Archive for category DVDs

TiVo Granted Patent For Burning TV Shows To DVD

Ahh, the DVD. Love it or hate it, it’s still one of the best ways to store data. I’ve yet to meet a hard drive that can survive for 5 years without failing, but as long you’re not using them for frisbees, the DVD can easily make it a decade or more without being damaged. There may be a question about whether or not we’ll have DVD players to play them with by then, but rest assured your data should be there.

Given my fondness for the scrappy little format, I thought it was interesting to see that TiVo was awarded a patent yesterday afternoon (Aug. 16th) for burning TV shows onto DVD. Just about anyone who has ever used a DVR has experienced hard drive related anxiety at one point or another. With the sheer amount of television out there, it’s easy to fall behind on your favorites and run out a space. Offloading programs to a DVD library is an excellent way to free up your hard drive without having to miss out on programming that you wanted to see. In the past, I’ve found this to be especially useful for archiving syndicated TV shows that aren’t always shown in their original order.

The abstract of the patent from TiVo’s application,

“According to an approach for storing digital content onto a DVD, digital content is received from a source, such as a DirecTV link, an over the air (OTA) broadcast, over a cable television link, or any other type of communications link, including the Internet. The digital content is formatted to comply with the MPEG standard to create MPEG digital content and stored on a non-volatile storage. Text-based information is received that describes one or more attributes of the received digital content. A set of DVD subpicture graphics is generated based upon the text-based information. The set of DVD subpicture graphics may represent a structure that can be navigated by a user when the DVD is played. The MPEG digital content is retrieved from the non-volatile storage, converted to DVD format and stored on the DVD with the DVD subpicture graphics. “

On the surface, the patent itself does seem a little bit obvious, but it’s also important to remember that it took the patent office almost 7 years to approve the application. Microsoft’s Media Center may have been using infringing :) on this technology for years, but I’m not sure that they had it in place prior to 2004. I think it’s also worth pointing out that even though TiVo now owns the patent on this technology, they don’t actually offer the service to their customers. Fortunately, the TiVo Community has managed to scrape together a way to do this on your own, but it would be nice to see a more elegant solution built directly into TiVo’s software.

Given it’s antique status, some may view this development as irrelevant, but because of the complex licensing issues that are tied to media, I believe that the DVD will have a much longer shelf life than most. When you consider how the studios are using artificial windows to try and dictate when you can and can’t watch certain things on Hulu and Netflix, it’s clear that if you don’t want to become a victim of disappearing windows, consumers will need the ability to archive content on their own.

Unable To Raise Money Blockbuster Turns To The Lucrative Used DVD Market


Blockbuster Store Closing
Originally uploaded by Michael Kappel

Poor Blockbuster, even after wiping out their debt via bankruptcy they still can’t seem to figure out the home entertainment market. When he noticed that a nearby Blockbuster was closing down, Dan Rayburn with StreamingMedia.com decided to pop in for some bargains. After a closer look however he noticed that prices for used DVDs were 2 times the cost of a new one at Amazon.

“Apparently Blockbuster doesn’t know what movies rent OR sell for these days. I don’t like seeing a company go under, it puts a lot of people out of jobs, but in this case, as a consumer, one can’t help but be happy to see Blockbuster closing down. Any company that treats consumers as if they are idiots and thinks they don’t already know of other options in the market for getting movies cheaper and in better quality, does not deserve to stay in business.”

Harsh words, but he hits the nail right on the hammer. I get the sense that Blockbuster’s creditors never really took the problems at the company all that seriously. Nevermind having to be crazy to loan them money to begin with, the way they’ve chosen to negotiate is nearly schizophrenic. Even before they went into bankruptcy there were all kinds of mixed signals. Now they can’t seem to figure out whether they want to save the company or just liquidate it for the pocket change that is left. My guess is that they thought they could turn this thing around by raising prices and injecting a little bit of cash, but now that consumers have walked away and are clearly not interested in paying these prices, they are bleeding cash in a bad way.

Fast forward to today and their creditors seem like they are having second thoughts about throwing good money after bad. With each delay, it’s looking increasingly likely that Blockbuster’s bankruptcy will end up getting a sequel (or at least a chapter 11 written.) Blockbuster may try to put what’s left of their company on the auction block, but unless they can prove that they can stop losing money, there’s no way that they’ll get anywhere close to the $300 million they’ll need to survive. My advice for the savvy bargain shoppers . . . hold off on your DVD purchases for six more months so you can take advantage of their real liquidation sale.

