DEG Panel: Transactional Business Strong Despite New-Release Slowdown

The home entertainment pie is getting bigger — and not just on the subscription streaming side, according to an Aug. 10 panel presented by DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group.

“The story on SVOD services I think is really well told, and we’ve seen a lot of consumers come over through those subscriber numbers, but I don’t think there’s been much focus on consumers who’ve been coming into the transactional end of the business,” said Jim Wuthrich, president of home entertainment and content licensing at WarnerMedia.

After a year in 2020 that saw a big jump in at home entertainment viewing due to a pandemic, the transactional business — revenue from consumers who rent or buy titles either digitally or physically — has proven resilient, even though it has dropped from the pandemic highs of last year. Transactional spending was down 28.7% to an estimated $3.4 billion, from $4.8 billion in the first six months of 2020.

“I would say overall these numbers to me are remarkable,” said Michael Bonner, president of worldwide home entertainment at Universal Pictures.

Comparing the numbers to pre-pandemic 2019, transactional has grown its appeal, especially with catalog.

“We have evidence that the consumer adoption and engagement during the pandemic is up overall, and those levels are kind of maintaining,” Bonner said.

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“We had this big spike last year where consumers were looking for any content they could transactionally,” Wuthrich added. “This year we’ve come down, but we’re running against that big spike we had last year.

“The one drag that we’ve got for the first half of this year was really around new-release product because we don’t have a lot of new-release product.”

Still, Bonner noted that on a title-by-title basis, the new releases that have come out are performing well.

“If you look at it at on a title level, that product that is flowing in, it’s performing very well relative to historical,” he noted.

Then there’s premium rentals and sales (PVOD, PEST), which the DEG does not track. That segment of the business, which some industry pundits say helped the transactional market grow for the first time in a decade last year, has continued its appeal.

“Our estimate is there’s $1 billion of consumer spend that’s not captured in the numbers that you’re presenting,” Bonner said. “And those numbers are not insignificant. We’ve seen tremendous engagement from consumers on that product that’s made available early in its window. Again, some of that is to be expected — given where the box office has been over the past year — but the numbers, they’re fantastic.”

Wuthrich sees a strong last half of the year, as new releases flow into the transactional pipeline.

“Going into the back half of year, we’re pretty bullish around it,” he said.

“I think in Q3 and Q4, we’re not quite out of the pandemic yet, so I think there’s still going to be heavy engagement in the home, so I think the numbers should be strong again,” Bonner said.

While moves to put titles on streaming services early — and, in the case of Warner, on HBO Max concurrently with theaters — may shrink demand in the transactional realm, there are customers for every segment of the entertainment marketplace, said panelists.

“When it’s widely available on a streaming service, it does take some of the demand, but it also adds in other ways,” Wuthrich said.

“The reality is studios are all kind of making tradeoffs in terms of how to put product through different consumer offerings earlier than ever,” Bonner added. “We’re all trying to figure that out.”

Each segment of the business is finding an audience, panelists said.

“We see spikes in demand across each of those new offerings,” Bonner said. “There are consumers and there’s an audience out there for each of these.”

Even the physical business is holding its own, Wuthrich said.

“We found there are still over 35 million households in the U.S. that are still transacting in physical,” he said, noting that Warner entered into a joint venture, Studio Distribution Services (SDS), with Universal to serve the continuing physical disc consumer.

“One of the reasons that people continue to buy physical media is it’s a habit. Another reason though is quality. You can’t beat the quality to the television of physical media, particularly around 4K with HDR,” Wuthrich noted. He added that physical consumers span all demos, young and old. Close to 60% is in the age range of 25-44, he said.

And retailers have maintained a lot of that shelf space for physical during the pandemic.

“I think longer term, this is a mature category, and you’ll see continued consolidation,” Wuthrich said. “I think of the retailers that have, particularly the large ones that have exited or shrunk the category, we see stabilization in that space. And that’s where it was particularly encouraging, at least some of our retailers held most of the space, even through COVID, even though there wasn’t a lot of new product that was flowing in. And it was because it was something that was desired by their customer. They were looking for distractions and such. So maybe they were only shopping for diapers and popcorn, but they were still going by and picking up physical.”

HBO Max Panelist: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Broke All Records

The Christmas day release of Wonder Woman 1984 was a boon for the HBO Max subscription streaming service, according to WarnerMedia’s Sarah Lyons, EVP of direct-to-consumer global product management for HBO Max.

Wonder Woman 1984 broke all records that we had internally from both a projection and a prior-viewing standpoint,” Lyons said on a Feb. 8 virtual panel during Digital Entertainment World. “We feel that that momentum is only going to continue.”

WarnerMedia’s strategy to release first-run movies, such as Wonder Woman 1984, directly onto its streaming service concurrently with a theatrical release is designed to give consumers choice, she said.

“With this slate of films, there are some consumers that still want to go out to the theater and enjoy it in the theater and have that great theatrical experience that we all know and love, and then there are other consumers that are stuck at home, and so we want to give our customers the ability to have a choice whether to view it at home on HBO Max or to go out to the theaters, and that strategy so far has resonated very well,” she said.

HBO Max will continue to grow subscribers, she said.

“We absolutely see the momentum as sustainable,” she said. “We grew more subs in 2020 with HBO Max than HBO did over all of the last 10 years. So that momentum is huge, and our subscribers are highly engaged.”

HBO Max’s mix of HBO, Warner Bros. and other content widens its appeal.

“We’ve expanded our target demographics beyond what just HBO just offered,” she said. “HBO typically caters to and had a base that was largely older and male dominated. The idea with HBO Max is that we add on content that is attractive to families with kids, to Gen Z, the millennials, kids … . Serving the needs of the entire family is really important to us.”

