Home Video Veteran Bob Tollini Dies at 74

Bob Tollini, a veteran of the home video industry who held senior management positions at two big distributors and was one of the leaders in the charge to establish a common street date for new releases, died Feb. 4 of cancer.

He was 74. Tollini is survived by his wife, Patricia; son, Mike; and two granddaughters, Eva and Sophie.

Tollini, a native of Buffalo, New York, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from Cornell University and an MBA from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

He began working in the video industry in the early 1980s, at CBS/Fox, where he rose to controller. In March 1984 he joined Video Trend as VP and GM of the Detroit branch. At the time, the video rental industry was flourishing as thousands of independent retailers bought movies on videocassette at prices starting at about $60 and rented them to the public. Studios sold their VHS cassettes through a network of distributors.

Tollini was subsequently promoted to VP of marketing and purchasing for all seven Video Trend branches.

In 1991, Chicago-based Video Trend was purchased by Major Video Concepts of Indianapolis and Tollini joined the acquiring company, where he ultimately rose to SVP. He helped launch the company’s Internet presence and at one point oversaw marketing for 1,500 video rental stores inside supermarkets.

Tollini was also active in the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and a frequent speaker and panelist at the trade group’s annual convention in Las Vegas. In July 1998, he spoke out against revenue-sharing, in which studios let retailers buy more copies of the big hits at a reduced price in return for sharing a percentage of the revenues. He argued that Blockbuster had an advantage because of its direct sales relationship with the major studios, while independent retailers couldn’t enjoy the same discount because they could only purchase product through distributors.

“He loved movies, he loved the business, he was just a really great guy,” said Mark Fisher, president of streaming trade association OTT.X, who in the 1990s was EVP of the VSDA.

“He was a great guy — in business, personally, and professionally,” said Kirk Kirkpatrick, former president of the video division of WaxWorks, an Owensboro, Ky.-based distributor. “I got to know him best because I played tennis with him often at some of these conferences.  He beat the hell out of me every time.”

Kirkpatrick said Tollini also played a key role in establishing a uniform weekly release date for new home video releases, Tuesday, a practice that continues to this day. “I remember I called him and said, ‘This is crazy — we have all these different shipping days — why don’t we do what the record business does and have one standard release date,” Kirkpatrick said. “He backed that in an instant and made such a compelling case, because of his stature in the industry, that the studios agreed.”

Distribution was hit hard in the 1990s when independent stores were swallowed up, or put out of business, by rapidly growing national chains like Erol’s, National, West Coast and, later, Blockbuster, Hollywood Entertainment and Movie Gallery. The emergence of DVD in 1997 further impacted the videocassette rental business, as discs were priced low for direct sale to consumers.

Major Video Concepts was sold to Ingram Entertainment in 2000, and a year later Tollini left the company. He later worked as sales director for Video Access Computers, which manufactured DVD rental kiosks, before embarking on a career as a consultant. He also continued to produce a weekly buying guide aimed at the remaining independent retailers.

Tollini also was known for his charitable work. In the 1980s, he became a volunteer for Big Brothers, and over the years mentored dozens of young men. He also tutored children at a homeless shelter and drove a delivery truck for Second Helpings, an Indianapolis nonprofit that uses donated perishable and overstocked food to prepare nutritious meals for thousands of hungry children and adults.

“He was an altruistic person who was extremely generous with his time and really wanted to help people,” recalls son Mike. “He regarded himself as being raised by immigrant families who had nothing, and then at 17 he gets to go to two Ivy League schools in a row and gets to move into a management career. He was very troubled by inequality and the lack of opportunity, especially in the urban areas. He was really focused on helping kids, in particular from backgrounds of more challenging circumstances. He felt really fortunate to have had a lot of opportunity.”

Tollini also remained involved in film through Heartland Films, a nonprofit arts organization based in Indianapolis, with a mission to inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film. He volunteered as a judge, and oversaw the organization’s video distribution initiative, alongside Bob Prudhomme and Tim Swain.