Blockbuster’s Latest Drama Is Political Thriller

Political ThrillerThey say that a good captain will go down with their ship, but what can you say about the guy who climbs on-board after the ship has begun taking on water? Over the last few years, Blockbuster Video has hit iceberg after iceberg and while they’ve avoided capsizing this long, a $300 million looming debt payment may be the final torpedo that sinks the historic brand. Over the last few months, Blockbuster has seen board members flee like rats off of a sinking ship, but at least one shareholder wants to fight to save the company.

Last week, Greg Meyer fired the first shot in a proxy war by submitting paperwork to have his name considered for a position on Blockbuster’s board of directors. To win, he’ll need to take on board of director incumbent, James Crystal. In the proxy filing, Meyer makes a strong case that he is the more qualified candidate for the position.

-In 2001 Meyer started a DVD kiosk business at a time when most thought the idea was crazy. Eventually, DVDXpress was sold to Coinstar and later merged with Redbox. Mr. Crystal on the other hand has spent his career running an insurance company and doesn’t have any DVD industry experience.

-Over the last year, Meyer has put his own money on the line by purchasing over 600,000 Blockbuster shares on the open market, Crystal on the other hand has less than $50,000 worth of Blockbuster’s stock and only because it was given to him for serving on the board of directors.

-While Crystal’s full time job is his insurance business, he also serves on 7 other boards for various insurance companies. Meyer’s only other board position is with a non-profit that uses movies to help reach young kids.

-Perhaps most damaging of all though, is the related transaction between Mr. Crystal and Blockbuster. Last October, Blockbuster made Frank Crystal & Company their exclusive insurance broker for the company. At the same time, Mr. Crystal, who sits on the compensation committee, was helping to award over $1.5 million in bonuses to Blockbuster executives in a year where Blockbuster lost over a half a billion dollars. Given that Blockbuster CEO James Keyes was awarded $400,000 of that bonus, perhaps it isn’t all that surprising to see him come out against Meyer’s nomination.

In a press release, Keyes rejected the idea of adding Meyer to the board and wrote,

“While we have an appreciation for Mr. Gregory Meyer’s investment and interest in the company, those are not sufficient reasons for his candidacy for the board. We are disappointed Mr. Meyer is pursuing a costly and disruptive proxy contest. A proxy contest can only serve as a distraction to the company when attention and resources would be better used in creating value for stakeholders by implementing our strategic plan. We assure all of our constituencies that we remain committed, as always, to doing what is right for our shareholders, debt holders, employees, and customers,”

Distraction or not, it’s understandable that Blockbuster’s shareholders would be disappointed in the current board of directors. Since bringing on Keyes, Blockbuster has seen their stock fall from $4.46 to $0.29 per share. During that time, they’ve seen Netflix and Redbox take market share from them, while they were concentrating on trying to figure out a way to save Circuit City from bankruptcy. Instead of focusing on offering an all you can eat streaming service, Blockbuster spent their operating income on redesigning their stores. Meanwhile, they’ve continued to lose the confidence of both the stock and bond market.

Given that there aren’t many people who’d be willing to run into a burning building in order to save a video store, I reached out to Mr. Meyers to help better understand what he hopes to accomplish with his proxy run. Below is a transcript from our interview.

Davis: I guess the biggest question on my mind is that with Blockbuster clearly hurting pretty bad right now, why you would even want to get involved with the company. You’ve already proven that you can build a DVD business from scratch, what is it about the challenge of turning the company around that appeals to you, instead of using your time and capital to create another new business?

Meyer: When our team was building the DVDXpress business early on, we spent years struggling to make customers aware of the fact that it was possible to rent DVDs from a kiosk and encouraging them to do so. Blockbuster was such a dominant force at the time that we felt like we were constantly swimming upstream against this 900lb gorilla.

Fast forward to today and the tables have turned so that many people say ‘Why would I ever go to Blockbuster?’ I think the pendulum has swung too far and believe there is an enormous amount of intrinsic value within Blockbuster that can be realized with proper guidance and forward-thinking strategic insight. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, everyone knows that Blockbuster means movies, and having such widespread brand awareness is extremely valuable.

Davis: Having served on the front lines of the bond market, what insights does this give you into how the banks and hedge funds might be thinking about Blockbuster’s debt right now? Specifically, what sorts of things do you think that they’d like to see in order to be amenable to restructuring overtures?

Meyer: The perception in the market is that Blockbuster’s subordinated notes will be equitized at the expense of shareholders. I believe there are some intelligent steps that management can take to avoid this outcome, which would obviously be advantageous for shareholders- and I have recently apprised them of one such structure. The Company and its legal and financial advisors need to be thinking about creative solutions to bring the company back to health and not take the easy way out by converting sub debt
to equity unnecessarily. My impression is that the Company and its advisors are looking at this as a zero sum game instead of trying to figure out how to creatively increase the size of the pie for all constituents, which I think is doable. That’s why I think it’s so important to have at least one shareholder advocate on the board.

