Thomas K. Arnold is considered one of the leading home entertainment journalists in the country. He is publisher and editorial director of Home Media Magazine, the home entertainment industry’s weekly trade publication. He also is home entertainment editor for The Hollywood Reporter and frequently writes about home entertainment and theatrical for USA Today. He has talked about home entertainment issues on CNN’s “Showbiz Tonight,” “Entertainment Tonight,” Starz, The Hollywood Reporter and the G4 network’s “Attack of the Show,” where he has been a frequent guest. Arnold also is the executive producer of The Home Entertainment Summit, a key annual gathering of studio executives and other industry leaders, and has given speeches and presentations at a variety of other events, including Home Media Expo and the Entertainment Supply Chain Academy.
Hulu’s uncertain future illustrates the conundrum that so often surrounds “flavor of the month” home entertainment options: One day they’re The Next Big Thing; a short time later, they’re on the ropes.
It’s a conundrum that in itself reflects the fluid nature of digital delivery, and the fact that for all its knocks and reports of imminent extinction, packaged media has shown surprising resiliency.
And why not? When the computer crashes and the iPad’s out of battery power, when the Internet’s down or there’s no Wi-Fi, the physical disc works just fine on any TV, on any Blu-ray player.
Indeed, one reason I believe the disc will stick around a lot longer than many futurists think is that in this ever-changing world of streaming, downloading and new and supposedly better ways to consume entertainment, the optical disc has become something of a comfort food, a dependable, reliable standby that never disappoints or lets you down.
Back to Hulu, for a minute: According to a recent report published in the Wall Street Journal, two of the video-streaming service’s three big corporate owners — News Corp. and Disney – have begun discussing possible next steps in the wake of the imminent departure of CEO Jason Kilar and chief technology officer Rich Tom.
There’s a bit of a tug-of-war going on, the Journal says: News Corp. wants Hulu to focus on its subscription service, while Disney prefers the free ad-supported business model. Hulu currently juggles both a free service and a subscription business, Hulu Plus, which has more than 3 million subscribers.
Hulu is tiny compared to Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers, just in the United States. It mostly streams shows from its parent companies’ TV networks and in the past has had a competitive advantage due to special access to content from Disney and News Corp. – but now they’ve got deals in place with Netflix, as well.
Hulu has invested in original programming, but faces intense competition from Netflix, Amazon and, of course, YouTube, where everything’s still free.
The big buzz among young people that surrounded Hulu since its late-2007 launch — and was generating quite a clash as recently as last year — seems to be gone now, as far as I can tell. The kids have moved on, as they inevitably do, with Netflix and YouTube on the tip of everyone’s tongue – and bookmarked on everyone’s computer.
Meanwhile, those old-fashioned discs are still seeing plenty of action, at least in households with which I’m familiar ...
Our home entertainment industry finished 2012 on a quite robust note — consumer spending was up for the first time in five years — and yet a dark cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over us.
One home executive in December smiled and said, “Well, we’ve had a pretty good year. I hope we can stick around for another one.”
She was only half-joking — our industry has frequently been in periods of transition in the past, but never before has transition been a perpetual state, as it is now. We’ve seen our industry go from VHS to DVD, from rental to sellthrough, from DVD to Blu-ray Disc.
But in the rapidly changing times in which we live, with consumers embracing multiple devices, multiple formats and multiple electronic delivery mechanisms — on top of that old standby, packaged media — it’s anyone’s guess what our home entertainment landscape will look like a year from now, much less five years down the road.
I was mulling things over the other day with a good friend who works in a senior position at a major studio. We agreed that our vision of an ideal scenario would be some sort of “one click” or “one tap” mechanism that would make consuming entertainment as easy as, say, opening the refrigerator — or turning on the TV.
Imagine a world where I can start watching a movie on my home theater system in the evening, but it gets too late and I need to turn the movie off and go to bed. The next morning, I tap my smartphone or iPad against my TV, and I’m able to pick up the movie at the exact spot I left off the night before. I watch a few minutes over breakfast, then drive to work. I’m really eager to watch the rest of the movie, so I tap my smartphone to my computer and the movie instantly appears on my monitor, so I can finish watching it while I pretend to work.
The movie’s done; I liked it so much I call my wife, who’s out of town visiting her mother, and tell her she’s got to see it, as well. I click once on my smartphone, and all of a sudden it’s on her smartphone, for easy viewing or a simple one-tap transfer to the TV in her mother’s house.
