Stephanie Prange is the editor in chief of Home Media Magazine. The Yale University graduate joined what was then Video Store Magazine in 1993 and was instrumental in transitioning the publication into a tabloid newsweekly. She spearheaded the publication’s reviews section, as well as aggressive coverage of the home video sales market. She also helped launch the magazine’s Web site in 1996. In her position as editor-in-chief since 2006, she has spearheaded the launch of such projects as the daily blast, transmitted via email each day to readers, and Agent DVD, a consumer publication aimed at genre enthusiasts who attend Comic-Con International in San Diego. She has freelanced for The Hollywood Reporter, The Los Angeles Times and parenting publications. She has an M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California.
In a month that saw such depressing news about women’s plight in Hollywood (and indeed in many other arenas), it was gratifying to attend an event inspired by one of the most brilliant women to ever grace the screen. Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr not only starred in such film classics as Samson and Delilah, The Strange Woman and Tortilla Flat, but she was also a lifelong inventor who pioneered “frequency hopping,” which became the foundation for technology utilized by the cell phones we carry daily, among other things.
To honor her, DEG: The Digital Entertainment group created an award to recognize and commemorate female industry leaders, and Nov. 15 in Santa Monica, Calif., the group presented the inaugural Hedy Lamarr Award for Innovation in Entertainment Technology to Geena Davis. Davis is the founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works to dramatically increase the percentage of female characters and reduce gender stereotyping in media targeting children 11 and under.
“She was just so extraordinary and so incredible that I can hardly even begin to fill her shoes, so I am extremely humbled and grateful for this award. What an honor!” Davis said of Lamarr. “She was a pioneer and a patriot and a heroine.”
She noted that “technology has become a huge part of my institute’s success.”
The institute is using data analysis developed at the University of Southern California and funded by Google to quantify the disparity in treatment of females and males in children’s entertainment.
“I am very confident in predicting that the percentage of female characters in TV and movies made for kids will dramatically improve within just a few years,” she said.
The DEG also recognized three scholarship recipients with the Hedy Lamarr Achievement Award for Emerging Leaders in Entertainment Technology: Johanna Baumann of the University of Michigan; Carolyn DiLoreto of USC and Cherylynn Lima of Smith College.
Nominations are now open for the 2018 awards.
This past month, the digital marketplace shifted on both the transactional and subscription VOD fronts.
On the transactional side, five of six major Hollywood studios joined forces for digital locker 2.0, Movies Anywhere, in a renewed attempt to make digital movie collecting easy. Movies Anywhere, a free app and website, launched Oct. 11, backed by four top digital retailers and content from Walt Disney (including Pixar, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm), Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox Film, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. Entertainment. After the stalled digital locker effort of UltraViolet, content owners are no doubt hoping the second time’s a charm, and having used the service in the past few weeks, I’m impressed. Family members away at college or during a break at school or work have been able to watch movies via the new service, something they rarely did in the many years we utilized UltraViolet. Kudos to these companies for continuing to improve the collecting experience for consumers, and here’s hoping Paramount and Lionsgate give it a shot, as well as digital retailers other than launch partners Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes and Walmart’s Vudu. I expect expansion of Movies Anywhere participants soon.
The SVOD marketplace saw pricing moves, both up and down. Netflix raised prices, overcoming any cold feet after a disastrous price increase attempt years ago. Despite its loss of Disney content and the threat of rebellion from cost-conscious consumers, Netflix got a thumbs up from the financial markets. On the other hand, Hulu took the opposite tack, lowering the introductory price for its ad-supported service, among other moves for price-conscious viewers.
Meanwhile, kiosk company Redbox, a physical rental stalwart, also made some digital moves, hiring new executives and selling Digital HD codes. More on that front is sure to come.
Content owners and services are aggressively chasing the digital future, refining the pricing and consumer experience in an attempt to find a winning mix. Dr. Nelson Granados, Forbes contributor and professor of digital innovation and information, addressed this dynamic change at the EMA’s recent Digital Media Pipeline conference. He noted that “channel conflict” is inevitable and that content owners have “got to strike a balance,” he said. It looks as if the shifts to find that balance are accelerating.
In our September issue, we examine the status of 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range (HDR), a new format that — despite being quite a mouthful — seems to be taking off.