Davis: You also mentioned in your filing that you’d like to pursue a solution that results in the lowest possible dilution, if any, of shareholders. Given the burden of having to service almost a billion dollars worth of debt, can Blockbuster be competitive in an industry whose competition is cutthroat right now? Can you share any thoughts on your rescue plan for Blockbuster and what it might take to save the company?

Meyer: Blockbuster has some incredibly valuable assets and competitive advantages. In addition to huge brand awareness, the Company has very strong relationships with the Hollywood studios. These studio relationships have become more apparent in the last few months with the Warner, Fox, and Sony supply deals providing Blockbuster with day-and-date availability of new release titles vs. the 28-day delay for other channels. This is a huge advantage relative to Netflix and kiosks competitors, and it’s one that Blockbuster has never had in the past. I think the company has done a reasonable job of communicating this advantage to customers with the recent release of ‘The Blindside’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

The studios are smart- they realize it is in their best interest to have a healthy Blockbuster. Blockbuster spends more money on DVD inventory each year than Netflix and the kiosk operators combined, so they’re a very important source of revenue for the studios. And Blockbuster’s a la carte rental pricing is not viewed to cannibalize sales like some of the other distribution channels. So I view Blockbuster’s relationships with the studios remaining strong over time and think the Company needs to continue to leverage these relationships going forward, particularly as digital delivery replaces physical distribution. Keep in mind that the First Sale Doctrine does not apply in the same way to the digital world as it does to the physical world, so having strong relationships with the studios becomes even more important down the road as the studios have stronger control over who gets their content.

For now, having closed many of its underperforming stores already and amid a significant reduction in overall brick-and-mortar industry capacity, Blockbuster’s physical stores represent a true asset if managed properly that can generate significant cash flow for years to come and act as a bridge to its various future distribution channels rather than an impediment.

Davis: Blockbuster released a press release urging shareholders to reject your advances, saying that they were disappointed that you were pursuing a “costly and disruptive proxy contest” at a time when their efforts should be focused on executing their existing turnaround plan. Do you feel that it’s appropriate for Blockbuster management to publicly respond this way and do you have any concerns that your actions could have any negative consequences by trying to shake up the status quo?

Meyer: The reality is that Blockbuster’s management is making the decision to perpetuate a proxy contest. I find it unconscionable that management would be willing to waste shareholders money to fight a full blown proxy contest to keep a qualified, industry relevant and highly motivated individual off the Board. If James W. Crystal is as valuable as James W. Keyes suggests then I would be happy to serve constructively with him on the board. This does not have to be mutually exclusive. Keep in mind the size of the board has shrunk from 9 to 7 over the past few months due to several departures, so having both of us as directors would actually return the board to a more normal size. But this is a decision that Jim Keyes and the Board has to make as it is out of my hands.

Davis: Beyond the finance side of the equation, is there anything that you feel Blockbuster should be doing to make their product more relevant to consumers?

Meyer: Yes, I think the value proposition to customers can be significantly improved. Look at the smart things that smaller brick-and-mortar video competitors like Family Video (rental) and MovieStop (retail) are doing. These companies have been growing rapidly over the past several years as they’ve figured out how to remain relevant with consumers despite growing competition from Netflix and the kiosk operators. These companies offer a variety of real services to their customers. As one small example, both of these chains offer a ‘Notification Service’ by which they will call or email their customers when a movie or game becomes available for rental or sale, either new or used. This builds goodwill and drives customer traffic. Sometimes a lot of small improvements at the margin add up to a much better experience.

Additionally, these chains have figured out intelligent pricing structures that appeal to the widest possible audience in a manner that still generates profits for the retailer. There is a lot that can be done with pricing to improve both customer satisfaction and profitability.

And of course there are many innovative steps the company can take to serve customers digitally, some of which they’ve started to take with Blockbuster On Demand. The combination of near ubiquitous brand awareness and strong studio relationships has the potential to make Blockbuster a dominant player in digital delivery going forward, but this path needs to be navigated intelligently to ensure success.

Davis: Finally, Carl Ichan previously spent a lot of time and money trying to win board seats and concessions from Blockbuster management. While he ultimately won, his actions haven’t seemed to help the company all that much. Even if you were to win a seat, do you think that you’d have enough influence to create the kind of change that Blockbuster needs in order to save their business?

Meyer: All I can ask for is the opportunity to have my informed opinions heard at the board level and hope that the other directors would act in a rational and objective manner in the best interests of the shareholders.