From a consumer standpoint, movie consumption would be so easy, so simple, so quick, that I’m sure the end result would be we’d all watch more movies. And that’s a big win for the studios, as well, since the more we watch, the more we buy or rent or stream.
The only way I can see us getting to this point is through UltraViolet. The concept of a digital storage locker, up in the cloud, that gives consumers instant access to purchased content anywhere, at any time, on any device is probably one of Hollywood’s brightest ideas, ever.
But we still have a ways to go. We still don’t have all studios participating, we still have too many different websites and pass codes, and we still have too many things to click, press and type in. So let’s streamline and simplify, and get everyone on board. Only then will that nasty cloud go away.
Kevin Tsujihara’s selection as the next CEO of Warner Bros. didn’t surprise me in the least. As the studio’s longtime head of home entertainment, he’s proven that he knows how to make money. Home entertainment is still the biggest source of revenues to the studios, and Warner Bros. has been tops in market share since even before I began writing about home entertainment more than two decades ago.
But Tsujihara’s selection was not just a matter of dollars and cents — not by a long shot. In a Hollywood ecosystem where imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, but a way of life, Tsujihara has always been a maverick. He’s not only stood out from the home entertainment pack, he’s inevitably stood out ahead of it. He’s earned a reputation as a deliberate disruptor who’s never been afraid to try new things and if they don’t always work out the way he had hoped, well, that’s OK, let’s move on to something else.
And yet he’s not so much a gambler, a risk taker, as he is a shrewd and savvy entrepreneur — albeit one who has learned to operate in a corporate environment. He’s a leader of the pack who also happens to work and play well with others.
Tsujihara doesn’t so much roll the dice on emerging and even future technologies as he plays the field, carefully picking and choosing what he considers to have the best chance at success. He’s not looking to transform the business so much as he is out to reinvent it, rebuild it — in a sustainable way. And if one accepts sustainability as Hollywood’s true holy grail, then Tsujihara’s real trump card is twofold: He’s got the vision to see what lies ahead, and the courage, guts and acumen to follow through and get us there, in some way or another.
Tsujihara pioneered the concept of day-and-date video-on-demand. He was one of the first to recognize the power and potency of social media by first selling movies on Facebook and then spearheading the acquisition of social movie fan site Flixster. His latest triumph is still a work in progress: leading the industry charge to UltraViolet, a critically important next step in the ongoing evolution of home entertainment that allows customers to acces digital versions of their purchased content from the cloud.
UltraViolet at once future proofs physical media and creates a whole new business model for electronic sellthrough, which has been a slow go for the Hollywood studios.
Many observers have already said that in choosing Tsujihara as their next CEO, Warner Bros. board members made the best choice. In truth, they made the only choice if their studio — and others like it — are to survive, and even thrive, in the digital era.
I hate to be a downer here, but the writing’s clearly on the wall. Blockbuster, an icon of the home video industry since the early days of rental, is not going to survive much longer.
Dish Network, which bought the ailing rental chain out of bankruptcy in April 2011, announced it is closing an additional 300 U.S. stores, either ones with expiring leases or exceptionally poor performance. A year ago Dish announced the shuttering of 500 domestic Blockbuster stores. The latest closure leaves Blockbuster with maybe 500 locations throughout the country — a far cry even from 2009, when Blockbuster still had more than 3,600 U.S. stores.
Blockbuster has been earmarked for the grave for quite some time. Blockbuster made 24/7 Wall Street’s “Ten Brands That Will Disappear” list in both 2010 and 2011. Blockbuster defied the odds and managed to survive, but the latest round of closures suggests even Dish realizes now it made a bad investment. At the time buying the Blockbuster brand seemed like a good idea because everyone thought Blockbuster was associated with movies, but looking back, the Blockbuster brand merely reminded consumers of the hassles they had to go through back when renting a movie from a physical store was their only option — exorbitant late fees, return trips and not finding the movie they wanted.
Blockbuster made more than a few missteps throughout the years, but I think the biggest one was not jumping headfirst into sellthrough in the early days of DVD and thus allowing the mass merchants to take over that segment of the business. Another was taking a dismissive view of Netflix, and then belatedly trying to compete only after it became clear that the subscription model had caught on. Heck, back in 2000 Blockbuster even passed on several offers to buy Netflix for just $50 million, opting instead to sign a 20-year deal with a subsidiary of Enron (!) to deliver on-demand movies to consumer homes.
