Amy Jo Smith: Recollections From DVD to DEG

As the digital entertainment business celebrates 25 years, so does DEG.

DEG was there at the beginning, and I with it, when the DVD Video Group was formed in 1997 with the express purpose of promoting the first digital entertainment format — DVD — in collaboration with content owners and hardware makers. 

I have so many fond memories and proud moments. Among the proudest was the formation of DEG Japan, where senior Japanese executives met under the guise of the DEG brand for meaningful dialog and to see what worked in their market. They were so self-guided; it was really inspiring to see.  And, more recently, the creation of the Hedy Lamarr Awards to honor women making strides in entertainment and technology, an initiative championed by Marc Finer, who has worked side by side with me at DEG since day one. 

I share these thoughts and a few more of my personal touchstones in an effort to focus not so much on the business details as on the business “flavor.” And that flavor is pioneering, revolutionary, one of art pushed forward by technology, and of a team bonded by common goals and shared experience.

DVD

Warren Lieberfarb

Warren Lieberfarb, the Warner Home Video president known far and wide as the “Father of DVD,” had the vision of putting a movie on a CD, named it DVD and, with no small amount of chutzpah, assured everyone that consumers would buy and collect movies going forward.  I had been in many meetings with Warren, but it wasn’t until I heard him convince a room packed with naysayers at CES 1998 that I finally understood: Warren was a force of nature, and he was going to make it happen. DVD was the most significant disruption the entertainment industry had experienced, and it became the fastest selling consumer electronics product in history.

DVD-Audio

DEG helped launch DVD-Audio at the music industry trade show NARM in San Antonio in 2000. It was amazing to see the jaws of both music enthusiasts and experts drop when they heard classics like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors or Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.  It was music they had heard countless times, but now they were hearing it differently.  It came alive. DVD-Audio’s quality notwithstanding, digital won the race in the music business and DVD-Audio was a casualty as a mainstream format. 

You’ve Got Mail

Over the years, DEG helped promote many popular titles when they came out on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.  One of my favorites was a promotion we did for Warner Home Video’s launch of You’ve Got Mail in New York City, where we passed out daisies in Central Park. My now-husband Jeff walked by and got some flowers.  When we actually met two years later, we realized that our first encounter was me giving him daisies in the park!

DEG Bags

DEG quickly became known for its coveted bags we’d give away at events, particularly the DEG Annual Reception at CES.  The bags were stuffed with dozens of DVDs, then Blu-rays, plus lots of other fun branded items.  I have many memories of the bags, but my favorites are receiving counterfeit bag tickets from attendees trying to score extra bags; walking through Heathrow Airport and seeing an executive from Paramount using the bag (pictured); and visiting the old city in Jerusalem and spying an executive’s teenage son using the DEG backpack!

Emiel Petrone

Emiel Petrone

As DEG chair, Disney’s Bob Chapek asked the Board of Directors to attend CEDIA, the trade show where the coolest home entertainment technologies of the time were displayed. Everyone agreed and found it a meaningful visit, punctuated by a VIP tour of show of the floor by DEG’s technical director, Marc Finer (known to most as “Finer”). Our founding chair, Emiel Petrone of Philips, led an after-dinner run to White Castle for burgers, which became a DEG tradition at CEDIA, despite seeming like a better idea in the moment than it ever did the next morning.  After Emiel passed away in 2004, Bob picked up the mantle and rallied us all to continue the CEDIA midnight White Castle run in Emiel’s honor.

9/11

(Photo courtesy Wiki Commons)

DEG was holding a meeting at Giant Interactive in New York when the attacks of 9/11 happened. We watched in horror as we realized our colleague John Beug from Warner Music lost his wife and mother-in-law in one of the planes. They would turn out to be among 3,000 others who perished that day. Stranded in New York City, I spent the next few days with DEG colleagues. We were all there for each other, giving support. Every year since, Jeff Stabenau of Giant, Gene Kelsey (then of Panasonic), Leslie Cohen (then of Sony Music), Paul Bishow (then of Universal Music Group) and I connect on Sept. 11 to honor the memory of others.

4K

DEG established DEG Japan as a means of flowing more information of emerging technologies to the membership.  Attending DEG Japan’s annual meeting and Blu-ray Prize celebration was always a highlight. It’s been a pleasure to know and work with Tsukagoshi-san, formerly of Disney, and many others.  Each trip was punctuated with a visit to Sony worldwide headquarters to visit their lab. I’ll never forget the moment they showed me 4K in their state-of-the-art theater. Colors and images came alive in a way I’d never imagined.

Board leadership

Over these 25 years, one thing that always strikes me is how the Board leaders, all executives with demanding day jobs, took the time to guide the organization, knowing that doing so would help grow the industry and, in turn, grow their businesses. I’m blessed that they all took the time to mentor and lead me, and that I may call each a friend, not just a colleague.  DEG would not be marking 25 years in 2022 if it hadn’t been for their vision and leadership.

Amy Jo Smith is president and CEO of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, the leading home entertainment trade association and the descendant of the DVD Video Group, formed in 1997 to promote DVD.

Q&A: DEG Chief Amy Jo Smith Reflects on the Trade Group’s Quarter Century

As president and CEO of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, Amy Jo Smith heads the leading trade group for the home entertainment industry, representing the interests of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies, consumer electronics manufacturers, platform providers and technology companies.

A former White House communications advisor, Smith since 1997 has led the industry-funded group’s efforts to enhance and promote home entertainment during its evolution from videocassettes to DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and today’s digital age.

Under Smith’s leadership, the DEG is credited with helping to make DVD the fastest-growing consumer electronics product in industry history. In 2019, the DEG launched the D2C Alliance Council as a working community within the DEG to represent the global direct-to-consumer media industry and support its members to help create a robust marketplace to lead the new era of content consumption.

Media Play News asked Smith about the achievements, continuing work and aims of the DEG.

MPN: On the eve of the association’s 25th anniversary, tell us about DEG’s mission and how it has evolved with the industry.

Smith: The DEG’s first mission was to support the product launch of the DVD format. At the time, we were focused on attracting industry support and consumer adoption of the format. Many credit the DEG’s efforts with being a catalyst for DVD’s success as the fastest-growing product in consumer electronics history.   

As consumer interest for physical and digital entertainment has evolved, so has the DEG. We are here to serve the industry in helping to improve the consumer experience with the various ways they consume entertainment content in 2022 and beyond.   

MPN: What do you consider the group’s three major accomplishments? 

Smith: The DEG aims to create a unique, collaborative environment to enable leading content, delivery, device and technology companies to work together to grow the category. Our goal is to help leading media and entertainment companies make informed decisions to grow their businesses. Here are just a few of these:

  • The DEG spearheaded the industry’s efforts for a unified approach in designing and displaying new packaged media and consumer messaging, as witnessed by 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Digital Copy and Digital Download.
  • The DEG has led numerous consumer research projects to help demystify the benefits associated with new digital experiences. Some examples include the industry’s first research on the prospects for home 3D, digital collecting and, most recently, the study commissioned by the DEG’s D2C Alliance Targeted Services committee from SmithGeiger to inform on streaming user behavior related to targeted SVOD and AVOD services.
  • More than two decades ago, the DEG was established to support the launch of DVD. This helped to unify a number of fragmented marketing efforts into a single, powerful voice and was largely responsible for the format becoming arguably the most successful entertainment platform in history.

 

But the DEG’s proudest accomplishment is its ability to adjust to the changing dynamics of the industry to support member companies in their efforts to grow the industry and improve content delivery to fans. 
 
MPN: How has the pandemic changed the way DEG relates to and serves its members?   

Smith: With members unable to travel and commute to business meetings, we’ve been able to assemble executives more quickly. This has allowed us to move projects and activities faster. The DEG was quick to launch its virtual Expos, curated video sessions highlighting relevant topics. The Expos were received so favorably, attended by nearly 200 executives representing 50 companies on average in 2021, encouraging staff to produce these events about every six weeks. Our Expo on localization even resulted in the formation of our Advanced Content Delivery Alliance (ACDA) localization committee, which is now focusing on the need for a standard definition of quality across the localization industry.  

The DEG has always been a high-touch organization, providing customized customer care to meet varying needs. We brought this to the forefront of what we do during the pandemic. Members have told us how much this meant to them, to be able to count on us to bring pressing issues into committees, surging trends to Expos and to make introductions to enable networking in a WFH environment.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Marcy Magiera, Andi Elliott and Jean Levicki on our team, who have been key to our success here. Everyone has worked tirelessly while navigating their own pandemic challenges.  

MPN: There are now two major “Alliances” within the DEG — the Direct-to-Consumer Alliance (D2CA) and the Advanced Content Delivery Alliance (ACDA). How are these different from one another? How do they serve the members differently than the core DEG? 

Smith: The D2C Alliance was established nearly three years ago to put a focus on companies with a direct-to-consumer offering. We wanted to shift the conversation away from the “streaming wars” and emphasize the burgeoning business opportunities available and exciting ways for consumers to get their TV, filmed, news, sports and specialty content. 

