Mark Fisher Set to Retire as Head of Streaming Trade Group OTT.X

Mark Fisher, who for more than a decade has led streaming trade association OTT.X and its predecessor, the Entertainment Merchants Association, has announced his retirement, effective May 31.

The 68-year-old Fisher is stepping down as president immediately, with Eric Hanson, the association’s EVP, taking over as interim president. Fisher will retain the CEO role for the next few months “to support an orderly transition,” according to a news release.

Fisher joined what was originally called the Video Software Dealers Association in 1999 as VP of membership. At the time, the trade group served mostly home video retailers at a time when the business was transitioning from VHS videocassette rental to DVD sales.

SEE ALSO: Personal Stories: Mark Fisher of OTT.X — From Stop & Shop to Streaming

In April 2006, the VSDA merged with the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) to become the Entertainment Merchants Association. Fisher was subsequently promoted to EVP and, in October 2012, when EMA CEO Crossan “Bo” Andersen retired, Fisher was appointed by the board of directors to succeed him.

During Fisher’s tenure as president and CEO, he oversaw the association’s evolution from supporting the physical media business into a trade group for first transactional and subscription streaming and then all forms of online video distribution, including AVOD and FAST. The EMA was rebranded OTT.X in January 2020. Fisher also led the development of the current OTT.X cornerstone events — the OTT.X Summit and the X-Fronts — as well as its salons, its roundtables, and its online webinars.

“I’m proud of the accomplishments that we’ve made as we’ve evolved in an evolving industry that has become more and more egalitarian, global and diverse,” Fisher said. “It’s been great working with this outstanding staff and the most engaged and supportive board members that a CEO could ask for.  The association is on a great trajectory for its future, and I’m confident that it’ll grow to serve its members in many more ways than its currently able.”

“Over the years, Mark’s family and mine have become close friends, and I congratulate him on his decision,” said Cameron Douglas, chair of the OTT.X board of directors and SVP, OTT/Streaming, at Fandango. “In some ways, OTT.X and Mark are synonymous, and yet I know the organization will continue to thrive through the strength of its dedicated staff and the engaged member base.

Prior to joining the VSDA in 1999, Fisher served on the board’s executive committee as treasurer and VP of its New England chapter. He had been a member of the VSDA since 1985 while employed by member companies Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. and public video rental chain West Coast Entertainment.

Fisher attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the State University of New York at Albany. He began his professional career as the youngest store manager, at the time, in the A&P Tea Co. grocery chain.  He joined Stop & Shop as a store manager in 1980 and from 1983 to 1985 served as general merchandise supervisor for the chain’s Connecticut division.  In 1985, Fisher was named director of video rental and charged with running the grocer’s standalone video rental stores.  Under Fisher’s leadership, the Stop & Shop Video Store chain was recognized as the VSDA Retailer of the Year in 1995.

Fisher will remain involved with OTT.X, consulting at least through the end of the year, and serving longterm as CEO Emeritus and a non-voting member on the OTT.X board of directors.

OTT.X Accepting Submissions for Fourth Annual Social OTT.X Impact Awards

OTT.X, the trade association for the OTT streaming industry, June 20 announced it is now accepting submissions for the fourth annual Social OTT.X Impact Awards.

The awards program recognizes creators, producers, platforms, and channels who are using the power of streaming to make a positive impact.

The deadline for submissions is Nov. 7 for audiovisual works that premiere and are distributed through OTT channels and platforms. Awards will be made at the Social Impact Awards Ceremony and cocktail party Dec. 5 in Los Angeles. Six awards will be presented for Full-Length, Fiction Title; Full-Length, Non-Fiction Title; Short, Fiction Title; Short, Non-Fiction Title; Series, Scripted & Non-Scripted; and Technology Innovation.

The nomination form can be accessed here.

“OTT.X is proud once again to celebrate streaming content and innovation that inspires positive action and promotes understanding, acceptance and equality for all people,” said Mark Fisher, OTT.X president and CEO.

Mark Fisher

Paul Colichman, CEO of Here Media, serves as OTT.X Social Impact Awards chair.

Last year’s OTT.X Social Impact Awards were presented to A Letter to You from Girls’ Voices Now for Impactful Short Title; Demand Africa’s Made BKLYN for Impactful Series; Here Media’s 100 Years of Men in Love for Impactful, Full-Length Feature, Fiction; and Almighty Zeus from TriCoast Worldwide for Impactful Full-Length Feature, Non-Fiction. The Impactful Technology Award was presented to Stingray.

Content nominated for this year’s awards must premiere in the U.S. on an OTT channel or platform, maintain exclusive availability via OTT distribution and be available in the U.S. for at least three weeks. The qualifying period is Oct. 31, 2022 through Oct. 31, 2023. 

