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.
Don’t Expect Things to Get Better for 3D
The demise of 3D for the home appears to be upon us. ESPN has announced plans to scrap its ESPN 3D channel by the end of this year, and a well-known title from a well-known studio recently racked up an anemic 3% of its total sales from the 3D version.
I think back to the words of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote in 2010, the year 3D for the home began its big push, “3D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the movie-going experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches.”
Ebert, of course, was writing about the 3D fad in general. I don’t exactly agree with him — I thought Avatar and Alice in Wonderland were mesmerizing in 3D, and I even got a kick out of watching one of the “Final Destination” movies in 3D, complete with the flying entrails.
But for the home, I’d say the 3D experiment has been a colossal failure — and not because of it “adding nothing essential” to the viewing experience, but, rather, due to the ineptitude with which it was launched.
Let me make clear, right away, that I am not faulting the content side. I think our industry handled the advent of 3D quite well. For those who bemoaned, and now want to blame, the lack of product, consider this: 3D was never meant to be a whole new viewing experience, like Blu-ray Disc or, before that, DVD. Rather, it was always intended to be a selective experience, one that is not universally applied. Watching Avatar and Final Destination in 3D was a kick; watching, say, any mystery or crime thriller, from The Big Sleep to The Departed, in 3D would have been as annoying as heck. I think the studios did a good job managing the content flow, recognizing that not every movie is meant to be seen in three dimensions.
Fault for the 3D-for-the-home debacle, instead, rests with the consumer electronics industry. Not only was there no single, universal 3D format, there were dozens of incompatible devices. I even remember one year at CES seeing a prototype of a glasses-free TV from Toshiba that looked like a giant scratch dollar on a Doberman.
And then there was the issue of the glasses. I’m sorry, but speaking as a consumer, I get pissed off every time I have to change the batteries on my remote. I spent $500 on a high-end universal remote not so much for the convenience as to relieve me from the burden of having to constantly change the batteries on three separate handhelds. And now you’re asking me to do a battery check on the glasses every time I want to watch a movie in 3D?
That wasn’t the worst of it. The glasses kept changing, with new and supposedly improved models coming out every month, it seemed. Multiply that by a dozen manufacturers and you’re going to have a hard time keeping track of which glasses go with which TV, even if the manufacturer is the same.
I had that problem with my Panasonic TV. It’s 3D enabled, but I have yet to be able to watch a movie in 3D on it. Even the clerks at Best Buy couldn’t figure out which glasses worked for it — and when I finally found a supposedly compatible pair online, I found out they were discontinued.
Don’t expect things to get better anytime soon — or ever. The CE industry has already moved on to the next thing — 4K, which supposedly makes images on our current crop of high-definition TVs look like grainy old photos.
I can’t wait for the studios to start releasing movies on 4K. I simply cannot wait …
PlayStation 4 a Sure Winner
Even though it’s been such a long time since the debut of the PlayStation 3, PlayStation fans have demonstrated their loyalty by snapping up new games in record numbers. Sales north of 1 million are routine, and as of March 2012, consumers had snapped up nearly 600 million games on top of the more than 1.2 billion games for the PlayStation 2, which Sony and its legion of game-making licensees wisely continued to service. Indeed, nearly 300 million of those PS2 games were sold after the PS3 was launched.
PlayStation fans haven’t tired of their PS3s, largely due to the fact that most gameplay is now online — an observation that comes not just from the obligatory stats and figures (which give PS3 the edge over Microsoft’s Xbox largely because the network is free), but also from my own experience, watching my three boys literally grow up with their PlayStations. In fact, I still have now-17-year-old Justin’s original PlayStation console somewhere in our garage, along with the last game I tried to master, the original Spider-Man.
In the past, my boys would have a friend or two over and play against each other, taking turns. Now, they have virtual parties — even conversing with each other, as though a dozen of them were all together in a single room (God forbid!). Even the youngest, at 11, routinely plays with friends from school — and from time to time widens his social circle, under close scrutiny from Dad.
Brand loyalty and a free network of ever-changing online “friends” aren’t the only things the PlayStation 4 has going for it. Sony made a brilliant move in issuing its next-generation console at a list price of $399 – undercutting the new Microsoft Xbox One by $100. That’s a big deal, folks, given that most game players are teens or young adults and generally aren’t high earners. I’ve always felt that the PlayStation 3, which bowed at $599, succeeded in spite of itself, given its high price tag. PlayStation 4 won’t be saddled with that burden.
According to senior reporter Chris Tribbey’s story in this week’s magazine (see XX), the PS4 also comes with second-screen capabilities for Android and Apple devices and remote play with the PlayStation Vita portable gaming device. And all sorts of video applications will be available at launch, including Flixster, Redbox Instant, Netflix and Hulu Plus.
