Welcome to Media Play News’ fourth annual look at the top home entertainment retailers.
Here, we celebrate the retailers who are engaged in the business of distributing home entertainment product on a transactional basis, not via subscription services.
These are the top third-party operators where consumers go to buy or rent movies, TV shows and other filmed content — either digitally or physically on DVD, Blu-ray Disc or 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
These transactional players span several categories, from brick-and-mortar and e-commerce retailers that sell physical discs to digital retailers on both the broadband and cable side that sell and rent movies and other filmed content digitally.
Some retailers are hybrids. Amazon sells discs but also sells and rents content digitally. Redbox rents DVDs and Blu-ray Discs through a network of kiosks while also offering consumers the chance to buy or rent movies digitally through its Redbox On Demand Internet service (in addition to its new streaming service). And Walmart, Best Buy and Target, in addition to their dominant footprint in physical disc sales, also sell discs via their growing e-commerce websites.
The past year has posed unprecedented challenges and unique opportunities for transactional retailers. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in store closures and reduced capacity in physical stores, transactional retailers had to juggle a shifting home entertainment model as content owners battled stay-at-home orders and shuttered theaters by experimenting with new business models. Studios jumped in with premium-priced digital purchase and rental schemes that had never before been tried and pushed titles into the digital marketplace more quickly than ever.
Retailers rose to the occasion. For all of 2020, boosted by stay-at-home orders, transactional digital spending posted significant increases, with digital rentals up 18.3% in 2020 over 2019 and digital sales, or electronic sellthrough (EST), up 16%, according to numbers from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. Consumers spent more than $2.3 billion renting movies and other filmed content through digital retailers (both cable and Internet) in 2020, compared with just under $2 billion in 2019, and nearly $3 billion on purchases, up from $2.6 billion the prior year.
Meanwhile, physical disc sales continued to slide in 2020. Consumers spent an estimated $2.5 billion on buying Blu-ray Discs, DVDs and 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays in 2020, down 25.6% from $3.3 billion the prior year, according to DEG estimates. Disc sales had been declining for years, but in 2020 sales were further diluted by retail store closures and capacity restrictions.
In the first quarter of this year, uncertainty over what the summer would bring led to a pronounced lack of fresh product, as studios held back releases in anticipation of movie theater reopenings and capacity ramp-ups once vaccination rates increased to the point of herd immunity. Not surprisingly, digital sales fell nearly 18%, while digital rentals (VOD) slipped 26.7%. And combined Blu-ray Disc and DVD sales continued their freefall, declining 25% from the first three months of 2020, when the pandemic had yet to take a significant toll.
Premium video-on-demand (PVOD) figures, not included in DEG consumer spending totals, were anecdotally strong for both the year and first quarter as digital retailers benefited from first-run films hitting their services — usually as $20 rentals — instead of multiplexes. These titles regularly topped the digital retailer charts. In fact, speaking Jan. 27 during an online presentation for DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, Paramount Pictures’ president of worldwide home entertainment Bob Buchi said, “From our estimates, if you include PVOD … 2020 was the first year that we’ve seen growth in the transactional home entertainment business in well over a decade, and that’s despite the significant lack of new releases due to theatrical closures.”
While digital led the way, brick-and-mortar retailers with a business centered on DVD and Blu-ray Disc did a yeoman’s job of maintaining the physical transactional business.
“As we begin to see bright light at the end of the long COVID-19 tunnel and a return to a more normal business, we thank all our retail customers for their resiliency in delivering products and services to the community at large and for continuing to support our category during these challenging times,” says Eddie Cunningham, the former Universal Pictures Home Entertainment president who now runs Studio Distribution Services, the Universal-Warner Bros. disc distribution joint venture.
“It’s been a remarkable year, on so many levels, and I have tremendous gratitude for our retail partners,” says Mike Takac, EVP and head of global platforms and retail at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “Not only did store personnel continue to support the category during what can only be described as an extraordinary year, but our retailers actively helped us transition our WB business into Studio Distribution Services. With a dearth of new releases, they remained committed to our catalog business, which has performed remarkably well.”
“I have been truly inspired by the incredible resilience, agility, innovation and sheer hard work of all of our retail partners and distributors over the last 12 months,” says Craig White, EVP of worldwide sales and distribution at Paramount Home Entertainment. “The pandemic created myriad challenges for physical and digital retailers alike. Meeting consumer demand for quality entertainment at home meant a rapid pivot to focus on catalog and premium windows, which required extreme flexibility from our retail partners. Without them, we could not have delivered the escape and entertainment consumers so desperately needed.”
Not only did retailers help consumers escape, but they also joined the conversation when many took to the streets to protest racial injustice. Retailers responded with content promotions and company programs. Redbox, for instance, launched its “Black Voices. Black Stories.” campaign last June, which is an ongoing initiative that spotlights the African-American experience.
“At a time when our country most needed to listen, learn, reflect and respond, elevating stories like Selma became a priority,” White notes. “I thank our retail partners for their support and their broader efforts throughout 2020.”
