A Message to Our Readers for 2020

As we put a wrap on 2019, I want to send my thanks to all of our loyal readers for your support of Media Play News — and our mission to cover the at-home and direct-to-consumer sector of the entertainment business, from transactional to streaming.

Thanks to you — and, of course, to our team of editors, writers, and designers — our online readership has nearly doubled over the last year. Comparing November 2019 to November 2018, our unique visitor count was up 85%, while our total monthly visits rose 99%, according to our hosting service, Haus Interactive.

Our monthly print and digital magazine, meanwhile, continues to serve as a curated collection of the month’s biggest stories — and an archival record of a business that remains resilient and vibrant more than 40 years after it was birthed by Andre Blay and a collection of 50 leased titles from Fox that he issued on videocassette.

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Two years ago, we set out to redefine the concept of home entertainment, broadening the definition to include any filmed content available for on-demand viewing by the consumer — regardless of whether it was bought or rented on Blu-ray Disc, DVD or digital, or streamed via Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.

Since then, the disc market has been revitalized by 4K Ultra HD. Digital distribution has posted impressive growth numbers as consumers realize the latest theatrical blockbusters simply aren’t available on Netflix. And the subscription streaming market, which Netflix pioneered more than a decade ago, this year saw the launch of two other high-profile services, Disney+ and Apple TV+ — with more on the way in 2020.

Mega-mergers saw AT&T buy Warner Bros. and Disney purchase, and then absorb, the venerable 20th Century Fox film studio.

And original content, made expressly for the small screen that is the focus of Media Play News’ coverage, was the darling of the year, with Apple TV+ earning Golden Globe nominations out of the gate and Redbox launching a new content acquisition and production division to further its transformation into a multi-channel content provider and programmer.

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Here at Media Play News, we scored a number of high points. Our Fast Forward awards honored four key digital retailers at a sold-out luncheon. Our second annual Women in Home Entertainment issue shone the spotlight one some of the brightest minds in our business, from Andrea Downing of PBS to Netflix’s Cindy Holland. Our 40 Under 40 issue, also in its second year, gave well-deserved recognition to the leaders of tomorrow. And at the end of summer we brought onboard a razor-sharp social media marketer and our Instagram posts are now generating hundreds, if not thousands, of likes.

I wish you all a prosperous, healthy and happy new year — and, again, thanks for your support.

Sincerely,

Thomas K. Arnold, Publisher and Editorial Director, Media Play News

Media Play News Fast Forward 2019 Awards Luncheon

Media Play News honored four digital retailers with the publication’s second annual Fast Forward Awards for driving the home entertainment industry forward. This year’s awards included a luncheon and ceremony, held April 4 at the Universal Hilton in Universal City, Calif., and hosted by the Entertainment Merchants Association. Awards went to Cameron Douglas of FandangoNow, Jonathan Zepp of Google Play Movies & TV, and Galen Smith of Redbox, and the team at Apple iTunes. EMA used the event to launch its EMA Leadership Development Foundation, aimed at supporting professional training and development within the home entertainment industry, and particularly within the EMA membership.

A Message to Our Readers

As another year comes to an end, I’d like to say thank you to our readers and our advertisers for making us a part of your professional lives. Media Play News is coming off a very successful first year. We began the year with a new company, name, brand, website, newsletter, and production and art staff.

All that we carried over from our previous property were five staffers and the determination to do everything we did before, only more of it, and better.

We also set out to redefine the concept of home entertainment, broadening the definition to include any filmed content brought into the home, on demand — regardless of whether it was bought or rented on Blu-ray Disc, DVD or digital, or streamed via Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.

We went live with our website and daily newsletter on Jan. 2, 2018, and our first monthly magazine was available in print and digital editions on Jan. 29. The website was built from the ground up using a responsive web design. Largely because of this, on Feb. 3 MediaPlayNews.com was OK’d for pickup by Google News. The print magazine, too, was improved, with a heavier paper stock and a higher gloss finish. And our daily newsletter, which used to include three to five stories daily, typically has as many as nine or 10, or even more.

That first month, we had 17,105 unique visitors, about half what Home Media Magazine had in its peak. By April, that number had grown to 62,257, with more than half visiting our site on their phones or other mobile devices. Our peak of 266,061 was in July, when Comic-Con hit.

