September 03, 2013
A Blockbuster Is Hard to Find
In this week’s magazine, our editors and reporters looked in their neighborhoods for rental options. Most found a Redbox location within easy driving or even walking distance.
Blockbuster outlets seemed an endangered species, only happened upon on accident or via a long freeway trip.
And when our editors were able to get to a Blockbuster, it was a quandary to figure out how much a given rental would cost — though the selection was more broad than the Redbox kiosk option.
It is hard to see a former rental Goliath wane, but time may have passed Blockbuster by, leaving only ghosts like those at the Blockbuster in last year’s “South Park” episode. In the Oct. 24, 2012, episode, one of the kids’ fathers, Randy Marsh, buys a Blockbuster Video outlet for “only $10,000,” expecting to make a killing, only to find his customers are literally ghosts from the 1980s, wearing leg warmers and asking for films such as Turner & Hooch.
Whether Blockbuster is an anachronism or not, Redbox has taken steps to make sure its shrinking store footprint is filled. Our editors found Redboxes where there were formerly video stores, such as Blockbuster. The kiosk giant has skillfully filled in, and taken over, the disc rental market as Blockbuster has pulled back.
While our selected visits to Redbox and Blockbuster outlets may not paint the entire picture for the physical rental market, I think the exercise certainly points the way to — and points out — the successes and failings of the current physical rental landscape.
I hope you learn something (and perhaps get a chuckle or two, as I have) from the staff accounts we have supplied. The home entertainment rental business has changed a lot in the years since its inception around 1980, but one thing remains the same. Consumers are always looking for something to entertain them, in a convenient, wallet-friendly package. Whether it be Blockbuster or Redbox or a digital offering such as Netflix, or a disc or digital copy they own, consumers are looking for their own version of a “Blockbuster Night” that doesn’t break the bank.
July 25, 2013
The Curious Case of Netflix Originals
The Wizard of Oz had a good thing going until Toto got in the way.
Netflix and its original programming could be be operating in the same vacuum of wishful reality.
With 14 combined Emmy nominations led by “House of Cards,” “Arrested Development,” and “Hemlock Grove,” Netflix’s original series would appear to be the subscription video-on-demand pioneer’s emerging Ace card as it attempts to transform the TV landscape and grow subscribers.
Except that after door-to-door campaigns in West Los Angeles (to help secure nominations), online, billboard, taxi ads, and free publicity at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, among other chatter, no one really knows just how many people have actually watched the shows — a reality that began with Nordic black comedy “Lilyhammer last year.
That’s because Netflix won’t release the numbers — no matter how many times moderators Rich Greenfield from BTIG Research and CNBC’s Julia Boorstin asked, cajoled and pleaded with CEO Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos to do so during Netflix’s July 22 investor interview webcast.
The official line is that since Netflix doesn’t have advertisers, it doesn’t feel compelled to divulge ratings the way ad-supported network TV programs do. It’s a clever excuse and tactical strategy right out of the playbook of fictional House minority whip Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) in “Cards.”
“From this moment on you are a rock. You absorb nothing, you say nothing, and nothing breaks you,” Underwood tells his bodyguard.
Indeed, if scuttlebutt and conjecture equaled Nielsen households, Netflix certainly has a few winners on its hands. But hype isn’t hard data, and so the question festered.
Sarandos said all of Netflix originals are drawing “TV size audiences,” adding that those obsessed with data should look to Netflix’s renewal of a second season as a “very positive sign” regarding viewership.
“If we are renewing programs people aren’t watching, then we are creating a huge opportunity cost in our content spend,” which he said would result in Netflix not having the money to spend on content subscribers do want to watch.
Then the CCO threw a curve ball.
Sarandos said that each original series had outperformed the previous original during its initial seven-day streaming period. That meant that largely panned gothic horror series, “Hemlock Grove,” drew larger audiences than “Cards,” and just-released women’s prison dramedy, “Orange is the New Black,” outdid them all, including the reboot of Fox dark comedy, “Arrested Development.”
The seven-day window is significant since Netflix makes all episodes of its originals available on street date.