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Top Brick-and-Mortar Retailers
Brick-and-mortar sales and rentals of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs over the past year were a smaller portion of the market than in years past as digital purchases and rentals and streaming accelerated. While mass merchant disc sales may have benefited from the fact that consumers were buying a panoply of goods at mass merchants during the pandemic, COVID-19 proved fatal for longtime top rental chain Family Video, which shut its doors in early 2021. A lack of new content, too, hampered disc sales and rentals during the pandemic. Fortunately, retailers and studios helped fill the void with catalog releases and promotions.
“Physical retailers, including Best Buy, Target and Walmart, adapted admirably while always putting their customers first with extensive safety protocols,” Paramount’s White says about the past year. “As a result, they’ve all seen year-over-year catalog performance ahead of industry forecasts and expectations.”
Now, new releases are poised to boost the business.
“In physical home entertainment, as we begin to see more new releases arrive to complement the incredibly strong catalog sales during the pandemic, we are hugely excited by the opportunity to make a real impact at retail again, bringing the excitement back and helping drive shoppers into stores,” says Cunningham.
“The early signs are very positive, with strong new-release performances on the sequels to The Croods and Wonder Woman. The recent early new-release results on Tom & Jerry, The Little Things, The Marksman and Judas and the Black Messiah have all been significantly ahead of even our own lofty expectations, which augurs well for the future.”
On the rental side, Redbox continues to rent discs at its thousands of kiosks while expanding into digital delivery.
“Redbox continued to drive new business initiatives, achieving enviable growth in digital and AVOD while serving physical renters with great catalog offers,” White says.
“We’re proud to be one of the most recognizable and trusted brands in entertainment,” says Galen Smith, CEO of Redbox. “As we expand the business into new areas, we’re building Redbox into the go to destination for entertainment that offers customers the widest possible choice from new-release movies to free entertainment.”
Despite the growth of digital, Cunningham notes that the physical disc business is still vibrant.
“The physical home entertainment business is still worth about $7 billion worldwide at retail (around seven times the size of the much-lauded music vinyl business),” he says. “It brings theater and excitement to stores, it adds fun, is a relatively high-basket addition to most retailers, and helps complement the consumer products sales opportunities on many properties.
“We still have around 25% of transactional consumers who are completely dedicated to purchasing physical content, having never (ever) transacted digitally at this point, with another 37% consuming both digitally and physically, a total of 62% still buying discs. So we have a very long runway left in the physical business where gifting, seasonal and general impulse buying opportunities abound.”
The consumer electronics chain has more than 1,100 stores in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The chain is known for its exclusive Steelbook Blu-ray cases for catalog and new releases.
Barnes & Noble
The largest brick-and-mortar bookseller in the United States, the chain has more than 600 stores in all 50 states and sells a large breadth of disc titles.
The family-owned supercenter chain, featuring groceries, electronics and other items in addition to discs, has more than 250 stores throughout the Midwest in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.
The company rents DVDs and Blu-ray Discs via more than 40,000 kiosks and has rented 6 billion discs to date. It has 40 million customers and 39 million loyalty members (up from 34 million in 2020). Via Redbox on Demand, the company also rents and sells content digitally. Redbox has also launched two ad-supported free digital streaming products, Free Live TV and Free On Demand, and more than 8 million devices have accessed the free platform since launch. The company continues to distribute original movies through Redbox Entertainment (16 to date with 24 in the pipeline). In May, Redbox announced a merger with Seaport Global Acquisition Corp. to become a publicly traded company (see Q&A with CEO Galen Smith, page 9).
The chain has more than 1,900 stores in the United States. On the home entertainment front, Target often includes gallery booklets with releases and has other exclusive packaging and products as well. Discs are often displayed prominently on endcaps near the front registers.
The chain, long the top seller of discs, has approximately 10,500 stores and clubs under 48 banners in 24 countries and e-commerce websites. On the physical disc side, in addition to exclusive add-ons such as toys, Walmart offers some Warner DVDs at lower prices with limited or no bonus materials.
Top E-Commerce Retailers
E-commerce entertainment sales became even more important during the pandemic at both online goliath Amazon and brick-and-mortar stores with strong online presences.
“DotComs, inclusive of Walmart, Target and Best Buy, served customers well through online and in-store or curbside pick-up initiatives, and achieved record growth, due in no small part to [distributors] AEC and Ingram, whose support was crucial,” says Paramount’s White.
A top seller of discs online, the e-commerce pioneer posted record 2020 results. Annual revenue topped an eye-watering $386 billion, up almost 38% from $280.5 billion in 2019. Online sales for the year topped $197 billion. E-commerce includes myriad products, but the company points out that revenue includes media products available in both a physical (DVD and 4K UHD and Blu-ray Disc) and digital format, such as books, music, videos, games and software. These product sales include digital products sold on a transactional basis.
At the consumer electronics chain, online sales grew almost 90% to a record $6.7 billion for the quarter ended Jan. 31, and made up 43% of a total $15.4 billion in domestic sales.
In the first quarter of 2021, the chain reported that digital comp-sales grew 50%, on top of 141% growth a year ago.
