank attributes a large part of Lionsgate’s success with catalog titles to its close relationships with retailers.

“Retailers have always been the lifeblood of our home entertainment business,” Frank says. “We need them, they need us, and we pride ourselves on win-win relationships. We look for openings, mine titles from our library and identify anniversaries and seasonal opportunities. It’s similar to the strategy we’ve employed for years, but now with even more consumers entering the space for the first time, and these newer consumers building their libraries through impulse purchases.”

One recent partnership was a “Best of Lionsgate” catalog promotion with Microsoft Movies & TV, with more than 25 films, mostly action titles. “We saw a triple-digit lift, week over week, amounting to incremental revenue in the six digits” he says.

Sign of the Times

While pricing and marketing are helping drive catalog, certain titles have experienced a unique lift during the pandemic. Indeed, Sony’s Groundhog Day — about a man stuck reliving the same day over and over (a feeling many homebound consumers can relate to) — wasn’t the only catalog title that captured the zeitgeist. Early on, Warner’s Takac says, Contagion — a film about a worldwide pandemic — saw a huge spike in demand and became the best-selling catalog title in the industry for many weeks, particularly on the digital side — even without a price promotion.

“We didn’t need to,” Takac says. “There was some organic social chatter — people just found it and it started to feed off itself.”

The “Harry Potter” film collection also has been selling great, “at a rate traditionally only seen during theatrical drafting,” Takac says.

One of Warner’s biggest catalog sellers has been Gone With the Wind, which in mid-June soared up the weekly NPD VideoScan chart that tracks combined DVD and Blu-ray Disc unit sales. In the wake of the protests over the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer, the Oscar-winning classic was temporarily yanked from the HBO Max streaming service, which cited the film’s romanticizing of slavery and the antebellum South. A backlash ensued on social media, with Sen. Ted Cruz tweeting, “The modern Left: they cancel Gone With the Wind … and then burn Atlanta.” WarnerMedia after two weeks returned the film to its newly launched streaming service with disclaimers and companion videos to provide some historical context for the film, but in the meantime the 1939 Civil War epic was only available on disc.

For the week of June 7-13, Gone With the Wind climbed to No. 2 on the chart and almost hit the top spot, selling 98% as many copies on disc as the week’s top seller, Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Many of the disc sales no doubt came from Walmart, which by happenstance had just set up displays of Warner catalog titles with special slipcovers in advance of Father’s Day, Gone With the Wind included. Copies of the film promptly sold out at most stores once the HBO Max news hit.

Tapping TV

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment enjoyed a banner spring with TV product, says Jeff Brown, EVP and GM, Television. “The second quarter was a panacea for transactional television content, physical as well as digital,” Brown says. “Our business grew over 40%, year on year. And if you exclude

Jeff Brown

‘Game of Thrones,’ which had an extraordinary performance last year with the final season broadcast and transactional release, our business nearly doubled. This really shows peoples’ appetite for television content, and while obviously stay-at-home behavior contributed to this, there were several other opportunities we were able to capitalize on.”

One was the fact that Warner now distributes TV content from HBO and Turner digitally as well as physically.

Another is a strong slate of product, released just in time for viewers to enjoy while encouraged by state and local governments to stay in their homes. “Our top drivers included ‘Rick and Morty,’ ‘Friends’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ as well as the animated original movie titles Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, which was probably our best-performing DC animated movie since Batman: The Killing Joke and Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge,” Brown says.

The third factor behind Warner’s strong TV quarter is a series of “Entertaining the World” promotions, Brown says, with a menu of promotional actions for digital retailers such as Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and FandangoNow.

“We promoted shows such as ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘The Wire,’ and Hanna-Barbera and DC animated classics,” Brown says. “We were able to look at the total Warner-HBO-Turner TV and animation library and come up with compelling retail programs, and we coordinated this on a semi-monthly ‘wave’ basis to provide an abundance of promoted content to retailers in a timely manner.”

Seeing Through Windows

One positive trend that has emerged during the pandemic, home entertainment studio executives say, is that consumers seem to be gaining a better understanding of the difference between transactional and subscription streaming and are realizing that not everything they might want to see is available on Netflix or the other big SVOD services.

“Because consumers are spending so much watching digital video at home, they are acutely aware of which titles are available on the various platforms,” says Sony’s Spivak.

Hilary Hoffman

“It has become clear that consumers sheltering at home not only have become increasingly engaged in our catalog offerings to keep entertained, but also have progressively grown to become more savvy in navigating the spectrum of formats,” says Universal’s Hoffman. “As such, we have continued to invest and reward consumers to stay engaged in the category and have been working in lockstep with our digital and physical retail partners to ensure that we remain hyper-focused on delivering the broadest access and best possible in-home experience.”

“Consumers have become much more receptive to different price points,” Sony’s Wong adds. “They realize not everything’s on Netflix, and it’s worth it to them to pay a transactional amount for something they really want to watch. They really have embraced all the ways to consume digital video.”

That includes the physical disc. “We are encouraged by the resilience,” Spivak says. “When you think of the structural impediments, stores being closed, online ordering taking longer to fulfill — consumers who love the physical disc are persevering and that business is holding up quite well.”

Studios were fortunate that two of the biggest retail sellers of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, Walmart and Target, were able to remain open throughout the pandemic because they also sell groceries and thus were deemed “essential” businesses. Paramount’s Powers says studio marketers have already met with Walmart to discuss fourth-quarter plans, with a focus on catalog.

“We went through a whole planning session with the Walmart team,” Powers says.