Since I’m not a Blockbuster shareholder, my vote won’t count in this contest, but I am interested in what other shareholders think, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Will you be voting for Meyer? For Crystal or do you plan to kick all the bums out? While fighting a proxy war can be a distraction and could potentially interfere with Blockbuster’s efforts to restructure their debt, it can also bring hope to a weary shareholder base at a time when things seem hopeless. I don’t think that Meyer can turn the company around single handedly, but as Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe once wrote, “in all things it’s better to hope than to despair.”

Update – In an open letter to shareholders, Meyer calls out James Keyes for perpetuating the proxy contest and reveals that he encouraged Blockbuster to adopt DVD kiosk technology over five years ago. At that time he also pointed out that Blockbuster could have saved $140 million per year by cutting their store hours by three hours per day.

The Netflix Cartel

Netflix CartelSince bursting on the scene 13 years ago, Netflix has been a huge ally for consumers trying to save money. For years Blockbuster had dominated the rental industry and whether it was abusive late fee practices or high rental prices, they took advantage of their strength. The value that Netflix passed onto consumers injected some good old fashioned competition back into the DVD market and led to new forms of innovation. While Netflix continues to remain one of the best values for your entertainment buck, the firm has recently started to engage in some very anti-consumer behavior.

Most notably, they’ve been trying to strike agreements with studios to delay when they offer new release DVD rentals to their customers. In exchange for lower prices, they’ve agreed to put all of the new movies by Warner Brothers on very long wait status for their customers. In exchange, they get lower prices that will help them to drive brick and mortar competitors out of business. So far most studios are only watching these experiments from the sidelines, but Warner Brothers has embraced this scheme with gusto and has followed up their agreement with Netflix by striking a similar deal with Redbox.

Ironically, Redbox actually dismissed an anti-trust claim against Warner Brothers, in exchange for being invited into this exclusive club. Now some will argue that the beauty of Netflix is their deep archived content and while 487 or the 488 movies in my queue currently show availability of now, they’re customers who do like to rent new releases. By making them wait, Netflix is creating an artificial rental window that allows Warner Brothers to charge higher prices for new release DVDs and causes the price for rentals to rise at rental firms like Blockbuster. In fact since striking these agreements, Blockbuster has raised prices on their DVD by mail program and reinstated late fees to their customers. This is a reversal of the price wars that consumers enjoyed over the last decade.

While Netflix and Redbox haven’t seen much in the way of customer defections from implementing this hostile policy, they may find their activities under closer scrutiny thanks to Susan Uman from Manhattan. In a lawsuit against Netflix, she argues that this latest rental window is nothing but anti-competitive collusion. Already, Netflix has been sued over a different arrangement with Walmart to carve up the sales and the rental markets, so it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

According to USLegal.com, “collusion occurs when two persons or representatives of an entity or organization make an agreement to deceive or mislead another. Such agreements are usually secretive, and involve fraud or gaining an unfair advantage over a third party, competitors, consumers or others with whom they are negotiating. The collusion, therefore, makes the bargaining process inherently unfair. Collusion can involve price or wage fixing, kickbacks, or misrepresenting the independence of the relationship betweeen the colluding parties.”

While there is a fine line between collusion and standard industry business agreements, the deal that Netflix made cheats customers out of new releases and I think it crosses that line. They have in effect sold their first sale rights, in exchange for financial terms that give them an economic advantage over smaller competitors in their industry. According to this primer by the Justice Department, collusion tends to occur when we see some of the following conditions.

“-Collusion is more likely to occur if there are few sellers. The fewer the number of sellers, the easier it is for them to get together and agree on prices, bids, customers, or territories. Collusion may also occur when the number of firms is fairly large, but there is a small group of major sellers and the rest are “fringe” sellers who control only a small fraction of the market.

-The probability of collusion increases if other products cannot easily be substituted for the product in question or if there are restrictive specifications for the product being procured.

-The more standardized a product is, the easier it is for competing firms to reach agreement on a common price structure. It is much harder to agree on other forms of competition, such as design, features, quality, or service.

-Repetitive purchases may increase the chance of collusion, as the vendors may become familiar with other bidders and future contracts provide the opportunity for competitors to share the work.

-Collusion is more likely if the competitors know each other well through social connections, trade associations, legitimate business contacts, or shifting employment from one company to another.

-Bidders who congregate in the same building or town to submit their bids have an easy opportunity for last-minute communications.”

Looking over this list, it would appear that Netflix is very much in a position to abuse their market leadership status. With Movie Gallery in bankruptcy for the 2nd time and Blockbuster getting close to a date with the grim reaper themselves, Netflix and Redbox represent the future of the DVD rental industry. This limited competition has made it easy for them to enter into agreements that wouldn’t have been tolerated by customers five years ago. If Blockbuster had the finances to actually keep new releases in stock, one might argue otherwise, but their company is in survival mode and are now having to pay Warner Brothers more for each new release then their two biggest threats.

