Not Ron Sanders!

In my more than 30 years of covering the home entertainment business, for a wide range of outlets ranging from Video Store Magazine to the Hollywood Reporter, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, I have witnessed more than a dozen top leadership changes at the major studios.

At Universal Pictures, I witnessed the departures of home entertainment chiefs Louis Feola, Bruce Pfander and Craig Kornblau; at Sony Pictures, Pat Campbell, Ben Feingold, David Bishop and Man Jit Singh. At Fox, I covered our business while Bob DeLellis, Jeff Yapp, Pat Wyatt and Mike Dunn occupied the president’s chair; at Disney, during the years home entertainment was run by Bill Mechanic, Ann Daly, Mike Johnson, Bob Chapek, Lori McPherson and Janice Marinelli. At Paramount, a series of top executive departures began with Eric Doctorow and continued with Meagan Burrows, Tom Lesinski, Kelly Avery and Dennis Mcguire.

When I began covering home entertainment in 1989, what was then Warner Home Video was headed by Warren Lieberfarb. The father of DVD was ousted at the end of 2002 and briefly replaced by Jim Cardwell; since October 2005 Ron Sanders has been in charge.

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Was, that is. Sanders is one of about 600 staffers, many of them  veteran executives, who have been shown the door at WarnerMedia in the wake of the AT&T takeover, which has led to a new senior management team and, some observers have said, a new mindset bent on dismantling the old studio and creating a new Netflix.

Only time will tell whether the reimagining of Warner Bros. is a bold and visionary move or a disaster in the making. WarnerMedia leadership clearly has taken to heart the adage, “Change or die,” and I am sure they are well aware that there is a risk of doing both.

But back to Ron Sanders. While an astonishing array of smart, competent and even visionary home entertainment leaders have been shoved aside, Ron’s departure hits me especially hard.

Quite simply, I never expected him to go.

Ron Sanders, you see, is something of a rare bird in Hollywood. In all the years I’ve known him — and we go back to the early 1990s, when he joined Warner fresh from Procter & Gamble — Ron always struck me as a man of his word, a man of conviction, passion and integrity. He learned the business at a time when VHS rental was a mature business and beginning to decline, and the brightest minds at Warner were busy fulfilling then-president Warren Lieberfarb’s vision of a disc-based format that consumers would buy rather than rent.

DVD, of course, turned out to be one of the most successful product launches in history, reviving the home entertainment business and laying the groundwork for not just digital distribution but also Netflix, which was initially a DVD-by-mail rental service.

Lieberfarb was no dummy and saw something in Ron Sanders. A year after DVD’s launch, he sent him to England in 1998 to run Warner’s home entertainment operations overseas. I remember a long conversation Ron and I had beforehand, weighing the pros and cons of disrupting his life here in the United States and moving his family abroad. Ultimately he decided to go, and when he came back in December 2002 to join the top leadership team after the departure of Lieberfarb, it quickly became evident that Ron was destined for greater things, both at Warner and in the entertainment industry in general.

Less than three years after his return to the United States as head of Warner Home Video’s North American operations, Ron became division president. Under his lead, Warner was consistently No. 1 when it came to innovation and creativity — not to mention market share. He not only steered the ship, but he also charted its future course — and in doing so Warner became something of a beacon for the rest of the industry to follow, much as it had been during the Lieberfarb era through the launch and growth of DVD.

But as successful as he was in business, Ron Sanders was even more successful in something immeasurably more important: success as a human being. As I wrote back in 2013, when he was elevated to a broader role as head of the redubbed Warner Bros. Entertainment, Sanders represented “a new breed of executive we’re beginning to see more and more of in the Hollywood studio leadership ranks: Sensible, reasonable, even affable — a far cry from the desk-pounding tyrants of Hollywood lore. Anyone who knows Ron Sanders, who has worked alongside him, knows how incredibly hard it is to dislike him. When he says something, he means it. When he makes a promise, he follows through. He looks you in the eyes when he speaks to you; he is passionate about the industry, about Warner Bros., about business, about life.”

I concluded my column at the time noting that a veteran journalist, after interviewing Sanders some years back, quipped, “I wish there were more home video presidents like Ron Sanders.”

I just wish there were more people in my life like Ron Sanders.

UPHE’s Eddie Cunningham to be Honored With Third Annual ‘Fast Forward’ Award

Media Play News on Feb. 28 announced that Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (UPHE), will receive the third annual Media Play Fast Forward Award, which honors people, technologies, organizations, products or services that move the home entertainment industry forward.

Cunningham is being honored for his innovative and aggressive promotion of packaged media since he assumed his present position in 2014. Under Cunningham’s leadership, UPHE has scored a steady string of best-selling Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, spanning such global blockbuster franchises as “Jurassic World” and “Fast and Furious” as well as the breakout film sensations Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Us and Downton Abbey.