But the biggest lift to DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales, studio marketers say, comes from e-commerce sellers such as Amazon.

“We’ve seen quite a boom in e-commerce,” Powers says. “Initially we were unsure about the supply chain and how retail would react, but we kept all our new-to-Blu-ray titles on the calendar and saw a very positive response so we’ve continued to fill the slate with additional titles.”

Indeed, in addition to monthly waves of “Paramount Presents” releases, Paramount recently has come out with a 25th anniversary edition of the Alicia Silverstone comedy Clueless and 40th anniversary editions of horror classic Friday the 13th and John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. Clueless and Friday the 13th also are available in limited edition steelbooks.

“We’re really leaning more into the collector’s market,” Powers says. “That’s where e-commerce really shines.”

Maximizing Recent Releases

Deep catalog product isn’t the only part of the studio library fueling home entertainment as theatrical titles are stalled during the pandemic.

Jason Spivak notes that Sony Pictures had a full pipeline of high-profile product when the pandemic hit. “And we’ve been actively promoting those titles to keep them top of mind, as well as releases from the end of last year, like Little Women and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he says.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Mother’s Day gave us an opportunity to revisit one of our more recent releases, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women,” Wong says. “Our team worked with Hello Sunshine to help launch a brand-new online series called ‘Comedians on Classics’ just in time for the holiday. The content featured rising female comedian Taylor Tomlinson giving a fresh and hilarious take on the beloved Louisa May Alcott story, which resonated with the film’s audience. The video has been viewed over 515,000 times since launch.”

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment is coming up with inventive ways to market films that premiered digitally at premium prices (due to the theaters shutting down) once they become available on Blu-ray Disc, DVD and regular digital channels.

“With captive at-home audiences demonstrating a heightened need for great family entertainment during this time, we recognized a unique opportunity to evolve and elevate our new home entertainment release for Trolls World Tour to fit the tone and tenor of the moment,” says Universal’s Hoffman. “We created a robust Dance Party Edition offering that includes dynamic song and dance elements and all-new character-driven short-form content, we launched TikTok and Zoom-style Trolls music videos, and we adapted other marketing efforts to virtual tactics to remain connected to consumers in real time and further keep Trolls World Tour relevant.”

At Warner Bros., the May release of Scoob! was the studio’s first-ever PVOD and premium digital ownership title. The animated film came to market through “a tremendous joint effort between our theatrical team and home entertainment,” says Warner’s Schell. “When the health crisis hit and the decision was made to release Scoob! in homes, the marketing campaign for the film shifted from theatrical to at-home messaging and we enjoyed a very successful release. International release plans were just announced and it will be a mix of theatrical exhibition in markets where theaters are open, and premium in-home viewing.”

Schell says the film has become Warner Bros.’ No. 1 digital release, ever.  “We recently announced our 4K and Blu-ray release dates for Scoob!,” Schell says, “and we are leveraging the extensive at-home messaging and awareness from the May debut and are drafting heavily on the film’s success to continue strong sales through our physical availability.”

Bob Bakish

Home entertainment’s success in supporting new releases cut off by theater closings is attracting attention from the studio hierarchy. Bob Bakish, CEO of ViacomCBS, Paramount Pictures’ parent company, sang the praises of home entertainment during a presentation during the first Credit Suisse Virtual Communication Confab in mid-June. He said home entertainment has helped Paramount justify capital spending on new movies during a year of uncertainty.

“We sold The Lovebirds [to Netflix] early in the COVID-19 window,” he said. “We also accelerated the EST window with Sonic [the Hedgehog], which performed very well for us.”

The movie, starring Jim Carrey, James Marsden, Tika Sumpter and Ben Schwartz as the voice of Sonic, grossed more than $300 million at the global box office before the theatrical shutdown.

The executive said the company is monetizing the Paramount library by releasing more than 100 movies via CBS All Access and through the “Sunday Night Movie” on the Paramount Network.

Theaters Still a Key Partner

While the theatrical pipeline may be stalled for now, home entertainment executives look forward to its robust return.

Ron Schwartz

Ron Schwartz, the longtime president of worldwide home entertainment at Lionsgate, says the entertainment industry is united in helping the theatrical exhibition business return to full strength quickly.

“We, like everybody else, are eager to see our partners in the theater business open again soon,” he says. “We want to see crowds again flock to theaters, to see tentpoles and art-house films, to buy concessions and to enjoy a tremendous community experience that has made our industry so special for so many years. It’s an important part of our ecosystem, and we’re all looking forward to a safe and productive return to the movie-going experience, which we believe is right around the corner.”

Some challenges lie ahead, Schwartz says: “What will exhibition look like when theaters reopen? What’s going to happen with capacity? We can’t rush back, but we have to make sure we give theaters enough great content so they can re-open quickly, successfully, and thrive.”

The home entertainment side of the business, Schwartz says, will remain catalog-driven until theaters have fully re-opened and the supply of theatrical titles has been completely replenished. “We will continue to work with our retail partners to come up with creative ideas, dig deep into our catalogs, and look for repromotes and anniversaries — any opportunities to engage the consumer,” he says.

Schwartz says he is heartened that during the stay-at-home period, the public’s love of movies, TV shows and other filmed content seemed to intensify.

“The one thing we’ve all seen is a love of content,” he says. “We’re seeing it consumed like never before — physical, streaming, transactional, packages — and it is clearly evident that the public’s appetite to consume our product is not only healthy but still growing. That’s why I remain so bullish about our business.”

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