OTT.X’s Mark Fisher Calls for Better Customer Experience in AVOD, FAST Realm

Today’s AVOD and FAST services face many of the same challenges studios and retailers faced a decade ago in trying to get consumers to buy or rent movies and shows digitally, OTT.X president and CEO Mark Fisher told attendees at the streaming trade association’s second annual XFronts May 24 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Most significantly, he said, “while FAST and AVOD are experiencing phenomenal growth, there remains a need for a smooth, consistent and ubiquitous consumer experience.”

“Back then, the industry was dealing with some important issues affecting the consumer experience — first and foremost, just getting content from the computer or mobile device to the larger screen television wasn’t easy or consistent,” Fisher said.

“There were few, if any, common experiences across digital [sellthrough] retailers, and there was little ubiquity to access content. If I wanted to watch a particular movie or TV show, I had to first determine what digital [sellthrough] retailer had that content, then what devices or platforms offered access to that retailer, and then that determined what room in my home I was going to enjoy the content.”

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Today, Fisher said, “we’re talking about many of these same challenges – and some additional ones — related to AVOD and FAST.” While consumers get a great value accessing AVOD and FAST programming, he said, “we aren’t giving them the best experience that they deserve and will expect.”

“For the consumer to accept AVOD and FAST as a replacement experience for the generally consumer-friendly and high-quality experience of cable or broadcast television, the consumer needs to have a consistent experience across devices, across platforms, and across channels,” Fisher said.

“As a community, we need to work together toward a more ubiquitous viewer experience. The consumer needs to be able to access programming across their devices — not, like in the early days of [digital sellthrough], having to determine what room they’re going to view their shows in based on what devices they have in each room and what devices offer the programming they want to enjoy.

“The consumer needs to have an easier way to navigate the programming guides and to find and get to the channel they want to watch, and more cross-platform consistency for a channel’s programming. The consumer needs better playback functionality and pause and rewind and, where appropriate, visible fast-forward functionality.

“The consumer deserves not to have their programming interrupted mid-sentence for an ad — ad cuts need to be in logical and appropriate times.  Ads need to be creative and relevant, and the same ad can’t be shown over and over and over to the same consumer in the same ad break.  And the quality of ads — both sound and video — needs to be as good as the content that they’re placed in.”

There is a sentiment of thought in the industry, Fisher said, that since AVOD and FAST are free, “the consumer will be accepting. But, is that, as an industry, how we think FAST will replace cable and broadcast TV? And let’s not just stop at making this an acceptable experience, as good or better than cable or broadcast.  Let’s also exploit making the most of our offerings.”

AVOD and FAST operators, Fisher said, “have the unique opportunity for the consumer to toggle between FAST and AVOD, using FAST as a promotional tool to go deeper into a channel’s assets.  Or even to toggle into TVOD to access content on-demand.  Let’s make it easy and simple for the consumer to not only have that lean back experience, but to link it to the ability to watch whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want.”

“Helping to meet these challenges and others are why trade associations like OTT.X exist. Let’s work together toward no longer having to refer to the acronym FAST, as we convert the consumer into simply enjoying TV in a new and better way.”

AVOD/FAST Streamers, Media Buyers Meet at OTT.X’s Second Annual XFronts

OTT.X held its second annual “XFronts” event May 23-24 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The XFronts event, which drew nearly 600 guests, is a two-day exchange for media buyers to learn about the growing AVOD and FAST ad market and explore opportunities provided by prominent and up-and-coming AVOD and FAST platforms, networks and channels. Presentations include “first look” details about lineups, content promotion, viewer demographics, plans for the year and advertising opportunities. The conference programming includes a series of panels, presentations, research findings, and interactive roundtable discussions focused on the growth of FAST and how it’s being utilized to get the most out of advertising spends, as well as revenue opportunities, operational issues, and projections for the future. (All photos by Media Play News staff.)

OTT.X Gives Students a Look at Careers in Streaming With University Affiliate Program

OTT.X, the trade association for the OTT streaming industry, has announced the launch of its University Affiliate Program to support the development of students pursuing business careers in streaming media.

Emory, Pepperdine, Penn State and Vanderbilt universities are the first of what the association expects will be a long list of affiliates that support the new program.

“We are thrilled to have four world-class institutions as affiliate members as we launch this exciting program,” said Mark Fisher, OTT.X president and CEO.

The program provides access to information, analysis and networking opportunities with executives who are shaping the course of streaming.

“It’s vital that we support those with aspirations in the streaming industry who will become our next generation of innovators and leaders,” said Rich Hull, ViX streaming service founder and OTT.X board secretary.

OTT.X’s University Affiliate Program offers students and faculty of participating institutions complimentary or discounted access to attend live events and conferences, including the upcoming OTT.X X-Fronts and the OTT.X Summit, Round Table Discussion Groups and Industry Salons. Program participants also have access to all online events and webinars and a vast library of videos, presentations, white papers and research materials.  

