Playing With Exclusives7 Sep, 2012 By: John Latchem
When the summer theatrical hit The Hunger Games arrived on disc last month, Lionsgate went all out when it came to exclusives. Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Costco all got their own exclusive Blu-ray Disc offering, while Apple’s iTunes got its own digital exclusive in the form of an interactive viewing experience.
For retailers, exclusives often make a huge difference where a shopper ultimately buys that coveted disc. But who gets what, and why, often symbolizes the complicated relationship between studios, retailers and consumers, industry observers say.
“Different consumers like different things,” said T.J. Moffett, SVP of home entertainment marketing for Lionsgate. “Some are content focused, some are looking for that unique collectable. The special features can be tailored a little differently each time. These exclusives give consumers something special, and they get retailers excited, working with them to do something special, whether they’re brick-and-mortar or digital.”
Usually, however, studio executives are reluctant to discuss specifics of retail exclusives.
“It’s much too sensitive,” said one home entertainment division president.
But research and off-the-record interviews with key players on the studio, retail and distribution side indicate the history of exclusives is something of a footnote to the growth of DVD (and, by extension, Blu-ray Disc) in general. The arrival of DVD in 1997 represented a transformative moment for the industry, as for the first time the focus shifted to allowing movies to be purchased directly by consumers within months of appearing in theaters (as opposed to the previous rental-focused VHS model, which did allow for a few sellthrough titles).
To offer purchasers an additional incentive, studios began adding special features. From time to time there were so many extras that studios put them all on a second disc, allowing them to create a second “special edition” or “collector’s edition” and charge a premium.
Within a few years of DVD’s arrival, the mass merchants and big-box stores that dominated the sellthrough market engaged in price wars to win over the competition’s customers. The big retail chains found DVD to be an effective traffic generator, particularly on Tuesdays, the typical street date for new releases. They lowered the price and used hot new releases as loss leaders, enjoying the hordes of new consumers who flocked to their stores.
To appease retailers, studios contracted with them to produce exclusive versions of many major titles, further adding to the slate of SKUs from which consumers could choose their titles, the idea being the chance to get something extra with their movie would bring even more foot traffic into the store.
In the first few years of DVD, one of the easiest exclusives to offer was a simple bonus disc, often containing an extra featurette. TV DVD sets could offer bonus episodes to promote a new season or other shows from the same studio. And kidvid and family titles frequently popped up with toys attached to them.
Walmart cornered the market on DVD two-packs that offered a new release with a catalog DVD of a similarly-themed film from the same studio. This often included films to which the new DVD was a sequel, or older films with the same actors.
The advent of Blu-ray added even more options for retailer exclusives. Many retailers will offer exclusive Blu-ray versions of a film when other retailers have just the DVD. Other options for retailers include exclusive combo packs, digital copies or special artwork. Best Buy frequently offers exclusive 3D editions of titles. Even standalone, non-combo pack Blu-rays of some films that could ostensibly be found anywhere are stocked by only a few retailers.
The end result is a market crowded with more versions of a film than otherwise would be available. For example, when Warner Home Video released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 in November 2011, consumers could choose from more than a dozen different configurations of the film.
“Retail exclusives are great for differentiation,” said Ron Sanders, president of Warner Home Video. “They allow different retailers to offer something unique and special, and in turn the fans love the keepsake potential of the item. It’s a win-win and turns a potential commodity into an item you can show off to friends.”
While offering exclusives may be an ideal marketing tool for retailers, the practice can lead to frustration among consumers.
“I do think they’re probably effective for retailers as promotional tools because they do drive demand and get bodies into the stores,” said Bill Hunt, editor of TheDigitalBits.com. “But I know that they sometimes infuriate fans. It’s one thing if the exclusive is special packaging or some kind of swag item, but it’s totally another if the exclusive is a bonus disc of some kind with special documentary content that you can only get at the retailer in question. Case in point was the Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD set. Best Buy had an exclusive bonus disc with vintage docs, and it was only available for a limited time. Lots of people wanted it; only a small number actually got their hands on it.”
One of the newest trends, guided by the growing influence of Internet viewing, is to take the opposite approach and strip out the extras to offer a cheaper, bare-bones version of a movie. Walmart has done this a lot recently, with Act of Valor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.
Another type of exclusive involves a particular disc being available only through one particular outlet, to the exclusion of its competitors.
Walmart perhaps has taken advantage of this the most. Some of its deals include exclusive distribution rights to new direct-to-video films starring WWE talent or films made for its “Family Movie Night” brand. Sept. 11 Walmart offers Fox’s October Baby.
Target was the only place to get the disc for minor theatrical Me and Orson Welles. Before that, Target had exclusive rights to the Tim Allen vehicle Crazy on the Outside.
This strategy is frequently employed by Internet retailers. ScreenArchives.com, for example, often sells exclusive Blu-rays of catalog films under the Twilight Time label, limited to a run of 3,000 copies. Several independent distributors have taken to selling their product directly from proprietary websites, as Shout! Factory does when it produces limited press runs of cult-favorite TV series such as “Mister Ed” and “Small Wonder” to sell directly at its online store.
Other exclusive programs give retailers a chance to sell a product months or weeks in advance of a wide release. For example, Best Buy often gets Paramount catalog titles (Anchorman, Airplane, The Naked Gun, etc.) on Blu-ray months before anyone else. In recent months, Target has had early rights to several Universal TV DVD titles.
Another new promotional trend has been retailers adding a digital component to new releases that often has nothing to do with the movie itself, such as free song downloads, or a digital copy of another movie through a specialty online retailer such as iTunes. Usually, though, the chain will offer the promotion through its proprietary digital property, such as CinemaNow for Best Buy and Vudu for Walmart. As an example, Walmart offered customers a special configuration of Warner’s Wrath of the Titans that included a Vudu digital copy of Clash of the Titans.
Not everyone is on board with the practice. Gord Lacey, editor of TVShowsonDVD.com, says retailer exclusives are often a source of confusion for fans who like to know what options they have when planning to buy a disc. As a result, he’s not a fan of retail exclusives.
“I think they’re horrible,” Lacey said. “There’s no promotion done for the titles until the flyer comes out a few days before the release. Fans have to discover the titles themselves. TV DVD consumers like to plan what they’re going to buy, and they like knowing months beforehand that a title will be out on a certain date so they can budget accordingly.”
Chris Tribbey contributed to this story