With the coronavirus pandemic raging, the big Hollywood movie studios made unprecedented changes in their film-release strategies in 2020, rushing top-tier titles into the home and boosting new and existing streaming services.
It truly was a year like no other.
Here are the top 10 home entertainment news stories of 2020 as chosen by the Media Play News editorial staff.
1. Blockbusters Enter the Stream: With movies theaters shuttered during the pandemic, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. took the unprecedented move to send top tier theatrical releases to their sister streaming services.
First, Walt Disney Studios offered the live-action blockbuster Mulan exclusively to Disney+ subscribers over the Labor Day weekend as a $29.99 add-on to unlock access to the movie months before its regular availability — marking Disney’s first-ever Premier Access (PVOD) release and a sea change in studio window strategy. The studio defended the decision — which was followed by sending Pixar Animation’s Soul to the Disney+ streaming service, this time at no additional cost, on Christmas — as a reality of the times. “We thought it was a really nice gesture to our subscribers during the holiday period to provide [Soul] as part of the service,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek. “I think what we’ve learned with Mulan is that there’s going to be a role for [PVOD] strategically with our portfolio of offerings.”
After debuting such top-tier titles as Roald Dahl’s The Witches on its new streaming service HBO Max, WarnerMedia in December shocked the industry by announcing that the streaming service would offer subscribers free access to all Warner Bros. theatrical releases through 2021 concurrently with their box office debut. The new strategy rankled exhibitors and creators, while offering moviegoers an alternative to the cineplex during the pandemic. The studio bowed Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max and in theaters Christmas day. Notably, WW84 posted the largest opening weekend domestic box office during the pandemic with $16.7 million — driven in part by 10,000 watch parties, or small groups renting out theaters for private screenings.
2. HBO Max Debuts: WarnerMedia in May launched its much-anticipated HBO Max subscription streaming service at $14.99 per month — the most-expensive SVOD platform on the market — with several glaring problems. The platform, which promised an ad-supported edition in 2021, bowed without consumer access via the Roku or Amazon Fire TV platforms (reportedly representing 70% of Internet access), which contributed to stalling the Max sub growth out of the gate. The fact that existing services HBO Go and HBO Now were also still available didn’t help matters, confusing consumers about what they were actually getting with an HBO Max subscription. (Both were mercifully laid to rest two months after HBO Max’s launch.) WarnerMedia eventually inked distribution deals with Roku and Amazon, helping it generate 38.6 million combined HBO/HBO Max subscribers through Sept. 30.
3. Peacock Launches: NBCUniversal April 15 launched its own streaming video platform, Peacock, the media giant’s first over-the-top video platform and an SVOD service with an ad-supported option. The company initially made the premium service available at no cost to Comcast’s X1 and Flex (Internet-only) customers before rolling it out nationally in July. It quickly generated 20 million subscribers. To boost the offering, NBCUniversal wrestled away exclusive streaming rights to the popular comedy series “The Office” from Netflix. The series, to begin streaming in a tiered plan on Peacock Jan. 1, 2021, had been a longtime draw for Netflix.
4. TVOD Has Its Moment: After it and other studios rushed titles to early digital release during the pandemic, Universal Pictures made the bold move to drop Trolls World Tour from its theatrical slate to distribute the animated sequel directly to consumers in April via premium VOD. The strategy generated $100 million in revenue in 28 days and helped revive the PVOD business model — and the transactional VOD business at large — as other studios soon joined suit by rushing titles to PVOD. Soon, titles that might have topped the box office were heading up the charts of such transactional services as Redbox On Demand, FandangoNow and Vudu. The latter two TVOD services in April became sister services when NBCUniversal’s Fandango acquired the 10-year-old Vudu from Walmart.
“All the press is about SVOD and AVOD services, ad-supported or subscription, but transactional sort of quietly had a moment in 2020,” said Fandango VP of home entertainment Cameron Douglas during a November panel.
5. If You Can’t Beat ‘Em … : In a peace offering to theater chains, Universal Pictures inked pacts with AMC Theatres and Cinemark affording the studio early PVOD access for select theatrical releases in exchange for splitting the home entertainment revenue with exhibitors. Universal and subsidiary Focus Features picked up the right to offer consumers PVOD access to movies with less than $50 million in domestic opening weekend ticket sales. Under the pact, movies with a higher box office could be released on PVOD 31 days after their theatrical bow. As a result, Universal maintained a steady year-end theatrical slate, spearheaded by The Croods: A New Age, Freaky and News of the World, among other titles.
6. Hail to New Chiefs: In February, former Disney home entertainment head Bob Chapek was named CEO of The Walt Disney Co., with previous boss Bob Iger assuming executive chairman duties. Chapek, who most recently headed Disney’s Parks & Recreation unit, said he was well-suited directing Disney’s renewed focus on direct-to-consumer business.
In another big studio shift, ex-Hulu boss Jason Kilar became CEO of WarnerMedia in the spring and proceeded to announce layoffs — among them longtime executive Ron Sanders — and other shifts to refocus the studio on streaming.
Meanwhile, Netflix in July announced that 20-year veteran and chief creative officer Ted Sarandos would share co-CEO duties with co-founder/co-CEO Reed Hastings. The move appeared to signal a reduction in executive duties and possible retirement for Hastings, who quickly downplayed the shared corporate duties as a strategic maneuver. “Let me be really clear: I’m in for a [another] decade,” Hastings said.
7. Movie Theaters Face Existential Crisis: Movie theaters worldwide shuttered in mid-March due to the expanding coronavirus pandemic. The situation caused havoc for exhibitors, with the world’s largest, AMC Theatres, struggling to remain solvent and later opening some theaters with limited seating and strict safety protocols. Indeed, No. 2 exhibitor Regal Cinemas threw in the towel in the fall, remaining closed indefinitely. Meanwhile, studios shifted blockbuster movies online, a further blow to the exhibition business.
8. AVOD Marches on: Ad-supported VOD upped its growth trajectory with Pluto TV (owned by Viacom) and Tubi (acquired in March by Fox Corp.) expanding distribution worldwide — the latter with first-run Fox Entertainment programming such as “The Masked Singer,” among other programs. Redbox increased its digital presence, launching an ad-supported VOD platform called Redbox Free On Demand.
9. Catalog in the Spotlight: Catalog titles topped the charts on disc and digital as the new-release pipeline slowed due to the coronavirus. Studios polished catalog titles for 4K Ultra HD release, such as Paramount’s Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop, Sony’s six-film “Resident Evil” collection, and Warner’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. With the pandemic raging, resonating and topical titles such as Sony’s Groundhog Day and Warner’s Contagion caught on with consumers. “It’s uncanny how it kind of mimics what’s going on in the real world today,” Jim Wuthrich, president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and Games, said of Contagion.
10. Streaming Short Timer: It wasn’t all good news for digital delivery. Quibi, the $1.7 billion mobile device-centric, short form-content video streaming service, announced just six months after starting operations that it was shuttering. Launched by DreamWorks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and eBay founder Meg Whitman, in the end Quibi reportedly had fewer than 1 million subscribers willing to pay $4.99 monthly for ad-supported content no longer than 10 minutes.