Streaming Trade Group OTT.X Plots Ambitious Growth Agenda for 2023

OTT.X is gearing up for one of its busiest years ever, with membership at an all-time high and a record slate of more than a dozen programs, conferences and salons — more than last year — already scheduled for 2023.

“It’s a good time to be a trade association supporting the OTT ecosystem,” said Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the streaming industry trade association. “There are so many companies wanting and needing to work together to grow and enhance the burgeoning businesses of EST, PVOD, SVOD, AVOD and FAST, and to collaborate on efficient standards and practices.”

Fisher calls OTT.X a “very new, but very old” trade association. The not-for-profit incorporated in 1982 as the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), supporting video rental stores. Since then, the group has evolved with the industry, as technology and business models have changed and transformed. The association rebranded to EMA (the Entertainment Merchants Association) in 2006 and OTT.X in 2020, refining its focus to Internet-based distribution of entertainment content and related products and services.

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Last year, Fisher said, OTT.X signed over 40 new member companies, bringing its membership count to nearly 120, twice as many as it had at its 2020 rebranding.

This year, he said, he’s looking to add another 40 to 50 new members and plans to focus recruitment efforts on the growing FAST ecosystem, as well as engaging companies headquartered outside the United States.

In addition to its regular members, OTT.X recently introduced a new professional membership category and is working with colleges and universities to drive student membership as well.

“While containing our focus on the overall OTT ecosystem, we welcome companies and individuals representing a broad range of interests within the space — from students, to new entrants in the workplace, to independently owned companies, to the market leaders,” Fisher said.

On the event front, OTT.X plans to host four tentpoles in 2023, including its second annual OTT.X X-Fronts marketplace, its fifth annual OTT.X Summit, its second annual Industry Strategic Review and Analysis, and its fourth annual Social Impact Awards celebration.

The OTT.X X-Fronts returns to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on May 23 and 24. These “Fronts for FAST” focus on building relationships between FAST publishers and their ad buyers as well as ad-tech. The event will include more than 20 presentations by FAST platforms and channels, as well as a conference program, breakout topical roundtable discussions, one-on-one business meetings, tabletop displays, cocktail parties and networking opportunities.

“Last year’s inaugural OTT.X X-Fronts exceeded all expectations, and 2023 will be even better,” Fisher said. “There’s great value in buying media against ‘enthusiast/niche,’ targeted FAST platforms and FAST channels, and newer and growing platforms — and these are the companies that will be showcased at our X-FRONTS.”

Next, on Aug. 30 and 31, OTT.X presents its annual Summit, also at the Skirball Cultural Center. The summit brings the OTT community together to focus on content, distribution and technology. A robust conference program will headline the event, which also includes one-on-one business meetings, a tabletop showcase, cocktail parties, and plenty of time to network with colleagues.

The third big event on OTT.X’s 2023 calendar is the Social Impact Awards celebration, held in early December. The awards recognize creators, producers, and channels that are using the power of streaming video to make a positive impact on society.

The final tentpole of the year is the OTT.X Industry Strategic Review and Analysis on Dec. 6. This conference brings the industry together to digest and dissect the most current data and analysis presented by leading research companies and analysts following the overall OTT industry.

Throughout the year, OTT.X also will stage an online conference (Online Live) on Nov. 9; three OTT.X Salons (Miami, New York City and Los Angeles), informal evening get-togethers with networking and a facilitated group discussion; and two OTT.X Roundtables (New York and Los Angeles), which are full-day events with multiple breakouts on important industry topics.

OTT.X also hosts breakfast sessions at both CES and NAB.

In addition, the OTT.X Wednesday Webinar series continues in its third year, and includes not only topical industry business presentations, but also presentations supporting leadership skills and diversity.

OTT.X also facilitates a variety of Common Interest Groups that meet regularly around shared interests, commonality, and goals and that are created for networking, exchange of information, development of new initiatives, or around other emerging opportunities. Existing groups include Ad-Supported Video, Women in OTT, Diversity, and Technology and Service Providers, with a Marketing group scheduled to launch soon.

OTT.X also facilitates the development of standards, specs, and best practices and hosts a variety of industry resources on its website including white papers, a glossary of industry of terminology, and its VOD library of panels and presentations.

While most OTT.X events and resources are open to anyone in the industry for a fee, employees of OTT.X member companies always have complimentary access. For information on OTT.X membership, contact Steve Apple at sapple@ottx.org.

Looking Ahead: 2023 Home Entertainment Opportunities Centering On Synergies

NEWS ANALYSIS — The dawning of a new year brings to the home entertainment sector, both streaming and transactional, a host of challenges and questions — and a few opportunities.

Challenges include a nation that once again is on the threshold of a recession, prompting a rash of recent layoffs and cutbacks at most of the big studios as well as streamers. Compounding the cloudy economic outlook is the fact that Hollywood is in the midst of serious self-examination, at the center of which is the question of streaming’s sustainability as a business model, given the escalating cost of content and limited returns under cheap all-you-can-watch subscription plans.