Consumers may not understand unwieldy acronyms, but they understand better quality, especially when they see it. Still, if 4K UHD with HDR is to attract the mainstream consumer, the industry it seems will need to make a concerted effort to demonstrate its virtues. The Blu-ray Disc Association has cited data from Futuresource that shows consumers in the United States are familiar with UHD TVs (75%) but that less than half (44%) are aware of high dynamic range (HDR) TVs. That lower percentage familiar with HDR holds true internationally as well. Since HDR, most industry observers hold, is the key to a higher-quality picture, providing greater contrast and deeper, more lifelike colors, it seems further marketing is in order.
Most consumers who upgrade their TVs will adopt 4K UHD (most with HDR) by osmosis, as the newer models will feature the updated format. To get consumers to spend money on content for the new format will require marketing and demonstrations.
“With 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, seeing is believing,” noted Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “Educating consumers around the format’s stunning resolution, color brilliance and multi-dimensional sound is of the utmost priority across the industry.”
“Warner Bros. works very closely with our consumer electronics colleagues to incorporate 4K HDR clips and images from our 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray releases whenever possible,” said Jessica Schell, EVP and GM for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. “This is an ideal way to ensure that the consumer understands the quality of content available to watch in 4K HDR on these new 4K HDR TVs.”
I know organizations such as the BDA and the UHD Alliance, along with the studios, are working on programs to help boost the format at retail and among consumers. As the industry embarks on the holiday season, when numerous shoppers will be out sampling the latest TVs, the home entertainment industry should take advantage of this great opportunity to showcase 4K UHD with HDR content.
In the battle over whether content is king, The Walt Disney Co. has just thrown down the gauntlet, pulling its movies from Internet goliath Netflix and planning to distribute them on its own service.
It was a daring change of strategy by the studio that had previously been a key partner to the subscription video-on-demand leader, satisfied with collecting lucrative licensing fees while helping to build the library of a digital platform that is increasingly eating into the profits of the entertainment establishment. Having built its service on the content of traditional entertainment companies such as Disney, Netflix in recent years has been creating its own — in effect, becoming a studio itself. Surely, studio executives — including Disney CEO Bob Iger — have taken seriously this existential threat.
At the moment, Disney has a corner on some of the best content Hollywood has to offer, despite the increased investment of Netflix, Amazon Prime and others in original content. That makes the studio perhaps the best content owner to meet the challenge of creating its own service.
Still, is Disney’s Iger crazy to take on Netflix — or is he crazy like a fox?
While I’m not in on the deal that Disney signed with Netflix in 2012, it may be that the studio was getting more out of the agreement than hundreds of millions in licensing fees. The deal may have given the studio key knowledge about the SVOD business, knowledge that it can leverage in building its own service.
Some analysts note that SVOD leader Netflix is so far ahead in the SVOD market that Disney is too late to the party. That may be true, but with SVOD eating into content owners’ bottom lines more and more each quarter, I applaud Disney for attempting to take a bite out of the SVOD business.
"We felt that having control of a platform we've been very impressed with … would give us control of our destiny,” Iger said.
Indeed, Disney’s move could help content remain king.
In this issue, Home Media Magazine presents its annual salute to the top women in the home entertainment industry. Women executives are making decisions about how to reach the consumer on the many and various platforms and formats available in the market today — from 4K Ultra HD to Blu-ray Disc and DVD to transactional EST to streaming and virtual reality. They are leaders at the major studios and the independents, in physical and digital retail markets, in the home entertainment distribution chain, and in making that supply chain more efficient.
Every year, I am impressed by the quality of the honorees. They are truly helping to drive the home entertainment business and are integral to the industry’s success. In covering these remarkable women, I am struck by their wide range of expertise. They work on everything from the packaging for physical media to marketing via traditional and new media to content licensing and creation to legal and financial issues.
Women are indeed the backbone of the home entertainment business, and they are focused on satisfying the home entertainment consumer, wherever and whenever they would like to access content. Sony’s Lexine Wong looks to “keep the consumer engaged” in a panoply of entertainment options. Disney’s Janice Marinelli said she is “always looking for effective and convenient ways for consumers to enjoy” content. HBO’s Sofia Chang is focusing on “continuing to expand our subscription and transactional offerings.” Redbox’s Sonia Jain is concentrating on “improving our context mix and assortment.” Amazon’s female executives are both obtaining more content and finding new ways to deliver it via Fire TVs and Alexa. Each executive is keeping her eye on the consumer.