Indeed, Hastings admitted “Development” resulted in a small bump of new subscribers, which analysts speculate meant about 100,000 new subs. A modest tally considering the show’s ardent fan base and pre-launch word-of-mouth.
Perhaps “Cards,” which appears a lock for an Emmy, was nothing more than a polished serial hyped by many and observed by few.
By: Erik Gruenwedel
April 17, 2013
UltraViolet Just Got Smarter — and Easier
At last, some action on the UltraViolet front.
What I consider the best idea to come out of Hollywood in years has been stalled of late, mired by a complicated operational structure.
The concept — buy a movie once, then access it from the cloud anywhere, at any time, on any device — is marvelous.
The execution — navigate through a maze of proprietary websites and registration requests — is marvelously flawed.
But as Mark Teitell, GM of UltraViolet’s Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), tells us in our April 15 6Q , we shall soon have a new mechanism that strips away the complexity of UltraViolet and actually makes it simple and easy for consumers to use.
The UltraViolet Common File Format (CFF) will make downloading functionality consistent across all UltraViolet retailers and service providers. As Teitell told our senior reporter, Chris Tribbey, “It empowers consumers to transfer or copy downloaded files on any UltraViolet-compliant device or app, without re-downloading or using bandwidth.”
DECE is currently in a beta and interoperability testing stage for CFF deployments, and the final product is expected to become available in the United States later this year.
That’s a critically important development — even more important to the mainstream success of UltraViolet than the stepped-up marketing push Teitell promises also is around the corner.
Years ago, colleagues used to joke about what they called the “People magazine” syndrome. What was hot one week was not the next.
Since then, our attention spans have gotten even shorter. It truly is the “one click” era, where we expect new worlds to open to us with a single click of a button.
We don’t want to be told that for this movie we have to go to this website, while for this movie we have to go to another.
We want it simple, and we want it now.
Once CFF is available, there’s only one more sticking point left for UltraViolet: Get Disney on board. It’s high time the studio joined the consortium and made its movies available through UltraViolet.
Sitting out on a transformational opportunity such as the one presented by UltraViolet makes no sense, and I sincerely hope Disney comes around and joins the party.
It will be good for Disney, and it will be good for the industry.
Even more importantly, it will be good for the consumer.
March 21, 2013
It’s Going to Take a Village to Save This Business
The most interesting thing about consulting firm Deloitte’s latest “State of the Media Democracy” survey is that soaring tablet use will drive an increase in movie rentals at the expense of sellthrough.
According to Deloitte, 28% of survey respondents said they would rent a movie this year, while just 12% said they would buy one, either on disc or through a digital download. At the same time, tablet ownership shot up 177% over the past year, with tablet owners 70% more likely to stream movies than those who don’t own an iPad or similar device.
The conclusion that there’s a correlation certainly strikes me as a valid one. And for studios that continue to rely on sellthrough for the bulk of their daily bread, this is, indeed, cause for concern. Hollywood throughout the years has done everything in its power to pump up the sales market. Back in the early days of home video, they fought tooth and nail against the nascent rental industry, which the studios correctly charged was taking money out of their pockets.
The Walt Disney Company’s much-ballyhooed moratorium strategy put dollar signs in everyone’s eyes as they realized that consumers could, indeed, be induced to buy movies, and in huge quantities. But it wasn’t until the advent of DVD in 1997 that the studios finally came up with an insurmountable weapon that ignited the sellthrough market quickly and furiously — and ever since the market peaked in 2005, they’ve been trying to figure out how to regain the momentum.
Since then, however, we’ve become a much more transient society. Our inherent nature to own, to collect, to hoard, has diminished. We lease cars instead of buy them; we read the news online instead of buying newspapers and magazines; and when we do buy things it’s products that enable us to do things, like smartphones and tablets, instead of products we can actually use on their own merits.
These days, the things we can do with smartphones and tablets are practically endless. The commercial of the couple spending every second of their day on matching Kindles is beginning to ring true: Our smartphones and tablets have become integrated in our daily lives. Heck, I see it with myself, a 55-year-old geezer who texts like a teen and goes everywhere, even the beach, with his iPad.