Questions include: How will recent moves into even lower-priced advertising-supported subscription plans play out for Netflix and Disney+?  What will the merger of HBO Max and Discovery+ look like, particularly given the late-2022 bloodletting of content from Max? Will there be more consolidation among the big streaming services? And what of the shrinking transactional market, in which consumers rent or buy specific movies, TV shows and other content either digitally or on DVD or Blu-ray Disc?

And yet there are still opportunities. In conversations with industry leaders, the word we hear most is synergies, since except for Netflix the leading streamers are all part of big media companies that also include theatrical and traditional, transactional home entertainment businesses.

The theatrical business, which has traditionally been the launching pad for movies, has been torn apart by streamers buying and even producing their own content — and studios owned by media companies giving their streaming sisters preferential treatment.

Gower Street Analytics projects the 2023 worldwide box office will improve to a projected $29 billion in ticket sales from an estimated 2022 total of $25.8 billion, but that’s still a good 30% below pre-pandemic 2019 box office revenue of $42.3 billion. Part of the reason is fewer movies being released to theaters, which then also hurts transactional home entertainment, which used to be the critical “second window” studios looked for to prop up theatrical underperformers while boosting the overall bottom line.

Bob Buchi

And yet Bob Buchi, president of worldwide home media for Paramount Pictures, is optimistic for the transactional side of the business heading into 2023, citing a rash of high-profile theatrical releases slated for next year and maintaining quality is more important than quantity.

“In 2023 the theatrical slate across the industry promises to be even more robust and consistent than it was in 2022, and we at Paramount are especially enthusiastic about the sales and drafting opportunities we’ll have with the return of key franchises like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Transformers,’ ‘Scream,’ ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Paw Patrol,’” Buchi says.

“Home entertainment remains very important to collectors and cinephiles who appreciate the best-possible quality audio and video presentation and the compelling bonus features, while general audiences appreciate the broad selection and flexibility to access their favorite films whenever they want.”

Michael Bonner

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment president Michael Bonner agrees.

“The market will likely remain very fragmented with different release strategies across the studios,” he says. “But Universal is very optimistic, given our strategy, and is excited about the opportunity in 2023 to drive further growth across the category with our exceptionally diverse slate, including Fast X, The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Oppenheimer.”

Adam Frank, SVP of global digital sales and distribution at Lionsgate, also takes pride in his studio’s slate of theatrical releases, the success of which he expects to trickle down to traditional home entertainment.

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“We have a robust slate in 2023 that includes John Wick: Chapter 4The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and SnakesExpendables 4; Judy Blume’s timeless Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret; The Blackening; a new installment in the billion-dollar ‘Saw’ franchise; and a new Dirty Dancing sequel starring and produced by Jennifer Grey, among many others,” he says. “With this lineup, we expect to see continued acceleration in the transactional space.”

Jason Spivak

Transactional and subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) should not be seen as mutually exclusive, particularly if smart windowing leads to synergies between the two entertainment consumption models, says Jason Spivak, EVP of distribution for North America television and home entertainment at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Indeed, Sony, which has no proprietary standalone streaming service, in 2021 signed separate distribution deals with Netflix and Disney+ worth a reported combined $3 billion for exclusive Pay 1 TV (streaming) access to its theatrical releases through 2026. Those movies used to go to Starz, HBO, Epix, FX and Showtime. Netflix paid big for the first rights, with Disney+ getting access after Netflix’s 12- to 18-month window.

“This deal establishes a new source of first-run films for Netflix movie lovers,” Scott Stubler, Netflix’s head of original films, said in a statement.

Sony’s Spivak says transactional and streaming can happily co-exist and service consumers in different ways at different moments. Transactional affords consumers the benefits of movie collection building while streaming appeals to consumers when they may be more casual in their movie consumption interests.

“As such, we do not look at it as an either-or type of choice for our audiences,” he says.

On the TV series side, Spivak says, “We have seen streaming become a primary platform for audiences to enjoy our new and classic shows, offering convenience for consumers to discover and binge.

“With that said, for certain shows transactional remains [the best] way to access and collect the latest seasons and episodes, as evidenced by the performance of ‘Better Call Saul,’ which is our best-performing season ever in terms of digital sellthrough in the first six months of release.”

Paramount’s Bob Buchi agrees. “The industry will continue to experiment market by market with windowing, pricing and release strategies,” he says. “At Paramount, we are working more collaboratively than ever with our colleagues in theatrical and at Paramount+ to leverage our joint consumer messaging and maximize our marketing spend in the most effective way possible.”

In 2022, he says, “We launched Orphan: First Kill simultaneously in a limited theatrical run, on PVOD/PEST, and on Paramount+, allowing consumers to decide their viewing preference. We found that the combined messaging and collective effort caused all boats to rise and the film was successful across all platforms.