The job of the home entertainment executive has perhaps never been harder and these women are in the trenches, looking to move the business forward via technologies old and new. They are not only dealing with new distribution models but also with new forms of home entertainment, such as virtual reality.
Here’s to the women in home entertainment, an impressive group that spans every segment of the industry and contributes mightily to its success.
This week, we honor the top 10 retailers in the business as chosen by Home Media Magazine research. We also recognize five other retailers to watch for their innovation and commitment to the industry.
Much of the year, we concentrate on content and how it is being delivered. We highlight the companies that deliver it in ever-varying forms, from physical to digital, from standard to high-def to Ultra HD with high dynamic range. These companies are contacting and engaging with consumers, who after all determine the size, shape and future of our business.
Content may be king, as evidenced by digital services such as Netflix, Amazon and many others creating their own content. But ultimately, it’s the retailer that attracts and engages the consumer in discovery of content. When a typical family decides to look for something to watch on a free night, it’s the retailer that helps them locate the content that will excite them.
“Since its beginning, the delivery of home entertainment to the consumer has been about convenience and value,” noted Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association, in our special section. “While what constitutes ‘convenience’ and ‘value’ has changed over time, that essential fact remains. Each of these retailers is successfully serving a segment — in some cases several segments — of the home entertainment market by providing their particular formulation of convenience and value to consumers.”
While delivery of home entertainment in all its forms is more diverse than ever, the job of contacting the consumer and offering convenience and value has become complicated as well. So we salute the retailers, both digital and physical, that are serving the tastes of various consumers, wherever, whenever and however they choose to get their entertainment.
“Bold retail innovation among our physical and digital partners this past year has served to significantly elevate our category,” said Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
The industry’s retail partners are stepping up to push the business forward, with better delivery and marketing, meeting the challenge of a choosy consumer.
Over the past month or so I’ve attended and reported on events that highlight the enormous change and legacy of our industry.
I interviewed longtime video veteran Mark Vrieling about the closing of his last rental store after nearly three decades in the business. He said he held out as the great majority of video stores closed by offering a deep catalog — which I think is something the industry should heed as we go digital.
Jodie LeVitus Francisco May 8 organized a video industry reunion in Calabasas, Calif., to bring together many of the executives that have passed through this business over the years. Our coverage of the event was heavily viewed and liked online. It was nice to see those I still work with and those who have moved on or retired, but still have a soft spot for the video industry.
“Video stores may end up as just a footnote in the history of the movie business, but I think the footnote will be a high point in the history,” Vrieling told me. “It was a time when pretty much any movie ever made was within reach of anybody. Even small towns and suburbs like mine had tens of thousands of titles available to customers.”
It also helped spawn digital goliaths such as Netflix. Many outside of this industry don’t know or remember that Netflix’s Ted Sarandos got his start in the entertainment business at a video store. The business also pushed Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to offer discs by mail after suffering a video store late fee. Even the famous video clerk recommendations immortalized by the sitcom “Seinfeld” have transitioned to the digital world with the recommendation engines at Netflix, Amazon and other online retailers. Marketing tie-ins long practiced by this industry are mirrored in practices at digital retailers such as Fandango, which offers licensed merchandise and videos of franchise predecessors to moviegoers who purchase tickets for the latest blockbuster in the theater.
Fandango president Paul Yanover, in receiving an award for leadership in the industry from the Entertainment Merchants Association May 19, professed optimism about home entertainment. His company has created an integrated digital network that serves consumers throughout the movie lifecycle, from theatrical tickets to premium on-demand video service FandangoNOW.
Yanover noted Fandango is “a newbie” in home entertainment, but added, “We truly believe there’s a massive opportunity.”
While certain iterations of the industry may wane, their legacy lives on in the digital realm and in a business that continues to bring an enormous amount of content, on demand, to the consumer.
It’s been an exciting ride since we first produced the Digital Drivers section in the spring of 2011. In that issue, my colleague Thomas K. Arnold noted that Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes thought Netflix would remain a small player without the valuable content from the studios. “Is the Albanian army going to take over the world?” he quoted Bewkes as saying in an interview. “I don’t think so.” Nevertheless, we highlighted Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as a high-level digital strategist, along with Warner’s Kevin Tsujihara, who would later use his digital prowess to become head of the studio. We also anticipated a new digital locker called UltraViolet, which was to provide an avenue for consumers to collect titles digitally in the cloud.
What a difference less than a decade has made in our view of the digital landscape!
