Bill Sondheim Exits Cinedigm After Five Years as President of Distributor’s Entertainment Group

Bill Sondheim has left independent content distributor Cinedigm Corp. after more than five years as president, industry sources told Media Play News.

Sondheim was not available for comment, but a Cinedigm publicist confirmed his departure and noted that he will not be replaced.

Sondheim for years has been a respected home entertainment executive, known for taking independent content and exploiting it across multiple distribution channels. He has long advocated that digital is the future but physical remains viable.

Sondheim had his duties expanded last November when he was named president of worldwide distribution, charged with leading the company’s China/North America pipeline in addition to managing distribution in the rest of the world. He remained president of the Cinedigm Entertainment Group, overseeing all content rights management across all distribution channels that Cinedigm serves, including managing all sales of physical and digital goods to retail partners and all transactional and subscription digital outlets.

Cinedigm maintains a library of 50,000 films and TV episodes, and direct relationships with over 60,000 physical stores and digital retailers, including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon. The company also provides feature films and series to Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as cable and satellite providers Comcast, Dish Network and DirecTV.

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Since Chinese investment firm Bison Capital completed a majority investment in Cinedigm in late 2017, Cinedigm has focused its efforts on creating a two-way flow of content between North America and China and has established deep relationships with leading Chinese content providers, streaming services, and government agencies, all under Sondheim’s guidance. Cinedigm recently announced the planned launch of a new OTT streaming service in North America called Bambu, bringing Chinese content to young, trend-setting Americans.

Before joining Cinedigm in October 2013, Sondheim was president of entertainment and worldwide distribution for Gaiam, later Gaiam Vivendi, which was ultimately sold to Cinedigm. From 2005 to 2007, he oversaw the development of Sony Music Entertainment’s dual disc technology initiative.

Before Sony, Sondheim was president of GT Brands LLC and, before that, president of Polygram Filmed Entertainment’s video distribution entity when it appeared PolyGram was on the cusp of becoming the seventh major, through hit theatrical movies like What Dreams May Come, with Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr., and The Game, with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. Those plans were dashed when the company was sold to Seagram Company Ltd. in 1998. Two years later, PolyGram Films was folded.

Sondheim has managed properties associated with the NFL, NBA, MLB, Reebok, Scholastic, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and fitness personalities including Jillian Michaels, Richard Simmons, and Kathy Smith.

Sondheim’s future plans remain unclear, but sources say he plans to remain in the business with a new venture.

Source say Bill Perrault, SVP of marketing for Cinedigm Entertainment Group, also has left.

In a news release issued shortly after Media Play News’ story about Sondheim’s departure, Cinedigm said the executive’s exit was one of several “leadership changes within the company’s Content Entertainment Group to reflect the company’s evolving focus on digital streaming and content aggregation following its recent announcement to acquire Future Today Inc., a leading OTT streaming video platform.”

The release noted that Sondheim will continue to provide the company with consulting services. No new president will be named; instead, the Content Entertainment Group will be led by EVP Yolanda Macías and SVP Dan Coyle.

“These moves continue the company’s efforts to streamline corporate structure and enhance management effectiveness and synergy,” Cinedigm said in the release.

Macías, a 25-year industry vet, is responsible for acquiring global content rights and oversees digital distribution across all world-wide platforms. Like Sondheim, she began her tenure at Cinedigm after the Gaiam Vivendi acquisition in 2013. Previously, Macías held executive positions at DIRECTV, Technicolor and the Walt Disney Company. She was also honored as one of the Top 50 Women in Business by the Los Angeles Business Journal and as one of Media Play News‘ 2018 Digital Drivers.

Coyle, too, joined Cinedigm after the company’s acquisition of Gaiam Vivendi in 2013. As SVP of sales, Coyle is responsible for strategic planning and sales of physical media for the company’s catalog of independent film and television titles. Coyle previously held the same position at Gaiam since 2005. Prior to Gaiam, he was VP of retail operations aat Goodtimes Entertainment, which he joined in 1991. There, he helped launch the first VMI program in the video industry.

Cinedigm Renews Hallmark Deal, Touts Disc, Digital Success

Cinedigm Entertainment Group, considered the largest independent distributor of movies and other content to the home sector, has renewed its distribution deal with the Crown Media Family Networks, parent company of the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and Hallmark Movies Now.

Crown Media Family Networks, owned by Hallmark Cards Inc., targets families with original and acquired movies, TV series and lifestyle programs.

Cinedigm’s Kim Staruk

Cinedigm has been the exclusive home entertainment distributor for Crown Media since 2012. The Hallmark catalog currently consists of 82 Hallmark Hall of Fame films, 193 Hallmark films, and 13 TV series, including “When Calls the Heart.”