“That strategy is contrasted with Top Gun: Maverick, which obviously had one of the most unprecedented theatrical runs in recent history. After generating nearly $1.5 billion at the global box office, the film became a massive success across home entertainment platforms and the No. 1 best-selling digital release of all time, all based on a more traditional windowing pattern.

“Every film requires careful consideration to determine the best release strategy to serve the consumer and maximize revenue across all platforms.”

Partnering with retailers also is key, Buchi says. “I admire how our leading retailers continue to strive for innovation, new growth opportunities, efficiencies, and paradigm shifts, all of which can lead to exciting developments we’ll see tested in 2023 and beyond,” he says. “We plan to explore a reimagining of headless commerce (a separation of the front end and back end of an e-commerce application) for both physical and digital retailers, the evolution of NFT-bundling with premium products and experience for the super fan, and podcast product extensions for our beloved franchises.”

Retailers believe consumers will become increasingly value-conscious amid the cloudy economic forecast.

“There will continue to be multiple modes of entertainment consumption in 2023,” says Cameron Douglas, VP of home entertainment for Vudu and Fandango. “However, we expect that consumers will be more value-conscious. Do we still need this subscription service, or should I upgrade/downgrade/eliminate? Can we tolerate a few ads in this casual viewing experience? Should we buy this, or should we just rent it? Should we splurge on a family night out at the movie theater or wait and watch the film at home in the premium window? Tools like Rotten Tomatoes will become even more valuable, not only to validate fans’ entertainment choices, but to help people find value in what to watch next.” 

Garson Foos

Garson Foos, CEO of Shout! Factory, a leading independent film distributor, says 2023 “looks to continue Shout’s growth in the transactional space with theatrical new releases, major new anime features and name-brand catalog coming to market. We’re extremely happy that the transactional business has remained so strong. We continue to make numerous deals for physical and TVOD rights — physical with studios and indies, and TVOD with indies. The 4K format is creating a lot of opportunity as we continue to find new ways to engage passionate fans. As there are more strong titles available to stream, it puts pressure on the transactional business. But there’s always the customer that will pay to have the best version of something, and to stream it without commercials, or own it digitally.”

The subscription streaming side of the business, which according to the latest estimates from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group now accounts for nearly 85% of consumer home entertainment, is expected to see continued turbulence in 2023, thanks to such obstacles as high content prices, fierce competition among services, a maturing market and, until just recently, a reliance solely on consumer subscriptions for revenue.

Bill Rouhana

“SVOD will continue its challenges as consumers cancel subscriptions or move to lower-cost ad-supported tiers, which may exacerbate the hemorrhaging of cash,” says Bill Rouhana, CEO of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment. “You’ll see a consolidation of the industry as smaller SVOD players fade, and even larger players begin looking to be sold or merged.”

Veteran ad-supported streaming services such as Chicken Soup, Rouhana maintains, are in the right place at the right time.

“AVOD is soaring because consumers are growing tired of paying for so many SVODs,” he says. “Given the state of the economy and uncertain times, they are cutting back. To supplement their streaming diet, they’re seeking free options, and AVOD services are benefiting from this. I think you’ll see even greater growth in 2023.”

As for his own company, Rouhana says Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment “will continue to scale across AVOD, FAST and our Screen Media original content studio. It will be a big year for AVOD and FAST as consumers continue to discover the amazing content available for free — especially as the economy continues in a recession.

“I also see more companies getting into AVOD — which further reinforces our strategy and what we already know. As Netflix and Disney ramp up their ad-supported tiers, they will begin charging higher CPMs which will benefit us. That will also help our ad rep business as we help smaller AVODs sell their ad inventory — something they can’t do on their own at the same level of success.”

Stefan Van Engen

Stefan Van Engen, SVOD of content programming and partnerships at Xumo, a premium FAST (free ad-supported television) service, shares Rouhana’s optimism.

“For Xumo, we will continue to scale and deliver premium experiences across our FAST platform, Xumo Play, and the roll out of new Xumo devices,” he says. “The industry as a whole will continue to innovate around engagement, programming and more personalized experiences.

“I believe entertainment is supposed to be easy.  With the amount of amazing choices across SVOD services, the fatigue is not in streaming, it’s in choosing and cost. AVOD and FAST continues to soar because it takes the economic risk out of just watching something, without having to think about where and what you are choosing to watch.”

Amy Jo Smith, president and CEO of trade association DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, says that in the coming year, “it will be more apparent than ever how much consumers value choice and a seamless user experience. Viewers will continue to seek a wider breadth of content, including sports and live events, delivered through major and specialty services, and they will look for cost-efficient, customized, and easily navigable bundles of entertainment options, including experiences that are transactional, subscription, ad-supported and possibly even theatrical, social and immersive.”

“Short lived will be the days where consumer entertainment is primarily developed and distributed by a community of monolithic giants centered in Hollywood run and operated by people who look like me,” adds Mark Fisher, president and CEO of OTT.X, the streaming trade association. “We will continue to move forward toward a more egalitarian, global and diverse ecosystem.”