In an effort to further innovate for the industry, UPHE last June unveiled a completely reimagined bonus content menu for its physical disc offerings that is more easily accessible and navigable — a move the studio introduced to provide viewers with a more visceral and engaging experience for Blu-ray Disc and DVD bonus content, which Cunningham and his team believe is a key selling point for its physical product offerings.

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And when Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures in January 2020 announced plans to merge their domestic disc distribution businesses, Cunningham was chosen to lead the joint venture that pending regulatory approval will begin operation in early 2021.

Last year, the Media Play Fast Forward Award went to digital retailers Cameron Douglas of FandangoNow, Galen Smith of Redbox On Demand, Google Play Movies & TV’s Jonathan Zepp and the team at Apple iTunes.

The previous year, the inaugural Media Play Fast Forward Award was shared by Fox Innovation Lab and Movies Anywhere.

The Media Play Fast Forward awards are an outgrowth of the Home Entertainment Visionary Awards, which were launched in 2002 by the now-defunct Home Media Magazine. Comcast’s Brian Roberts was the 2017 honoree. Warren Lieberfarb, the father of DVD, was the first Visionary Award winner, back in 2002. Other honorees have included Sony Pictures’ Ben Feingold, Samsung’s Tim Baxter, and Walmart’s Louis Greth and Chris Nagelson.

Cunningham will be profiled in the March issue of Media Play News.

Closing Thoughts — and Shots — on CES 2020

Moments after my obligatory Facebook posting of pictures from my visit to CES 2020, industry veteran Gary Khammar — who for 10 years, from 1980 to 1990, was EVP at RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment, the precursor to Sony Pictures Home Entertainment — commented, “How many CES shows have you attended in your career? The number must be pretty high by now.”

I responded, “27,” but it might be 28. All I know is I recently received my 25-year pin from the kind folks at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), who produce the annual show. Looking back, I can still remember roaming the show floor and checking out the latest VCRs, and then this new disc-based technology called CD-I, which let you watch movies on disc. It was sort of the 8-track of home entertainment: you had to break up a movie onto two separate discs, and the blacks weren’t very, well, black.

Then came DVD, and a flurry of exciting home entertainment news at each year’s show — the initial battle with Divx, a pay-per-play variant, and Warren Lieberfarb, the father of DVD, following me in the hallway of the Las Vegas Convention Center to bemoan the format’s slow launch. Making the encounter all the more tragic was that Lieberfarb was hobbling about on a cane, due to a broken foot.

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A year later, it was a whole other story. Divx was gone, and Lieberfarb had ditched the cane and was all smiles — a rarity, colleagues of the former Warner Home Video chief will tell you. DVD had become the biggest consumer electronics launch in history, and the whole home entertainment industry was reveling in joy — and dollars.

Then came the big television revolution. We went from boxy TVs that maxed out at 27 inches to giant flat screens with a constantly improving picture quality. With the advent of high-definition, the DVD was no longer good enough, and I remember how the ensuing format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc was played out at CES. Driving to Las Vegas in January 2007, I kept having to pull over and interview studio presidents who were lining up in one camp or the other, and I remember the flurry of press conferences at that year’s show that led to many a late-night writing session, trying to keep it all straight.

No sooner had the format war been settled than CES became the launching pad for yet another generation of new and improved TVs. But the 4K launch was spectacularly unspectacular — not because of the technology, but, rather, because the hardware was launched without anyone bothering to get the studios on board first.

A year or two later, the studios did jump in, but they decided “4K” wasn’t sexy enough so they rolled out a new acronym, UHD, for “ultra high-definition,” followed, later, by an additional acronym, “UHD with HDR,” HDR standing for high dynamic range. Not surprisingly, the expected excitement over yet another new format was tempered by consumer confusion over what, exactly, it was called.

After many meetings and discussions it was decided to restore the 4K name to the software, initially known as UHD Blu-ray Discs but subsequently rebranded as 4K Ultra HD.

Today, 4K UHD TVs remain on the upswing, accounting for 44% of all TVs shipped in 2019, according to the CTA. And 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs are selling remarkably well — still climbing, while the overall disc market remains in a state of decline.

But in the four years since the 4K Ultra HD discs were launched at CES 2016, the show itself has become increasingly irrelevant for those of us on the content side of the business, as the focus has shifted toward innovation and technology. One analyst even noted in an interview that CES was now one of the country’s biggest car shows, a showcase for connectivity and autonomous driving.

Last year’s CES once again saw the launch of a new and improved TV, 8K — again, with no software support.  The first 8K TVs went on sale later in 2019, and at the just-concluded CES 2020, the central hall  was dominated by massive 8K displays by huge CE concerns such as Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and TCL — as well as smaller players like Sharp and Hisense.

There were debates over which variant is better, QLED or OLED, while Samsung executives talked up Serto, a TV that flips from horizontal to vertical so viewers can watch portrait-mode content (presumably, commercials, and woe to any vase or bauble that might get in the way when the TV automatically rotates).

Samsung also touted how streaming-friendly its TVs are, thanks to Samsung TV Plus.