While Netflix and Redbox may not have their headquarters located in the same town, both have been aggressively courting Hollywood for access to their movies. Since the studios are largely controlled by a small handful of companies, it gives them the ability to collude with the limited DVD renters that are left.

Prior to their agreement with Warner Brothers, Redbox was on the outside of this club and was being forced to acquire their DVDs from outlets like Walmart because Warner Brothers refused to even do business with them. Now that they’ve stopped sticking up for the consumer, they have access to all the DVDs that they want to buy. If this doesn’t qualify as collusion, I’m not sure what does.

It’s hard to say how much legal merit this lawsuit will have, but from my viewpoint, I believe that Netflix, Redbox and Warner Brothers have created an illegal cartel to try and carve up the DVD market. Warner Brother’s gets to force consumers to buy new release DVDs, instead of being able to rent at lower prices and the rental companies get cheaper supply which helps to boost their profits. While I’m sad that Redbox gave up on fighting for consumers, I am glad that consumers aren’t afraid to fight back. Hopefully, Ms. Uman takes this case all the way, instead of settling at the last minute for a million dollar windfall.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Subscribe To HBO

HBO NY OfficeHBO may stand for Home Box Office, but it may as well be Hates Being Online given their objections to internet video. According to Time Warner, HBO has over 40 million subscribers and while this lucrative revenue stream allows them to produce some of the most compelling content on television, it also gives them an extraordinary amount of influence on the entertainment industry. Not only is the company owned by one of the major studios, but because of the billions that they take in each year, they’ve been able to outbid small nimble start-ups for access to content. Instead of using this power for good though, they’ve chosen to fight against consumer’s interests by restricting your ability to watch digital content that you’ve legally purchased.

With consumers clearly wanting to access content online, one would think that HBO would be the first in line to embrace this trend, but because of their status quo, they’ve chosen to fight progress instead of helping to usher in the digital age.

Over the last two years, a group of digital and traditional media companies have formed an impressive collective known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE). This diverse group of firms includes firms ranging in diversity from Sony to DivX. While each company has their own agenda, the goal of the group is to try and create a media framework that allows consumers to purchase downloadable media and to play it on a wide range of consumer electronic devices.

While I do think that there are some problems with their proposed implementation, I’m also pragmatic enough to see this consortium as our best chance of furthering the internet video revolution. To date, media companies have fought digitization tooth and nail, but this co-op between Hollywood and the Silicon Valley could create an environment where more new release content is made available to the public.

Anyone whose used Netflix’s Watch Instantly program knows that there is a ton of content from the 1980′s, but very few titles from the last decade. One of the biggest reasons for this, is that companies like HBO have used their vast financial resources to outbid them and other digital players for these films. With studios scared to death of upsetting deep pocket partners like HBO, it’s created an environment where consumers must either pirate recent content, set an appointment to see TV or stick to watching it on a disc.

While, HBO has made some of their content available through Comcast’s TV anywhere initiative, it’s only includes their weakest titles and you must be a cable subscriber to get access to the content. Contrast this to Showtime’s digital experiments and it’s clear that HBO is standing in the way of progress.

Like Netflix’s Watch Instantly platform, DECE has proposed a system where consumers can store their media content in the cloud and then stream it whenever (and more importantly wherever) they want to view the film. Yet, according to the industry trade publication, The Wrap (via Inside Redbox), HBO isn’t a fan of this system and is actively trying to block it’s implementation. Since they insist on legal language in their contracts that prevent consumers from accessing digital content while it’s playing on their channel, it’s possible that you could purchase a film and then be blocked from seeing it while it’s playing on HBO.

Imagine paying a steep premium to see a recently released film and then being told that you can’t watch it on certain dates, just because HBO is afraid that you might not subscribe to their channel. Clearly, this isn’t in the interests of consumers and yet HBO is using their financial resources to try and create this very scenario.

“Paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year for output deals with Warner, Fox and Universal, HBO currently restricts these studios from distributing their films digitally during its exclusive pay-TV window. Typically, that window starts six months after a film debuts on DVD and extends for 18 months. It already has presented itself as a challenge for established download sellers including iTunes and Netflix.”

HBO is free to run their business anyway that they like, but I believe that policies that are downright hostile to consumers should not go unpunished. Because of this, I’m asking HBO subscribers to call your cable company and cancel the channel. I know that this may mean giving up some great content, but if HBO starts to feel the sting from a consumer backlash, perhaps they’ll rethink their position and start to embrace the digital revolution. Currently, only 3% of the entertainment industry’s revenue come from online, but if just 3% of HBO’s subscribers were to cancel service, it would have a profound effect on the company’s profitability.

