Welcome to Media Play News’ third annual look at the top home entertainment retailers.
This year, we are shaking things up. We are no longer going to include streaming services in our listing, as they have grown in number and evolved from distributors of content to content creators. Sure, they still sell content — or, rather, access to content — but we want to take a step back and celebrate the pure-play retailers who are engaged solely in the business of distributing home entertainment product on a transactional basis.
These, then, are the top third-party operators where consumers go to buy or rent movies, TV shows and other filmed content — digitally or on DVD, Blu-ray Disc or 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Also new this year, we are breaking down our industry’s top retailers. Some are primarily brick-and-mortar, key players in the impulse buys that still tend to drive physical media sales, particularly around the holidays. Others are solely digital, selling or renting content to consumers over the Internet. And still others are hybrids — such as Amazon, which sells both discs and digital, and Redbox, which 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.
“We applaud our retail customers for their valiant efforts during the COVID-19 crisis and for continuing to provide essential retail services to the public while working so hard to protect their staffs,” says Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “Consumers have shown an increased appetite for transactional content — on both digital and physical products — during these lockdown periods and, together with our retail partners, we have enjoyed serving their needs and bringing them much-needed entertainment and escapism. We are very encouraged by the continuing strength of the transactional business during these challenged times and look forward to partnering with each retailer as the situation develops in the second half of the year.”
“Our retail partners do it the hard way, one transaction at a time,” says Jim Wuthrich, president of Warner Bros. Worldwide Home Entertainment and Games. “Being on the front lines demands that they are listening to their customers and changing with them. During these stressful times it is great that they continue to bring people everywhere a little respite through the content we produce.”
Walmart Inc. is the world’s biggest brick-and-mortar retailer and top seller of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, with more than 5,000 outlets in the United States and more than 6,000 international stores.
Long a packaged-media promotional juggernaut, on big releases Walmart will often do a gift set pairing a Blu-ray combo pack with a collectible such as a plush or keychain.
The chain also offers exclusive bare-bones DVDs of Warner two-DVD special editions for cost-conscious consumers.
On the digital-delivery side, the chain in May consolidated its digital push under the Walmart.com banner, discontinuing Jet.com, which it bought for $3.3 billion in 2016. “The acquisition of Jet.com nearly four years ago was critical to accelerating our omni strategy,” the company reported May 19.
Walmart also sold Vudu, the transactional digital movie platform it acquired 10 years ago for $100 million. In April, Comcast-owned Fandango announced the acquisition of Vudu.com from Walmart for an undisclosed amount, with Vudu continuing backend support for Walmart’s online digital movie business and existing Vudu subscribers still having access to content stored in the cloud. Both FandangoNow, Fandango’s TVOD service, and Vudu are among the handful of digital retailers that support the cloud-based movie locker system Movies Anywhere. It remains to be seen if or how Vudu will be married with FandangoNow. Walmart telegraphed its pullback from Vudu when it quietly dropped support for its Vudu to Go/In-Home Disc-to-Digital app at the beginning of the year.
Despite moves to sell digital properties, Walmart is leaning heavily into e-commerce, even as it was one of the only brick-and-mortar chains open during COVID-19 lockdown orders because of its grocery business. For the fiscal first quarter ended May 1, Walmart reported U.S. e-commerce sales rose 74%. The chain’s U.S. e-commerce sales are expected to jump 44.2% in 2020 versus 2019, according to eMarketer. “Thanks to Walmart’s prior investments in online grocery delivery and pickup services, the retailer appears to be in a strong position as consumers have increasingly turned to e-commerce amid the pandemic,” according to eMarketer’s Cindy Liu.
While many Americans have used their COVID-19 stimulus checks to cover basic needs, there’s evidence people are also spending the money on non-essentials including electronics, clothes and toys. “Call it relief spending, as it was heavily influenced by stimulus dollars, leading to sales increases in categories such as apparel, televisions, video games, sporting goods and toys,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said during the company’s earnings call May 19.
Target Corp. is one of the largest discount retailers in the United States, with more than 1,800 stores. Like Walmart, Target has long been a big seller of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Disney last October launched 25 branded sections within select Target stores, with 40 additional locations opening by October 2020.
As far as promotional activities for packaged media, Target’s go-to is the behind-the-scenes booklet add-on. For instance, for Onward, the latest Pixar release, Target offered a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a gallery booklet and slipcover for $34.99.
