The year 2021 has been an eventful one across the home entertainment landscape as consumers further embraced streaming, while companies operating in legacy transactional markets adjusted their business strategies to survive.
Here are the top 10 home entertainment news stories of 2020 as chosen by the Media Play News editorial staff.
1. The Rise of AVOD and FAST — Numerous new subscription streaming services began to strain home entertainment budgets, with the average consumer, according to a TiVo study, spending $142.20 monthly on high-speed internet and SVOD — significantly more than the average $100 cable bill. Nearly 60% of respondents in a Trade Desk study said they spend too much money on multiple OTT subscriptions, with more than 66% saying escalating fees were a source of frustration. In a Future Today report, 50.6% of respondents said they opted for AVOD to end paying for SVOD. As streaming fatigue and the hit to their wallet began to set in, consumers increasingly turned to free, ad-supported services (FAST, AVOD) such as Tubi. Tubi in fact rose to one of the top 10 apps downloaded by U.S. consumers in 2021 at No. 6, just behind SVOD services HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+, Peacock and Hulu, in order.
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2. Media Mergers: Two bombshell announcements came in May, both geared toward streaming. The first was AT&T and Discovery’s announcement of a plan to combine WarnerMedia’s Warner Bros., HBO, Turner and CNN media assets with Discovery’s reality TV-based HGTV, Food Network, Animal Planet, Magnolia, Eurosport and international entertainment businesses to create a new standalone global entertainment company focused on streaming video. Discovery CEO David Zaslav was slated to lead the new company, later dubbed Warner Bros. Discovery, with a management team and operational and creative leadership from both companies. A week later came word that Amazon would acquire MGM Studios for $8.45 billion, which CNBC at the time said marked “its boldest move yet into the entertainment industry and turbocharging its streaming ambitions.” Amazon at the time said it wanted to leverage MGM’s filmmaking history and catalog to boost Amazon Studios. “The real financial value behind this deal is the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team,” Mike Hopkins, SVP of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, said in a statement. “It’s very exciting and provides so many opportunities for high-quality storytelling.”
3. Sudden Impact: WarnerMedia made headlines at the end of last year when in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it announced plans to make its theatrical slate through 2021 concurrently available on the HBO Max subscription streaming platform — beginning with Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day 2020. Results were mixed. Under the direction of CEO Jason Kilar, a former chief executive at Hulu, the landmark distribution strategy obliterated the legacy theatrical window. It also caught most of Hollywood off guard, including directors, producers and actors whose compensation agreements revolved around the box office take. Kilar later apologized for the abrupt decision, but doubled down on the strategy, which resulted in $463 million in domestic theatrical revenue through June 30 while growing Max subscriptions and consumer awareness. While the concurrent release strategy appeared to have little negative impact on Warner’s Godzilla vs Kong monster movie release in March, the studio would have to wait until the October release of sci-fi reboot Dune to realize another box office hit. Entering 2022, Kilar’s days seem numbered as Warner Bros. reverts back to a shortened 45-day theatrical window for most movie releases, and corporate parent AT&T awaits regulatory approval for its $43 billion minority stake WarnerMedia asset sale to Discovery.
4. Attack of the ‘+’ Sign: Discovery Jan. 4 launched its own branded SVOD service Discovery+ with little fanfare. Exactly two months later, Paramount Pictures became the latest Hollywood studio seeking to establish a foothold on the SVOD bandwagon with the launch of Paramount+. The erstwhile CBS All Access streaming platform adopted the Paramount Pictures brand to better resonate with consumers worldwide. Paramount+, along with AVOD/FAST platform Pluto TV, embodied corporate parent ViacomCBS’s belated resolve to become all things streaming. Then, in July, WarnerMedia announced plans to launch a branded news subscription streaming video service in early 2022. The name: CNN+.
5. Disc Distribution Shuffle: As physical media sales continued to decline, several studios looked for ways to cut costs and boost efficiencies. April marked the official launch of Studio Distribution Services (SDS), a joint venture between Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment to distribute packaged media in the United States and Canada. The JV, run by former Universal Pictures Home Entertainment president Eddie Cunningham, combines sales, retail marketing and distribution for the two physical home entertainment operations and is responsible for Blu-ray, DVD and 4K UHD distribution for up to 10 years. Both partner studios continue to operate their digital distribution businesses independently and retain content and consumer marketing for both physical and digital. In February, Lionsgate signed a multiyear agreement with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment for the distribution of its DVD/Blu-ray Disc releases in the United States and Canada, beginning in July. Lionsgate still has its own sales and marketing teams, but is leveraging SPHE’s supply chain and distribution services.