There is room for more than one player in the streaming market, she said. “We think consumers from our research will subscribe to between three and four platforms,” Lyons said.

Fresh off Super Bowl ads that touted the upcoming March 4 launch of Paramount+, which will incorporate the existing CBS All Access service, Rob Gelick, ViacomCBS EVP and GM of streaming services and chief product officer, said there’s a lot of room for new services, especially those that can differentiate.

“You see all of the IP coming together from the other big entrants, and I think that’s going to challenge who the big three really are, in addition to the fact that you’re going to just see a broader swath of adopted services per household,” he said.

That includes the pending Paramount+.

“We combine the best in live sports and breaking news and that mountain of entertainment,” he said, alluding to the Paramount mountain used in the commercials to symbolize the service’s entertainment heft.

“Users are going for destination television,” he said. “Even this past year as we added more and more original, exclusive series we saw 100% growth in subscribers streaming originals, almost nearly that in time spent, and that’s because we’re dropping big marquee franchises, like a whole number of series from the ‘Star Trek’ franchise, including ‘Discovery.’ This week is the final for another original, ‘Stephen King’s The Stand.’ We’ve announced for March 4 a ton of great kids programming, including ‘Kamp Koral,’ which is a new series in the ‘SpongeBob’ franchise.”

Streaming is most definitely the future, accelerated by the pandemic, said Joanne Waage, GM of the Crunchyroll service.

“We are seeing finally that big shift from cable to the streaming services,” she said. “I think what’s going to be interesting is how quickly cable tanks at this point. It’s already been declining significantly. At this stage, do you really need both?”

Niche players such as Crunchyroll, which specializes in anime and adult animation, have to constantly innovate to attract viewers, she said. The service, an AVOD to SVOD model, recently announced it has 100 million registered users and 4 million paying subscribers.

“Certainly, we are one of the very successful niche models,” Waage said. “The role of services like ours, a lot of it is to push the boundaries of the mediums that we are in. We win by catering to the passions of our audience and really delivering a depth of experience. That’s our goal.”

But Crunchyroll sees itself having a bigger role.

“We get categorized as niche,” she said. “I would say we are sort of breaking out of that as we look at our future. We see ourselves as the next DC or Marvel or Disney, in that we are pushing this type of medium to the next generation of fans and that’s really adult animation, bigger than anime, and there’s no bounds to that. So that becomes not niche.

“Netflix is nipping at our heels and HBO Max … and so we have to just continue to innovate.”

Helping consumers discover content to watch and personalizing content for subscribers is key, said panelists.

“We put just as much stake in our consumer experience, in our product experience, as we do the content,” Lyons said of HBO Max. “We know consumers when they make a decision about a streaming service, there’s so much great content out there that the experience is just as much a part of their decision. How they interact with that app, how they find content, making it easy to discover, personalizing that experience, tailoring it to them is of utmost importance to stand out in the marketplace.”

Gelick agreed  that it’s important to see that “the right people are discovering [content] at the right time” and make sure customers don’t leave when they finish a piece of content.

“One of the biggest things for us is that post-completion experience … . You come to the last episode that’s available. How do you keep people engaged? What you surface in that moment I would see as an art,” he said.

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Data as well as a human touch is the way to curate, Lyons said.

“We actually believe in a blend,” Lyons said. “Human curation is really important for us because we feel like we’re a service with a point of view. We’re just as passionate fans behind this app as any other fans out there. We use these services, too. And so we want to bring an element of that hand touch, human curated content that is relevant of the zeitgeist, that has a point of view, and then we blend that with underlying data to personalize those curations.… That’s where the sweet spot is, and that’s where we think we can create a great experience for our customers.”

ViacomCBS streaming services use data to identify groups of similar customers to serve them better.

“We have a way to break out what I would call viewing cohorts into really small actionable groups,” Gelick said. “As you start hitting scale, personalization at its core is so critically important, and so I think everybody has their own flavor of this.”

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In addition to data and human curation, Waage emphasized the importance of generating old-fashioned word of mouth through social media.

“I think data is amazing and curation through technology is amazing … but ultimately you might be presented the best show for you, and if you’ve not heard of it, you’re probably not going to watch it,” she noted.

Thus, finding a way to generate buzz is key.

“They’re going to hear about it through friends, and so social is incredibly important,” she said, adding, “There is a feeling that there is a real person on the other side of it saying you should check this out.”

Crunchyroll will often use social media to reignite interest in a title.

“If there’s a slow period, we will go on social and reinvigorate shows that have maybe been sleeping for awhile,” she said.

Sang Kim, SVP of product at Samsung Electronics, said the company has a bird’s eye view of consumer usage of services because they are part of the smart TV system. Partners can get insights into how to target their content from that data.

“With the data that we collect for example on TV you can find your specific audiences of sports lovers or drama or whatnot,” he said. “We have made this data accessible for our partners to use and find their audiences so it’s a very robust data set.”

“We do not provide the raw data outside of their own specific services, but we’ll democratize that and roll it up to high levels so you can find your audiences.”

Samsung has seen huge growth in AVOD, he said.

Citing research that shows AVOD in a quarter of U.S. broadband houses, Gelick noted that AVOD service Pluto TV is part of the ViacomCBS family.

“I run product for that group as well,” he said. “I think AVOD and where we see the SVOD business as going is a much, much more tightly aligned strategy.”

That strategy involves using the AVOD experience to move customers into SVOD or “using that as a top of the funnel driver for premium subscription streaming.”

HBO Max, too, is planning an AVOD product.

“We have announced that we are launching an ad supported option later this year,” Lyons said.

It’s designed “to have a cheaper price point for consumers so that you can reach a broader audience that may not be able to afford a premium service, and you have something for everyone,” she said.