Social media outreach has certainly helped us increase our readership. From the time we launched Media Play News, we have made it a point to write stories about as many product releases as we can, and then push out these stories on Facebook and on Twitter. On Twitter, we use appropriate hashtags as well as @twittername of key cast members and other creatives as well as fan groups. Since Oct. 1, we also have employed the same approach with Instagram.

We employ the same social media strategy with our various “chart” stories, and we’re starting to get quite a bit of attention from stars and other creatives — including Tyler Perry, who posted a link to one of our stories about the weekly Redbox charts to his Facebook page. That brought us over 119,000 unique visitors in a matter of hours.

In 2019, we plan on doubling down on efforts in the digital space. We intend to enhance our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram efforts and start issuing Instagram stories as well as venture into Snapchat. We also plan on allocating more money toward paid promotions.

We also would like to launch a vibrant and compelling YouTube channel, bringing on talent to film a weekly “new on disc and digital” episode each week, ideally with snippets of trailers and conversations about the biggest or most notable product releases. We would like to do the same with our three chart stories.

We also intend to host trailers on our site and each week will issue “editor’s picks” highlighting the top new releases.

Home entertainment remains a truly remarkable business, and we’re proud to be a part of it.

Digital Hollywood Panelists Ponder Future of Skinny Bundles, Digital Delivery

Skinny bundles and virtual MVPDs are an imperfect solution to the desire of consumers to get the content they want at the price they want, while an a la carte online delivery system that perfectly satisfies consumers’ desires has yet to be fully realized.

That was the consensus of panelists at the “Internet TV Packages” panel at the Digital Hollywood conference Oct. 18 in Los Angeles.

“The consumer cares about two things, value and choice,” noted panelist Thomas K. Arnold, publisher of Media Play News. While choice has expanded over the years from only a few networks to an array of cable channels to videocassettes and discs and digital delivery, finding content is getting more complicated.

“The important thing here is curation. The old manual curation by networks is going away,” said panelist and consultant Robin Wilson, director, RW TV. He said the future is one in which consumers can “self-curate” content or in which curation is automated.

While some pundits say only younger consumers are peeling away from traditional viewing, even Baby Boomers, still working and facing a time crunch, are also moving away from appointment TV, said panelist Josette Bonte, managing director, Digital Content Strategies.

“There is definitely a problem to be solved by the industry,” she said. “I would like to have my own skinny bundle.”

“Current skinny bundles are just a patch up job,” Wilson added.

“It’s the same problem that’s always been the problem,” Arnold noted. “These internet services, they’re great for service, but bad for discovery.”

Consumers who are watching subscription services have a hard time breaking out of that silo, Arnold said.

“Your likely going to stay on Netflix or Amazon after watching a show,” he said.

To truly curate your own content can be difficult, he said, noting that his family had to “piece together our own skinny bundle” from offerings on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to watch an entire series of a show they loved.

He predicted that consumers in the future would be paying more for entertainment but in smaller increments, comparing it to gym memberships that have retained consumers by offering ultra-low prices.

“At $10 a month, people are going to get them all [even niche OTT subscription offerings],” he said. “At $10 a month you’re not going to really notice it.”

Bonte said niche SVOD services “definitely have the chance to complement the bundles.”

Technology — perhaps from Google, Amazon or Roku — will overcome the difficulties of getting to different apps and online services to get content, panelists said.

“The idea of switching from HDMI 1 to HDMI 2 will be as archaic as rewinding the videocassette,” Arnold said.

Device integration with artificial intelligence will also assist in content discovery, Bonte said.

Panelists also pondered the growing competition in the SVOD market led by Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, soon to be joined by Disney and WarnerMedia — and the data from SVOD services that is informing what content consumers are fed.

Netflix is “definitely good at use of data” to determine content, Bonte noted. It’s an advantage for the company, Wilson added.

Netflix knows a lot about what consumers are watching, but “they won’t tell us,” Arnold said, adding that research company Parrot Analytics is using social media and other measurements to try to estimate the popularity of SVOD original programs.

One audience member noted that Netflix’s recommendation engine is less than perfect, causing her frustration as it served up the same type of content over and over.

Data targeting with ads, too, needs improving, Wilson noted. The ads served up should be more efficient, “not bombarding” the consumer.

One audience member noted that Rotten Tomatoes, which calculates content ratings based on human reviewers, is one of the most popular content recommendation sites online.

Newfangled content delivery technologies have a way to go, Arnold noted. “People who talk about artificial intelligence forget that first word, artificial,” he said.