About a year ago, we analyzed our membership. Originally a content owner-based organization, we had a surge of member companies with products and services that help bring the content to market. We brought their voices to the forefront with the creation of the Advanced Content Delivery Alliance. In ACDA, members explore new ways to improve delivery of content. We are incredibly excited about the enthusiastic and worthwhile discussions and projects taking place in the Alliance. Through its Supply Chain Efficiency and Security committee, for example, the Alliance seeks to address obstructions within workflows due to the narrowing of windows, additional post work required for the home entertainment window, security challenges, and the threat landscape brought on by pirates.   

These Alliances allow the DEG to put a spotlight on pressing issues that members are focused on. We’re pleased with the support and participation we’ve received from members who are joining committees and giving input on agenda items we can tackle as an industry.

MPN: There was no annual DEG reception at CES in Las Vegas this year. When can the industry look forward to that event again? 

 Smith: There is going to be a DEG annual reception! Our annual reception will take place May 3 in Los Angeles at Skirball Cultural Center as part of our inaugural EnTech Fest. Members have been asking us for years to move the annual reception to Los Angeles so that it’s more accessible to L.A.-based folks.
  
Our EnTech Fest is a B2B event on May 3 and 4 built around what’s new and what’s next in content distribution and display technology. This forum will allow companies with products and services that enable distribution of content to showcase their latest offerings. EnTech will be different from other events in that we are focusing specifically on products for entertainment distribution.   

EnTech Fest will also have a special section dedicated to start-ups. Start Up Alley, as we’re calling it, will allow embryonic companies the chance to get in front of leading entertainment and technology companies.   

We’re excited that companies including Blu Digital Group, Dolby, DTS, Google TV, Intel, Looper Insights, NBCUniversal, NPD Group, Paramount, Synamedia and WarnerMedia are already supporting EnTech and, in some cases, Start Up Alley specifically. 

And, yes, EnTech will also be special because our annual reception will be held at that time!

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MPN: And now tell us the Amy Jo story — how did you get involved in the DEG, and why? 

Smith: Prior to DVD’s format launch, I was introduced to Warren Lieberfarb, the “father of DVD.” Warren tapped me to lead the consortium to support the global launch of the disc format for two to three years. As Warren described it, if we’re successful, there won’t be a need for the DEG any longer. And, if we’re not successful, there won’t be a need for the DEG, either.    

The way in which we’ve been able to constantly adjust our agenda to best meet the needs of the industry is what I’m most proud of. There are many DEG board leaders who have been instrumental in this. Our hats off to Bob Chapek, Ron Sanders, Mike Dunn, Mike Fasulo and Eddie Cunningham, to name a few. And our current board directors who have been instrumental in steering the DEG during the pandemic, including Jim Wuthrich, Dan Cohen, Matt Strauss, Andrea Downing, Rick Hack and Bob Buchi.  

The DEG is only as good as the people who participate in it to make it so. The organization is strong because of all the smart, forward-thinking executives who lean into the DEG. We are happy to know they rely on the DEG to be their organization to support the many emerging ways to deliver content.  I’m proud to be part of the DEG family. Our thanks to the many collaborative partnerships we have in the industry, including MPN.

Looking Back at 2021: Home Entertainment Struggles to Find the New Normal

NEWS ANALYSIS — The shadow of COVID-19 continued to hang over 2021, despite rosy predictions the previous summer that the worst would soon be over.

By mid-year, with a vaccine rollout in full swing, most restrictions were lifted and theaters were welcoming back moviegoers, particularly after studios once again began stepping up movie production. This theatrical recovery continued, unchecked, through the emergence of the summer Delta variant and the beginning of the winter Omicron surge. Indeed, the December 2021 theatrical opening of Spider-Man: No Way Home generated $260 million in domestic ticket sales, the second-highest North American box office opening. Domestic box office revenue for 2021 is estimated at $4.5 billion, more than twice what it generated in 2020 but still down 61% from 2019, the last year before the virus hit.

Meanwhile, the entertainment world in 2021 was rocked by two major announcements: Amazon bought a movie studio, MGM, for $8.45 billion, and AT&T announced plans to spin-off WarnerMedia through a merger with Discovery, resulting in a new media powerhouse, Warner Bros. Discovery, under Discovery Inc.’s CEO David Zaslav. The deal, approved by the European Commission in December, is expected to be completed in mid-2022, pending Discovery shareholder and federal regulatory approval.

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Sadly, the year ended on a down note, with Omicron leading to theater closures in Europe and the cancellation or postponement of several key entertainment-industry events, including The Critics Choice Awards, the National Board of Review’s annual gala, the Palm Springs Film Festival, and BAFTA Los Angeles’ annual tea party for the awards season.

The year also saw the vindication of WarnerMedia’s controversial plan, announced at the end of the prior year, to release its entire theatrical slate simultaneously on its HBO Max streaming service. Initially railed against as a death blow to the movie business, the strategy in retrospect kept the business alive, providing a steady stream of high-profile new product to movie theaters hungry for fresh films, even if they no longer would be exclusive to the big screen.

Jim Wuthrich

“2021 marked the first anniversary of HBO Max and, with it, a whole new distribution pattern for movies,” said Jim Wuthrich, president of content distribution for WarnerMedia. “Due to the pandemic and uncertainty of closures, WarnerMedia made all of its movies available on HBO Max and in theaters at the same time. This was great for movie fans, as they could watch movies such as Wonder Woman 1984 or Godzilla vs. Kong at home or in theaters.”

Mixed Results

On the home entertainment front, 2021 was the proverbial mixed bag for the industry’s two segments, subscription streaming and transactional/physical.

The first few months of 2021 were clouded in uncertainty, as the winter surge of the virus delayed the reopening of movie theaters well into the spring. Studios held back their big releases until their opening strategy — theaters, PVOD or both — could be determined.

Streaming, not surprisingly, continued to flourish at the accelerated pace that began a year earlier with the onset of the pandemic. Consumer spending on subscription video-on-demand services soared more than 20% in the first half, according to DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group estimates — and those numbers don’t include Amazon Prime Video, which is considered in the same league as Netflix.

Amy Jo Smith

“The growth in subscription streaming in 2021 can be attributed to consumers who continued to spend time at home, increasing their engagement with content offered through an abundance of new direct-to-consumer subscription services, including Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+, Peacock, AMC+ and many others,” said Amy Jo Smith, DEG president and CEO. “These services provide consumers premium content with convenience and value.”

Disc and digital sales of movies in the first half of 2021, meanwhile, were off by more than 25% from the prior year, while combined disc and digital rental (TVOD) revenue suffered a first-half decline of more than 30%, according to estimates prepared by DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group.

TVOD Recovers

As the year progressed, subscription streaming continued to clearly dominate home entertainment, even as the transactional side of the business began to recover in the wake of theatrical reopenings that remained on track despite the summer emergence of the more contagious Delta variant. Final year-end DEG numbers are not yet in, but by the third quarter disc and digital sales had trimmed their quarterly decline to 12% while rentals were off just 14%.

“Factors limiting transactional growth in 2021 include few new theatrical releases, which are historically a key driver of home entertainment spending,” Smith said. ”This was particularly true early in the year. Spending on library titles, however, has been notably strong throughout the pandemic, and with theatrical new releases restarting mid-year, we saw spending on home purchases of new releases beginning to pick up in the third quarter. We expect to see this trend continuing when the full year is tallied.”

“Looking back at the year, 2021 certainly had its challenges, but there were some high notes as well for our business,” notes Jason Spivak, EVP of distribution for North American Television & Home Entertainment at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Jason Spivak

“Early in the year, we were blown away by the tremendous success of Monster Hunter on both physical and digital formats. We achieved strong PVOD results on The Father and Don’t Breathe 2. And throughout the year we saw consistent strength in our digital catalog,  particularly our drafting efforts around the ‘Spider-Man’ franchise.

“The biggest highlight for our business, however, has been the fourth-quarter theatrical performances of Venom: Let There Be CarnageGhostbusters: Afterlife and, of course, the worldwide phenomenon that is Spider-Man: No Way Home.  These films demonstrate that consumers are excited to return to theaters and that they crave the communal experience that can only be achieved in a movie theater.”

WarnerMedia’s Jim Wuthrich said his company’s strategy of releasing its news films to theaters and streaming on the same day “did add an element of unpredictability to [traditional, transactional] home entertainment in forecasting demand, as it was unique to have streaming as the first window.” Ultimately, he said, “we found that there is robust demand for transactional (EST/TVOD/physical), despite the change in windowing.”

Bob Buchi

Bob Buchi, president of Paramount Home Entertainment, said that while 2021 “certainly did not go as planned, consumers again turned to home entertainment options in record numbers.  Throughout the year’s unprecedented circumstances, Paramount continued to experiment with new release windowing, maximized the power of our exceptional library, and supported the ongoing growth of Paramount+.”