PlayStation 4, slated to come out just before Christmas, is going to be big. Real big.
A Second Opinion on Second Screen
That’s an interesting new report from research firm Edelman Berland, the one that found 96% of people have simultaneously used a second device — generally a smartphone, tablet or laptop — while watching something on TV.
Granted, that doesn’t mean virtually everyone is always texting, playing games or watching something else while plunked down on the sofa in the family room, watching a movie on Blu-ray Disc or DVD.
But even those of us who, when we watch a movie, want to devote our full attention to it, have from time to time checked our email or sent a text in the middle of a show — although in my case, I always make sure to at least hit the “pause” button beforehand.
Proponents of “second screen,” I’m sure, see this as a validation of what they are doing — allowing consumers to interact with content they’re watching on the big screen through interactive companion content on the little screen.
And the folks at Edelman, in turn, validate that perception, through talking points such as “the need for shared entertainment experiences is truly global.”
But quite honestly, I’m still not convinced “second screen” is all it’s cracked up to be.
Yes, it’s a generational thing — when people of my age watch a movie, we want to watch a movie, with no distractions.
For younger people, like my two teenage and one preteen boys, it’s a whole other situation. Yes, we gather around the TV at night to watch movies or TV series — on disc, of course (as the publisher of this magazine, I wouldn’t have it any other way).
But invariably we are joined by iPhones and iPads, and there’s a lot of finger-tapping action going on throughout whatever it is we’re watching.
But the boys aren’t using their second screen for companion content. The oldest boy is texting his girlfriend, the middle one’s clicking through YouTube videos and the little one is playing Clash of Clans or some other iPad game.
Not a single one of them has ever — I repeat, ever — viewed so-called “companion content.” And their concept of “shared entertainment experiences” is limited to playing games together online with friends or swapping links to oddball YouTube videos.
Maybe they’re just behind the curve. After all, my youngest only recently discovered the joys of UltraViolet and the ability to watch the movie I just brought home on Blu-ray Disc on his iPad.
But maybe, just maybe, the whole “second screen” concept is following in the footsteps of BD-Live and then 3D for the home.
In the words of Gertrude Stein (and, more recently, President Obama), maybe there’s no “there,” there.
Ron Sanders Ideal for New Warner Role
This past January, Kevin Tsujihara was catapulted into the CEO slot at Warner Bros. largely because he is a very smart man with a history of making good choices.
Yesterday, he made another one of those good choices when he announced the elevation of Ron Sanders from president of Warner Home Video to president of Warner Bros. Worldwide Home Entertainment Distribution. The new role gives Sanders expanded oversight of the global digital transactional business as well as the global distribution activities of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
In selecting Sanders, Tsujihara — widely considered one of the most promising executives in Hollywood — chose someone much like himself. As I said in a previous column, during Tsujihara’s run as head of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group he not only stood out from the home entertainment pack, he stood out ahead of it.
Under Tsujihara’s watch, Warner was consistently in the lead when it came to innovation, creativity and vision. And Sanders was right there by his side, keeping the machinery of the home video operation running smoothly — Warner consistently held the No. 1 market share spot among the major Hollywood studios — while working alongside his boss in crafting a strategy for the future.
Sanders, like his boss, also represents a new breed of executive we’re beginning to see more and more of in the Hollywood studio leadership ranks: Sensible, reasonable, even affable — a far cry from the desk-pounding tyrants of Hollywood lore. Anyone who knows Ron Sanders, who has worked alongside him, knows how incredibly hard it is to dislike him. When he says something, he means it. When he makes a promise, he follows through. He looks you in the eyes when he speaks to you; he is passionate about the industry, about Warner Bros., about business, about life.
Sanders joined Warner Home Video in 1991 and grew up in the business during the Warren Lieberfarb years, a particularly creative and productive era that saw the development of DVD, which ranks up there with the iPhone and the iPad as one of the most successful consumer electronics product launches ever. He ran Warner’s rental business during the tumultuous mid-1990s period of consolidation and copy-depth incentives; he subsequently moved across the aisle to sellthrough sales just as the floodgates opened and then was sent to London as managing director of the United Kingdom and Ireland divisions. He did so well that he was promoted to head of the entire EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region, overseeing Warner’s home video operations in 28 territories. He returned to the United States in 2002 and was appointed president of the division in October 2005.
A veteran journalist, after interviewing Sanders some years back, quipped, “I wish there were more home video presidents like Ron Sanders.” That quote has stuck with me ever since, and I believe is a testament to his integrity and foresight, his passion and his vision. He’s a good man — and the right man for his new job.