Like Walmart, Target has seen increased sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. Target May 20 reported a 141% increase in e-commerce revenue for the first quarter (ended March 31) as consumers stocked up on lower-margin products online. CEO Brian Cornell said Target.com saw an increase of 5 million customers in the quarter, while more than 2 million used the drive-up service. The chain said more than 70 million people have downloaded the Target Circle app to access e-commerce. Overall retail sales increased 11.3% to more than $19.3 billion, from $17.4 billion during the previous-year period.
Driven by the distribution of stimulus checks, Target Corp. also experienced a rapid increase in traffic and sales for discretionary goods, CEO Brian Cornell said on the company’s latest earnings call. Indeed, Target hardline, which includes electronics (video game hardware and software), toys, entertainment (DVD, Blu-ray Disc), sporting goods and luggage, saw revenue increase 24.6% to $2.97 billion in the first quarter (ended May 2) versus $2.39 billion in the previous-year period.
“We certainly saw an uptick as we reported starting on April 15, as those checks arrived across America,” Cornell said.
Barnes & Noble
The largest brick-and-mortar bookseller in the United States, Barnes & Noble operates more than 600 retail stores across 50 states. In addition to books, the chain boasts a sizable physical disc section in stores and also operates the BN.com website, where consumers can buy discs for delivery or pickup at stores. Known for its breadth of offerings both in-store and online, the chain boasts an online disc store featuring 60,000-plus titles.
Last year, the chain announced the successful completion of its $683 million acquisition by Elliott Advisors Limited, a private fund manager located in the United Kingdom. As a result, Barnes & Noble became a privately held subsidiary of Elliott and ceased trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
In March 2020, Barnes & Noble announced that it would temporarily close 400 of its 620 stores due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, Barnes & Noble has offered free curbside pickup for online orders.
Best Buy has more than 1,200 stores in the United States, Canada and Mexico selling electronics and technology products along with physical discs.
As far as exclusives go, Best Buy’s usual go-to is Steelbook packaging for Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD discs. Turning its focus to online shopping with stores closed during the pandemic, the chain touted some catalog sales and preorders for Steelbook editions of future releases in April. Under the banner “4K Ultra HD — Celebrate 4Kpril,” Best Buy promoted a “save on select 4K movies” sale with 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray titles starting at $9.99 each. In May, Best Buy pushed deep discounts to incentivize movie fans to buy several titles at once. In one deal, Best Buy offered a $5 discount off The Big Lebowski with the purchase of its unofficial spinoff The Jesus Rolls on Blu-ray. Best Buy continued its 4K Ultra HD disc promotions in May as well, offering select 4K Blu-ray movies at $12.99 each, others at two for $30, and another selection at three for $45.
Benefiting from a homebound consumer base during the pandemic, Best Buy May 21 reported a 9.5% increase in domestic entertainment revenue to $554 million for the first quarter (ended May 2). That compared with a 12.7% decline in the previous-year period. The entertainment segment includes DVD/Blu-ray Disc movies, video game hardware and software, books, music CDs, and computer software. International entertainment sales skyrocketed 58% to $58.2 million, compared with a 14% decline a year ago.
“In the middle of Q1, we shifted all our stores to a curbside-only operating model and were able to retain approximately 81% of last year’s sales during the last six weeks of the quarter, even though not a single customer set foot in our stores,” CEO Corie Barry said in a statement.
Best Buy June 15 began allowing a limited number of customers back into 800 stores in the United States. The nation’s largest consumer electronics brick-and-mortar chain continues to offer curbside pickup for online purchases. Stores are limited to 25% of capacity (60 customers), enforcing social distancing guidelines between staff and consumers. Best Buy is also bringing back more than 9,000 of its previously furloughed full- and part-time store employees and Geek Squad agents. Employees will be required to wear protective gear, including face coverings, at all times. Customers are advised to wear masks with Best Buy offering them to customers who need or request them.
Arguably the last old-style, big brick-and-mortar video store chain, Glenview, Ill.-based Family Video calls itself the largest movie and game rental chain in the United States, operating more than 550 Family Video stores in 20 U.S. states and Canada. With stores in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast, the company has a unique property-ownership model whereby it buys and develops most of its buildings and land. The company says it has developed more than 600 retail strip centers and counts Fortune 500 companies as well as mom-and-pop retailers among its tenants. Family has partnered with Marco’s Pizza restaurants adjacent to brick-and-mortar stores to offer one-stop shopping for dinner and entertainment, and sister companies such as Highland Pure Water and Ice, a self-service kiosk providing purified water and ice, and StayFit-24 fitness centers. The company also sells cannabidiol (CBD) products in certain stores and online.