With very different release strategies, Buchi added, A Quiet Place Part II, Snake Eyes and Paw Patrol: The Movie “delivered tremendous results across each studio window thanks to the cumulative marketing muscle and cross-company promotional efforts, which bodes well for the ongoing coexistence of every platform.”

Paramount also saw consumer spending on catalog titles remain strong, “representing nearly 60% of annual revenue and holding steady to slightly up compared to the extraordinary sales in 2020 across physical and digital worldwide,” Buchi said.  “Digital sales, in particular, have been exceptionally strong during the pandemic, with a compounded annual growth rate of over 25% compared to pre-pandemic 2019 levels globally.”

Paramount also scored with the 40th anniversary of the “Indiana Jones” franchise with the first 4K Ultra HD release of the films on both disc and digital platforms, Buchi noted. “And on the television front, home entertainment consumers continue to flock to ‘Yellowstone,’ with nearly 3 million digital transactions for season four, which launched in November.”

Michael Bonner

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment president Michael Bonner said that while 2021 “remained unpredictable and challenging on several fronts … consumers’ engagement with content has never been stronger. During these unprecedented times, the studios have served audiences well by embracing unconventional release patterns and new business models giving consumers more ways to access and enjoy movies.”

Bonner added that “engagement is up, and it’s happening across various services and business models. For Universal, our new release home entertainment business remained very strong in 2021 as we saw with F9, The Croods: A New Age, Let Him Go, Promising Young Woman and several others, with a significant contribution coming from our new PVOD window and followed by our traditional home entertainment offering.  On top of that, similar to 2020, we saw our library business reaching historical levels.”

Distribution Deals

On the physical side of the business, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Lionsgate in February 2021 announced a multiyear agreement in which Sony will handle distribution of Lionsgate’s DVD/Blu-ray Disc releases in the U.S. and Canada beginning in July. Lionsgate’s North American packaged-media distribution had been handled by the former 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, which was acquired in 2019 by Disney.

Lionsgate continues to maintain its own independent sales and marketing teams, but is leveraging SPHE’s supply chain and distribution services. At the time Sony’s Jason Spivak said, “By working together, we can identify and leverage efficiencies in the supply chain that will benefit not only our respective studios, but also retailers and, ultimately, the millions of consumers who enjoy Sony Pictures and Lionsgate feature films and TV programs in the 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD formats.”

Two months after the Sony-Lionsgate deal was announced came 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.

“Starting any business in a pandemic is challenging, but one that relies on delivering physical goods to stores across two countries during a supply chain upheaval is not for the faint of heart,” WarnerMedia’s Wuthrich said. “The SDS team, along with the studios, did a great job managing through a challenging time.”

Eddie Cunningham, the former Universal Pictures Home Entertainment president who was tapped to run SDS, told Media Play News earlier in the year, “We, with our many supply chain partners in manufacturing, distribution and freight, are doing everything in our power to mitigate those pressure points.

“Sometimes meeting delivery dates and keeping retail on-shelf availability at our usual high industry standards has been difficult. It is a huge focus across our company and everything in supply chain that we used to check weekly is now daily, and everything we did daily is almost hourly, as we constantly re-assess priorities.”

Streaming Fatigue and the Rise of AVOD

While disc sales continue to be a priority for the big Hollywood studios, along with digital movie sales and rentals, streaming clearly remains the dominant force in home entertainment. As of the end of the third quarter, streaming accounted for nearly 80% of total consumer spending this year on home entertainment, or $18.6 billion. Total consumer spending on disc and digital sales and rentals in the first nine months of the year was just $5 billion.

And yet subscription streaming did face several challenges, including consumer fatigue — stemming largely from the rising costs of subscribing to multiple services — and rapid gains in free ad-supported platforms such as Pluto and Tubi. In professional consultancy Deloitte’s 2021 Digital Media Survey, more than half of the respondents said they are re-evaluating multiple streaming subscriptions, and 40% said they planned on terminating at least one subscription. Adriana Waterston, SVP of insights and strategy at Horowitz, told Media Play News in November that streamers are feeling overwhelmed by the proliferation of services, with many struggling to figure out what to watch, and where.

In December, a TVision survey found that time spent on subscription video-on-demand platforms decreased 8.6% from the first quarter to the third quarter of 2021, while time spent on ad-supported VOD increased 9.3%. It should be noted that the SVOD decline may be due, at least in part, to the vaccine rollout and people once again venturing out into the world, while AVOD growth includes not just SVOD dropouts but also linear TV audiences. Regardless, speaking in December at an OTT.X conference, Colin Dixon of nScreenMedia said the FAST/AVOD business is projected to reach $4 billion by 2024.

Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher, president and CEO of OTT.X, the trade association for streamers, said free ad-supported streaming is just one more option that is leading to continued growth for the overall home entertainment business.

“Internet-based delivery today gives the consumer so many more opportunities and more choices to enjoy great content — both on demand and linear,” he said. “Some prefer long-form, some short-form; some prefer to watch without ads, while others watch ads to avoid paying; some like to watch what they want, when they want, while others like the sit-back FAST experience; some want to build their cloud-based collections and others just want to watch once; some like to watch big-budget spectacles and other enjoy good indie-produced stories; and many are adding the diversity of international content and niche content and channels. Opportunity and choice benefit everybody.”

He’s got a point. Overall, the home entertainment business is on track for another record year. The DEG’s estimate of $23.6 billion in total consumer spending in the first nine months of this year is up 6.3% from the spending total at this same point in 2020.

Converging Businesses

And the two sectors of the business, streaming and transactional, are converging.

One of best examples of this is that while Redbox’s legacy disc-rental kiosks remain the company’s cash cow, a massive digital transformation — fueled by the company going public in October — is expanding the Redbox brand into digital, with a particular emphasis on streaming. Redbox Free Live TV, an ad-supported streaming service that launched in February 2020, now has more than 100 channels offering viewers free access to movies and television shows, news, and lifestyle and sports entertainment programming. In December, Redbox began advertising its digital products on its kiosks.

Galen Smith

Asked how Redbox fared in 2021, CEO Galen Smith said that on the kiosk and TVOD side, “ We continued to see a significant impact on the quantity of new release movies due to production being paused as a result of COVID, with fewer movies in 2021 than 2020. The good news is we anticipate the number of new theatrical movies releasing in 2022 should be back to levels not seen since 2019.”

As for streaming, he said, “2021 was a growth year for us — as we rapidly scaled both our AVOD service and FAST channels.”

Redbox going public, Smith noted, “provided us with additional capital to invest in the ongoing digital transformation of Redbox, as we built on our transactional video-on-demand service with growth in AVOD (more than 5,000 titles on demand) and FAST (more than 125 linear channels including five that are Redbox branded) and a subscription channels business coming in 2022.”

On the Indie Front

Independent film distributors, meanwhile, are finding the plethora of streaming services a whole new market for their films, augmenting their traditional TVOD and physical release.

“It’s always a good thing when new channels appear where we can license our films,” said Joe Amodei, president and CEO of Virgil Films & Entertainment. “The major accounts still rule in this area, but as they have dwindled down their buying in favor of original films and series we’ve enjoyed doing business with this new group of folks. It’s great.”

Indies also say they are finding their disc businesses remarkably resilient. Ed Seaman, COO of MVD Entertainment, said 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray “continues to surprise us. Sales are really strong, possibly because there aren’t a ton of products in this space, but mainly because our trade partners/content providers are choosing excellent content and do a great job lovingly restoring and filling these editions with great bells and whistles.

“Compared to last year, 2021 was far more stable. We knew we were in a pandemic and we didn’t have the fear of the unknown like last year, where we didn’t know what impact a lockdown would have on our business and our customers. We learned in 2020 that when everyone is stuck at home during a pandemic, home entertainment products and services are pretty popular. We were able to execute our plans with greater confidence in 2021 that the market was not going to fall apart, and we had a really strong year as a result.”

John Rotella

John Rotella, SVP for Shout! Factory, said the company saw “unbelievable growth in catalog and new-release sales” during the pandemic year of 2020, “and that swell carried forward into 2021.”

Shout! Factory, he said, “saw one of our best years ever on gross shipments and an equally impressive net business. We also saw growth in POS revenue in 2021. The DVD and Steelbook/4K business grew again as Blu-ray sales stayed even compared to 2020. New-release and catalog as a whole all improved from a surprising and productive year, led by our new Western, Old Henry, and 4K ‘Halloween’ releases.”

Some of this success, Rotella said, “can also be attributed to a less competitive new-release marketplace, upgraded and repackaged catalog, developing more valuable collectable products at a higher price and managing the right genre that works for mass [merchants]. Walmart and Amazon continue to offer new-release and catalog opportunities, and we saw an e-commerce surge in business. Looking back, 2021 unexpectedly managed to match 2020 in POS and shipments and remained far superior to 2019 in every area.”

On the downside, the supply chain crisis has compounded ongoing problems with limited replication opportunities, resulting in delays in bringing product to market.