“Cinedigm is committed to continue to grow the business as we enter another multi-year term extension,” said Yolanda Macias, Cinedigm’s EVP of content acquisitions, digital sales and studio relations.

Word of the renewal comes as Cinedigm reports significant growth for Hallmark over the last two years on both the physical and the digital fronts.

Digital movie sales (electronic sellthrough, or EST) rose 20% in 2017 over 2016, says Bill Perrault, SVP of marketing and brand management, while DVD and Blu-ray Disc revenues were up 22% – this, at a time when industry disc sales were down 14%.

Net revenue, Perrault says, was up 46%.

At Walmart, the biggest of the more than 60,000 physical and digital retailers that carry Cinedigm product, sales of Hallmark product in the first six months of this year spiked 324% in gross revenue dollars compared to the first half 2017, Perrault said. Unit sales are up 315%.

Increased revenue is attributed to new release success from the Royal Wedding Collection, a collection of three films, two of which star Meghan Markle, and Campfire Kiss, starring Danica McKellar, along with seasonal placement of The Country Love Triple Feature for Mother’s Day.

Digital wholesale revenue is up 15% for the first six months of 2018 from the same period last year, largely due to the EST success of “When Calls the Heart” and “Chesapeake Shores,” two Canadian-American drama TV series show on the Hallmark Channel.

“When Calls the Heart” was inspired by Janette Oke’s book of the same name and developed by Michael Landon Jr. The series began airing on the Hallmark Channel in January 2014. The cast includes Erin Krakow, Daniel Lissing, Lori Loughlin, Martin Cummins, Jack Wagner and Pascale Hutton.

“Chesapeake Shores” is based on the novel series of the same name by Sherryl Woods. The series had a two-hour premiere on the Hallmark Channel in August 2016 and stars Meghan Ory, Jesse Metcalfe, Treat Williams, Brendan Penny, Andrew Francis and Diane Ladd.

Digital sales also have been strong for new releases such as Unleashing Mr. Darcy and Love On The Sidelines as well as catalog titles such as Crown For Christmas.

Perrault notes that Hallmark is also shaping up to have a strong back half of the year, with 25 releases scheduled in the fourth quarter alone for disc and digital.

Nineteen of them are Christmas titles.

This year Cinedigm will distribute two Hallmark Original Movies on DVD, exclusively at Walmart, and widely on EST three days after Crown’s 2018 Countdown to Christmas Television Premiere on the Hallmark Channel, which starts Oct. 27.

The first is Christmas At Graceland, starring Country Music Award winner Kellie Pickler. The second film is It’s Christmas, Eve, starring Grammy Award-winner LeAnn Rimes.

Much like Hallmark Channel programming, Christmas has always been the strongest time of the year for Hallmark disc and digital sales. But over the last two years, Perrault points out, “we’ve seen it grow into a strong every-day business.”

Continuing the year-round strategy, Cinedigm and Hallmark will finish the year releasing Royal New Year’s Eve on disc and digital on Dec. 4.

The program premiered on the Hallmark Channel on Dec. 30, 2017, to 5 million unduplicated viewers, boosting Hallmark Channel to the No. 2 cable network in prime time on Saturdays, according to Nielsen Galaxy and NPower.

“Hallmark fans and America can’t stop talking about the Royals  and this is a perfect drafting fit,” said Kim Staruk, executive director of marketing. Staruk is Cinedigm’s point person on the Hallmark relationship. She works with Hallmark on identifying and managing its release schedule and overseeing creative and marketing. In 2018, she notes, more than 65 Hallmark titles have already been released or are scheduled.

“In order to expand Hallmark’s retail presence outside of Christmas we’ve identified titles with cast that the Hallmark fan recognizes and loves but also your average consumer knows,” Staruk says. “Then, we freshen up the existing key art to give the film a new look and elevate the title on shelf. The goal is to still appeal to the Hallmark consumer but draw in a new customer who may have not seen the film in the original airing on Hallmark.”

Staruk surmises that the success of Hallmark movies at retail and on digital “could be attributed to the fact that they allow consumers to escape from the negative news they see on television every day with a storyline that is always family friendly and uplifting. This recent desire for positive films has allowed Hallmark to see growth on physical year over year in an industry that is declining while growing digitally as well.”

Overall, Perrault adds, “Crown Media’s success in entertainment is a reflection of the demand for its uplifting content across all platforms. All three of its television channels continue to deliver record breaking ratings. This year saw the launch of Hallmark Movies Now, an SVOD service similar to Netflix, offering an extended library of movies and series that you cannot find on their linear channels. At the same time, Crown also launched Hallmark Publishing, bringing the Hallmark style of storytelling to eBook and paperback nationwide, with a dozen books already in publication.

“Contributing to Crown Media’s continued success while offering their own SVOD platform is their collaborative approach to windowing, balancing physical and EST priorities with SVOD objectives.”