Blockbuster has managed to hang on for a lot longer than most observers thought, but its day of reckoning, I fear, is coming up. Even the proverbial cat with nine lives eventually runs out of time.
I read somewhere on a tech blog that only about half the products displayed at CES ever make it to market. That's a .500 batting average in the "promises kept" department, and quite truthfully I'm fine with that.
Part of technology's innovation process is separating the wheat from the chaff, and there's really no better way than throwing stuff out at CES and seeing how people react. Think of CES as one giant focus group, albeit one that's quite a bit more tech-savvy than the general public.
If something fails to excite the CES crowd, so the thinking goes, it doesn't stand a chance in the mainstream market. (Of course, lots of things excite the CES crowd that Joe Consumer couldn't care beans about, but that's a whole other issue.)
Walking through the show floor, here's a brief list of things I'd like to see materialize, drawn from a vast parade of products I either saw or didn't see and various press conferences touting, of course, The Next Big Thing.
• A website where I can get any movie I want, to watch on any device I want, in any format — so I can either stream it or download it right there, or order it on Blu-ray Disc, either to rent or to buy. Everyone's got bits and pieces; I crave the whole enchilada.
• A 3D TV that's simple to use — and one for which glasses are readily available, unlike the Panasonic I have hanging in my bedroom.
• A TV that won't be obsolete next year at this time.
• Universal studio support for UltraViolet. As we've seen with DVD and Blu-ray Disc, eventually everyone comes around. But for UltraViolet to really capitalize on its momentum and reach its full potential, we need everyone on board — now.
• Computers with Blu-ray Disc drives. My camcorder shoots in beautiful high-definition; to transfer it to disc I have to compress the files because my computer only burns DVDs.
• An iPad/iPhone with a removable battery (by me, not someone in Cupertino).
• A Blu-ray Disc player for my car (even though it's taken so long nobody watches DVDs in the car anymore; the kids all have their own tablets and UltraViolet accounts).
With the year rapidly coming to a close, my annual year-end analysis, which will appear on this site shortly, offers all sorts of interesting observations, discussions and dialog from industry leaders on the state of the home entertainment business and how we got here. The story ends with a look ahead, with projections on what 2013 may bring.
In this edition of T.K.’s Take, I’m going to add my voice to the chorus and share some of my own personal thoughts on where our business is heading — along with a handful of obstacles I think we need to fix or at least address, post haste.
I believe the bump in overall consumer spending we saw in 2012 will either lead to another slight uptick in 2013 or level out — but in any case, I don’t see any declines, at least not for a while.
On the physical side, disc prices are low enough that consumers are going to step up buying discs, particularly those who want the best-possible quality of both picture and sound and don’t want to mess with the logistics of downloading or streaming. I know, I know, digital is so easy that watching a movie is just a click away — but for a large percentage of the population, that’s one click too many.
And on the electronic side, the more options consumers have of watching movies, the more likely they will take advantage of those options. That’s why universal support of UltraViolet — the best value-proposition I think I’ve ever heard of — is critical at this juncture. So is studio support of Netflix and Redbox, both of which have proven themselves mighty fine little innovators capable of thinking beyond the physical disc. Stop fighting and make it work — and in the end, we’re all going to benefit.
I also see a return of young eyeballs to the movies. At this point everyone younger than 21 is still enthralled with YouTube and goofy clips and Web series. But inevitably the novelty’s going to wear off and I believe we’re going to see an uptick at the box office — provided, of course, that Hollywood continues to make good movies, as it’s done this fall with titles such as Argo, Skyfall, Flight and Lincoln.
So, yes, I’m feeling quite bullish right now — and yet, there are several areas of concern that could prove flies in the proverbial ointment:
• Pricing. The days of commanding a premium for Blu-ray Discs is over. Consumers need to be able to buy BDs for the same prices as DVDs, even new releases. The message two-tiered pricing sends is that DVDs are inferior and BDs are elite, so too often consumers end up buying neither. In the early days of the format it made sense, but no longer.
• 3D. It’s still too cumbersome and confusing. I have a Panasonic 3D TV, and a 3D Blu-ray player. I tried buying glasses for the TV but the guys at Best Buy gave me the wrong pair; when I went to return them and told them the model of my TV they said they don’t carry those glasses any longer. To top it off, I slipped Pirates of the Caribbean into the BD player and the screen said the player doesn’t recognize it as being 3D. I give up.