UltraViolet Key to Electronic Sellthrough Future
The DEG numbers released May 1 were a pleasant surprise. Not only was total consumer spending on home entertainment up a solid 5% in the first quarter of this year, but spending on packaged media — Blu-ray Discs and DVD combined — was up as well from the same period last year, by more than 2%.
That’s significant because, for the first time since the format was introduced, Blu-ray Disc sales were strong enough to offset the continued decline in DVD sales and put the disc business back into positive territory.
I was also thrilled to see that electronic sellthrough (EST) posted a huge increase of 51%, comparing the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of last year. The actual dollar amount, $231 million, is still relatively small potatoes, but multiply by four and you’re getting close to 20th Century Fox chief Mike Dunn’s prediction several years back that once EST hits $1 billion in annual sales, “you’ve got a viable business.”
I can’t help but think that EST’s sharp gains were due at least in part to excitement over UltraViolet, the digital rights authentication and licensing system, based in the cloud, that lets consumers who buy content access that content anywhere, at any time, on any device. Currently, UltraViolet is available primarily to purchasers of Blu-ray Discs, but ultimately it will apply to digital purchases as well.
In the meantime, it’s a useful tool for transitioning consumers to the concept of owning something digitally — a tough nut to crack, particularly for oldsters like me who still like to get something they can touch and look at if they plunk down $15 or $20 for a movie.
Regardless, UltraViolet is certainly a wonderful concept, even if the execution still has some kinks in it — namely, an arduous registration process and a proliferation of proprietary websites instead of a one-portal-for-all that appeals to today’s “one-click” generation.
But that’s all in the works, and already UltraViolet has found a growing legion of fans. Indeed, it’s a fair assumption that the surge in online movie sales is due largely to the fact that Apple iTunes is no longer the only player in the game, even though it still dominates (65%, according to a study by The NPD Group that was released last month).
Looking at the overall increase, iTunes is certainly selling more movies than ever before, but so, too, are competitors such as Microsoft’s Xbox Video and Amazon’s Instant Video, both of which are aimed at consumers outside the Apple ecosystem.
And, again, UltraViolet is likely driving EST sales as well, simply by making people comfortable with the idea of digital ownership by tying it in with a disc purchase, a process with which they are all too familiar.
Once UltraViolet streamlines its process to the point where the one-click generation can actually watch a movie on a smartphone or tablet as easily as they can watch a disc on their home theater set-up, the studios would be wise to launch a major consumer outreach campaign, perhaps one that involves Blu-ray disc as well.
The studios are great at marketing individual titles, but could use a little help in coming together for a massive joint effort — even though the benefits, to me, are so obvious.
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.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
I was looking at our website today and the top four headlines, in order, were “Dish Launches $1 Billion Bond Offering,” “Canadian Cabler Launches Rovi TV Removes,” “Epix Launches App for PlayStation 3” and “Popcornflix Bows on Xbox 360.”
It struck me that had a Rip Van Winkle-type fallen asleep 10 years ago, five years ago — heck, even a couple years ago — he would be scratching his head and wondering what exactly it is that he's reading.
Years ago, we were talking about convergence. Entertainment existed in silos, but there were signs different channels might converge at some point down the road.
Now, they have — in ways we never imagined possible. Pay-TV and home entertainment used to be bitter enemies. Now, they're part of the same food chain — not just coexisting, but intermingling.
Digital movies you could watch on your computer? They had to be bootlegs, pirated copies ripped off someone's disc. Now, a digital copy of a movie is a key component of virtually every DVD and Blu-ray Disc you buy.
Retailers screamed bloody murder any time studios handed over a movie to a cable pay-per-view service within 30 days of its home video release. Now, window staging is a critical part of our business, with most observers saying the exposure on PPV might actually help boost disc sales because it builds awareness.
Dish, the satellite service, used to be seen as The Enemy, cannibalizing home video sales and rentals. Now Dish owns Blockbuster.
The times not only have changed, but they keep changing — so much so that many of us who have been in the business for years have trouble keeping up with all the latest developments.
We remember when YouTube was launched and studios cracked down on video clips from their movies. Now, YouTube is an essential part of every movie's marketing campaign.
We remember when movies came out for the PSP and we thought it was the neatest thing ever — true mobility, at last.
We remember when words like “prebook,” “turns-per-copy,” “depth of copy” and “late fees” were on everyone's tongues, much like apps, UltraViolet and “combo pack” are today.
What will the future bring? What will the headlines on the Home Media Magazine website look like a year from now, two years from now, five years from now?
We shall have to wait and see …
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.
Discs Here to Stay Amid Hulu Tug-of-War
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 ...
Keeping It Simple
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.