OTT.X Hosts Streamers, Advertisers at XFronts

OTT.X held its inaugural “XFronts” event May 24-25 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The XFronts event, which drew nearly 400 guests, was an exchange consisting of pitches and presentations by prominent and up-and-coming AVOD and FAST platforms, networks, and channels to an audience of brands, advertisers and ad agencies, according to OTT.X. Presentations included details about lineups, content promotion and other plans for the coming year. The opening reception was held Tuesday evening, May 24. (All photos by Media Play News staff.)

Home Video Veteran Bob Tollini Dies at 74

Bob Tollini, a veteran of the home video industry who held senior management positions at two big distributors and was one of the leaders in the charge to establish a common street date for new releases, died Feb. 4 of cancer.

He was 74. Tollini is survived by his wife, Patricia; son, Mike; and two granddaughters, Eva and Sophie.

Tollini, a native of Buffalo, New York, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from Cornell University and an MBA from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

He began working in the video industry in the early 1980s, at CBS/Fox, where he rose to controller. In March 1984 he joined Video Trend as VP and GM of the Detroit branch. At the time, the video rental industry was flourishing as thousands of independent retailers bought movies on videocassette at prices starting at about $60 and rented them to the public. Studios sold their VHS cassettes through a network of distributors.

Tollini was subsequently promoted to VP of marketing and purchasing for all seven Video Trend branches.

In 1991, Chicago-based Video Trend was purchased by Major Video Concepts of Indianapolis and Tollini joined the acquiring company, where he ultimately rose to SVP. He helped launch the company’s Internet presence and at one point oversaw marketing for 1,500 video rental stores inside supermarkets.

Tollini was also active in the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and a frequent speaker and panelist at the trade group’s annual convention in Las Vegas. In July 1998, he spoke out against revenue-sharing, in which studios let retailers buy more copies of the big hits at a reduced price in return for sharing a percentage of the revenues. He argued that Blockbuster had an advantage because of its direct sales relationship with the major studios, while independent retailers couldn’t enjoy the same discount because they could only purchase product through distributors.

“He loved movies, he loved the business, he was just a really great guy,” said Mark Fisher, president of streaming trade association OTT.X, who in the 1990s was EVP of the VSDA.

“He was a great guy — in business, personally, and professionally,” said Kirk Kirkpatrick, former president of the video division of WaxWorks, an Owensboro, Ky.-based distributor. “I got to know him best because I played tennis with him often at some of these conferences.  He beat the hell out of me every time.”

Kirkpatrick said Tollini also played a key role in establishing a uniform weekly release date for new home video releases, Tuesday, a practice that continues to this day. “I remember I called him and said, ‘This is crazy — we have all these different shipping days — why don’t we do what the record business does and have one standard release date,” Kirkpatrick said. “He backed that in an instant and made such a compelling case, because of his stature in the industry, that the studios agreed.”

Distribution was hit hard in the 1990s when independent stores were swallowed up, or put out of business, by rapidly growing national chains like Erol’s, National, West Coast and, later, Blockbuster, Hollywood Entertainment and Movie Gallery. The emergence of DVD in 1997 further impacted the videocassette rental business, as discs were priced low for direct sale to consumers.

Major Video Concepts was sold to Ingram Entertainment in 2000, and a year later Tollini left the company. He later worked as sales director for Video Access Computers, which manufactured DVD rental kiosks, before embarking on a career as a consultant. He also continued to produce a weekly buying guide aimed at the remaining independent retailers.

Tollini also was known for his charitable work. In the 1980s, he became a volunteer for Big Brothers, and over the years mentored dozens of young men. He also tutored children at a homeless shelter and drove a delivery truck for Second Helpings, an Indianapolis nonprofit that uses donated perishable and overstocked food to prepare nutritious meals for thousands of hungry children and adults.

“He was an altruistic person who was extremely generous with his time and really wanted to help people,” recalls son Mike. “He regarded himself as being raised by immigrant families who had nothing, and then at 17 he gets to go to two Ivy League schools in a row and gets to move into a management career. He was very troubled by inequality and the lack of opportunity, especially in the urban areas. He was really focused on helping kids, in particular from backgrounds of more challenging circumstances. He felt really fortunate to have had a lot of opportunity.”

Tollini also remained involved in film through Heartland Films, a nonprofit arts organization based in Indianapolis, with a mission to inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film. He volunteered as a judge, and oversaw the organization’s video distribution initiative, alongside Bob Prudhomme and Tim Swain.

Tollini and his wife remained in Indianapolis until 2018, when they moved to the Washington, D.C. area to be closer to his son and grandchildren. He had been diagnosed with cancer in late 2017.

