Streaming has upended movie business models, but it may simply be pulling demand forward in films’ life cycles, while still allowing for fan passion and revenue generation to materialize.
That was one major takeaway from a conversation featuring Jim Wuthrich, president of home entertainment and content licensing at WarnerMedia, and Michael Bonner, Universal’s home entertainment president. “There are definitely implications and impacts from model to model” related to streaming, Bonner said, “but the bottom line is, there’s more engagement and that is a net good thing for content. It’s working very, very well in the home right now across all of these models; not just one, but all of them.”
The execs spoke at the Digital Entertainment Group Expo, a virtual event exploring the state of digital media and reviewing trends in the first half of 2021. The DEG reported total consumer spending rose 5% from the then-record $14.9 billion spent in the first half of 2020, when Covid-19 largely eliminated out-of-home entertainment options. The first half of the year was also marked by dramatic experimentation in release methods across the major studios. Everything from straight-to-streaming/no-theatricals, to theaters-and-streaming day-and-date to two-to-six-week theatrical exclusives, all at various price points, is being tried. As the results play out, there is persistent anxiety about box office and the potential for a full recovery for Hollywood.
Wuthrich said Warner Bros. is “seeing a pretty good overlap” between movie ticket buyers and people watching on HBO Max, which has committed to day-and-date film releases in 2021. He did not offer any specifics, and noted that the “jury is out” on the final financial performance of films because all of the adjustments are so recent. “We’ve been looking at this and studying it, and now we’ve got six or seven titles — fewer than that have actually been through the full cycle — so we don’t have a full view of it,” Wuthrich said. “But we think it is increasing viewership overall because we’ve opened up accessibility to people where they can see it at any time, anywhere.”
Asked directly if the day-and-date strategy has spurred subscription gains, Wuthrich replied, “It’s been a winning strategy for us, particularly during Covid.” AT&T last month said HBO and HBO Max together had 47 million subscribers as of June 30, an increase of 2.8 million in the quarter.
As 2021 has unfolded and Hollywood has attempted to stagger back to its feet after a debilitating 2020, there are winds blowing in several directions at once. Beyond Covid, which reduced box office revenue to near-zero for months, there has also been the obsessive focus of media companies (at the urging of Wall Street) on streaming. Disney+ followed Apple TV+ into the breach in November 2019 and then HBO Max, Peacock and other services followed but only after the Covid curtain fell.
All players must contend with long-established rivals Netflix and Amazon and also navigate the volatile pandemic climate. Traditional release windows, already under strain, finally collapsed and along with it any remaining visibility onto the mechanics of the business as films pass through the pipeline.
Bonner and Wuthrich maintain that they don’t yet see any clear negatives from new patterns, but they readily concede the rulebook is being completely rewritten. In the execs’ view, offering customers a chance to immerse themselves in films more quickly on the front end of the release cycle will only make them more willing to spend in pursuit of their fandom.
“We’ve often in home entertainment had repeat customers,” Wuthrich said. “Back in the day, on any [major] title that was purchased, close to 50% of customers said they had seen the film before they bought it later on. By opening up the funnel and giving more exposure to this stuff, there will be people who will want to add to their collections.”
Day-and-date availability on streaming services “does take some of the demand,” he said, “but it also adds to it in other ways. Net-net, it’s hard to tell because we haven’t been through the full cycle.”
Bonner said Universal, which was aggressive in adopting premium video on demand releases as the pandemic took effect in the spring of 2020, has “learned a tremendous amount over the past year.” The studio has pursued a middle path, setting deals with exhibitors for reduced windows but preserving the exclusive theatrical window, except for select cases like the recent Boss Baby sequel, which went day-and-date to theaters and Peacock.
“Consumer engagement is much greater now than its ever been, just earlier in films’ life cycle,” Bonner said. “That is just creating trade-offs. We’ll just continue to make trade-offs in terms of transactional revenues, licensing revenues that drive subscription revenues. This is going to play out, it’s still really fluid.”
Owning favorite film or TV titles — via electronic sell-through or even, yes, physical discs — is an important tool in the studio toolbox, both executives said. Physical sales are inexorably declining, they admitted, but remain an active choice for some 35 million U.S. households. Ownership in any format can be a good hedge for consumers.
“It’s not an either/or,” Wuthrich said. “The people who buy and own [movies] are the same ones that generally are going to theaters. They’re the same ones who subscribe to more than one SVOD service. They love the category, they love the content. Ownership gives them one more way to express their fandom.”
Putting his finger on a major bugaboo for many consumers, he pointed out another advantage for those who choose to own rather than renting via monthly subscription fees. “Streaming services, particularly when you get to the catalog and such, the product can tend to move around a bit,” Wuthrich said.
While he didn’t offer examples, one involves both HBO Max and Peacock. The Harry Potter franchise, which was ushered into the world by Warner Bros. and remains a cornerstone property at the studio, appeared for a few months on HBO Max during its launch phase in 2020 but less than a year later it then shifted to Peacock. The latter, in yet another curious twist, has rights to The Godfather, perhaps the ultimate Paramount release, yet MIA on Paramount+. “If somebody’s waiting to watch something and it moves to another service, [ownership] is one way they can make sure that it’s always going to be available to them.”
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