“We were hugely affected by inbound transportation challenges, mostly from the U.K. and Europe, where many of our top clients reside,” MVD’s Seaman said. The situation improved toward the end of the year, he said. “I doubt the Omicron strain will cause lockdowns again, and I’m keeping my fingers are crossed that the labor challenges at the border are mostly conquered,” he said.

New Ways of Doing Things

Another home entertainment trend that continued in 2021 is the consolidation of theatrical and home entertainment teams. Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and Lionsgate went through their respective integrations in 2020; Paramount Pictures followed in March 2021 with a restructuring that led to the exit of 23 home entertainment marketing and distribution personnel, including marketing chief Vincent Marcais, respected publicity head Brenda Ciccone, and Dina Marovich, SVP of worldwide media and interactive marketing.

A new way of doing things sometimes finds home entertainment executives branching out beyond their wheelhouses.

“Somewhat out of the traditional course of business, our team successfully managed the launch of Virtual Reality experiences at the new Harry Potter store in New York City,” Warner’s Wuthrich said. “These two experiences allow Potter fans the ultimate experience of visiting Hogwarts or flying high above London on broomsticks while battling Death Eaters. The experiences have sold out since launching this summer and have been garnering rave reviews.  We look forward to expanding the number of locations in 2022 so more Potter fans will have a chance to live the experience.”

DEG Credits New Initiatives With Drawing 26 New Members This Year

DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group is entering its 25th year with an influx of new members, the trade group announced Dec. 2.

The newest DEG members include Altman Solon, Anuvu, BIGtoken, Guts + Data, IRIS.TV, NAGRA, Omdia, Plex, Synamedia, TiVo, Visual Data Media Services, Vobile and ZOO Digital. Spherex also returned as a member of DEG, bringing the number of new DEG member companies to 26 so far in 2021 (a total that includes 12 new members announced at the end of the first quarter).

DEG’s Direct-to-Consumer Alliance (D2CA), created in 2019, and Advanced Content Delivery Alliance (ACDA), new this year, play an increasingly important role in focusing DEG membership for the future and attracting new members across a broad swath of the digital entertainment industry, according to the trade group.

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“DEG’s wide reach across content creators, retailers, platforms and strategic vendors is an important part of its value to members, bringing companies in different industry segments together to work within DEG to advance industry positions and meet common goals,” said DEG chair Jim Wuthrich, president of content distribution for WarnerMedia. “The D2C Alliance and the Advanced Content Delivery Alliance are the latest examples of this community building, and I’m thrilled that so many new members see the value in DEG. I’m happy to welcome all of the new member companies to the DEG community.”

The new ACDA within DEG addresses advancements in technology to enable more and improved content delivery. ACDA member companies are aligned in committees addressing localization, supply chain efficiencies and security, cloud/edge computing and 5G.

The D2C Alliance represents the global direct-to-consumer media industry and supports its members to help create a robust marketplace to lead the new era of content consumption.

“We are thrilled about the expanding participation in DEG of advanced content delivery and direct-to-consumer companies,” said Amy Jo Smith, DEG president and CEO. “I’m grateful that they see the value of membership in DEG, which has been working harder and smarter than ever since last year to provide our members increased opportunities for business collaboration, education and networking.”

DEG’s Fifth Annual Hedy Lamarr Innovation Award Will Go to Dolby’s Poppy Crum

DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group Aug. 24 announced Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, as the 2021 recipient of the Hedy Lamarr Award for Innovation in Entertainment Technology.

In its fifth year, the Hedy Lamarr Award recognizes female executives in the fields of entertainment and technology who have made a significant contribution to the industry.

At Dolby, Crum is responsible for integrating neuroscience and data science into algorithm design, technology development and technology strategy. She is also an adjunct professor at Stanford University, focusing on the impact of modern technologies and immersive environments such as augmented and virtual reality on neuroplasticity and learning.

The 2021 Hedy Lamarr Achievement Award for Emerging Leaders in Entertainment Technology, honoring a female college student whose studies in the fields of entertainment and technology have shown exceptional promise, will be presented to Shambhavi Mishra, an undergraduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University who is double majoring in humanities analytics and music composition. Brianna Seaburg, a communications major at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC), is runner up. Both will receive a financial award to continue their education.

The awards will be presented during an online event Dec. 6.

“It is an honor to recognize Poppy Crum, an outstanding female leader in neuroscience and technology, with this year’s Innovation Award. She is a true visionary working to better lives and society through the development of immersive technologies,” said Amy Jo Smith, DEG’s president and CEO. “It is also a great pleasure to present the Achievement Award to Shambhavi Mishra to support her work toward ensuring that all voices and perspectives across the industry are heard equally. The 2021 Hedy Award winners are remarkable women in their field who clearly share Hedy’s passion for innovation.”

Crum said, “This honor represents a dedication to excellence in the field of technology initiated by Hedy Lamarr that continues to be led by many outstanding women who are committed to driving advancements that enhance our world and the experiences we have in it. It is truly gratifying to be recognized among them.”

Austrian-American actress Lamarr was a Hollywood legend who is best known for her roles in film classics including Samson and Delilah, The Strange Woman and Tortilla Flat. She was also a lifelong inventor whose innovative work included pioneering “frequency hopping,” which became the foundation for spread spectrum technology. Conceived by Lamarr and composer George Antheil for radio guidance systems and patented in 1942, this highly secure technology resists interference and dropout, and is utilized today for a variety of cellular, Wi-Fi and bluetooth applications.

Past honorees include Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; Nonny de la Peña, CEO of Emblematic Group; Dean Willow Bay of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; and Sara DeWitt, VP of PBS KIDS Digital.

To determine the award winners, DEG enlists its Canon Club Advisory Board, which comprises a cross-section of leaders representing the entertainment, technology, IT and consumer electronics industries.

Looking Back: 2011 – Slow Recovery From the Recession

Ten years ago, home entertainment executives were more upbeat than they had been in years. The business posted its first positive quarter since the start of the 2008 global economic meltdown. With a 20% year-over-year sales gain, Blu-ray Disc was rejuvenating the physical disc business, while 3D Blu-ray was the talk of CES. And studio marketers were enthralled with the prospect of digital distribution, with a consortium of studios and other companies launching UltraViolet, a cloud-based “digital locker” that lets consumers stream and download purchased content to multiple platforms and devices. David Bishop, at the time president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, called UltraViolet “a major game changer.” The nascent streaming business, meanwhile, stumbled when Starz Entertainment ended content license renegotiations with Netflix, which meant the service would soon lose access to Disney and Sony Pictures movies.

Craig Seidel, Premiere Digital Top Winners in DEG’s Technology & Operations Awards

Craig Seidel of Pixelogic Media and Premiere Digital Services were among the top winners at the first-ever Technology & Operations Awards, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group announced April 28.

The new awards program, the trade group says, was created “to recognize exceptional technology accomplishments in the digital supply chain achieved by both companies and individuals.”

Seidel was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, for his work at former employer MovieLabs, where he led development of the MovieLabs Digital Distribution Framework, the suite of specifications that enable an automated digital supply chain among content providers, retailers/platforms, and service providers.

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Premiere Digital was honored with a People’s Choice award, voted on by attendees during the virtual awards show, with finalists in all categories eligible for the popular vote.

Awards were given out in five categories.

Bill Kotzman of Google and Dave Lindsay of Disney Streaming Services won Technology Leadership honors.

Jason Pena of Google and Kacy Boccumini of Sony Pictures Entertainment won for Technology Achievement.

And the Technology Innovation Award was split by Disney+, the Lionsgate Content Operations Team and Premiere Digital.

“DEG is so pleased to recognize the winners — and all the outstanding finalists — for the inaugural DEG TechOps Awards,” said Amy Jo Smith, president and CEO of the DEG. “As was noted by a number of senior industry executives and Oscar-winning director Pete Docter during the show, our TechOps community is the engine that drives delivery of premium content to consumers across the globe. Without these people, there would be no in-home entertainment as we know it.”

Premiere Digital was the official cocktail sponsor of the DEG TechOps Awards. The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented by Dolby. The Technology Innovation Award was presented by Whip Media. Video production was courtesy of creative content sponsor TiVo/DTS.

The show featured original music created by Ed “Special Ed” Archer, and a pitch for involvement in two organizations that are working to bolster technology education and career opportunities for underserved communities in Los Angeles, DIY Girls and Plug in South LA.

DEG Expo on Feb. 25 to Focus on ‘Maturing D2C Landscape’

Josh Reader, president of Distribution and Development at AMC Networks, will be a featured speaker for DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group’s next DEG Expo, set for Feb. 25 at 10:30 a.m. PT. Reader will chat with Looper Insights CEO Lucas Bertrand about marketplace dynamics for targeted direct-to-consumer services in 2021 and beyond.

The topic of the Feb. 25 DEG Expo is “The Maturing D2C Landscape,” with a particular focus on the targeted services landscape and the role connected devices play in the consumer experience. The program was developed with DEG’s D2C Alliance Council working group, which represents the global direct-to-consumer entertainment industry and supports its members to help create a robust marketplace to lead the new era of content consumption.