• Combo units: Our side of the business has done a great job with combo backs, allowing consumers to get a DVD and a BD in the same pack. Pity the CE industry hasn’t followed suit. I have yet to see a TV with a built-in BD player at Best Buy or Walmart, and am still waiting for a Blu-ray Disc player for my car.
• United we stand. When DVD was launched, not everyone was on board. When BD was launched, we found ourselves in a bitter and divisive format war. Now we’ve got UltraViolet. Can we all get in the same sandbox, for once?
That said, here’s wishing you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year, on behalf of the entire staff of Home Media Magazine.
Our industry is learning a lot about consumer habits this fourth quarter. With less than three weeks before Christmas, a few observations can be made that may impact how studios and retailers do business in the coming months.
For starters, the old debate about whether consumers are price sensitive when it comes to purchasing Blu-ray Discs and DVDs appears to have been settled, once and for all. The answer, judging from shopping carts filled to the brim with deep-discounted discs on Black Friday, is a resounding yes. Price it cheap enough, and consumers will buy.
Concerns about the “race to the bottom” that dominated studio boardrooms just a few years ago need to be put aside as we realize that in the new economy, it’s all about bargains. Keep in mind that consumers can rent discs for a buck at Redbox, stream movies for not much more over the Internet and access all sorts of free, or almost free, entertainment on sites ranging from YouTube to Hulu. They’re going to think twice about spending more than $10 to buy a movie, particularly one that’s been out for a while.
My conclusion: Price discs cheap enough and you’ll more wind up with more than enough additional sales to compensate. Would you rather sell 1 million discs at $8 each or 200,000 at $15? That’s what I thought.
Secondly, like sharks, consumers tend to enjoy feeding frenzies. The more the merrier is what we’ve seen this fourth quarter, with the most successful titles coming out a week or two before Thanksgiving and then being widely available, at a lower price, in time for Black Friday. Dating is still important, but go out too early or too late and you may miss your carriage.
December, in particular, is one of those months that used to be quite good for our business. But now, consumers bought so many discs over the extended Black Friday sales period that they need a few weeks to digest — although we don’t yet know whether we’ll see a rebound as Christmas draws closer, fueled by impulse buyers and last-minute gift shoppers.
The third lesson we’ve learned is one that some marketers, particularly the folks at Warner, have known for some time. There’s a vibrant and, perhaps, growing market for elaborate Blu-ray Disc and DVD gift sets, and this market isn’t price sensitive at all. Indeed, package the right movie or movies with a carefully selected batch of extras — both trinkets and content. Aim your marketing at the fan base, reaching out to them wherever they may be. Produce a limited quantity and make sure the fans know this. And, bingo, you’re going to score.
Packaged media is far from dead. We just have to keep tabs on what consumers want and give it them.
I’m writing this a few days before Black Friday, so I have no idea whether a threatened strike at Walmart stores will materialize or not.
But I will say that the negativity I see expressed toward America’s No. 1 retail chain — both in articles in the press and from various “friends” on my own Facebook wall — astounds and disgusts me.
I tend to shy away from political discourse in my columns, focusing on industry issues, trends and developments. But in this case politics and the home entertainment business intersect — a strike could hurt Walmart’s Black Friday business, and that could have a detrimental effect on DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales.
So here goes: I’m already not happy with the entitlement wave that’s sweeping our country — the belief that our government, our employer, owes us something.
I believe in hard work and personal responsibility. I’m happy to pay my fair share in taxes, and I’m more than willing to help people who through no fault of their own are in in trouble — people who have lost their jobs, people who can’t find jobs, families that are struggling to put food on the table.
But I have absolutely no sympathy for the Walmart employees who are complaining that they don’t get paid enough, or that they don’t get benefits, or that Walmart stores are opening too early on Thanksgiving Day, or various other aspects of the company’s labor practices.
If you don’t like working for Walmart, no one’s forcing you to work for Walmart. And I believe most workers understand this: They are grateful to have a job. If they want a better job, no one’s stopping them from advancing their lot in life, either at Walmart or somewhere else. They merely need to show some initiative.
But I don’t think worker discontent really is the factor here. The Black Friday protests — and earlier rallies — are instigated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has long had a bug up its you-know-what that Walmart is a non-union shop.