6. Out of the Box: Redbox aggressively embraced digital distribution — notably ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) and free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) — to piggyback on its legacy kiosk disc rental brand. The move resulted in numerous content license distribution agreements, as well as further development of Redbox-branded content acquisitions, including feature films. With about 40,000 kiosks in operation across the country, Redbox deployed digital video signage on thousands of boxes as a new way to partner with Hollywood studios to promote new-release movies, promote the company’s free streaming service, and provide a platform for third-party media campaigns. The company signed separate distribution agreements with LG Electronics and Sony PlayStation to include its FAST channels on LG Smart TVs, including their LG OLED Smart TVs, as well as the PS5 and PS4 video game consoles. Taking a page from the Amazon Channels playbook, Redbox also began featuring third-party apps on its digital platform. The company inked separate agreements with Roku and Vewd to pre-load the Redbox app on all new Vewd-powered TVs and set-top boxes in the U.S., including Hisense, Funai and Tivo, as well as pay-TV operators such as Evoca. In October, Redbox made its biggest move: Finalizing a business combination with Seaport Global Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company, and launching Redbox Entertainment as a publicly traded company.
7. TVOD Consolidation: Fandango in August merged its FandangoNow streaming platform with Vudu, which it had acquired from Walmart in 2020. The combined platforms operate under the Vudu brand, which has established itself as a digital transaction market leader, while the Fandango brand is known for theatrical ticket purchases, movie reviews and showtimes. Vudu is available in more than 75 million U.S. TV-connected device households, according to The NPD Group. The service has more than 60 million registered users and serves “millions of consumers daily” across smart-TVs, connected devices, mobile and online. “During a time where consumers have myriad viewing options, we’re proud to deliver a service that presents an unparalleled library of content, many titles that are not available on subscription services, and the flexibility to pay as you go,” said Fandango president Paul Yanover.
8. Free Agent: Sony Pictures Entertainment celebrated its role as the only studio not attached to a big media company with streaming ambitions through a series of deals and a stunning end-of-the-year victory as Spider-Man: No Way Home became the biggest theatrical release of the year. In April, SPE signed a distribution deal with Netflix for exclusive U.S. access to Sony theatrical releases following the box office and home entertainment windows. The agreement, which begins in 2022, replaces Sony’s existing digital deal with Lionsgate-owned Starz. Days later, SPE announced another deal with Disney’s streaming and TV platforms for their Pay 2 window. And in November, Sony Television signed a distribution deal with Redbox that gives the latter streaming access to Resident Evil: Retribution, Underworld: Evolution, We Own the Night and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.
9. Home Entertainment Consolidation: Paramount Pictures in February became the latest studio to merge its theatrical and home entertainment marketing teams, a move that saw the exit of 23 home entertainment marketing and distribution personnel, including EVP of marketing Vincent Marcais, longtime publicity head Brenda Ciccone, and Dina Marovich, SVP of worldwide media and interactive marketing. In a Feb. 26 memo obtained by Media Play News, Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, wrote that after an extensive review, “we have concluded that the best path forward for the company is for all home entertainment marketing functions, with the exceptions of brand marketing and customer marketing, to merge into the existing theatrical marketing departments.” The Paramount move followed similar restructurings at Warner Bros. in August 2020, Sony Pictures in October 2020, and Lionsgate in December 2020.
10. Supply Chain Crisis: Toward the end of the year, studios as well as independents were reporting delays in bringing their DVDs and Blu-ray Discs to market due, in part, to the global supply chain crisis. The other factor: limited replication opportunities. Most of the big Hollywood studios use Technicolor to replicate their discs, which is down to a single facility in Mexico. “It’s a huge problem,” said Bill Hunt, who as editor of The Digital Bits website closely monitors disc releases. “Almost every title is getting delayed, and those that aren’t are hard to find on street date.”