Premium video-on-demand, the expensive version of transactional digital movie rentals offering consumers in-home early access to theatrical titles, continues to see a renaissance.
With 65% of major theatrical markets shuttered due to the pandemic, new data through Feb. 1 saw $19.99 PVOD releases Greenland (STX Entertainment), News of the World (Universal Pictures), Promising Young Woman (Focus Features), The Croods: A New Age (Universal/DreamWorks Animation), Our Friend (Gravitas Ventures) and Fatale (Lionsgate) rank among the Top 10 digital movies rented by consumers across Apple TV, FandangoNow, Spectrum TV and Google Play.
After a failed 2011 attempt by Universal Pictures to jumpstart PVOD by offering actioner Tower Heist directly in the home for $59.99, the distribution channel made a less-expensive ($19.99) comeback last year early in the pandemic when the studio disclosed it had generated $100 million in revenue from 5 million transactions in 28 days offering erstwhile theatrical sequel Trolls World Tour directly to consumers at home.
Thus, Universal took PVOD firmly by the horns, hammering out shortened theatrical window agreements with AMC Theatres and Cinemark in order to get its movies into home entertainment channels faster — and with good reason. Studios keep about 80% of all digital transactions, compared with 50% of theatrical.
“The results for Trolls World Tour have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD. As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats,” said NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell.
Indeed, Universal released the Judd Apatow comedy The King of Staten Island on PVOD in June. It also rushed out early transactional VOD access to The Invisible Man, The Hunt, Emma and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, among others.
Other studios have tepidly followed, with Warner Bros. Pictures debuting Scoob! on May 15, and Disney launching Mulan into the home on Labor Day weekend — the latter initially as a $29.99 purchase-only option to Disney+ subscribers.
“The silver lining to 2020 from a theatrical perspective is that studios have had the opportunity to test the feared PVOD window, with the results not as compelling as many had expected, and not as damaging to the exhibitors as feared,” Michael Pachter, media analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, wrote in a note.
Indeed, as PVOD has become normalized, scant information exists about actual sales generated by consumers. Nielsen recently announced it would begin tracking PVOD across living room televisions. Just released industry data from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group did not include PVOD transactions among the $2.3 billion consumers spent renting movies and other filmed content through digital retailers in 2020 — up from less than $2 billion in 2019.
“We think that PVOD is here to stay, and it really is a big part of our business,” Fandango SVP Mark Young told a recent industry panel. NBCUniversal-owned Fandango operates transactional VOD services Vudu and FandangoNow.
Yet major theatrical distributor Imax believes PVOD remains a fluke driven by rollercoaster consumer behavior during a pandemic.
“To be unequivocal, PVOD is a failed experiment,” CEO Rich Gelfond told a virtual investor confab last September. “The numbers haven’t worked in a pandemic, so how would they work in a non-pandemic? Of the movies that were postponed, very few went into PVOD or streaming, and I should be clear I’m talking about the blockbuster movies — the movies that Imax does.”
Wedbush’s Pachter contends studios largely agree, continuing to postpone major releases into 2021 and later, showing they prefer a theatrical release over PVOD.
In the meantime, more movies are likely to go to subscription VOD platforms flush with cash and willing to spend it licensing content.
“We expect more films to shift to streaming as subscription services seek more video content after heightened consumption [and subscriber growth] coupled with several months of halted productions in the pandemic,” Pachter said.