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.
Ode to the Retailer
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.
Events Mark Both Change and Legacy of Our Industry
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.
Traveling Back in Time With Our Digital Drivers
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.
Looking to the Past and the Future
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.
A Flexible Vision for Home Entertainment
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.
Rethinking Home Entertainment
Home entertainment has for the most part been a format to revisit what viewers have had access to in previous forms and times. Theatrical hits found new life (and revenue) in the home entertainment market on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc and digital, as did classics that graced theaters long before the prospect of viewing content on-demand in the home existed.
The home entertainment experience evolved from merely watching the same content available in the theater to viewing extra content — filmmaker commentary, making-of documentaries, Easter eggs, etc. — that the theatrical audience could not access. Also, the video game business evolved into yet another way to experience home entertainment similar to movies, with storylines and realistic graphics. Many saw the game and movie businesses converging.
At CES, other types of home entertainment came to the stage: virtual reality and augmented reality, which offer new ways to connect with franchises that often originate in the theater. There were numerous devices and services that promised to make virtual and other realities a new form of home entertainment, a new way to experience a story. The devices and content delivery systems differ wildly. From the Gear VR, which attaches to the cell phone and accesses whatever viewers can stream online, to the “tethered” experiences that take advantage of the greater power of game systems such as the PlayStation 4. Some experiences require cameras or other devices in the home to orient the player in a space, allowing the viewer to move around. As one VR proponent put it, there are low-end to mid-range to high-end experiences, each offering a different version of a story or franchise. The space has become so active that it spawned its own industry consortium announced at CES, the Virtual Reality Industry Forum, comprised of a few dozen companies joining forces “to further the widespread availability of high-quality audiovisual VR experiences, for the benefit of consumers.”
This kaleidoscope of entertainment can either be viewed as a cacophony or as an opportunity. In the year ahead, “we will see more VR, AR, AI and mixed reality,” said industry veteran Mike Dunn, president of product strategy and consumer business development at 20th Century Fox. “As we continue to evolve the ways we create and distribute content, we must make it easy for the consumer to remain connected to the stories and experiences they love, and we must help them understand the formats available, including defining clear benefits of how and why to purchase.” And that may in the future encompass purchases of VR experiences. Indeed, the Fox Innovation Lab in November released its first commercial virtual reality endeavor, The Martian VR Experience, at $19.99.
We’ve long been rethinking the way we deliver home entertainment — different formats, different delivery services — but in the future we may have to rethink the type of home entertainment the industry delivers.
It's Usually Unusual
The industry settled into its usual pattern as 2016 ended, with the Hall of Fame dinner honoring inductees. But again 2016 was by no means a “usual” year. The industry is facing more challenges and changes to its business model.
We’ve got yet another new format debuting: 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range. It’s a format that could breathe new life into the physical disc, which is the best way to view four times the resolution of HD, with HDR, which produces brilliant highlights, vibrant colors and greater contrast on compatible displays.
We’ve got the growing dominance of subscription video-on-demand services such as Netflix eating into consumers’ entertainment time.
We’ve got new forms of entertainment, notably virtual reality, which could alter the very nature of personal entertainment.
It’s always unusual.
But what stays the same is the quality of people who work in this industry, recognized this month by the annual Press Play: Variety Home Entertainment and Digital Hall of Fame, which honored Universal Pictures Home Entertainment president Eddie Cunningham, actor and filmmaker Jon Favreau, and Epix president and CEO Mark Greenberg, as well as virtual reality evangelist Chris Milk and Google Play, which has been a big player in digital delivery.
“Home video, home entertainment and now digital have been a huge part of my career,” noted Favreau in accepting his award.
It’s remarkable that this more-than-three-decades-old business is still a vital part of the entertainment industry.
And it’s notable that we are once again facing a consolidation in the industry. Just as the video store chains gobbled up smaller stores and chains in years past, Amazon is using its technology and marketplace prowess to assemble a panoply of OTT services under Amazon Channels.
Analyst Michael Pachter sees Amazon Channels as the new pay-TV, a successor to the cable market that has lasted for decades. It’s a development that is both familiar and new, a new way of organizing the home entertainment market that seems to follow some of the usual patterns.
Shaking Up Home Entertainment
The Martian VR Experience
The business of home entertainment has always been in flux. Since the very beginning of this magazine in 1979, visionary movers and shakers have been changing entertainment. We’ve seen different physical formats, from Betamax to VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to 4K Blu-ray Disc with high dynamic range (HDR). We’ve absorbed the digital delivery revolution and incorporated it into our definition of home entertainment, bringing in Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, among other home entertainment newcomers.