Speaking at Digital Hollywood on Oct. 18 were, from left, moderator Patrick Redmond; Media Play News publisher and editorial director Thomas K. Arnold; and consultants Josette Bonte and Robin Wilson.

Seventh Annual Los Angeles Entertainment Summit Opens Tomorrow

The seventh annual Los Angeles Entertainment Summit opens tomorrow (Tuesday, July 16) with a focus on independent product, both physical and digital, as well as the booming OTT marketplace.

The trade show, produced by the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), runs for two days at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, Calif.

The 2018 Los Angeles Entertainment Summit is centered on one-on-one business meetings between independent content providers and retailers and streaming services, the EMA said back in May, when the event’s dates were announced.

The summit also features the  first-ever OTT Channels conference – a day of research presentations, sessions with industry thought leaders, and an exploration of opportunities in subscription video on demand and ad-supported video on demand.

LAES continues to provide an opportunity for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) to raise funds.

The event opens July 17 with a morning welcome session, featuring a CFF update from LAES co-chair Mark Horak and an EMA update from Mark Fisher, the association’s president and CEO.

Then comes a research super-session moderated by Media Play News publisher Thomas K. Arnold, featuring research presentations by GfK Entertainment, IHS Markit, Nielsen and the NPD Group.

Next is a spotlight presentation from Tobias Queesser, cofounder of Cinelytic.

Bill Sondheim, president of the Cinedigm Entertainment Group, will deliver the keynote address at 9:30 a.m., followed by the Independent Studio Home Entertainment Awards.

The OTT Channels conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with a lineup of speakers and panelists assembled by conference chair Erick Opeka, EVP of digital networks at Cinedigm Corp.

And from 4 to 6 p.m., the Digital EMA Forum will bring together digital retailers, studios, independent content providers, and service providers to hear the latest research on digital home entertainment and discover how retailers and content providers are streamlining the digital supply chain through common practices.

The day ends with a cocktail party sponsored by FandangoNOW.

Day two of LAES, Wednesday, July 18, is devoted to business meetings and a networking lunch.

Home Entertainment’s Mantra in 2017 was ‘Just Keep Swimming’

At this year’s Video Hall of Fame ceremony in Beverly Hills in December, Janice Marinelli, president, Disney/ABC Home Entertainment & Television Distribution, for The Walt Disney Studios, drew solid applause when she advised her fellow home entertainment executives to “just keep swimming.”

The line, from the hit Disney film Finding Nemo, seemed to resonate with the several hundred execs in the room, many of whom have been contending with increasingly choppy seas for the better part of a decade.

In fact, 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of Netflix’s decision to transition its subscription approach from disc rentals by mail to digitally delivering content over the Internet – a truly disruptive moment that shattered the traditional home video model. Year after year, disc sales plummeted as consumers planted themselves on their sofas for a nightly steam of at first studio discards and then an increasingly compelling menu of original programming.

In the first nine months of this year, numbers provided by DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group show, more than 40% of the money consumers spent on home entertainment in the first nine months of 2017 was generated by Netflix and other subscription streaming services, up from 34% in 2016 and 29% in 2015.

Sales of Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, meanwhile, accounted for 24% of consumer home entertainment spending in the first nine months of 2017, down from 27% in the comparable period in 2016 and 31% in 2015.

In the first nine months of 2011, by contrast, streaming accounted for just 3.8% of the home entertainment business, with disc sales accounting for 46%, or $5.6 billion – compared to $3.26 billion in the first nine months of 2017.

“The [disc sales] business remains under pressure, due to the growing number of entertainment options,” says Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “Nonetheless, studios and retailers continue to aggressively champion the category, looking to create the most compelling and meaningful opportunities to eventize our disc products and deliver the best, most exciting shopping experience possible.”

“Physical media continues to be an integral component of the product mix, but we need to find ways to remind consumers of the value of owning and renting discs,” adds Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA).

Disney’s Marinelli says “physical consumption continues to be a vibrant, viable and top-performing line of business for us and it is also proving to be a very valuable resource in the transition to digital with e-copy redemption. This year the in-home division broke and set new records with four bestselling physical titles in the top 10 to date including tentpoles Star Wars: Rogue OneMoanaGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Beauty and the Beast.  As viewing habits and consumer consumption rapidly evolve, we continue to evaluate our offerings on a regular basis and what will best meet the needs and demands of our customers.  This year we vigorously expanded into the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray premium format beginning with inaugural title Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which quickly rose to the top of the industry’s 4K physical sales chart.”