Netflix is making its own valuable content, which competes alongside studio content at annual awards ceremonies. The little online service that started with by-mail disc rentals to combat late fees is now a movie and TV series producer that leads the subscription video-on-demand market.
UltraViolet, later grouped into the Digital HD category, is but one of the services in an EST marketplace that includes Disney Movies Anywhere, that studio’s own locker service. Indeed, electronic sellthrough is a growing, vibrant part of the studios’ home entertainment business, but it is still a work in progress, as executives look to offer consumers a superior ownership experience digitally with extras and easier interfaces.
Digital Drivers and services have come and gone. Redbox’s Mitch Lowe was in that first section in anticipation of the kiosk company’s move into digital delivery. Ultimately, Redbox found it better to focus on the good old disc. Netflix executives Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, also featured in that first section, have become perennial Digital Drivers, and Walmart’s Vudu service, noted in 2011, is now a primary player in electronic sellthrough.
It’s been an interesting seven-year journey, with many twists and turns along the way. Even Netflix faced some headwinds, taking a big hit on Wall Street when it raised prices and later when the companies that delivered their heavy traffic pushed back and asked them to pay extra.
Where the road for our Digital Drivers goes in the future is likely to change as much as it has since that first section in 2011.
This magazine in its nearly 40 years has seen formats come and go, navigating changes along with the industry. This month, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the optical disc (DVD launched in America in 1997) and its continued vibrancy. We also investigate virtual reality, a new format that the studios are just starting to explore. Meanwhile, we continue to report on the growth of white-hot digital delivery services and the increasingly award-winning and popular original content of such outfits as Amazon Prime and Netflix.
This industry has of necessity had to shift with the formats. Director Ivan Reitman, who worked on the Ghostbusters VR experience, likened making the 360-degree product to the early days of silent film, when directors were figuring out if audiences would understand and react well to a close-up. If viewers have the agency to look wherever they want in VR, how does a director tell a story? That’s just one of the questions facing the new format. Sony’s Jake Zim said the business plan for VR products also is in the embryonic stages — what to charge, what activities viewers will enjoy, what environments will be most conducive to VR are all under review as the studio dips its toe into this new medium.
As DVD launched 20 years ago, it faced uncertainty as well. Would the collector embrace the sellthrough-priced format and buy movies and TV shows to put on the shelf like books? It turned out to be an enormous success, and two decades later DVD and its successors are still spinning revenue for the studios. With the advent of Blu-ray Disc, it has adapted to high-definition and 3D and 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range to deliver ever-better quality picture and sound. It’s been such a flexible format that today it still accounts for the lion’s share of U.S. home entertainment revenue. The arrival of TV DVD even helped create the binge-watching consumer that now ravenously watches episode after episode on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Before streaming, consumers learned to binge on disc series sets. The disc also created a whole new way to appreciate the content, spawning director’s commentaries, making-of documentaries and other extras that brought viewers into the process of making entertainment.
So here’s a toast to the past and to the future. May the legacy disc format continue to impress as it adapts to 4K UHD with HDR, and may new formats continue to entertain as well as the disc has for two decades.
This year’s visionary is emblematic of the change the entire home entertainment industry is experiencing. Comcast’s Brian Roberts is straddling a legacy cable business while embracing a new digital delivery model.
Whew! It’s a hard task for an executive to keep one foot in the past and one in the future — but Roberts seems to be up to it. He is maintaining the cable business and sees the need for electronic sellthrough with expanded digital extras, but also recognizes the subscription video-on-demand draw of Netflix. The future will need such a flexible executive — as it’s unclear where the future home entertainment consumer will go.
Along the lines of that theme, the studios are rethinking their vision of the theatrical window. 20th Century Fox CEO Stacey Snider told a tech confab the issue is at the forefront of studio conversations. Kevin Tsujihara, CEO of Warner Bros., has broached the subject as well.
Exactly when does entertainment enter the home? Is there are window between initial theatrical release and Digital HD/disc release? What is the consumer demand for that release window based on the film? And how much should a studio charge?
These are all questions to be answered as we enter the new realm of home entertainment, which is more elastic than ever. It requires a very flexible executive, one that knows the legacy business but also understands where the consumer is going. Roberts has been that kind of leader, a visionary that can adapt to a changing market. The home entertainment industry will need many more like him to follow consumers who demand entertainment when and where they want it.
“Ultimately, it’s not really about the business model per se, it’s about giving consumers what they want,” Tsujihara said on a fiscal call.