For too long, consumers have been abused by these exclusivity agreements and if you sit back and allow them to walk all over you, then you’re only part of the problem. Instead of rewarding an outdated analog business model, we need to be demanding that studios and their partners join the 21st century and make their content available online.

How To Save Blockbuster

SuperBlockbuster

Ten years ago, Blockbuster video was on top of the world. They didn’t know it at the time, but it was the golden age for the video store. After years of reminders to be kind and rewind, consumers were adopting DVD players en masse and needed a source for their entertainment needs. For better or worse that source was Blockbuster.

With the internet buzz hitting a fevered pitch, Blockbuster was already hard at work creating a digital strategy. Given their dominate position in the video store industry, they even flirted with the idea of buying a small internet start up named Netflix for a mere $50 million.

With the entertainment world seemingly in the palm of their hand, Blockbuster was positioned to make the jump to digital better than anyone, but over the last decade they’ve made a series of blunders that now threatens to bankrupt them today.

Yet, in looking at their rise and fall, it’s easy to make the quick assumption that their problems were a result of technological innovation, but the truth of the matter is that they have no one but themselves to blame for the weak position that they find themselves in today.

Of all their missteps, the biggest blunder was assuming $1 billion in debt, so that Viacom could collect an obscene dividend payment when they sold the company to a naive public. That debt now hangs over them like an albatross across their their neck and has caused them to lose pace with their unencumbered competitors.

With revenues in steep decline, it will only get harder and harder for Blockbuster to continue to meet their obligations under this debt. Without the firepower to compete on a level playing field, their situation will only get worse

With the precariousness of their position becoming increasingly clear, Blockbuster has done everything from paying a high price to refinance their debt to hiring a bankruptcy specialist to help salvage what is left of their business.

Yet, despite the clear and present danger of their situation, Blockbuster has continued to keep their head buried in the sand. Over the years, I’ve offered my fair share of suggestions criticism for how they could improve their business model, but we’re now at a point where a tourniquet won’t save them, they must do massive surgery and Stat!

In an effort to try and preserve a dying part of the entertainment industry, I present to you, my plan to save Blockbuster.

With the future looking pretty bleak for just about any video store, how can a company like Blockbuster save themselves? By sacrificing their media business in exchange for an opportunity to reinvent their retail business.

What I’m proposing would be tricky and the devil really would be in the details, but with the right execution, Blockbuster could shed their legacy of debt, future proof their business and position themselves to take market share, instead of losing it.

Essentially what they’d need to do is create a “good Blockbuster” and a “bad Blockbuster” to isolate their problems.

On one side you would have their DVD by mail program, their DVD kiosks and their digital business. On the other side, you would have Blockbuster’s traditional video store business that so many are quick to write off.

Together, the two businesses are slowly strangling Blockbuster, but split apart, they could free them from the impact of years of stagnation and ineptitude on their part. What I’m proposing is that they spin off their good assets and use that money to pay off their debt.

In the past, Blockbuster tried to launch an aggressive initiative to boost their DVD by mail program, but by doing so, they only ended up cannibalizing their in store customers. As a result, they’ve all but abandoned the program and have allowed their future to slip away.

If an independent Blockbuster.com doesn’t have to worry about that cannibalization, they could focus on going head to head against Netflix. They could create a subscription program for their kiosks that could offer value that Redbox couldn’t match. They could be price competitive without having to worry about their legacy stores. The result would be a smaller Blockbuster with less meaningful revenue, but it would represent profitable revenue instead of losses.

Neither Netflix nor Redbox would be able to offer DVD exchanges at the kiosk level and through the mail, but Blockbuster could capitalize on both strengths. Yes, the company would be a mere sapling in the larger entertainment industry, but Netflix was once a sapling and they’ve been able to grow into a very large oak.

From the video store side of the equation, Blockbuster could focus on what they do best, maximize cash flow while transitioning their stores into a new business. Whether that means turning their stores into modern day Starbucks or a replacement for the now defunct Circuit City, there are still plenty of opportunities for smart and nimble retailers.

To date, Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes has made this transition a priority for the company, but when they are forced to forgo tens of millions in capital expenditures, just so that they can service their debt, it limits how quickly they can make this jump. As a result, they continue to face pressure to close stores instead of turning them into cash flow producing machines.

Given all of the negative media attention, it may be hard to believe, but Blockbuster still does a ton of business. For the first 9 months of 2009, Blockbuster brought in over $1.9 BILLION in revenue. By comparison, Netflix brought in $1.22 billion during the same period. Yet, when you look at the differences in market capitalization, Netflix is over 20 times more valuable than Blockbuster.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Blockbuster would have turned a profit of $38.4 million during that 9 month period, had they been able to ignore their debt. Instead, that $38.4 million profit turned into a loss of $131.6 million for the company. Now you don’t need to have a Phd in math to know that losing over $100+ million per year starts to get expensive fast and perhaps even more damaging than the loss of the cash is the effect that these interest payments are having on their competitive ability.