Online sales at the chain exploded 69% in the quarter ended Jan. 31, and 79% for the fiscal year.
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Top Broadband Digital Retailers
Online digital sales and rentals, like e-commerce, got a boost as consumers stayed home during the pandemic. While much of the hype surrounded SVOD and AVOD services, “transactional sort of quietly had a moment in 2020,” said Fandango VP of home entertainment Cameron Douglas at the American Film Market in November. Fandango owns both FandangoNow and Vudu, top transactional digital services.
Other key factors in the growth of digital sales and rentals were premium-priced digital sales (PEST) and rentals (PVOD). With theaters closed, studios began to offer first-run movies digitally via $20 premium rental or premium-priced purchase in a window before traditional digital rental and EST. The move saw titles originally intended for the multiplex top the charts at services such as Vudu, FandangoNow and Microsoft Movies & TV.
“Fandango offers consumers the ultimate choice in their premium viewing experience, whether it’s through Fandango ticketing or through TVOD,” says Douglas. “We’re there to support fans who want to watch more movies in a premium, first-run window, whether they’re buying their tickets on Fandango for that unique big-screen experience in a movie theater, or renting or purchasing a movie at home with Vudu or FandangoNow.”
Microsoft’s Dametra Johnson-Marletti, corporate VP of Microsoft Digital Stores Category Management, told Media Play News in January that “digital movies are as collectible as discs. … In many ways digital movie collections offer a level of security, portability, and confidence that discs cannot. Your entire library can be accessed from almost any device, it travels with you seamlessly, and you never have to worry about damaged or lost discs.”
Indeed, digital transactional retailers took the pandemic as a chance to grow the business.
“Digital retailers delivered more content to existing customers, captured lapsed users and acquired entirely new digital customers with a combination of early new-release windows and innovative catalog promotions,” says Paramount’s White. “Among the standouts were Amazon’s Prime Video Cinema branding and its breadth of promotion across the Prime Video store, Vudu/FandangoNow’s unique retail promotions, and Apple’s franchise and bundle offers. Google also performed exceptionally well capturing planned and impulse consumption across Google Play and YouTube.”
“Our digital transactional retailers have been very nimble, especially with respect to varied windowing and pricing approaches on PVOD and PEST,” says Warner’s Takac. “Their support and flexibility have been critical as we adapt to the marketplace and measure results. It’s been amazing to watch the creativity and inventiveness of retailers like Vudu/FandangoNow, who make big merchandising statements each week with less content firepower than usual. We also appreciate the partnership with platforms like Apple, who are working in lockstep with us to sell subscriptions to HBO Max while featuring transactional content in harmony with key events, like the ‘Friends’ reunion special.”
All of these top digital transactional retailers are part of the Movies Anywhere cloud-based locker service, which allows consumers to keep all their digital purchases in one place.
The online retailer not only offers the Prime streaming service and e-commerce disc sales, but also allows consumers to rent or buy titles digitally.
The app, offering digital purchases and rentals of movies, is available on Apple devices, smart TVs, gaming consoles and more.
Mountain View, Calif.
The online behemoth offers digital rentals and purchases of TV shows and movies.
Microsoft Movies & TV
The service offers digital rentals and purchases of TV shows and movies on the app, on the Xbox console or a Windows device.
Beverly Hills, Calif. (parent Fandango)
Both Vudu (formerly owned by Walmart) and FandangoNow are transactional digital rental and purchase services owned by movie-ticketing site Fandango, which is owned by Comcast and also owns movie-rating goliath Rotten Tomatoes.
Top MVPD Retailers
Multichannel video programming distributors, such as cable and satellite services, through their value-add, on-demand services also helped to deliver transactional content as consumers stayed home. Oft overshadowed in the media by the flashier streaming services of many of their corporate parents, these MVPD transactional services offered subscribers a choice of many films not available for streaming.
“MVPD’s strength in family/holiday entertainment and promotion became abundantly evident as they delivered at a time of real need for their customers,” notes Paramount’s White.
Some of these providers, Comcast Infinity, DirecTV and Verizon Fios, are among the handful of digital retailers that support the cloud-based movie rights locker system Movies Anywhere.
The U.S. broadband communications and video service provider serves approximately 4.9 million residential and business customers across 21 states through its Optimum and Suddenlink brands.
Dallas (parent AT&T)
The service offers on-demand content and is expected to spin off into a separate entity with DirecTV.
Philadelphia (parent Comcast)
The Xfinity service, owned by Comcast Corp., offers digital content to buy or rent. Access is promoted through Comcast’s cloud-based X1 set-top box. The service is also available via the Xfinity Flex streaming device.
El Segundo, Calif.
A division of giant telecom AT&T, the satellite provider offers digital sales of movies and TV shows as well as rental of movies to subscribers. DirecTV is expected to spin off into a separate entity.
The satellite service offers its subscribers titles on demand, including premium early access.
The brand of services from cable operator Charter Communications offers on demand titles.
Parent Verizon Communications uses the brand to market Internet, telephone and TV service. The television service offers purchases and rentals of titles.