So for studios that still, more than anything else, want to sell content, what’s the solution? As I’ve said many times before, we need to find some way to sync the consumers’ desire to watch movies with our desire to sell them. I’m convinced UltraViolet is the best way to achieve this, but it’s still way too complicated — and the fact that Disney isn’t on board is having a real chilling effect on its immediate potential.
It takes a village to raise a child? Heck, it’s going to take a village to save this business — all of us, working together and putting all our focus on understanding the consumer and his wants, needs and desires.
January 29, 2013
Kevin Tsujihara: A Wise Choice for Warner CEO
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.
February 27, 2012
Hollywood’s Retro-Fueled Nostalgia Trip
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which just won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, tells the story of a young artist who finds himself entranced by the romanticized atmosphere of France in the early 20th century. I can’t think of a better microcosm for Hollywood in the past year.
Let’s begin with last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, which in addition to Allen’s award bestowed 10 trophies upon two films built around French silent films.
Voters swooned around The Artist, a French film from a creative team previously best known in America for a pair of James Bond spoofs (among those who knew them at all, that is). Jean Dujardin, a superstar in his native land, plays a silent film star who finds himself unable to adapt to the advent of talkies. Does its win for Best Picture constitute a vote of protest from Hollywood in the face of its own struggles to adapt to an evolving medium? In this case, of course, it’s the plethora of new filmmaking technologies that seem to have democratized the industry, putting less emphasis on the traditional movie star and forcing studios to turn to new gimmicks such as 3D. And that’s not to mention the evolving home entertainment sphere, with the struggle between Blu-ray and digital delivery as the future platform of choice for the theatrical aftermarket.
In embracing the past, the Academy chose a silent movie for the first time since Wings was given the top prize at the inaugural ceremony in 1929. (Coincidentally, Wings was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time by Paramount.) It’s also the first Best Picture winner to be produced in the classic 4:3 ratio since 1955’s Marty. If not for Schindler’s List in 1993, it would be the first predominantly black-and-white film to win since 1960’s The Apartment. Take that, modern cinema!
On the other end of the scale is Hugo, which celebrates the past with thoroughly modern production values and dazzling use of the 3D form. Martin Scorsese paints a loving tribute to the spirit of artistry found in early silent films, particularly those of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. To celebrate how much cinema has evolved since those early days, Scorsese even converted some of Méliès’ most famous scenes into 3D. Take that, classic cinema!
What Scorsese’s film glosses over is how Méliès was ruined by rampant piracy and his own inability to adapt to the emerging business models of his new industry, which came to be dominated by Thomas Edison and his Machiavellian alliances to control most distribution channels. Instead, the film blames a changing cultural climate following World War I for Méliès’ downfall, as audiences supposedly turned their backs on anything “fun.”
Hopefully, modern Hollywood will not be so similarly oblivious to its own shortfalls.
But, it seems, in these cynical times, Hollywood is pining for a return to a simpler era of creative achievement unburdened by commercialism, when art for art’s sake was enough of an accomplishment. After all, it’s a lot easier to blame the audience when things don’t work out.
Hugo and The Artist haven’t exactly scored at the box office, but that doesn’t mean nostalgia doesn’t sell. Of the top 12 films of 2011, 10 were sequels and two were based on comic books. And both of those, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, are entries in the Marvel Films series that tie into the upcoming The Avengers.
Even looking at the top 25, most have some sort of nostalgic kick to them. One of the central themes of Bridesmaids (No. 14), for example, deals with how friends can find themselves drifting apart despite trying to hold onto what made that friendship work to begin with. And Super 8 (No. 21) is just an homage to Spielberg films of the 1970s and 1980s, with its own subplots of characters having to let go of the past.
And let’s not overlook The Muppets, which may be the ultimate nostalgia trip, as it reminisces about earlier “Muppet” movies as its characters try to re-create an episode of “The Muppet Show.” (Half the dialogue, it seems, is some variation of “I loved you guys when I was a kid.”)