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In addition to the Reader-Bertrand chat, the Feb. 25 DEG Expo also will present a panel discussion on the connected device experience, with Susan Agliata, director of Business Development, OTT Partnerships at Samsung; Ben Maughan, VP of New Ventures and Strategic Business Development for TiVo (Xperi); and John Buffone, executive director and industry analyst, Connected Intelligence, with The NPD Group. Other speakers include Kevin Westcott, vice chairman and National TMT Leader, Deloitte, who will present research on subscription churn; Andrea Downing, co-president, PBS Distribution; and DEG president and CEO Amy Jo Smith.

DEG launched the DEG Expo series last year to provide its members and the industry with education and community building opportunities through curated virtual events offering diverse perspectives on topics relevant to the digital media industry.

To learn more about joining the D2C Alliance or how to participate in this week’s D2C Expo, please contact Shannon Gregory at Shannon@degonline.orgRegister for the DEG Expo: The Maturing D2C Landscape here. See the full agenda here.

Women in Home Entertainment 2020: The 12 Captains and What They Like to Watch, Whom They’d Like to Meet

Media Play News asked the 12 “captains” in our third annual Women in Home Entertainment issue to participate in a detailed Q&A. An abridged Q&A appears in the August 2020 print and digital edition of Media Play News. The full Q&A has been broken down into three sections, running here on consecutive days. This is the third and final part, a fun look inside their personal lives, about what they like to watch and whom they’d most like to meet.

SEE A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE TOP 12 WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT

 

THE CAPTAINS OF HOME ENTERTAINMENT: WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY, PART THREE

What are the last two or three movies, TV shows or original series you watched — and please tell us why you love them?

Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content, HBO Max: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I was obsessed with Michelle McNamara’s very personal account of her hunt to reveal the identity of the Golden State Killer and HBO has done a wonderful job of bringing that book to life. Getting to see Michelle’s perspective has been moving and inspiring. I have been catching up on the latest season of “Better Things” and Pamela Adlon is a god.

SEE ALSO ‘WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT 2020: THE 12 CAPTAINS TALK COVID-19, REMOTE WORKING AND LASTING CHANGES’

Kelly Campbell, President, Hulu: Hamilton on Disney+ — I think I’ve watched this 10 times since it launched on Disney+.  It’s powerful on so many levels. Thought-provoking creativity and storytelling at its finest. Thirteenth on Netflix — a critical film of our time that provides an eye-opening look at history. Palm Springs on Hulu — so very clever — the writing, the acting, the set — I love it all. I’m a sucker for romantic comedies, but this one goes above and beyond!

SEE ALSO ‘WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT 2020: THE 12 CAPTAINS TALK CAREER PATHS, HIGHLIGHTS AND TOUGH CALLS’

Agnes Chu, SVP, Content, Disney+: Hamilton is a given.  So in addition to that, a shout-out to our sister service, Hulu, and their recent premiere of Palm Springs, which totally delivered on much needed belly-laughs during these hard times. Mindy Kaling’s series “Never Have I Ever” because of its nuanced and fresh twist on family comedy, harnessing such a delightfully specific voice to capture coming-of-age and the complexities of grief. I was laughing and crying at the same time, and I loved it. Finally, I’ve been watching Hong Kong kung-fu soap operas produced in the 1980s, often set as Chinese historical period pieces. Cantonese was my first language, and it’s important to me that my daughter also hears the language as she learns to talk. While hilariously low budget and corny, these soap operas also kick ass because every episode involves elaborate martial arts.

SEE ALSO ‘WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT 2020: THE 12 CAPTAINS — WHO THEY ARE’

Andrea Downing, Co-President, PBS Distribution: American Experience: The Vote, a film about the hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote. It is an extraordinary story of the courage and determination it took to achieve the passage of the 19th Amendment. This is the 100-year anniversary of the amendment’s passage, and is particularly timely given our nation’s current movement to correct long-standing social injustices.“World on Fire” is an incredible series about World War II that shows us the war from the perspective of individuals impacted by it. And Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a brilliant Stanley Nelson film for “American Masters,” explores the complicated man who became a legend and changed the world of jazz.

Dametra Johnson-Marletti, GM, Digital Store Category Management, Microsoft Corp.: Becoming, The Last Dance and “Yellowstone.” There is so much great content today — but these are the most recent three that I have enjoyed. All capture my interest for different reasons. Becoming is inspiring and uplifting. Given the current state of the world, and in particular the manner in which those in leadership positions carry themselves and behave — it is just flat-out refreshing and heart-warming to hear someone speak with intellect, grace and strength. For that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed Becoming. As a former professional basketball player, and someone that grew up LOVING the Lakers, and being in awe of Michael Jordan, The Last Dance is just a must watch. It was super fun reliving all those great moments and interesting to see an inside view of Jordan and player dynamics. Finally, for the purposes of pure escapist entertainment, I continue to enjoy time spent watching “Yellowstone.” Each season brings a different side of the characters and interesting storylines. Not to mention I love all things Kevin Costner.

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Jessica Schell, EVP and GM, Film, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment: Limiting the kids’ screen time has gone out the window, but we’ve tried to make our TV viewing feel more special by instituting “family movie nights” a few times a week. Trying to find something that works for me and my husband plus daughters ages 4, 12 and 14 is a challenge! Some of the best evenings have been when we’ve revisited classics like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz and the “Harry Potter” movies, which have something for each of us: nostalgia and the joy of introducing something you love to your kids.

Amy Jo Smith, President and CEO, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group: That’s a hard question because there are so many great shows on many platforms. I’m personally attracted to documentaries. The Staircase was one of my favorites as it was revealing to see the inside story of a murder trial. I also liked the Aaron Hernandez story and the Bill Gates documentary Inside Bill’s Brain. “Succession” and “Ozark” are both fantastic dramas. But, when push comes to shove, I always love watching a “Seinfeld” episode!

Lexine Wong, Senior EVP, Worldwide Marketing, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment: I have watched so many TV shows and films during the quarantine — new and old, popular and eclectic. I would have to say my favorite TV series was The Last Dance. It was so well done and so cool to see Jordan and all the players, past and present. Having that behind-the-scenes look into Jordan’s life was fascinating. And maybe because I was missing sports as a whole, it was fun to tune into something ‘live’ for a few weeks.  I also caught up on all the seasons of “The Crown,” “The Good Doctor” and “Ozark,” just to name a few. I just watched an indie movie, The Young Offenders, which I had never seen, and it was funny and charming. I also re-watched Crash, Argo and The Blind Side recently, which are all so good for different reasons. And I’ve been reading lots of scripts and books as well. I highly recommend Catch and Kill and The Splendid and the Vile.

 

If you could spend the day with any famous person, alive or dead, who would it be — and why?

Aubrey: Connie Britton. We are old friends from making “Friday Night Lights” together and overdue for a backyard margarita.

Campbell: Living, I would say Oprah! I’ve always looked up to Oprah. I love hearing people’s stories, and there is no one more masterful at asking the right questions to learn people’s stories than Oprah. She brings empathy, passion and positivity to all that she does. If it’s someone no longer with us, then it would most definitely be my father-in-law. He passed away before I met him. I’d love to spend a day with him, getting to know the man that shaped the incredible human that is my husband.

Chu: I’ve been reading my daughter the “Little People, Big Dreams” books. We picked up the one that told the story of Martin Luther King Jr., and it made me so emotional. While progress has been made since his death, it has not nearly been enough — what would MLK say today and what actions must we take to achieve our dream of equality?

Johnson-Marletti: Michelle Obama. I would love to sit and talk with her to get first-hand accounts of how she has navigated life. She is an accomplished business leader, a mother who by all accounts has done a wonderful job with her girls, and someone who has navigated the scrutiny and muck of D.C. while demonstrating class, intellect, faith and grace. I think spending a day with such a person would only be goodness.

Kim Overall, EVP, Consumer Insights and Innovation, Sony Pictures Entertainment: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. I think they would be incredibly insightful across many of the topics and challenges we are facing. And I imagine they’d be accessible, relatable and engaging.

Smith: George Clooney because I’d love to know what it’s like to be equal parts humanitarian, talented at his trade, and strong enough to marry a smart, accomplished, beautiful woman. And, because, you know … George Clooney! Or, Alfred Hitchcock because I’d love to hear his take on how movies have evolved and what his vision would be to use Ultra HD and immersive technologies to improve them further.

Wong: So many to choose from! I think I’d go with Angelina Jolie, because she’s a very private celebrity who has made strong, deliberate career choices that resonate because of her passion and commitment to the stories she is telling. I would love to hear what she has to say on life, love, politics and the causes she supports.

Women in Home Entertainment 2020: The 12 Captains Talk COVID-19, Remote Working and Lasting Changes

Media Play News asked the 12 “captains” in our third annual Women in Home Entertainment issue to participate in a detailed Q&A about their careers and the challenges of COVID-19, which truly has made 2020 a year like no other. We also asked some fun questions to liven, and lighten, things up. An abridged Q&A appears in the August 2020 print and digital edition of Media Play News. The full Q&A has been broken down into three sections, running here on consecutive days. This is the second part, on the impact of COVID-19 on their working and personal lives — and on our business.

