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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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 Carnage, Ghostbusters: 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, 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.”
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.”
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, 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.
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.
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, 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.”