The American people owe unions a tremendous debt of gratitude. Unions revolutionized the workplace and are behind all sorts of labor laws that protect our workers. But throughout the years, unions in large part have become bloated bureaucracies that have lost sight of their original intent — to protect the worker — and are now out to increase their own power and might through forced payroll deductions and other onerous tactics, including riling up workers at non-union companies like Walmart.
I’m not saying Walmart employees don’t have any legitimate gripes. All of us who work for someone else do, from time to time. But there are ways to address their concerns, and pitching a fit by refusing to go to work and, instead, marching outside stores with signs and angry epithets strikes me as, well, childish.
As long as Walmart is complying with the law, there’s no cause for this hurtful, hateful disruption. Workers of the world, grow up.
For the fifth straight year, we are honoring the women in home entertainment — a smart, savvy and strategic group of executives who helped build and develop our business and are now working hard to sustain it.
A while back, one male executive who shall remain nameless asked me, “Why do you keep doing this? Women are part of the workforce — I don’t see any need to single them out.”
I gave him an earful. That glass ceiling? It still exists. Sorry, everyone, but sexism is alive and well right here in these United States, but too many people turn a blind eye toward it and pretend everything’s equal.
That’s the primary reason we celebrate our women each year — as do trade books in other industries, as well as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, both of which focus on the broader entertainment spectrum.
We honor women because they deserve to be honored. They deserve to be called out and recognized for their success, and presented as role models for other women — and as examples to society that based on talent and ability, equality should be a given.
Sadly, in too many other industries, it’s not.
The day after the election, someone on my Facebook page posted, “Hillary and Condi in ’16.” My response: “I could go for that. In fact, if they could somehow put aside party differences and run together, I’d totally support it. It’s hard to believe we’ve never had a woman at the helm of our government. I hate to make generalities and sound sexist, but in my own experience I’ve always preferred to work with women because, on the whole, I have found them to be smarter, more reasonable and rational, and harder workers than men.”
Within five minutes, I had gotten nearly a dozen “likes” — a great response, by Facebook measures.
So here’s to the women of home entertainment — and to the women of Home Media Magazine: editor in chief Stephanie Prange, executive editor Angelique Flores, account executive Julie Savant and office manager/assistant editor Ashley Ratcliff.
Succession planning can be difficult, but in the Entertainment Merchants Association’s case, selecting a successor for retiring president and CEO Crossan “Bo” Andersen should be a snap.
Mark Fisher, the association’s EVP and Andersen’s right-hand man, will serve as interim president until an executive search is completed and a permanent successor is in place, board chairman Bob Geistman told Home Media Magazine.
I sincerely hope the board picks Fisher for the job.
It’s not that Fisher deserves the job, after all his years of service to the EMA.
It’s that the association’s membership deserves Mark Fisher.
Andersen has done an outstanding job keeping the EMA alive all these years. He took over as president of what was then the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) in 1999 and over the years has done his best to keep the trade group relevant. Under his watch the VSDA broadened representation from its independent video store base to include major retail players like Target, Costco and Best Buy. Andersen also in 2006 orchestrated the merger of the VSDA with the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, bringing video game dealers into the fold.
As consolidation continued to grip our industry, Andersen wisely concentrated more and more on legislative issues common to all classes of retailer, including the fight against video piracy, protecting consumer privacy and battling censorship.
Fisher is poised to take the EMA to the proverbial “next level.” He joined the association in 1999 after many years in retailing, running a division of video stores for Stop & Shop and then serving as senior vice president of operations at publicly held West Coast Entertainment. During his retail years, Fisher earned a reputation for being a demanding but fair manager, being driven to grow both the top line and the bottom line, and being creative both in merchandising and marketing.
In recent years, while Andersen held down the fort, Fisher ventured into new territory. He’s led EMA’s growth in the digital distribution space, recognizing that collaboration among members toward standards and common specifications will help to both grow consumer digital spending and cut distribution costs.
That shows Fisher’s foresight and ability to flex with the industry, which coupled with his many close relationships among studios as well as retailers, makes him the ideal candidate to succeed Andersen on a permanent basis.
His experience, reputation, relationships and vision are exactly what the EMA needs in today’s era of continued consolidation, when financial stability is critical but so is our ability as an industry to develop and capitalize on creative growth opportunities.