Home Entertainment’s Mantra in 2017 was ‘Just Keep Swimming’

At this year’s Video Hall of Fame ceremony in Beverly Hills in December, Janice Marinelli, president, Disney/ABC Home Entertainment & Television Distribution, for The Walt Disney Studios, drew solid applause when she advised her fellow home entertainment executives to “just keep swimming.”

The line, from the hit Disney film Finding Nemo, seemed to resonate with the several hundred execs in the room, many of whom have been contending with increasingly choppy seas for the better part of a decade.

In fact, 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of Netflix’s decision to transition its subscription approach from disc rentals by mail to digitally delivering content over the Internet – a truly disruptive moment that shattered the traditional home video model. Year after year, disc sales plummeted as consumers planted themselves on their sofas for a nightly steam of at first studio discards and then an increasingly compelling menu of original programming.

In the first nine months of this year, numbers provided by DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group show, more than 40% of the money consumers spent on home entertainment in the first nine months of 2017 was generated by Netflix and other subscription streaming services, up from 34% in 2016 and 29% in 2015.

Sales of Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, meanwhile, accounted for 24% of consumer home entertainment spending in the first nine months of 2017, down from 27% in the comparable period in 2016 and 31% in 2015.

In the first nine months of 2011, by contrast, streaming accounted for just 3.8% of the home entertainment business, with disc sales accounting for 46%, or $5.6 billion – compared to $3.26 billion in the first nine months of 2017.

“The [disc sales] business remains under pressure, due to the growing number of entertainment options,” says Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “Nonetheless, studios and retailers continue to aggressively champion the category, looking to create the most compelling and meaningful opportunities to eventize our disc products and deliver the best, most exciting shopping experience possible.”

“Physical media continues to be an integral component of the product mix, but we need to find ways to remind consumers of the value of owning and renting discs,” adds Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA).

Disney’s Marinelli says “physical consumption continues to be a vibrant, viable and top-performing line of business for us and it is also proving to be a very valuable resource in the transition to digital with e-copy redemption. This year the in-home division broke and set new records with four bestselling physical titles in the top 10 to date including tentpoles Star Wars: Rogue OneMoanaGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Beauty and the Beast.  As viewing habits and consumer consumption rapidly evolve, we continue to evaluate our offerings on a regular basis and what will best meet the needs and demands of our customers.  This year we vigorously expanded into the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray premium format beginning with inaugural title Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which quickly rose to the top of the industry’s 4K physical sales chart.”

Through it all, home entertainment executives have, well, just kept on swimming – and managed to keep their heads afloat through a steady string of technological advances and innovation. This year’s gold star goes to Movies Anywhere, the Walt Disney-owned digital movie service that allows consumers to buy newly released movies electronically (or redeem access codes packaged inside Blu-ray Discs) and watch them whenever they want to, on any screen, from the family room TV to their iPhone.

“Consumer centricity was without a doubt a defining characteristic of 2017, which was most notably addressed by the launch of the multi-studio digital locker Movies Anywhere,” said Disney’s Marinelli. “Movies Anywhere is a huge win for the consumer, providing them with more freedom, flexibility and utility and their digital library can now be viewed through a range of devices and digital retailers, anytime and anywhere. The strength of the studios and digital retailers that have come together at launch is unprecedented.”

Hollywood also claimed a seat at the burgeoning Ultra HD table with Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc, which experts agree is the optimum way to view 4K content , with even sharper pictures and more realistic colors than standard high-definition.

“We can expect to see the number of 4K UHD Blu-ray titles to expand considerably in 2018, as content companies  continue to release new and catalog titles in the premium format,” says Universal Pictures’ Eddie Cunningham. “As well, 4K movies, TVs and players are selling units in record numbers.  There is a clear groundswell around consumer demand and the industry is highly optimistic about the format’s future prospects.”

As Netflix and its OTT compadres continue to grab market share, studio executives – who still consider movie sales, either on disc or electronically, as their holy grail – also have had to contend with other challenges. Distribution channels have continued to proliferate, and the concept of content continues to evolve as millennials are as quick to spend an evening watching their favorite YouTuber or anime webisodes as they are the new Spider-Man movie.

“2017 really was the year of ‘more’ – more content, more provides, more devices, more technological enhancements, and more consumer choice,” said the EMA’s Mark Fisher. “Overall, this is a good thing, but it did lead to disruption of traditional business models. And we haven’t seen the end of it.”

Electronic sellthrough – also known as Digital HD – remains the most promising bulwark the studios have against continued double-digit OTT growth, but challenges remain. Consumers accustomed to spending around $10 a month for unlimited Netflix viewing might be reluctant to spend the same amount, or more, for a single piece of entertainment, even if they own it.

EST growth slowed from several years of double-digit gains to 7% in 2016, then rose slightly to 8% in the first nine months of this year. Executives hope Movies Anywhere will be the catalyst to reignite higher growth.

“On the EST front, we continue to see product, marketing and merchandising investments across the industry accelerate,” says Michael Bonner, EVP, Digital Distribution, for Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “As a result, digital sell-through has been growing year over year and we continue to see increased consumer engagement in the category. Movies Anywhere is just the latest example of studios and distributors working together to provide more value to the consumer and setting a new bar for digital movie ownership.”

“Our focus is always on offering the best consumer experience possible, removing the barriers and offering a high-quality experience that adds value and utility to a digital movie collection,” adds Disney’s Marinelli. “Providing consumers with early digital access has been a successful way to drive consumers to the digital experience.  We continue to work closely with our digital retail partners to build a compelling in-home movie watching experience, including offering quality formats like 4K Ultra HD, as well as expanded and interactive extras – some of which are only offered digitally.”

Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc also is seen as a growth driver, particularly as the number of UHD TVs continues to mushroom.

“2017 was the year 4K UHD really took off,” said Jim Wuthrich, president, The Americas and Global Strategy, at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “With $200 million in global consumer sales, ample physical and digital distribution and accelerating penetration of capable TVs, content sales will continue to soar into 2018.”

“2017 was a year where we saw 4K HDR make huge strides towards becoming a mainstream part of the industry,” adds Jason Spivak, EVP, Worldwide Digital Distribution and North America Sales, for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. “ 4K UHD physical discs are selling well, and we are seeing big advancements in 4K HDR digital services and devices.   The format is essential to our commitment to deliver the highest caliber consumer experience, and it is well on its way to mass acceptance.”

“ The number of 4K devices continues to grow, and is forecasted to triple in the next five years to nearly 350 million,” said Bob Buchi, president, Worldwide Home Media Distribution, for Paramount Pictures.  That clearly indicates that consumers have an appetite for the format, but we have to ensure that we don’t have a content gap.  At Paramount, we are committed to releasing the vast majority of new releases in 4K and have greenlit dozens of catalog titles for the format.

“We are seeing 4K UHD with HDR represent up to 10% of physical sales and a quickly growing percentage of digital sales as more platforms embrace the superior technology.  This technology is a huge boon to both consumers and filmmakers who are able to better realize their vision on home viewing platforms.  And the reality is that 4K UHD with HDR and object-based sound looks and sounds great.  It all contributes to the value proposition. “

Driving ownership of content, both physical and digital, is critical as the industry moves forward, executives agree.

“We continue to employ the most innovative and comprehensive tactics to drive ownership across both physical and digital platforms,” said Disney’s Marinelli. “We’ve had tremendous success implementing a number of strategic initiatives including pre-sale promotions, improving retail placement, expanding our social presence, producing live events and creating promotional partnerships. We are also committed to creating a superior in-home viewing experience that extends the consumer experience and deepens engagement.”

“We continually work with our retail partners to present consumers with compelling reasons to own, including superior audio and video presentations, early access, exclusive bonus features, special packaging, and more,” adds Paramount’s Bob Buchi. “Our job is to make our content readily available while maximizing revenue, which means carefully honing the distribution strategy of each title based on projected consumption. The great news is that the proliferation of platforms means consumers are enjoying our content in more ways than ever.”

Transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), which lets consumers “rent” a film or TV show for a limited streaming period, could use a shot in the arm.

“I am concerned that the consumer embrace of TVOD has not been as robust as we would have liked,” says the EMA’s Mark Fisher. “It remains a challenging business. Retailers and content providers are hesitant to invest in the category because it is not getting the desired growth, and we’re not seeing growth because investments are not being made. Delivery costs remain too high, and supply chain efficiencies need to be more widely embraced. EMA is actively working on both of those issues, and we will continue to do so because it is the right thing to do for the industry.”

Looking ahead to 2018, the prognosis among studios is essentially the same as it’s been at the end of the last few years – guarded optimism and a continued belief in the sales model.

Consumers’ appetite for home entertainment content remains remarkably robust,” says Universal Pictures’ Eddie Cunningham. “In fact, our research shows that a vast percentage of households continue to engage in the category whether via disc, digital or both.  Though there are many entertainment choices to distract consumers, offering tangible benefits unique to the format such as exceptional value, accessibility and utility of their favorite movies and TV shows reinforces the distinct advantages of ownership that you can’t get when renting or streaming.”

“I expect change to continue to be a factor in our industry in 2018 and beyond,” adds the EMA’s Mark Fisher.  “Movies Anywhere and Premium VOD, for example, will shake up the basic tenets of distribution and how and when consumers get content. Potential industry consolidations could significantly impact our industry as well. We shouldn’t fear any of this, but managing change will remain a challenge for all of us in the industry.

The home entertainment industry  “remains at the intersection of compelling content and technology, stemming from our consumers’ constant need for new and exciting experiences,” said Keith Feldman, President, Worldwide Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox.

“Technology is moving at a rapid pace and we must evolve our content offerings to meet consumer expectations, which means delivering on next-generation technologies including 4K HDR, 5G and mobile content delivery, simple and functional solutions like Movies Anywhere and immersive experiences like virtual and augmented reality that accurately realize and extend the vision of our filmmakers.”

Disney’s Marinelli has high hopes for 2018. “Disney has the most impressive slate in the industry and we’re confident that 2018 will once again be a very successful year for us with the highly-anticipated in-home releases of Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Pixar’s Coco,Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Walt Disney Signature Collection release of Lady and the Tramp.

“Movies Anywhere makes it easier than ever to build a digital movie collection. So far we’ve seen an incredible consumer response and believe that by offering a one-of-a kind experience, digital movie purchases will grow.  We will continue to work with the other studios and our digital retailer partners on programs to deliver exclusive content and offers that we believe will be important to driving engagement in the apps and website.”

“The choice between digital and physical is no longer an either/or proposition,” notes Paramount’s Bob Buchi. “We recognize that home entertainment has become a dynamic mix of consumption with opportunities across the spectrum.  Consumer behavior increasingly includes combinations of subscribing, transacting, renting, and buying, and greater comfort switching between digital and physical formats.  Our goal for 2018 is to make sure consumers have easy access to our content in the many ways they want to enjoy it.”

(This article previously appeared in Home Media Magazine.)