And therein can be found the dichotomy in which Hollywood finds itself: a gap between artists who don’t want to be judged by an audience that prefers the safety of familiarity in the absence of fresh ideas, with the studios caught in the middle, facing a changing technological landscape that makes it that much harder to monetize their product.
If everyone is living in the past, is anyone looking toward the future?
By: John Latchem
September 26, 2011
Studios Are the King Makers
Netflix executives, during the past month or so, may have been wishing all the attention were still focused on their old nemesis Blockbuster. As long as Blockbuster was around, Netflix looked like the new, younger kid; the cool kid; the entrepreneur; the next big thing. Netflix represented the future, Blockbuster the past.
Unfortunately, Netflix had to grow up sometime, and its growing pains are starting to show in the company’s stock price, which has dropped precipitously as it has raised subscription prices to offset greater costs and grow its streaming business internationally.
There are a lot of advantages in being the new phenomenon on Wall Street, which is looking for outsized growth, even if it does come by undercutting an older, established business weighed down by debt like Blockbuster. While Blockbuster struggled to move with an enormous debt shackled to it, Netflix could bob and weave and build a better rental mouse trap, one that didn’t involve cumbersome real estate or a debt load and that got great pricing on streaming licenses from content holders who had not yet realized what streamed content was worth.
Now the entertainment landscape has shifted, and Netflix is in the spotlight. The company can’t get the kind of pass offered to new ventures; it will have to grow and prosper under the weight of expectations — and new, higher licensing fees for streamed studio content.
Oh, for the good old days when Blockbuster took much of the heat, Netflix executives must be thinking. But those days may be past for Netflix, which may now find out that the studios can be king makers in the distribution pipeline. Content holders favor whichever distribution avenue will offer them the most profit, and will wring ever more money from distribution pipelines that use their content.
Content is king, and the studios that own it can make or break a distribution partner. In the case of Netflix, I think executives may be finding out they have more in common with Blockbuster and other past studio distribution partners than they thought. Just as Netflix overtook Blockbuster, there are competitors in the wings targeting Netflix.
August 09, 2011
Rest In Peace, Maria LaMagra
I’m still reeling with shock and sadness at the death a few days ago of Maria LaMagra, the veteran home entertainment publicist who spent more than a decade running the PR show at Universal Studios Home Entertainment and then went on to become a successful PR consultant and independent contractor for Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures and others
So often, when people die, those of us who are left say something along the lines of, “She left us too soon. She was so full of life.”
In Maria LaMagra’s case, this isn’t just another platitude. It’s God’s honest truth. Maria didn’t observe life, nor did she merely live life. She took life by the shoulders and shook the bejesus out of it, and made it do her bidding.
Come to think of it, she did that to all of us.
Maria LaMagra was the diva of the Hollywood publicists when I joined what was then Video Store Magazine in 1991 and she was still the diva of Hollywood publicists when she died after a brief battle with cancer.
Her family put out a statement saying she was 66 when she died. Maria would have killed them. We all thought she was at least a decade younger. After a certain point, you see, Maria LaMagra stopped aging and became, well, ageless.
I’ll never forget her raspy voice, her loud laugh, the way she would throw back her head when she laughed, those expressive eyes, the way she carried herself, her sense of fashion and style, that aura of self-assuredness she always projected. And her approach – well, let’s just say Maria LaMagra was not from the Subtle School of Publicity. She emailed and then she phoned; she phoned and then she emailed. And she kept doing it, over and over again, until a journalist had no other choice than to say “yes.”
She was, as rocker Dave Edmunds would say, “subtle as a flying mallet.” When Maria LaMagra walked into a room, she owned it. She was loud, no question – and yet her heart was even bigger than her voice.
I’m half expecting a phone call, chastising me for putting her age in print – and asking me for one last favor, for a client, of course. Just six weeks before she died, she was at the EAA’s Wine & Wisdom event at the Skirball Center – clearly ill, but still a big, overwhelming presence. I was on vacation, but our editor in chief, Stephanie Prange, was there and talked to Maria.