Looking Ahead: Lessons From the Pandemic to Guide 2022 Home Entertainment Strategies

The uncertainty over the COVID-19 surge triggered by the emergence of the Omicron variant has made any and all predictions for the coming year suspect. Life could go back to normal fairly quickly or we will continue to battle surges and adjust our lives accordingly. Most observers don’t see us going back to the draconian shutdowns and lockdowns of the early days of the virus, but studio executives and exhibitors are understandably nervous about the current and any future surges since theatrical attendance could suffer — which ultimately affects everyone down the food chain.

The home entertainment business weathered the initial COVID crisis quite well, with streaming growing stronger and transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) winning a premium first-run window. That said, there are several “givens” as 2022 gets underway.

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Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max and the other high-profile streamers will continue to battle for dominance, with Netflix doing everything in its power to reduce churn and not lose market share. The second tier of SVOD players, including Paramount+ and Peacock, will make as much noise as possible to win a seat at the table — as evidenced by Peacock’s recent announcement that it will be streaming the winter Olympics in their entirety.

On the transactional side, a lot depends on the fate of movie theaters as this pandemic lumbers on. The early pandemic led to an overall shortening of windows and new-release strategies that ultimately benefited both home entertainment divisions and digital retailers such as Vudu by Fandango, Redbox On Demand, Microsoft and Google Play.

Jim Wuthrich

But while TVOD, and physical media, benefit from shorter windows, it is also impacted by studios accelerating, or re-ordering, SVOD windows. A film available as part of an all-you-can-watch subscription streaming service simply isn’t going to sell or rent nearly as well as it would if there was no “free” competition. And that plays into the bigger picture that the more consumers tune in to SVOD services, the less likely they are to purchase or rent something a la carte.

Jim Wuthrich, president of content distribution for WarnerMedia, says he’s “optimistic that we’ll continue to adapt to the changing nature of COVID and learn to live with it.”

“Although there are many challenges, we’ve learned how to be productive with a distributed workforce, productions are largely back and there’s more consumer choice than ever before — both in amount of content and ways to view,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a fan of linear storytelling. We will continue to improve and expand HBO Max to more markets, while providing a la carte options for fans and collectors. SVOD services will continue to dominate viewing time, with transactional supporting a vital role in discovery, sampling and fandom. Physical media (4K/Blu-ray/DVD) continues to be a meaningful market, with approximately $2 billion in U.S. consumer sales, and largely immune to evolving distribution patterns.”

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On the WarnerMedia side, Wuthrich says, “We have a great movie slate, with four DC films coming to theaters and another installment of ‘Fantastic Beasts.’ We also have a number of series releasing, including the new ‘House of the Dragon,’ a ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel. History has shown these franchises to be powerhouses in driving catalog sales so we are looking forward to a great year.”

Michael Bonner

“Similarly to 2021, we expect a very healthy home entertainment market in 2022, with strong consumer engagement across multiple business models,” says Michael Bonner, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “Release patterns will likely continue to fluctuate and vary across studios on a title-by-title basis.   

“With the theatrical marketplace continuing to strengthen, the growth of PVOD and the expansion of various SVOD services, the distribution landscape is stronger than ever. As we look ahead, studios have more options and outlets to create value and reach consumers which strengthens our ability to continue investing in great content.”

Bonner maintains that Universal, with its slate of anticipated new releases including Jurassic World: Dominion, Minions: The Rise of Gru and Downton Abbey: A New Era, “is perfectly positioned to draw audiences back into theaters and fuel further transactional growth across the varying windows and platforms.”

Paramount Home Entertainment president Bob Buchi says that “as the global hub for transactional home entertainment across ViacomCBS, our division is exceedingly fortunate and singularly focused on delivering an extraordinary 2022 line-up of the company’s theatrical and television content, as well as third-party acquisitions through our extensive partnerships.”

Bob Buchi

“Our theatrical slate includes new entries in wildly popular franchises, including ‘Scream,’ ‘Top Gun,’ ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Jackass,’ which are not only highly anticipated, but also provide excellent opportunities to stoke fan interest in the earlier films and television shows available through home entertainment,” he says.

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On the catalog front, Buchi adds, the division’s most ambitious initiatives are the year-long 50th anniversary salute to The Godfather, “for which we anticipate massive consumer excitement for the film’s return to theaters, new 4K home entertainment releases, and licensed merchandise,” and the first-time-on-4K director’s edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, “with fantastic new VFX, which will be released first on Paramount+ and then on home entertainment platforms.”

Cameron Douglas, VP of home entertainment for Fandango, which oversees the Vudu digital retailer, also has high hopes for the new year.

“We expect the TVOD sector to deliver even more value to consumers, as fans sort through a fragmented streaming world, looking for a one-stop-shop entertainment service for movies and TV,” he says. “Because subscription services, by their nature, cater to specific audiences and content offerings, we continue to see consumers utilizing the flexibility, depth and breadth of Vudu’s new release and catalog offering of over 200,000 titles to complement their monthly entertainment needs.”