During the pandemic, the company through familyvideo.com continued to push online sales of used discs — though it noted shipping delays due to many closed stores and limited access to inventory. “Most orders are shipping out in 10-14 days as opposed to our usual 2-3 days,” the company stated. The company suspended late fees during the closures (with 24-hour dropboxes still open) and extended half-off memberships.
As stores have opened back up, the company has instituted safety measures such as floor markers to promote social distancing, requiring employees to frequently wash hands, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, and cleaning and disinfecting returned rental product.
Top 10 Digital Retailers
Amazon, the largest Internet retailer in the world, is also one of the leading distributors of home entertainment product, physical as well as digital. The website offers for sale a huge selection of Blu-ray Discs and DVDs. Amazon also offers digital sales and rentals of movies, TV shows and other filmed content on a transactional basis, complementing its Amazon Prime Video subscription streaming service.
With theaters closed during the pandemic, Amazon like other transactional digital retailers benefited from the studios’ moves to release films intended for the theaters — or leaving theaters early — on premium VOD. Amazon March 22 announced the launch of Prime Video | Cinema, a new online hub where the company stated, “You can watch the latest movies just released in theaters — without leaving home.”
Disney/Pixar’s Onward was available to buy for $19.99, with Universal Pictures’ The Invisible Man, The Hunt and Emma. available to rent at the same price. Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation’s PVOD release of Trolls World Tour — which bypassed theaters — topped Amazon Video’s digital charts as a $19.99 rental following its April 10 launch.
As online orders ballooned during stay-at-home directives, Amazon March 17 suspended third-party shipments of non-essential items, such as discs, through April 5. Amazon April 29 disclosed spending upwards of $4 billion on costs related to the coronavirus in the second quarter (ending June 30), including $300 million to test all of its employees for COVID-19. The e-commerce behemoth spent $600 million on related virus costs in the first quarter (ended March 30). To reduce liability and concerns among workers, Amazon said it would test every employee going forward.
Apple’s iTunes Store in 2006 birthed the digital movie sales business — and the transactional VOD marketplace has expanded significantly since then. Recently, Apple retired the iTunes name in favor a collection of apps including Apple TV, the moniker that also encompasses the Apple TV+ subscription streaming service launched in November 2019 at $4.99 a month. The new Apple TV app brings together different ways to find and watch movies and TV shows into one app, including Apple TV channels, personalized recommendations and more than 100,000 iTunes movies and TV shows to buy or rent. The transactional service has supported the digital library service Movies Anywhere since its launch in fall 2017. On 4K titles, the service supports the DolbyVision-enhanced HDR, as well as the Dolby Atmos sound format.
Like other TVOD services, Apple TV benefited from movies bypassing theaters or leaving theaters early during the pandemic, with Universal/DreamWorks’ Animation’s PVOD release of Trolls World Tour topping its charts.
Last October, Apple announced that Fire TV users in more than 60 countries can download the Apple TV app — affording first-time access to movies, TV shows and channels purchased. Roku that same month announced the Apple TV app was available on its platform for the first time.
Spectrum was born when cable and telecommunications company Charter Communications absorbed rival Time Warner Cable in May 2016. One of the combined company’s first major initiatives was bowing a new consumer-facing brand, Spectrum, for its cable TV and broadband services. Spectrum offers transactional access to movies and TV shows, among other services. Viewers can also subscribe to premium channels, as well as access VOD and pay-per-view. WarnerMedia and Charter Communications in April entered into a new multiyear distribution agreement that made HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s new streaming platform, available to Charter customers when it launched in May. Like other TVOD services, Spectrum promoted the pandemic PVOD premiere of films that bypassed theaters, billing them as “Home Premiere” titles.
The Xfinity Digital Store is owned by Comcast Corp., the country’s largest cable TV company. The transactional VOD service, which offers digital content to buy or rent, in December 2018 was the first pay-TV service to join digital movie collection locker Movies Anywhere. Access to the Xfinity Digital Store is promoted through Comcast’s cloud-based X1 set-top box. The service is also available via the Xfinity Flex streaming device ($5 monthly fee), which also offers access (for a separate fee) to Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services, in addition to AVOD content.