The last thing she said, as Stephanie was preparing to leave: “Tell T.K. he still owes me a write-up on Smore Entertainment.”
If there’s a heaven, I can only imagine Maria up there right now, that loud laugh echoing through the clouds as she tells God and his angels what to do.
June 29, 2011
Why Is Blu-ray Quality Overlooked?
Last week I wrote a column about the loss of quality in the digital delivery realm, and since then I’ve received some assenting feedback.
“I agree with you 100%,” said one respondent. “I’m in the custom integration business and I have to spend time with each customer explaining to them the quality difference between streaming and Blu-ray. Sometimes I get the glossed over look when people think disc is dead and streaming is high-definition. It’s a war and the Blu-ray disc Association, Hollywood, etc., had better treat it that way. My kids have no problem with physical media so I know that isn’t a stumbling block.”
Others chimed in as well, pointing out the compression of digital files.
My question is: Why isn’t the industry doing more to drive home the quality of Blu-ray as opposed to the current state of digitally delivered files?
Last month we published a comprehensive white paper on Blu-ray Disc at 5, extolling the format’s quality and continued growth despite the headwinds of a terrible economy and a worthy predecessor in DVD. We, as an industry, should be doing more of that.
The digital delivery market naturally will have a cheering squad on Wall Street that is willing to repeat over and over again, “Disc is dead! Disc is dead!” After all, investors are always looking for the newest thing and tend to shun established and mature businesses. They just aren’t as exciting and won’t produce the kind of outsized stock growth that Wall Street craves.
But their (somewhat self-interested) enthusiasm for digital delivery doesn’t mean Blu-ray isn’t the best way to see a movie in the home.
Recently, I discussed this question with an industry observer who noted that many catalog titles actually are doing quite well on Blu-ray. He, too, wondered why the industry isn’t putting more effort into pushing and growing the market for the format.
Certainly, these aren’t flush times at many studios, which have instituted layoffs in recent weeks. But not promoting a quality, growing product won’t make things any better. There’s only so much cost-cutting studios can do to boost the bottom line. I agree that selling catalog at a hefty price to streaming services that go to consumers’ iPads and cell phones will help plug the profit hole, but so will selling consumers on the big-screen quality of Blu-ray.
April 20, 2011
Show Me the Money
Granted, the latest disc sales numbers for the first quarter, which should be released later this week, don’t look good. And the barrage of media reports alleging that the packaged-media business is on the ropes seems to be intensifying, with even the movie-biz website The Wrap calling the DVD business “dying” in a story today.
But once again, I need to plead with everyone to stomp on the brakes. Packaged media may no longer be Hollywood’s bread-and-butter, as it was beginning in 2001, as DVD transformed us all from movie renters into movie buyers. But it is still the dominant method we use to consume entertainment into our home, and in all likelihood will remain so at least for the foreseeable future.
An NPD Group study released earlier this week put things into perspective: Consumers may be talking about streaming and downloading movies, but when it comes time to take action they’re still plunking down their money for a Blu-ray Disc or DVD (to read the original story, click here). The study, conducted in March, found that nearly 80% of consumers watched a movie on DVD or Blu-ray Disc during the past 90 days, and that nearly 80 cents of every dollar spent on home entertainment goes toward the purchase or rental of physical discs. Respondents said 78% of their home video budgets went to the purchase and rental of Blu-ray Disc or DVD, including online and in-store retail purchases and rentals, while 15% was spent on video subscription services like Netflix. Digital video downloads, paid streaming, transactional VOD and pay-per-view accounted for just 8%.
I’d like to further point out that almost since the day this business began, we’ve been using the collective box office strength of movies available on home video to gauge the strength of the home entertainment business. And if you tally up what the movies that came to Blu-ray Disc and DVD in the first quarter of 2011 earned in U.S. theaters, and then compare that to the total for films issued on disc in the first quarter of 2010, you’ll find the drop in box office is virtually identical to the decline in disc sales.
Digital may be cool, sexy, hip, and with it. But to borrow a line from the movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money.”