But there was not a peep from Hollywood about 8K content on disc — or digital, for that matter.

Whatever happened to the concept that content is “king?”

 

Home Entertainment Industry Golf Tournament a Big Win

More than 100 people participated in the Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament July 15 at the Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, Calif., honoring a “foursome” of industry legends and raising nearly $80,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  Warren Lieberfarb, David Bishop, Steve Nickerson and Mike Fidler were honored for their contributions to DVD, which triggered the start of home entertainment’s digital revolution. The event was organized by Mark Horak, a former executive with Warner Bros. Entertainment Group and Redbox, and is a precursor to the Los Angeles Entertainment Summit, which starts July 16.

Lieberfarb is the former president of Warner Home Video who has been widely hailed as the “father” of DVD.  Bishop is the former president of both MGM Home Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; he was a leader in driving catalog DVD sales, one of of the format’s big growth engines. Nickerson is the former Toshiba executive who pushed DVD from the consumer electronics hardware side; he was later hired by Lieberfarb at Warner. And Fidler is the former Sony Electronics executive who drove DVD’s marketing; he is currently president of the UHD Alliance.

All four played key roles in the launch of DVD, which shifted home entertainment from a rental to a purchase model and introduced digital into what had been an analog business. DVD subsequently gave way to Blu-ray Disc, which opened the door to digital movie sales and rentals through the inclusion of a digital copy with each purchased disc. DVD generated  millions of dollars of revenue to studios, becoming an important factor in greenlighting films.

Honoring DVD Pioneers

Four industry veterans crucial to the launch of DVD were joined at an informal dinner July 11 as a precursor to the Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament on July 15, where they will be officially honored for their contributions to DVD, which triggered the start of home entertainment’s digital revolution. Warren Lieberfarb, David Bishop, Steve Nickerson and Mike Fidler dined alongside various other past and present executives, including Ryan Pirozzi of Amazon, Eddie Cunningham of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Amy Jo Smith of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, and 20th Century Fox innovators Mike Dunn and Danny Kaye, both of whom left the studio earlier this year when Disney’s takeover was complete. The golf tournament is being held at the North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, with all proceeds benefitting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Four ‘Digital Revolution’ Pioneers to Be Honored at Industry Golf Tournament

Four industry veterans crucial to the launch of DVD — which signaled the start of home entertainment’s digital revolution — will be honored at the Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament on July 15.

The tournament takes place the Monday prior to the ninth annual LAES and OTT Conference, produced by the Entertainment Merchants Association. It will be held at the North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, with all proceeds benefitting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The honored “foursome” includes Warren Lieberfarb, the former president of Warner Home Video who has been widely hailed as the “father” of DVD.  Other honorees include former MGM Home Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment president David Bishop; former Toshiba and Warner executive Steve Nickerson; and former Sony Electronics executive Mike Fidler, president of the UHD Alliance.

All four played key roles in the launch of DVD, which shifted home entertainment from a rental to a purchase model and introduced digital into what had been an analog business. DVD subsequently gave way to Blu-ray Disc, which opened the door to digital movie sales and rentals through the inclusion of a digital copy with each purchased disc. DVD generated  millions of dollars of revenue to studios, becoming an important factor in greenlighting films.

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Lieberfarb not only brought the concept of movies and other content on a digital video disc to fruition, but also rallied the other studios as well as consumer electronics manufacturers to support and heavily promote the new format. Bishop, as head of MGM, was Lieberfarb’s strongest studio ally, while Nickerson was SVP of sales and marketing at Toshiba America Consumer Products, the U.S. arm of the Japanese CE giant that helped develop, and bring to market, the DVD format. Fidler was recruited by Sony Electronics from Pioneer Electronics in 1997 to lead efforts to establish the DVD format in the U.S. market.

“DVD was the start of a digital revolution that allowed movie lovers to collect and enjoy content at home,” said Amy Jo Smith, president and CEO of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. “Beyond the actual disc, the launch of DVD saw groundbreaking new partnerships and cooperation across studios and CE manufacturers, component providers, replicators, mastering services and retailers. The development and launch of DVD also laid the foundation in authoring and compression technology that ultimately made it possible for entertainment content to be distributed over broadband.”

The Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament is produced by Mark Horak, a former Warner Home Video and Redbox executive who has two daughters with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. He launched the tournament in 2012 and from the start donated proceeds to the foundation to support the development of new drugs and treatments to extend the lives of the 30,000 people in the United States with the disease.

Horak believes the time has come to bring the tournament back, not just to raise funds for charity but also as a prime networking opportunity.

“Without the vision, leadership and collaboration of these industry veterans in both Hollywood and the CE industry, consumers would not have the convenient access to high quality content that they have today,” Horak says. “Everyone who operates in the new digital world owe them our sincere thanks.”

Attendees will include executives from the major and independent studios involved with the production and distribution of content, retailers and distributors of digital and physical content, consumer electronics manufacturers and various suppliers of supporting products and services for the media and entertainment industry.

To attend the event sign up here.