Through it all, home entertainment executives have, well, just kept on swimming – and managed to keep their heads afloat through a steady string of technological advances and innovation. This year’s gold star goes to Movies Anywhere, the Walt Disney-owned digital movie service that allows consumers to buy newly released movies electronically (or redeem access codes packaged inside Blu-ray Discs) and watch them whenever they want to, on any screen, from the family room TV to their iPhone.

“Consumer centricity was without a doubt a defining characteristic of 2017, which was most notably addressed by the launch of the multi-studio digital locker Movies Anywhere,” said Disney’s Marinelli. “Movies Anywhere is a huge win for the consumer, providing them with more freedom, flexibility and utility and their digital library can now be viewed through a range of devices and digital retailers, anytime and anywhere. The strength of the studios and digital retailers that have come together at launch is unprecedented.”

Hollywood also claimed a seat at the burgeoning Ultra HD table with Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc, which experts agree is the optimum way to view 4K content , with even sharper pictures and more realistic colors than standard high-definition.

“We can expect to see the number of 4K UHD Blu-ray titles to expand considerably in 2018, as content companies  continue to release new and catalog titles in the premium format,” says Universal Pictures’ Eddie Cunningham. “As well, 4K movies, TVs and players are selling units in record numbers.  There is a clear groundswell around consumer demand and the industry is highly optimistic about the format’s future prospects.”

As Netflix and its OTT compadres continue to grab market share, studio executives – who still consider movie sales, either on disc or electronically, as their holy grail – also have had to contend with other challenges. Distribution channels have continued to proliferate, and the concept of content continues to evolve as millennials are as quick to spend an evening watching their favorite YouTuber or anime webisodes as they are the new Spider-Man movie.

“2017 really was the year of ‘more’ – more content, more provides, more devices, more technological enhancements, and more consumer choice,” said the EMA’s Mark Fisher. “Overall, this is a good thing, but it did lead to disruption of traditional business models. And we haven’t seen the end of it.”

Electronic sellthrough – also known as Digital HD – remains the most promising bulwark the studios have against continued double-digit OTT growth, but challenges remain. Consumers accustomed to spending around $10 a month for unlimited Netflix viewing might be reluctant to spend the same amount, or more, for a single piece of entertainment, even if they own it.

EST growth slowed from several years of double-digit gains to 7% in 2016, then rose slightly to 8% in the first nine months of this year. Executives hope Movies Anywhere will be the catalyst to reignite higher growth.

“On the EST front, we continue to see product, marketing and merchandising investments across the industry accelerate,” says Michael Bonner, EVP, Digital Distribution, for Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “As a result, digital sell-through has been growing year over year and we continue to see increased consumer engagement in the category. Movies Anywhere is just the latest example of studios and distributors working together to provide more value to the consumer and setting a new bar for digital movie ownership.”

“Our focus is always on offering the best consumer experience possible, removing the barriers and offering a high-quality experience that adds value and utility to a digital movie collection,” adds Disney’s Marinelli. “Providing consumers with early digital access has been a successful way to drive consumers to the digital experience.  We continue to work closely with our digital retail partners to build a compelling in-home movie watching experience, including offering quality formats like 4K Ultra HD, as well as expanded and interactive extras – some of which are only offered digitally.”

Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc also is seen as a growth driver, particularly as the number of UHD TVs continues to mushroom.

“2017 was the year 4K UHD really took off,” said Jim Wuthrich, president, The Americas and Global Strategy, at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “With $200 million in global consumer sales, ample physical and digital distribution and accelerating penetration of capable TVs, content sales will continue to soar into 2018.”

“2017 was a year where we saw 4K HDR make huge strides towards becoming a mainstream part of the industry,” adds Jason Spivak, EVP, Worldwide Digital Distribution and North America Sales, for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. “ 4K UHD physical discs are selling well, and we are seeing big advancements in 4K HDR digital services and devices.   The format is essential to our commitment to deliver the highest caliber consumer experience, and it is well on its way to mass acceptance.”

“ The number of 4K devices continues to grow, and is forecasted to triple in the next five years to nearly 350 million,” said Bob Buchi, president, Worldwide Home Media Distribution, for Paramount Pictures.  That clearly indicates that consumers have an appetite for the format, but we have to ensure that we don’t have a content gap.  At Paramount, we are committed to releasing the vast majority of new releases in 4K and have greenlit dozens of catalog titles for the format.