Instead of being able to invest in their future, they’ve been forced to make cut backs. Instead of retrofitting their stores, they’ve been closing them instead. Instead of stepping up the marketing, they’ve been forced to dial back. The result is that more revenue shifts to Redbox and Netflix and their cost to acquire customers has plummeted. If this trend continues, you don’t need Dr. Doom to tell you that it will be curtains for Blockbuster. They must stop the bleeding and they must stop it now.

Now I know what you are thinking, if Blockbuster is a penny stock today, how are they going to come up with $1.6 billion to pay off their long and short term debt. Part of it comes from the assets that they are holding today. With $980 million in current assets, they should be able to keep a good chunk of their leverage in check. The remaining $620 million worth of debt would be paid off by spinning off their new media divisions.

According to the most recent data, Blockbuster currently has 1.6 million online subscribers. As of last September, they had deployed 1,000 kiosks, but were anticipating that they would have over 10,000 deployed by the end of 2010. While Blockbuster doesn’t break down their digital revenues, I think that it’s reasonable to suggest that this division would be worth anywhere between $25 – $75 million based on their market position and intellectual assets.

If you look at Netflix’s current valuation, it works out to be approximately $255 per subscriber. Assuming that you discount Blockbuster subscribers by 30%, it would value Blockbuster’s DVD by mail business at $285 million.

In February of 09′ Coinstar completed their purchase of Redbox at a valuation of approximately $350 million. At the time, Redbox had 12,500 kiosks suggesting a value of approximately $28,000 per kiosk. Assuming that Blockbuster can get to 10,000 kiosks, even at a 50% discount to what Coinstar paid at the bottom of the market, one could assume that this stake would be worth approximately $140 million without Blockbuster’s legacy stores or debt.

What these numbers suggest is that if Blockbuster were to do a spinoff, it’s easily conceivable that they could raise at least $500 million in the offering. Assuming that they start to market their DVD by mail and get it up to 2.5 million subscribers, it would value their new media business at approximately $660 million.

If they did the spin off in the form of a convertible bond, I believe that this number goes even higher, because bond investors could be given the option to return to their current position, if the spin off flopped.

While this sort of transaction would create a new competitor for Blockbuster Video, by getting rid of their debt, it would enable their stores to become profitable once again, which in turn would make it easier for Mr. Keyes to raise money for the marketing and store improvements that Blockbuster so desperately needs.

While I believe that this rescue plan could make Blockbuster competitive again, I don’t believe that their current management is willing to sell off their future, even if it means saving themselves. Despite all evidence of a dying industry, Keyes continues to insist that the video store is the cornerstone of what they do and has consistently defined Blockbuster’s competitive advantage as being able to offer entertainment across multiple channels. While it’s easy to point to Netflix and Redbox as the source of Blockbuster’s kryptonite, I believe that it is their own unwillingness to let go of the past that is preventing them from being a video superhero of the future. Only time will tell how indestructible they really are, but if they continue down the same path, they’ll end up as a mere footnote in the history of the entertainment industry.

Coming Soon To A Store Near You

Hollywood DivXI know that I’ve been critical of DivX’s efforts to woo Hollywood in the past, but I’ve also got to give them credit for a win when I see one and I think they knocked it out of the park when it comes to Paramount.

Recently, Paramount announced that they were going to be distributing content on USB sticks. At the time, they didn’t say what format it would be in and even on DivX’s conference call there was no mention of this realization of their strategic vision, but Electric Pig is reporting that the Paramount movies will in fact be encoded in DivX.

With only 20,000 memory sticks for sale and at a price of approximately $33 US, Paramount is still clearly in the testing phase, but the fact that they choose DivX demonstrates the clear advantage that DivX has over all of their other digital competitors. They have the only real solution for brick and mortar retailers.

If Paramount tried to do this with a proprietary solution, it wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t give them a way to get that movie to the television. They could try to do it with Apple, but Apple doesn’t have the same reach to the TV, especially in Europe where this is being launched.

To date, most of my thoughts on DivX’s courtship of Hollywood have centered on the futility of trying to win enough support, so that online retailers could adopt their technology for digital distribution. If you can’t get a Disney or UMG to license DivX’s format, it makes it tough for someone like Netflix or Blockbuster to use their codec even with the other 80% of the content owners on board.

The beauty of the USB distribution strategy is that they won’t need 100% industry support in order to move their plans forward. Shelf space is limited as is, all they need is for a single studio to want to take advantage of this and there will be more than enough titles to tempt you with while you are waiting in line at the cash register.