Cameron Douglas

Douglas says Vudu “is working hard to expand our catalog every day. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity, as we continue to secure new and previously unavailable titles. There’s a variety of titles where digital rights were originally unsecured, but with the demand increasing, there’s more pressure than ever to make these films available for fans to stream at home. We pride ourselves on providing the best quality of experience and we are always working to create a bigger, better home entertainment experience for our customers. We want to be that place where fans can find every beloved movie and show they desire.”

At the top of Vudu’s agenda for the coming year, Douglas says, are plans “to innovate new services for our customers and add new platforms and devices to meet the fan demand in an ever-changing marketplace. We also plan to offer deeper integration with our sister sites, Rotten Tomatoes, for entertainment discovery, recommendation and curated content, and Fandango for crossover promotional opportunities to help enhance the theatrical experience. With our entertainment lifecycle marketing strategy, we look forward to helping new and returning partners more effectively and efficiently reach high-value entertainment audiences at scale.”

The big challenge for home entertainment executives in the coming year is to apply lessons they learned during the pandemic and react quickly to market conditions.

Paramount’s Bob Buchi says that “with two years of experimentation and the expedited evolution of our business, we know we need to remain agile in our windowing and co-promotional strategies as we continue to support the return to theaters and the rapid growth of our streaming service, Paramount+.”

Adam Frank

Adam Frank, SVP of global digital sales and distribution at Lionsgate, says what happens at the box office will trickle down into all aspects of home entertainment.

“Our expectation, given the quality and quantity of the theatrical release slate, is that box office sees significant increase and momentum in 2022 vs. 2021,” Frank said. “The old adage of content is king still rings true, and with more product in the marketplace, consumers will ultimately have more choices and more opportunities in the home entertainment space.”

Jed Grossman, EVP and GM of worldwide sales and distribution at Lionsgate, adds, “We expect all business segments — transactional digital, packaged media, SVOD and AVOD/FAST — to grow year-over-year driven by five key factors:

    • A more robust theatrical release schedule, inclusive of major tentpoles and franchises like ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Black Panther’ that were delayed during the pandemic. Lionsgate has a strong slate that includes Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, starring Nicolas Cage; Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret; and White Bird, among others; 
    • A more viable theatrical marketplace, with theater-going comfort increasing as vaccine/booster shot rates increase and tentpoles drive attendance;
    • The continued unprecedented demand for new release and library product from SVOD and AVOD/FAST platforms. Lionsgate has achieved record library revenue over the past year;
    • The ability to capitalize on home entertainment consumer behavior, consumer content thirst and technology enhancements — across all offer types — as accelerated by the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021; and 
    • Continued collaboration with our theatrical exhibition partners to release films with dynamic windows to meet demand across all platforms.”
Jed Grossman

For independent film distributors, don’t expect much variance in 2022 from established policies of continuing to take aim at the collector and niche markets, particularly on the physical media side.

“For disc sales, MVD and our label partners are focusing on collectible content in deluxe packaging,” says Ed Seaman, COO of MVD Entertainment Group. “We anticipate a similar trajectory for disc sales, which have steadily grown over the last several years. The pandemic certainly gave them a boost, but the resilience and resurgence of disc sales may have more to do with the frustrating customer experience our industry has created in the OTT space. Finding what you want is now very challenging. How many streaming services do you need to subscribe to only to not find the film you want to watch, when you want to watch it? You can more easily find what you want transactionally, but it is still a search. Why not just pay a bit more and own the deluxe-edition disc?”

On the digital front, Seaman says “AVOD/FAST will continue to grow dramatically as consumers clearly embrace and enjoy that model. TVOD is tricky; considering Amazon’s tight curation of non-fiction, we expect some other platforms to step up and become more dominant in that space. There is a real opportunity for platforms focusing on non-fiction to deliver to fans what they want when they want it.”

At MVD, Seaman notes, “we’ve just added Zach Fischel to our leadership team; Zach is a veteran in the entertainment industry and is leading our label management team and marketing department. We’ve additionally moved longtime MVD staffer Chris Callahan to lead our digital sales and operations team. Chris has been with MVD since 1999 and has served in sales management, label management and international licensing. Both of these leaders are committed to improving their areas of responsibility; they have great ideas particularly in digital marketing, an area of overlapped responsibility. We are really excited about 2022!”

So is Mark Fisher, president and CEO of OTT.X, a streaming industry trade group.

“2022 will be a year that portends the future of our industries — a future that, enabled by OTT distribution, is more egalitarian, more global and more diverse,” Fisher says. “While Hollywood continues to make great movies and TV shows, smaller distributors and independent producers from all over the world are making a lot of great content, too — enabling the consumer to be less reliant and dependent on content from the big studios and on domestic-produced content. And, while the big ‘Pluses’ and ‘Maxes’ continue to grow, consumers are finding plenty of additional content on indie and niche channels, both FAST and on demand.”