Tollini and his wife remained in Indianapolis until 2018, when they moved to the Washington, D.C. area to be closer to his son and grandchildren. He had been diagnosed with cancer in late 2017.

Personal Stories: Mark Fisher of OTT.X — From Stop & Shop to Streaming

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of personal stories by executives in home entertainment, detailing how they got into the business and comparing what they’re doing now to what they did back then. For submissions, please contact Thomas K. Arnold at tkarnold@mediaplaynews.com. 

Mark Fisher

Facebook memories occasionally stimulate reminiscing about days gone by.

The other week, an old post and picture popped up on Facebook that reminded me that my first contribution to the home entertainment industry was opening my first video rental store — the first store-within-a-grocery store — 36 years ago.  That triggered a rush of memories of those earlier years, and the travels to get to where I am today: still in home entertainment, focused on streaming, now the industry’s dominant incarnation.

But let’s step back. In 1985, I was just starting my career.  I had a job at Stop & Shop Supermarkets, the largest grocery chain in New England, managing the non-foods departments in the company’s Connecticut stores — a great gig to have in my 20s.  The company was, compared to other grocers in the 1980s, very professional and progressive, and had lots of really good people in its management ranks. When independent video rental stores were popping up around New England, the company thought, what better place for a rental store than in the neighborhood grocery store. It is, by nature, a convenient location, and customers visit on average of two and one-half times each week.

Personally, I was a movie lover and a video enthusiast. I had a front-projection TV, a piano key VCR (like the one you see at the start of each episode of ABC’s “The Goldbergs”), and I was a regular renter of VHS tapes at the Fotomat drive-through, where you could find all the latest releases.

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A Stop & Shop standalone video store in 1993.

I was recruited to move up to corporate headquarters in Boston and lead a team to develop our own chain of rental stores to operate within our grocery stores. Like every other video rental store, we charged a membership fee and rented movies by the night. Unlike the others, partly because we didn’t have a lot of space, we didn’t put empty boxes out on the shelves — we put the actual tapes out for the customer to bring up to the counter to rent. (That way there was no chance they’d be disappointed if it was out of stock.) We were a well-funded company, and we had an aggressive rollout plan — so, also unlike so many of our competitors, we brought in lots of copies of new releases (think 75 copies of Jurassic Park). Our customers were more likely to go home with the movie they came in for, and hopefully one or two more.

We located the Stop & Shop Video Centers up in the very front of the store layout, so the customer could get in and out easily. Executive management took this new venture seriously. We were formed as a separate division of the company — I reported to the SVP of operations, and my direct reports were the buying team and district managers, while the store teams reported directly to my DMs (unlike everybody else in the store, who reported to the grocery store manager). We were truly a novel “store-within-a-store” concept.

We built our chain up to 63 stores within our grocery stores, and five freestanding 6,000-square-foot video rental stores positioned adjacent to our grocery stores. We had endcaps with video rentals that were serviced out of the courtesy desks in our smaller grocery stores, and a team of merchandisers who revamped the product mix in each weekly.

The most enjoyable part of my job was the promotions that we ran, with the support of our studio partners. We had a tie-in promotion with the actual Mystic Pizza in Connecticut when that Julie Roberts movie released; another with the submarine base in Groton, Conn., when The Hunt for Red October was released. We worked with a local radio station and hosted a day at the Rhode Island Zoo when Disney released Jungle Book. And we raised a lot of contributions and spent Thanksgiving Day helping out at a homeless shelter in Springfield, Mass., to promote Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. There were countless others — pretty much a new promotion somewhere within our chain every month.

A Mickey Mantle in-store appearance at a Stop & Shop Video Center.

We also had lots of in-store appearances. Customers lined up to meet Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizutto, Gordie Howe and plenty of others over the years.

Our biggest events were our annual Oscar parties. We invited our best customers from each store to join our store managers and management team each year to watch the Oscars on big screens with music, food and drinks. We always had special guests and local entertainment. We really scored the year that David Letterman hosted the Oscars and we had secured Larry “Bud” Melman, Letterman’s “man on the street,” to participate in our party.