Xfinity Flex comes with more than 10,000 free online movies and TV shows — including live streaming TV — from ESPN3, Xumo, Pluto, Tubi TV, Cheddar, YouTube and more. Xfinity is also offering early access to NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service, scheduled to officially launch July 15.
The entertainment division of giant telecom AT&T Inc. includes pay-TV unit DirecTV, which offers digital sales of movies and TV shows as well as rental of movies to subscribers. However, consumers cannot access purchased movies if their account is not active, even if they return as a DirecTV customer at a later date. They must maintain their DirecTV account to view purchased content.
FandangoNow is the transactional rental and purchase VOD service owned by movie-ticketing site Fandango, which is owned by Comcast and also owns movie-rating goliath Rotten Tomatoes. In April, Fandango announced the acquisition of the transactional site Vudu.com from Walmart for an undisclosed amount, with Vudu continuing backend support for Walmart’s online digital movie business and existing Vudu subscribers still having access to content stored in the cloud. Both FandangoNow and Vudu are among the handful of digital retailers that support the cloud-based movie locker system Movies Anywhere. It remains to be seen if or how Vudu will be integrated with FandangoNow.
FandangoNow boasts more than 100,000 new-release and catalog, TV and 4K titles, and like others benefited from the PVOD release of titles intended for theaters or leaving theaters early during the pandemic, billing them at “Home Premiere” or “Early Access” titles. For instance, Universal/DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour, which bypassed theaters and was released on PVOD April 10, was the top film on the service for the week ended April 12, helping it notch the best weekend in its history. Trolls World Tour, available for digital rental at $19.99 for 48 hours, that week became the service’s most preordered title of all time, the best-selling film on its opening day and the best-selling film during its first three days of digital release. During the pandemic, the service has also hosted live watch parties for PVOD titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog, with stars interacting with fans via its Twitter page, and offered discounts to new users.
Also on the marketing front, FandangoNow has an ongoing campaign called “FandangoNow Flashbacks,” focusing on iconic movie anniversaries. In partnership with studios, the service offers entertainment fans catalog movies celebrating key cinematic anniversaries. FandangoNow also offers “Binge Bundles” of multiple movies for one low price and monthly “Fresh Picks” based on Rotten Tomatoes ratings, among other promotions.
The service recently launched on Amazon Fire TV. Last December, FandangoNow launched the first-ever on-demand movies and TV store on Facebook’s Portal TV. And in September 2019 the service bowed on Oculus Go and Quest. Last October, FandangoNow debuted its Imax Enhanced program, which combines exclusive, digitally remastered 4K HDR content and DTS audio technologies with high-end consumer electronics products. FandangoNow meets Imax Enhanced’s standard for 4K HDR streaming and uses a special variant of the DTS codec technology integrated in home audio equipment to deliver an Imax signature sound experience with more-immersive, more-powerful sound.
Google Play Movies & TV
Google Play Movies & TV is a transactional digital retailer that sells and rents movies, TV shows and other filmed content. It is part of Google Play, which launched in March 2012, bringing together the Android Market, Google Music and Google eBookstore under one brand. Other services operating under the Google Play banner are Google Play Books, Google Play Console, Google Play Games and Google Play Music. Like the other Google Play services, Google Play Movies & TV uses the power of the cloud to manage digital entertainment — so customers can access their movies and TV shows on their phones, and have them available instantly on their computers, tablets or connected TVs. It has also been a participating retailer in the digital library service Movie Anywhere since its inception in 2017.
At this year’s CES, Google Play announced support for dynamic metadata HDR format HDR10+. Also, last July the service began offering customers the chance to buy select Disney movies in 4K resolution at prices ranging from $19.99 to $24.99. Titles included The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Coco, The Lion King, Solo: A Star Wars Story and A Wrinkle in Time.
During the pandemic, Google Play, like other digital services, promoted titles bypassing theaters or leaving theaters early for PVOD, such as Trolls World Tour. The service billed these as “Home Premiere” and “Early Access” titles.
Microsoft Movies & TV
Microsoft Movies & TV is one of the top players in the digital transactional rental and purchase market. Consumers with a Microsoft account can rent or buy content from the Microsoft Store on Xbox, Windows and Microsoft.com and it will appear in the Movies & TV app on Microsoft devices. TV shows, some offered the day after they air on broadcast networks, can be purchased by episode or via a season pass. Some content is offered in 4K Ultra HD.
