Wolk’s Week in Review: Warner backs down on same day movie releases, Roku launches a branded content studio

Well-known industry analyst Alan Wolk is publishing his popular Week In Review columns first on FierceVideo every Friday. This means that FierceVideo readers are the first to get all Wolk's insights as they navigate the fast-moving television business.

Wolk's Week In Review

1. Warner Backs Down On Same Day Movie Releases

To no one’s great surprise, Warner announced that it was not extending its same day theater and streaming movie release program into 2022. In fact, their new deal with Regal Cinemas comes with an old school 45-day window between theatrical and streaming releases.

“We’re just hoping all those people who signed up to see first run movies don’t start cancelling on us,” noted a senior HBO Max executive. (No, not really. But you know they’re thinking it.)

Why It Matters

While Warner’s movie move was all about making lemonade out of the lemons the pandemic handed out, it was also a very clever way to create renewed interest in HBO Max at a time when lots of people were writing it off for dead given the issues with Amazon and Roku, the lack of any notable originals and massive confusion around who could and could not switch from regular HBO to HBO Max.

So, the movie thing was a lifesaver as it (a) got them a ton of free press, all of it positive, and (b) was actually a great deal for viewers.

In fact, new research from Hub shows that 31% of the viewers they surveyed now subscribe to HBO Max, up from 15% in July, the largest bump of any of the Flixes.

Which is really nice and all...only that same Hub survey shows HBO Max in first place as the Flix people are most likely to dump once the pandemic is over.

So there’s that, and while you should always be skeptical of anything that asks people what they might do at some future date (especially when they’d never really given it much thought before the surveyor asked them), it’s a reflection of the fact that Max has yet to launch a real breakout Game of Thrones level hit and viewers still aren’t clear on how Max is different than HBO and if it is, will they still want to subscribe, given the number of other services that now feature “HBO-like” content.

This is something I go on about a lot, the tightrope all these services need to walk as they define themselves for audiences. In the early days when streaming viewers were largely educated and affluent, “HBO style” programming was a safe bet for all the Flixes.

But to attract the millions of new potential viewers who don’t fit into that bucket, the Flixes have had to expand their offerings, something they can easily do as they are no longer bound by the constraint of time. That said, they still need to carefully navigate the line between bringing in new viewers while not turning off existing ones.

It’s a trick Netflix seems to be pulling off successfully with Shonda Rhimes series “Bridgerton,” though they also had a whole lot of misses before they succeeded. 

HBO Max has “Zach Snyder’s Justice League,” which has been getting good buzz and is meant to appeal to a broader audience, but I would not be surprised if a goodly number of viewers assume it's on Disney, because comic book superheroes.

So, there’s that too.

What You Need To Do About It

If you’re HBO Max, keep walking that line, but definitely throw some meat to the 40 million some odd people who were OG HBO subscribers and are looking for some more of what they loved about HBO in the first place.

Also price the ad-supported version you are rolling out in June very reasonably. Like $7/month or less reasonably, at which point I suspect many of those people who were going to defect will just switch to the ad-supported version and you’ll have a win.

If you’re all the other Flixes, you also need to figure out what your programming is about. Disney and Discovery have pretty clear brand images and most people subscribe to Amazon for the free two-day delivery, but the other Flixes all need to continue to differentiate themselves. Even something as basic as Paramount+ giving you live sports and a live feed of your local CBS station is a big step in that direction.

If you’re a movie theater chain, rejoice. Yes, Disney just pulled some of its movies out of theatrical and onto streaming, but that’s just a blip, and overall, you’ve just got a new lease on life. 

So maybe send Jason Kilar a fruit basket. You know, the ones where the pineapple pieces, cantaloupe and watermelon are all cut to look like stars and lollipops. After all, he did just save your business.

2. Roku Launches A Branded Content Studio

Roku is about to launch its own branded content studio, having signed a deal with the Funny Or Die team that will send some of their team members Roku’s way, where they will help launch a business arm featuring short branded videos, games and other non-traditional content that Roku can use to lure advertisers to The Roku Channel.

Why It Matters

This is just the latest way that Roku is showing that it is serious about advertising. Branded content studios are big with TV networks, (take Viacom’s Vantage for instance) and having one is a big plus in bringing on board brands who get that relying exclusively on thirty second spots is not the way to win in today’s television landscape

One key advantage for Roku is that the digital nature of steaming services makes it easy for them to handle a range of nontraditional formats. For example, Roku’s branded content offering currently includes a project they launched with TurboTax around March Madness that includes both a college basketball guide and a game that encourages viewers to try and “beat the buzzer” on TV using a phone with an augmented reality lens. 

While the audience for gimmicks like this is often pretty limited, it’s just one of the tools that a branded content studio can have in its arsenal.

And branded content is happening. No less an authority than the New York Times recently noticed that branded content is a thing (and by the time the Times becomes aware of a trend, you can be sure it’s been in full swing for a while.)

Point being that more enlightened marketers are starting to realize that traditional thirty second spots aren’t always the best way to reach consumers, and that it’s a good idea to mix things up a little. This is particularly true when the goal is branding (“think good thoughts about our company”) rather than immediately boosting sales.

So expect to be seeing more branded content studios from other players in the streaming space over the next year or two. Also expect to see more details on the brand studio from Roku during the NewFronts. (I’m not guessing on that one, they’ve said as much.)

What You Need To Do About It

If you’re Roku, well done and kudos for getting out in front of this, but bear in mind that people turn on the TV to watch TV shows and movies, not short funny videos from brands, so that’s a hump you’ll have to get over, especially if the audience sees them as either just another gimmick without much payoff or a slightly longer opportunity to raid the refrigerator.

If you’re one of Roku’s many competitors, starting a branded content studio of your own—or at least striking a deal for one with a third party—would seem like a very good idea if you want to compete in the increasingly crowded CTV marketplace.

If you’re an ad agency, time to wonder why you’re not who your clients turn to for this type of work—it would seem like you should be—and what that says about your value to them. Or maybe it’s just not worth the hassle at this point, given the limited budgets.

If you’re a brand marketer, remember that the only reason people watch anything is because they want to and that branded content is still a huge gamble given the relatively low success rate of any sort of creative endeavor. Meaning that the more you interfere and try to insert your message into the video in a ham-fisted manner, the less likely it is anyone is going to watch it.

But you already knew that.