How did I learn the business? Here’s where everything comes full circle.  Before we opened our first store, I started going to meetings of the local chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA — which eventually became EMA and now OTT.X). The VSDA in those days was primarily an organization of small independent video rental stores around the country. I learned from other retailers and from local distributor reps and studio reps. Stop & Shop joined the VSDA. I attended local meetings, and went to my first national convention in 1986. I eventually joined the board of directors for the local VSDA chapter, and helped out creating educational events for video rental store employees in New England. I served as treasurer for a few years, and during that time I was appointed to the VSDA’s national board of directors, where I served with industry superstars such as Mitch Lowe (later the co-founder of Netflix and Redbox), David Ingram (president of Ingram Entertainment), Ron Berger (founder of Rentrak) and others. Before I left that board, I had moved up to treasurer, while still treasurer of the local board.

All of my team at Stop & Shop was involved in the VSDA — my buyers, my DMs and my store managers. They attended meetings and events and got involved in producing local VSDA events. These sessions supplemented the industry knowledge that we could share with them, and inviting them to local movie openings and VSDA parties served as a reward, too. My team worked really hard — but I always liked to give them the opportunity to play hard, too.

In 1997, I was recruited to head up corporate store operations for West Coast Entertainment — a chain of 450 rental stores plus even more franchisees on the East Coast. Not able to grow our Stop & Shop video store footprint any larger, I left and moved to Philadelphia for my new position with West Coast. It was challenging, managing a chain that had a dozen different retail store brands and nearly two dozen different POS systems, but it was also an opportunity to grow a new team and meet a lot of new friends — many of whom I’m still close with and work with today, including Mike Haney at Allied Vaughn and Steve Apple on our OTT.X team.

Just a few years later, I joined the staff of the VSDA, then headed by Bo Andersen, to manage membership and sales. Twenty-two years later, I’m still here, now in the president/CEO role, and I’ve been at the helm from our transition from physical discs to digital and from EMA to OTT.X.

The old saying, “everything old is new again,” certainly has rung true for me. The big sellthrough retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Target, as well as many of the big studios, haven’t been the most entrepreneurial and have been less in need of what we do as a trade association. Today we are back to an organization of mostly indie or entrepreneurial companies — along with many established companies. We’re back to having lots of engagement and a strong vibrant community. 

Looking back, it’s been lots of fun, and most of all, I’ve made lots of friends — and if I didn’t move out to Los Angeles for this gig at what was then the VSDA, I’d never have met my wife. Julie. And, I think I’ve made an impact on the industry that I love over the years. (Actually, Redbox co-founder Mitch Lowe wrote that my original Stop & Shop store-in-a-store concept was the inspiration for Redbox.)

The best thing about all of this is that it isn’t over. Today’s industry isn’t what we knew as “home entertainment” — it’s blended with the extension of the broadband and cable industries and linear programming into OTT, and it is still in its formative stage with a hunger for education, collaboration and networking. And as long as I’m still challenged and having fun, I’ll be in it — transitioning and pivoting, just as I’ve always done.

Farewell EMA, Hello OTT.X

After more than three decades as one of the home entertainment industry’s key trade associations, the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) is broadening its focus and rebranding to become the OTT.X (the Over The Top Exchange).

According to CEO and president Mark Fisher, the new name reflects the organization’s aim to more broadly support the business of bringing entertainment to the consumer through all OTT means – including transactional video-on-demand (TVOD); subscription VOD, or streaming; and ad-supported streaming (AVOD).

Maintaining that the organization will support digital retailers, channels, networks, platforms, and MVPDs, Fisher said the vision of OTT.X is “a vibrant ecosystem of companies continually advancing the consumer experience and business of delivering audio-visual entertainment through OTT technologies,” while its updated mission is “to connect and nurture the OTT ecosystem enabling innovation, collaboration, and competition.”