With our November 2016 issue, we recognize some of the leaders of this business, the “Movers and Shakers,” who are forging the future of the home entertainment industry. We’ve got top studio executives alongside digital, retail and trade group executives who are helping to make, distribute and facilitate delivery of the home entertainment we all consume.
As we publish this list of influential executives, the industry is launching a new format, 4K Ultra HD with HDR, on Blu-ray Disc and, to some extent, on digital services — though those delivery mechanisms can be hampered by bandwidth. Several of our Movers and Shakers have been instrumental in getting this format — which promises yet another leap forward in home entertainment quality — off the ground.
In addition to physical disc and digital entertainment, the industry is embarking on newer forms of entertainment that employ virtual and augmented reality, offering another potential stream of income to the industry. The Fox Innovation Lab, under the capable direction of executives on our list, this month released its first commercial virtual reality endeavor, The Martian VR Experience, at $19.99 for PlayStation VR for the PlayStation 4 system and HTC Vive on Steam. Several of our Movers and Shakers are involved in this shakeup of the very definition of home entertainment, a new frontier that allows the audience to become immersed in a story in ways that our industry is just beginning to explore.
We congratulate the Top 50 Movers and Shakers, as well as the Up and Comers who are some of the leaders of the future. They are forging the path of home entertainment. It can be a rocky path, and those that navigate its changes must be ready to meet the unexpected.
We salute them, and look forward to their future accomplishments.
Talent Talking High Dynamic Range
Many home entertainment industry executive heavyweights have espoused the virtues of 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range (HDR), which offers greater contrast and deeper, more life-like colors, and produces brilliant highlights and deeper blacks. But that’s perhaps what one would expect from executives trying to sell the latest software or hardware format. However, when you talk to the filmmaking talent — cinematographers, directors, etc. — they too see it as a leap forward.
“I truly thought it was the best-looking version of the movie by far,” Deadpool director Tim Miller said at a presentation about the UHD HDR release of his film on the Fox lot in May, noting its “amazing level of detail.”
“The amount of detail that you get in the flames, you see so much more,” added colorist Tim Stipan. “It all of a sudden has more dimension to it. It almost becomes more 3D.”
“It’s like suddenly the sky was not a white mass the way it had been in all the other formats, but had this beautiful detail,” Miller added.
“I think this is the wave of the future because you’re seeing more of what the camera captured,” he added, noting “a lot of the shots had this almost painterly quality.”
“I truly thought it was the best-looking version of the movie by far,” Miller said.
In October, talent talked about the upgrade for both Fox’s 20-year-old Independence Day and its sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, released Oct. 18 on Blu-ray Disc in 4K Ultra HD with HDR.
HDR “allows us so much more range than what’s available in standard theatrical and standard home theater viewing environments,” said colorist David Cole.
“[Director Roland Emmerich] wanted to update a 20-year-old film,” cinematographer Markus Forderer said. “He wanted to be true to the original but also show an updated version, show the film in its best quality. And I think it looks better than what you saw 20 years ago in the theater because now with HDR you see much more detail in the blacks and the highlights.”
When artists are praising a format, I listen. I don’t think there could be better advocates for a leap forward in viewing quality.
Consumers Choosing Choice in Their Entertainment
Pay-TV operators have been eyeing the cord-cutters, or those pesky customers who eschew paying for expensive cable packages in favor of getting content a la carte over the Internet, for some time, both with consternation and curiosity. Many say these customers are the wave of the future, driven by the millennial generation, which is used to viewing entertainment unshackled by a TV or cable.
At the same time, the FCC is looking at a proposal to require pay-TV operators to offer free app-based video distribution alternatives to the set-top box, meaning consumers could access video through other devices — a PlayStation or smartphone, for instance — without having to rent a box from the cable company.
“While consumers will still pay their monthly subscription fees for the service, they will be able to download an app to devices they purchase or already own to access pay-TV service, so they are no longer forced to rent boxes from their provider,” read the proposal.
The cable industry is experiencing the kind of change the home entertainment business has weathered for some time. We’ve navigated many different formats and different business models, from sellthrough to cassette and disc rental to subscription video-on-demand. These kinds of existential shakeups have been part of our industry since the very beginning, when VHS competed against Betamax and the very right to rent content came into legal question.
What our industry has been very good at is getting consumers the content they want in the format they want — and that should serve us very well as the entertainment business changes. The home entertainment industry has many experts in navigating change, and I’m sure it will find a way to profitably satisfy this new skinny bundle, cord-cutting consumer as well.