SEE A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE TOP 12 WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT

 

CAPTAINS OF HOME ENTERTAINMENT: WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY, PART TWO

How has your work life changed with COVID-19?

Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content, HBO Max: Working from home has been an immense change not without its challenges, but we are all still working at the same incredible pace as we were in the office. Our teams have persevered, managing launching a platform alongside home schooling and shared spaces. Because of the determination of our teams, we were able to launch HBO Max on schedule and continue to debut and create new Max Originals, all from our homes. We have had to adjust how we tackle things day to day, but we are still accomplishing them, and with a level of quality that I think only this team could achieve. I keep reminding everyone, “Guys, when you have a baby, that’s not the end, that’s the beginning.” We are just at the beginning with HBO Max and I am excited to share everything we still have coming.

SEE ALSO ‘WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT 2020: THE 12 CAPTAINS TALK CAREER PATHS, HIGHLIGHTS AND TOUGH CALLS’

Kelly Campbell, President, Hulu: While there have been some obvious changes and challenges transitioning to a remote work environment, I’ve also been energized by the more than 2,500 Hulugans who have worked hard to maintain our culture beyond the physical walls of our office space, provide support to their colleagues and continue to push our business forward. As a company leader during this uncertain time, my focus remains on the health and safety of our employees and making sure I’m present, available and proactively communicating with all Hulugans on a regular basis.

SEE ALSO ‘WOMEN IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT 2020: THE 12 CAPTAINS — WHO THEY ARE’

Agnes Chu, SVP, Content, Disney+: Like so many other working moms out there, it’s changed in many ways. Working from home has rewards and challenges. In between Zoom calls, I’m able to steal a hug or play a quick game with my 2-year-old daughter. I treasure that. But it can also be difficult to draw lines and have clear boundaries. With the help of my amazing husband, I’m learning new lessons every day in how to navigate and balance both.

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Andrea Downing, Co-President, PBS Distribution: We went remote in mid-March and instituted weekly conference calls with the full team to keep everyone in the loop. We invited some of our vendors to join us periodically to meet the broader team and talk about the work they are doing and how they are being impacted by the pandemic. Because productions shut down, affecting content delivery and procurement, and some of our vendors closed, we have had to be nimble and creative and quickly adapt to changing circumstances. I am really proud of how our team came together and almost seamlessly managed all that has been thrown at them.

Kathleen Gallagher, EVP and Managing Director — North America, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: While we have found ourselves working under the most unforeseen circumstances, I am especially proud of our team’s ability not only to navigate and excel in the face of the unprecedented challenges currently facing our industry, but to achieve such exceptional outcomes, as evidenced with The Invisible Man and, most recently, Trolls World Tour. Personally, much like everyone else, I am still figuring out the best way to balance office hours and family time. I have a 5-year-old son who has been out of school since March, and it is critical that I make time for him throughout the day. Of course, this isn’t easy as most of us are on back-to-back calls. It has been a unifying experience to get a glimpse into the home lives of our colleagues as kids and pets make guest appearances throughout the day. And, it has also been very empowering to see the broad support, compassion and respect around maintaining a work/life balance extend throughout the highest levels of our organization.

Hilary Hoffman, EVP, Global Marketing, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: I am so incredibly proud of my marketing team, who so swiftly and skillfully adapted to working remotely. With Universal’s decision to release select films to PVOD coming right on the heels of the stay-at-home order, the team around the world faced a massive undertaking in determining quickly and effectively the best way to join together to deliver on this new and unprecedented consumer offer. Together we successfully led the way in helping to launch the new platform while at the same time continuing to maintain a robust traditional home entertainment business.

Kim Overall, EVP, Consumer Insights and Innovation, Sony Pictures Entertainment: I am learning that working remotely and virtually means we need to look out for one another in different ways and listen to what we need on an individual level. Creating new routines and rituals is really important as we adjust to our new ways of working, interacting and socializing. Asking questions and listening have never been so important as we seek to understand the moment we are in and know how best to help and support each other.

Cindy Holland, VP, Original Content, Netflix: Like everyone, I’m spending more time on video conferences than I ever imagined, and a lot less time at industry events. And it’s always casual Friday, but I’ve never been that formal anyway.

Dametra Johnson-Marletti, GM, Digital Store Category Management, Microsoft Corp.: First, my heart goes out to the many lives that have been lost and families that have been impacted by COVID-19. From a work life perspective, Microsoft has been working remote since mid-March. With some minor enhancements, I was able to replicate the comfort of my Microsoft on-campus office. That, combined with the power and impact of Microsoft Teams meeting and collaboration technology has given us the ability to continue to drive business results, serve our customers, and collaborate with our partners in a very meaningful way. What I do miss most is seeing my co-workers every day. I work with a great group of people and it’s really hard in this environment to replicate the impromptu hallway chats or those quick office pop-in-type conversations — both work and social catch-up topics.

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Jessica Schell, EVP and GM, Film, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment: We are busier than ever, and the work is incredibly challenging, which is a welcome respite from the monotony brought on by so many other things being shut down — travel, socializing and in-person meetings, to name a few. My whole career has focused on navigating changes in technology and consumer behavior, but the speed of change has exponentially accelerated. We are forced to find creative solutions and new ways of doing things on the fly, building the train while it is going down the track.

Amy Jo Smith, President and CEO, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group: Since COVID-19 and working from home, I’ve found the DEG team is working more efficiently, but with some loneliness. We are on call all day, but also have time to slip in a walk with dogs or do a load of laundry. The days blend together and the hours start earlier and end later. I buy gas once a month, wear pants with no zippers and haven’t worn shoes without laces.

Lexine Wong, Senior EVP, Worldwide Marketing, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment: I vividly remember my last day in the office. We ended the day celebrating a new partnership with our Sony Music partners in a small conference room with 30 people, drinking tequila and eating tapas from one of their sponsors. We said “see you in a bit” … and now 20 weeks later we are still working from home. Like many studios we were immediately faced with the challenge of theaters closing and focused quickly on getting our recent theatrical releases out on home entertainment. I was worried about my team feeling disconnected and wanted to make sure information was disseminated in real time without having to send tons of emails, so I instituted a “daily check-in” on Microsoft Teams for everyone on the marketing team. We continue to have them, and anyone in the marketing organization can join and add items to the daily agenda. Working from home has changed the entire social ecosystem, and I think many of us look forward to being back together and enjoying the camaraderie from in-person meetings, grabbing a quick coffee or lunch and touching base in the hallways when it’s safe to do so.

 

How has your personal life changed?

Aubrey: As much as my kids can drive me crazy, it’s been a real joy getting to spend more time together than we would have were I in the office. And I’ve been cooking more. My beef enchiladas have hit a new level of deliciousness.

Downing: I have been able to spend more time with my family, an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, and I am grateful that we are all healthy and managing well. I am acutely aware that there are so many who are not so fortunate. Without the commute I have more hours in the day, so I have been getting outside to walk or run consistently. It is challenging to not be able to get together with friends or travel the way that I used to, but I connect frequently through voice and video calls.

Holland: Way more time indoors, though I still find time for a daily bike ride.

Johnson-Marletti: On the homefront there were definite bright spots. The greatest by far has been the quality family time that has been created by by everyone being quarantined at home. Like many who work every day, especially working moms, the pace of life felt like a treadmill on high prior to the shutdown. The constant balance of work commitments, commute time, family activities, and other daily tasks seem to consume most hours. So, the instant slowing of life was quite enjoyable and really allowed us time together that we would not have otherwise had. All of that said, we have really started to miss the many wonderful things that create enjoyable variability in life, like travel, sports (pro and youth), concerts, and getting together with lots of friends, especially during the summer. We greatly look forward to when those things are once again the norm.

Schell: Since most activities outside the home are canceled, my immediate family is spending a lot more time together! That’s been a silver lining, being able to grab lunch with my 4-year-old and being home for dinner the moment my last meeting is over rather than having to commute in traffic. Like everyone else I’ve been catching up with old friends across geographies, like a monthly virtual meet-up of my business school section classmates.

Wong: With nowhere to go, you would have thought being quarantined at home with my husband and two kids (high school and college age) would have been pretty mellow … not so much, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. Being forced to hang out and spend mealtimes together made for lots of interesting discussions. We experimented with lots of new recipes, planted a garden to try to create the “farm-to-table” experience (four kinds of tomatoes, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, eggplant, shishito peppers), participated in Zoom workouts, started our college kid on Robinhood to create a stock portfolio (Shopify was huge!) and worked on a ton of house projects, from organizing to building shelving and varnishing tables — Marie Kondo watch out! We even started composting!

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Where do you work at home? Did you already have a home office, or did you have to modify a space?

Aubrey: My home office is wherever I can find space for my laptop. My new office is my chair in the corner of my bedroom and then with my kids in the dining room.