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He said the association will  continue to focus on the business aspects of the industry, by facilitating business exchange and community, sharing industry insights and research, organizing and managing industry interest groups such as digital supply chain and retailing best practices, and managing a leadership development foundation.

The new OTT.X logo

The group was founded in 1984 as the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), representing the proliferating independent video rental stores that had birthed the home entertainment industry several years earlier.

As the business shifted to regional and then national chains like Blockbuster Video, Movie Gallery and Hollywood Entertainment, the VSDA intensified its lobbying and supply chain efforts and tweaked its annual summer convention, generally held in Las Vegas, to focus more on meetings and less on elaborate booths and exhibits on the show floor.

With the arrival of DVD and the shift in the market away from rental and toward sellthrough, the VSDA scaled down its show even more and in 2006 merged with the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) to become the EMA.

The last big summer trade show was held in Las Vegas in 2007; the association subsequently focused on smaller conferences and seminars and from 2012 until last year presented the annual Los Angeles Entertainment Summit for key retailers and content suppliers.

The association’s new direction — and name — are the result of its successful OTT_X Market and Conference last July and its OTT_X @ Pipeline in September, Fisher said.

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“After more than three decades, we continue to reinvent the definition of the industry that we serve as well as our model to serve and support it,” Fisher said. “I’m proud that our team — our board and staff, working together — drafted this transformational plan, positioning OTT.X to grow in both the size of its membership and the quantity and quality of its programs and services.”

“There are so many new and emerging channels and networks looking to collaborate with their peers in building a more effective ecosystem,” said Cameron Douglas, OTT.X chair and head of home entertainment at FandangoNow, one of the industry’s leading digital retailers. “I look forward to working more broadly with digital retailers, MVPDs, digital channels and networks, distribution platforms, consumer electronics manufacturers, and all the companies creating and distributing content to these channels, as well as technology-enabling services supporting our businesses.”

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Earlier in the year, Fisher told Media Play News that the association in 2020 will “formally, fully embrace the broad spectrum of OTT delivery, including SVOD and AVOD, while continuing to support TVOD. We plan to contribute significantly to supporting the ecosystem surrounding OTT including platforms, channels, content providers and service providers by expanding many of our already successful programs as well as launching new ones.

“This includes connecting companies for efficient business negotiations in events like our popular OTT.X business exchange, gathering and sharing valuable business insights and industry research in our conference sessions and facilitating the development, evangelization and education of industry best practices such as the digital supply chain work we’ve been doing over the last decade.”

 

Video Industry Reunion Planned for June 11

Jodie LeVitus Francisco, former Western advertising director and national video manager for Billboard Magazine, has organized the Video Industry Reunion 2 for June 11  from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Sagebrush Cantina, 23527 Calabasas Rd., Calabasas, California.

“Following last year’s successful Video Industry Reunion, Video Industry Reunion 2 will bring together friends and colleagues—distributors, manufacturers, members of the media, publicists, replication and packaging execs and other icons who shaped the home video business and helped change the landscape of the film, television and music industries, for an evening of reminiscing, networking and laughs, as well as a recognizing those who passed away, but whose memory and contributions to the industry can never be forgotten,” according to a press release.

All past and current members of the home entertainment industry are cordially invited and encouraged to attend, according to the release.

“Last year I had an idea. Get a bunch of people from the video industry together for a reunion in Los Angeles,” Francisco said in a statement. “The impetus was that we aren’t getting any younger and we are starting to lose some industry icons. Many of us have scattered far and wide from the business. In the beginning, it was like the Wild West—anything went, we could sell anything and we had no rules. Then it became a viable business and all of sudden they were hiring executives from Proctor and Gamble who sold soap! We were selling entertainment and I don’t think anyone in the beginning ever forgot that.

“Last year’s event drew close to 100 people, including folks from San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York, with all avenues of the industry represented. We also raised money for our own Entertainment Aids Alliance. We expect an even bigger turnout this year.”

For more information, please visit:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1841272562599693/

https://www.facebook.com/VideoIndustryReunion/

https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13510053