“We are seeing 4K UHD with HDR represent up to 10% of physical sales and a quickly growing percentage of digital sales as more platforms embrace the superior technology.  This technology is a huge boon to both consumers and filmmakers who are able to better realize their vision on home viewing platforms.  And the reality is that 4K UHD with HDR and object-based sound looks and sounds great.  It all contributes to the value proposition. “

Driving ownership of content, both physical and digital, is critical as the industry moves forward, executives agree.

“We continue to employ the most innovative and comprehensive tactics to drive ownership across both physical and digital platforms,” said Disney’s Marinelli. “We’ve had tremendous success implementing a number of strategic initiatives including pre-sale promotions, improving retail placement, expanding our social presence, producing live events and creating promotional partnerships. We are also committed to creating a superior in-home viewing experience that extends the consumer experience and deepens engagement.”

“We continually work with our retail partners to present consumers with compelling reasons to own, including superior audio and video presentations, early access, exclusive bonus features, special packaging, and more,” adds Paramount’s Bob Buchi. “Our job is to make our content readily available while maximizing revenue, which means carefully honing the distribution strategy of each title based on projected consumption. The great news is that the proliferation of platforms means consumers are enjoying our content in more ways than ever.”

Transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), which lets consumers “rent” a film or TV show for a limited streaming period, could use a shot in the arm.

“I am concerned that the consumer embrace of TVOD has not been as robust as we would have liked,” says the EMA’s Mark Fisher. “It remains a challenging business. Retailers and content providers are hesitant to invest in the category because it is not getting the desired growth, and we’re not seeing growth because investments are not being made. Delivery costs remain too high, and supply chain efficiencies need to be more widely embraced. EMA is actively working on both of those issues, and we will continue to do so because it is the right thing to do for the industry.”

Looking ahead to 2018, the prognosis among studios is essentially the same as it’s been at the end of the last few years – guarded optimism and a continued belief in the sales model.

Consumers’ appetite for home entertainment content remains remarkably robust,” says Universal Pictures’ Eddie Cunningham. “In fact, our research shows that a vast percentage of households continue to engage in the category whether via disc, digital or both.  Though there are many entertainment choices to distract consumers, offering tangible benefits unique to the format such as exceptional value, accessibility and utility of their favorite movies and TV shows reinforces the distinct advantages of ownership that you can’t get when renting or streaming.”

“I expect change to continue to be a factor in our industry in 2018 and beyond,” adds the EMA’s Mark Fisher.  “Movies Anywhere and Premium VOD, for example, will shake up the basic tenets of distribution and how and when consumers get content. Potential industry consolidations could significantly impact our industry as well. We shouldn’t fear any of this, but managing change will remain a challenge for all of us in the industry.

The home entertainment industry  “remains at the intersection of compelling content and technology, stemming from our consumers’ constant need for new and exciting experiences,” said Keith Feldman, President, Worldwide Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox.

“Technology is moving at a rapid pace and we must evolve our content offerings to meet consumer expectations, which means delivering on next-generation technologies including 4K HDR, 5G and mobile content delivery, simple and functional solutions like Movies Anywhere and immersive experiences like virtual and augmented reality that accurately realize and extend the vision of our filmmakers.”

Disney’s Marinelli has high hopes for 2018. “Disney has the most impressive slate in the industry and we’re confident that 2018 will once again be a very successful year for us with the highly-anticipated in-home releases of Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Pixar’s Coco,Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Walt Disney Signature Collection release of Lady and the Tramp.

“Movies Anywhere makes it easier than ever to build a digital movie collection. So far we’ve seen an incredible consumer response and believe that by offering a one-of-a kind experience, digital movie purchases will grow.  We will continue to work with the other studios and our digital retailer partners on programs to deliver exclusive content and offers that we believe will be important to driving engagement in the apps and website.”

“The choice between digital and physical is no longer an either/or proposition,” notes Paramount’s Bob Buchi. “We recognize that home entertainment has become a dynamic mix of consumption with opportunities across the spectrum.  Consumer behavior increasingly includes combinations of subscribing, transacting, renting, and buying, and greater comfort switching between digital and physical formats.  Our goal for 2018 is to make sure consumers have easy access to our content in the many ways they want to enjoy it.”

(This article previously appeared in Home Media Magazine.)