Downing: I have a home office that I had to modify slightly to video conference effectively, primarily from a technology standpoint. I am still working on finding a way to keep my cats out of the picture — they always show up and insert themselves in my calls. They are now well-known across the company!

Gallagher: I didn’t have a home office. I started at the dining table. That lasted about a week. I created a mini office in the corner of the guestroom, which I later enhanced with a treadmill. I spend a lot more time looking at the treadmill than I do running on it! Aside from that, the setup is functional and comfortable, and having the distinct space definitely helps me transition between work and family mode.

Holland: I already had a home office.

Johnson-Marletti: I already had a home office set up, and really just needed a few modifications to replicate my on-campus work space, like getting a double monitor (life-changing), bringing home my comfy ergonomic chair and investing in a good webcam. I also upgraded my espresso machine — it’s not as good as the Microsoft version, but it does the job.

Overall: I modified a little spot upstairs that lets me look out onto the road, and I filled the walls with photos, quotes and other things that make me happy.

Schell:  I converted a guest bedroom, which has conveniently been empty since none of our East Coast family or friends can come visit. But I find that mixing it up helps keep me sane: spending time outside when the weather permits, or in the living room in the rare moments when my house is quiet. My home office can really be wherever my laptop is.

Smith: I have a home office but have given it to my daughter so she has quiet space for her virtual school. As a result, I’m in the kitchen as anyone who has been on a video call with me can confirm.

Wong: My original home office was in an open area which didn’t work at all due to all the noise with the kids being home, so I ended up setting up camp in an extra bedroom. I bought a better printer and slowly started acquiring office staples like a small filing cabinet, desk organizers, etc. as I realized we probably wouldn’t be heading back to our offices for a while.

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What’s the best thing about remote working?

Aubrey: Wearing my pajama pants.

Downing: Watching the way our team adapted to the new situation so quickly. They really leaned in and figured out how to work remotely while supporting their teams and managing their family obligations. Our weekly conference calls created an opportunity for a broader selection of team members to give updates on the business, which has led to greater transparency and sharing ideas for adapting our business as issues arise.

Gallagher: I have been so impressed by our team’s ability to quickly embrace and thrive in this new way of working. A great example is how swiftly and easily we are able to assemble the right group of people together for meetings. What previously may have taken days or weeks to schedule when we were in the office often now can take a matter of hours to accomplish. This ability to effectively adapt to a new work style and function nimbly has served us well in maintaining momentum, quality and consistency with both customers and consumers. That — and being able to wear sweats every day!

Hoffman: We have experienced meaningful upside in working together remotely. In particular, there is a special feeling of unity that we are all in it together.

Holland: The flexibility to work from anywhere.

Johnson-Marletti: NO COMMUTE!  Seattle commute times were difficult — not L.A. difficult, but getting there, and the commute was even worse when it rained (if you can believe that). So, getting all that time back has been great and has further allowed for greater productivity at work and better balance at home.

Overall: I get to hear the voice of my 6-year-old son playing downstairs when I am working and it always fills my heart with happiness and makes me smile.

Schell: Since no one can be physically together, it puts everyone around the globe on an equal footing. When I’m working across different departments with people who usually sit in different buildings, or working on releases around the world, I’ve found that communication has actually improved. Since we aren’t limited by who is in the room, we can reach out to a broader set of people and leverage more opinions and expertise than we could before.

Smith: I’m grateful to see my daughter throughout the day and share a laugh with her. It’s nice not to be on the road stuck in traffic. I love being able to spend more time with my daughter and husband.

Wong: Saving commute time, less pressure on deciding what to wear every day since it’s only my top half that I worry about, and being able to walk my dog at lunch. Because we are social creatures at heart, the ease of turning our cameras on for every Zoom/Teams call has helped reinforce connections with colleagues — and it’s been fun to get a little glimpse into our colleagues’ personal lives.

 

What is the downside?

Aubrey: Wearing my pajama pants!

Downing: I miss seeing everyone in person and having the impromptu conversations that happen during a typical workday. It is easier to pull a number of people together on short notice when you’re in the same office and challenging to do that when we are remote and juggling multiple work schedules.

Hoffman: The downside is the loss of spontaneous dialogue and ideation as a team. And we all miss the hallway and elevator conversations that extended beyond business into personal life. The loss of our ability to travel also has been a challenge. While international business can definitely be managed by video call, nothing replaces the opportunity to gather together in the same time zone and work with your colleagues in real time.

Holland: The flexibility to work from anywhere, and the perception that one is always available.

Johnson-Marletti: The downside by far been has been not seeing the fun, smart and amazing people I get to work with each day, having impromptu meetings, catching up on each other’s lives while grabbing coffee, or having lunch together. I will most definitely appreciate those times far more when they return.

Overall: I have to confess, I miss the office! The rate of change in our industry is so rapid right now and has been accelerated in some areas in the past few months. As we try to understand the changes in real time and solve for ways to respond I miss not being able to grab a coffee with one of the many wonderful thought partners in our business to talk through options together.

Schell: It’s harder to build a culture, and as a manager, harder to get an informal read on how the whole team is doing. No more walking the halls and chatting with whoever is around. That’s been particularly difficult when you know so many people are going through a hard time, and as we try to tackle sensitive topics like addressing diversity and inclusion.

Smith: I feel isolated from my office DEG teammates and the industry at large.

Wong: There’s no delineation of when the day starts and when it ends. With no commute time, you end up being “always on,” a blur of meetings every day, with one day running into the next … wash/rinse/repeat. You can imagine the fun we had re-promoting our movie Groundhog Day!

 

What impact is COVID-19 having on your business, and what are you doing about it?

Aubrey: Like everyone in our creative community, our productions and teams have been impacted by COVID-19, but fortunately we have been able to keep our programming slate on track and our teams have been incredibly inventive and have remained dedicated to our goals working at the same pace we had in the office. Our launch slate and planned summer programs have been set for some time and thankfully were mostly unaffected, but we did have some projects in production that were placed on hiatus while we figure out the best, and safest, path forward. The health and safety of our casts and crews are our first priority. Care for our employees, cast and crew are the most important consideration in all decision-making. But we are still really busy! We have several projects in post-production, with people working from the safety of their homes using editing rigs we provided. We were able to continue shooting the Max Original CNN Films documentary On The Trail as part of CNN’s news-gathering operation and have also greenlighted new series such as “Selena + Chef,” an unscripted cooking show starring Selena Gomez, and “Homeschool Musical,” a scripted series from Tony winner Laura Benanti. Both of these projects were born out of quarantine and demonstrate the innovation and creativity of the teams at HBO Max.

Campbell: It’s no secret that people are watching more television now that they are spending more time at home, and Hulu, like other streamers, has benefited from that. But I think our growth in 2020 has been less about the pandemic and more about the creativity and innovation we’ve brought to market this year. The Hulu Originals team led by Craig Erwich has delivered its most successful slate of originals ever, from “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Hillary” and “Ramy” — which just received Emmy nominations in major series categories — to breakout hits like “Normal People,” “Solar Opposites” and our original film Palm Springs. Through FX on Hulu, which we launched earlier this year in partnership with John Landgraf, we’ve provided viewers with even more Emmy-nominated series, like “Mrs. America” and “Devs.” Hulu’s technology and design teams introduced a newly redesigned interface that helps Hulu viewers find and discover the content they love more quickly. And on the advertising front we continue to introduce new non-traditional ad formats to provide the best experience possible to our viewers, and more-innovative solutions to brands. All of these things together are driving Hulu’s strong momentum this year.

Chu: Obviously, this is an unprecedented time. In so many ways it has reinforced the power of storytelling and its vital and indelible role in society. At a time when we can’t easily come together physically, people are looking for content that brings them together emotionally. Disney+, with our depth and breadth of library content and new multigenerational stories like “The Mandalorian,” “Encore!” and “Diary of a Future President,” is able to do just that. From a production standpoint, it’s obviously tough. COVID safety protocols are challenging us to find new ways of doing things. My team likes to say that creativity is the best antidote for road blocks. Whether it’s voiceover talent calling in their performances or musicians scoring content from home, we are able to complete and fine-tune projects that were already in process. We are also spending more time on the development process and writing new material. I really think that we’ll see a lot of interesting storytelling come out of this period of time — not just here but across the industry.

Downing: The biggest impact has been the growth of our subscription channels and TVOD revenue as a result of the stay-at-home orders and increase in streaming. With the disruption to content production and delivery, we’re thinking creatively about how to fill the content pipeline to ensure that we are well-positioned for the months ahead.

Gallagher: It has been encouraging to see a rebound in our catalog business over the past few months. We have so much content that consumers love and can look to for comfort and escape during this time. We have been partnering with retail to make sure shelves are stocked, and our brand team has been working to develop promotions and collections that can drive significant value for shoppers.

Holland: We’re fortunate to have great shows in the pipeline and we’re proud to be a place viewers are turning for comfort and escape at a really challenging time. We have some shows shooting outside the U.S., but there are many that are still paused here. Things won’t look exactly the same when we return to production, but we’re looking forward to it and are focused on our cast and crews’ welfare and safety.