The service promoted the pandemic PVOD premiere of films that bypassed theaters, billing them as “Home Premiere” titles with the tagline, “Skip the cinema, exclusively on digital.”
The Sony-owned PlayStation Store, a digital media store aimed at users of Sony’s PlayStation game consoles, has several divisions. One of them is PlayStation Video, which sells and rents digital movies and TV shows. In addition to console access via the PS4, consumers can download the PlayStation Video app to watch content on iPad, iPhone, Android devices and Chromecast. After suffering declining subs, the live streaming division PlayStation Vue shuttered in October, directing consumers to YouTube TV.
Verizon Fios offers transactional purchases and rentals. Last October, Fios joined the digital rights locker service Movies Anywhere. Consumers can purchase titles through their set-top-box, online, via the Fios TV app or by selecting Verizon through the Movies Anywhere website or app for mobile and connected TV devices.
Like other transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) providers, Verizon Fios — owned by Verizon Communications, the country’s second-largest telecom, behind AT&T — has highlighted titles on PVOD, such as Trolls World Tour, that bypassed theaters due to the pandemic.
Redbox: Crossing the Digital and Physical Divide
With more than 6 billion rentals to date, Redbox is the leading disc rental chain in the United States, but it has expanded its footprint significantly in the digital realm.
“The world and our industry has changed dramatically this year,” said Redbox CEO Galen Smith. “While our focus in recent months has been ensuring the well-being of our employees and serving the interests of our customers through our kiosks and streaming offerings, we’ve remained diligent in making more content choices available to consumers.”
The company offers DVD and Blu-ray Disc rentals through more than 41,500 self-service entertainment kiosks stationed at Walmarts, supermarkets and drug stores. Prices range from $1.80 a night for DVDs to $2.50 a night for 4K UHD Blu-rays (in select cities). Used disc purchases also are available at kiosks, though Redbox no longer sells Disney digital codes after a legal settlement. The company began phasing out video game rentals late last year.
On the digital side, Redbox On Demand offers movies and TV shows via electronic sellthrough and transactional rentals, without a subscription. As far as free streaming, Redbox Free Live TV launched early in 2020 with nearly 30 channels of movies, episodic series and Web shorts, including three exclusive Redbox-branded channels: Redbox Rush, with action and adventure movies; Redbox Comedy, with comedies and stand-up performances; and Redbox Spotlight, Redbox’s curated channel
of featured and recommended titles. Indie Magnolia Pictures in May announced distribution for CineLife, an ad-supported channel from Spotlight Cinema Networks, on Redbox Free Live TV, featuring independent films and documentaries from the Magnolia catalog. Cinedigm also added its AVOD channels to the Redbox service.
In October 2019, Redbox launched Redbox Entertainment, a new division to produce and distribute original content across its services. The division released The Fanatic, starring John Travolta, and Running With the Devil, starring Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne, through VOD and at the kiosks.
Overall, Redbox reaches 50 million consumers across the United States via its kiosks and On Demand offering. The company’s loyalty program, Redbox Perks, has 34 million members.
“Throughout history and especially now, entertainment provides comfort, escape and educates us on important issues,” Smith said. “We recognize that the work we do to make this happen is critical and important; and we’re proud to be living our vision of delivering quality home entertainment for everyone.”
On the marketing side, Redbox’s ongoing “Dinner & A Movie” campaign, which launched last summer, is taking on added relevancy in light of the coronavirus pandemic and governmental stay-at-home mandates. The campaign is aimed at getting consumers to watch a movie from Redbox, either rented at a kiosk or streamed online, while enjoying a takeout meal at home. The ongoing campaign has included partnerships, promotions, social media and PR campaigns. The first promotion kicked off in June 2019 with DoorDash to give customers up to three free Redbox movie night rentals (at the Box or On Demand) when they sign up for DoorDash.
With its rental kiosks conveniently placed in grocery stores and other high-traffic retailers during the pandemic, Redbox told customers via a statement that employees and retailers were cleaning the kiosks regularly and emphasized social distancing advantages.
“Our automated kiosks, by their very nature, eliminate the need for customers to interact with store personnel ‘behind the counter,’” read the statement. “Of course, customers can further minimize time and interaction at our kiosks by renting and reserving their DVD in advance online, or via our app, and then simply ‘pick up and go’ at their favorite retailer. And we have fast-tracked the deployment of ‘contactless’ technology at tens of thousands of our locations, so customers can securely pay with a quick ‘tap,’ rather than swiping or using a chip reader.”