Johnson-Marletti: Unlike many businesses across the country and world, during the pandemic, the e-commerce space has realized explosive growth and creative business model innovation. At the peak of the global shutdown and quarantine — around April — we saw many people turn to digital entertainment to fill their time, whether it was gaming online with friends, movie and TV consumption or just online shopping, we have seen new high-water marks across the business broadly. The many Microsoft teams that bring content and our services to life have done yeoman’s work in ensuring that our customers can find what they are looking for when they want. We have been very pleased with our ability to be there to connect customers to their community of friends and to our partner’s tremendous content during these challenging times.

Overall: We are very focused on listening to and understanding how our most-valuable entertainment consumers are changing their content consumption behaviors and preferences, from what and when they are viewing to how they are interacting on social media.

Schell: Our business has been dramatically affected in so many ways — production has been stalled, theaters are closed, and so many marketing tactics and channels have been shut down. At the same time, consumer demand to be entertained at home has skyrocketed, so there is a huge appetite for content at a time when there are no new theatrical releases. Scoob! had been intended for theaters, and with the marketing campaign underway, consumer products hitting stores and theaters closed, we released it under a new premium rental and ownership model and proved that audiences will show up for eventized in-home releases. We’ve also been filling the void by highlighting films from our vast library through different themes, and our catalog business is booming. And of course, we’ve thrown our support behind the launch of HBO Max. As the custodians of the Warner Bros. library, we have a vast repository of marketing assets and ancillary content and social communities at our disposal, there is so much we can provide the Max team to support their offering which draws heavily from Warner Bros. content.

 

How are you collaborating with colleagues and meeting with customers?

Aubrey: Our office is built on collaboration, so we are constantly working together over WebEx, checking in with our creative partners, and continuing to work on our slate in creative ways under these new circumstances. I am so impressed and proud of my team, and of the teams across the company, who have shown such resiliency and continued passion as we continue to make deals, write scripts and edit our programming from home.

Downing: I prefer video conferences if I am connecting for multiple agenda items or don’t know the person well, but often have quick phone calls with those I am regularly in touch with to discuss one or two issues.

Gallagher: Most of our communications and exchanges are happening primarily via video conference. I don’t know the last time I scheduled a regular phone call. We are all looking for that personal connection as we spend so much time in our homes.As much as it can be sometimes exhausting to be on video all day, I am really happy that this mode of interaction has become our norm.

Holland: Like everyone else, we’re on a lot of video conferences.

Johnson-Marletti: Primarily through Microsoft Teams. The Microsoft Teams Business Group has been working overtime to continue to innovate and evolve Teams based on customer feedback. This is the same technology my kids used during remote learning as well. Needless to say, our home bandwidth has really been working overtime.

Overall: Zoom, Teams, OWL — every piece of enabling technology we can get our hands on to stay as close to one another as we can.

Schell: All internal meetings have moved to video conferences on Teams, and depending on which customers we are meeting with, we use various other video conferencing systems, like Google Hangout when meeting with YouTube, of course! We work on shared digital documents together. It’s all technology that existed before, but until we were forced to use it, adoption was slow — we were more of a telephone and email culture. It works well because everyone is on the same level playing field, dealing with makeshift home offices, kids and pets in the background. If some people were in the office and some people at home I think it would have been much more difficult to make it work for those not in the office.

Smith: DEG quickly pivoted to a virtual meeting environment, bringing the industry together in small salon discussions and a larger expo where we invite expert speakers and members to share their perspectives and services that will help the industry grow.

Wong: One of the best things that has come out of the quarantine is the exceptional collaboration with the different divisions and departments across the studio. One of the most productive partnerships has been with our theatrical counterparts. Aside from the shortened windows, where we quickly passed the baton and leaned on each other’s expertise to develop the best go-to-market approach, we set up a marketing “stay-at-home” task force where we were able to brainstorm and prioritize a ton of ideas to support the catalog. Everyone rolled up their sleeves to help access talent and support the social handles, giving the commercial teams great marketing programs for our retail partners. We also did a similar task force with the TV production and marketing team which resulted in creative executions in the form of cast reunions, table reads and live Q&As.

 

How many Zoom or other video conference calls do you have in an average week?

Aubrey: Too many to count!

Downing: Pre-pandemic I had one or two video conferences per week. The last several months, I have averaged around 40 a week.

Gallagher: Somewhere around 30.

Holland: It varies, but they’re pretty much back to back.

Johnson-Marletti: Thirty-plus Microsoft Teams meetings each week.

Overall: The short answer is probably too many, but the reality is that it’s our new normal and I would much rather see people and be able to share a smile and a laugh than not!

Schell: I find that I spend most of the workday on video calls. That can be anything from a one on one to a presentation to hundreds of people. We’ve tried to institute companywide meeting-free lunch breaks and Fridays, so those times are a bit lighter. With California schools indefinitely closed, we will be re-looking at schedules in the fall to try to accommodate working parents who are doing double duty with kids at home.

Smith: Three to four a day.

Wong:  Between 40 to 50 conference calls per week. Just a push of a key to the next meeting … join, leave, join, leave. It’s efficient, but not great for getting your steps in!

 

Has a return to the office date been set, and if so what changes are you expecting?

Aubrey: It is a company priority to restart television and film production, but care for our employees, cast and crew is the most important consideration in all decision-making, and we are prioritizing productions for our testing and safety resources. There are no imminent plans for my team to return to the office, but we are currently starting up smaller productions in consultation with local authorities, the unions and medical experts. There will definitely be changes to how our productions are run, and we will do everything we can to make sure that our employees, cast, crew and creative partners feel protected and comfortable each step of the way. With our wide range of formats and shooting locations, each production is different and will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Downing: We have not set a date for returning to the office because too many variables are in flux. We don’t know what is going to happen with schools and day care centers, which impacts many on our team, and we are mindful that some have health concerns for themselves or their families. We stay up to date with the guidance from local and national health officials and recommendations about opening offices. I am sure that when we go back, it will be a combination of remote and in the office and we will adapt as needed based on circumstances.

Johnson-Marletti: We will not return to the office prior to January 2021. Microsoft has done a terrific job communicating with all employees very broadly on a regular basis. The company prioritizes employee safety first, so when we do return, we are expecting to align to a clear set of guidelines and protocols meant to keep everyone safe and that contribute to flattening the curve.

 

Do you envision any long-term changes in our industry?

Aubrey: There has been a lot of innovation around using digital experiences and formats that I think will remain in place and be useful once we begin to reopen and restart productions, festivals and other large gatherings. By opening up once-exclusive events to a wider platform digitally, we are able to more freely share with the community and expand our reach to voices around the world.

Downing: It is difficult to anticipate how the industry will change long-term because this time in history is unprecedented. But I think more content will be available for streaming rather than in theaters, stressing an already challenged sector of the entertainment market, with continued consumer transition to subscription-based models. Given the uncertainty about how long we will be susceptible to this virus, and anticipating the possibility of another pandemic, I think that companies will be adapting their technology and work spaces to position themselves for greater resilience.

Johnson-Marletti: For sure, I think there will be lasting changes across the industry as a result of the global pandemic and how it’s been handled around the world. The entertainment industry as a whole feels like a continuous circle that has many interrelated dependent parts, each of which has been impacted in slightly different ways, which makes predicting the long-term effects on the whole ecosystem very difficult. For example, consumer confidence in returning to the theater is varied at this point and in many places not allowed at all. That puts enormous strain on both theater chains and studios, as they now have to decide on releasing straight to home entertainment or waiting for blockbuster-worthy theater-going crowds to return — the economics for these options are very different. Production is largely at a standstill, so the funnel for new-release content becomes smaller, which effects theaters, studios, broadcasters, and subscription and transactional services that rely on that content to attract and retain a consistent flow of customers.  So again, the level of uncertainty across the ecosystem makes it hard to call where we’ll ultimately settle into a new normal. That said, creativity and business model evolution remains high, that coupled with the continued collaboration with our partners continues to be a bright point of hope for us.

Schell: Since so much business-as-usual isn’t possible, we’ve had the opportunity to experiment. We are figuring out how to do some things more efficiently and create new kinds of cultural moments. Across the industry, we’ve proved that audiences will show up for event in-home releases such as Scoob! and Trolls World Tour and gotten to see the impact on subscriptions of putting a huge event like Hamilton straight on to SVOD. With so much less event television programming and no live sports or awards shows, we’ve had to find more audiences on digital. Since in-person events aren’t possible, in lieu of premiere and fan conventions, we’ve been leveraging virtual audiences in Fortnite (Tenet trailer release) and on TikTok (#ScoobDance) and hosting virtual press junkets. We’re learning what can work better than the ways we’ve always done things, and what are sacred cows for a reason. Undoubtedly these learnings will influence how we go forward.

Smith: I foresee long-term changes to how we do business and how we function as a global community. I don’t think this will be unique to entertainment. I envision a business community where most meetings and transactions take place via video. And, we learn how to foster relationships and discussions via video conference.