Now I know what many of you are thinking, movies on USB are pretty lame. When Paramount made their announcement, there were more than a few commenters who zinged them for being out of touch with current trends. While there’s no doubt that the world will go digital, I also realize that the major studios aren’t going to abandon the retail partners that deliver the majority of their profits each and every year. It may end up becoming super easy to buy movies straight from your home, but if you have millions of consumers visiting a store each day, you can bet that the studios will want to reach those customers where they are hanging out. The shelf space is too valuable to be abandoned.

DivX on USB also opens up new business models for the studios. Instead of selling three DVDs, they could package all the Godfather films on one stick to justify a higher price tag or they could offer an entire season of television on an 8GB stick instead. If a retailer can sell something for twice the price, they will take smaller margins from the studios for the larger transaction. With the studios under pressure to develop new revenue streams, this will be too tempting for them not to exploit.

There’s no doubt that DVD is moving to Blu-Ray, but DivX memory sticks allow their Hollywood partners to reach consumers who may not have upgraded to high def just yet. With the industry in a state of flux, being able to sell a device that can be read by any computer and over 200 million devices gives DivX broad reach when it comes to the world of disconnected playback.

Paramount may be approaching this market cautiously, but I think people have greatly underestimated the size and the impact that USB films will have. It may not be cutting edge technology, but there are too many powerful companies who need it to succeed for it to fail. At the birth of this industry, it’s encouraging to see Paramount actively supporting their partnership with DivX, instead of just taking a licensing payment and then ignoring what their technology can offer.

USB movies won’t necessarily solve DivX problems with their shifting business model, but it does underscore the significance of the platform that DivX has built. As much as DivX is threatened by the obsolescence of the DVD, they can also benefit from the format shift. So far, they haven’t done a very good job of managing this transition, but this deal proves that even an old dog can learn new tricks. If retailers start asking for DivX as a weapon against Blockbuster and Netflix, other studios might also understand the benefits of using open and popular technology to make more money.

Blockbuster Bleeding DVD-By-Mail Subscribers

not-blockbusterPhoto by C-Bunny.

Just in case you think Blockbuster’s problems are isolated to a declining video store industry, I’d encourage you to take a closer look at their latest 10-Q filing. Despite there being clear growth in the DVD by mail category, Blockbuster is hemorrhaging subscribers. In fact, the percentage of people giving up on their by mail service is almost as high as the percentage of people giving up on their video stores. According to their 10-Q,

“Rental revenues decreased mainly as a result of: a $76.3 million decrease in by-mail revenues driven by a 30% average decline in by-mail subscribers, which was more than offset by related cost reductions described below under “Domestic—Gross profit;”

At one point in early 2007, Blockbuster had the pedal on the metal and was boasting of having close to 3 million subscribers. Since then, they’ve been understandably quiet, but I had no idea things were this bad until I read their most recent filing.

After piecing through other filings, I was able to come up with an estimate of 1 – 1.25 million current subs.

Here’s the math for those playing at home.

At the end of 2006, Blockbuster had 2.2 million subscribers and had brought in approximately $250 million in revenue. By the end of 07′, they were flirting with 3 million subs and had $525 million in DVD-by-mail revenue.

From a historical standpoint, this tells us that Blockbuster’s subscribers tend to average between $9.49 – $14.60 per month, but these figures are a bit skewed by their total access efforts. Since most of their subscriber gains were added at the end of 06′ and the beginning of 07′, it pushes both numbers to an extreme. Their actual monthly average is probably closer to somewhere in the middle.

By comparison, Netflix subscribers were averaging $12.84 per month as of their most recent quarter.

The information that Blockbuster discloses doesn’t allow us to get at an exact figure, but if we also dig through past filings, there is more than enough info to extrapolate a reasonable estimate for their current number of subs.

In December of 2006, they had just passed 2.2 million subscribers. Two months later, they were predicting that they’d be at 3 million subscribers by March 07′

A year later the first sign of trouble shows up when they disclosed that they saw “significant” subscriber losses after pulling total access in 07′. If we assume that 20% of their subscribers left after they cancelled the free in-store exchanges, it would bring you to an estimate of 2.4 million subscribers for midway through 07′.

By Oct 08′, Blockbuster admits that their by mail revenues decreased another 21.5%, so if you subtract another 500,000 subs you get a total of 1.9 million from 9 months ago.

Since we know that they’ve lost 30% of their subscribers over the last 12 months, it gives us an estimate of 1.3 million subscribers today. With some of these number being moving targets, I wanted to check to my math to see how reasonable this guess was and I actually think it’s a tad high. If you take a look at their most recent by-mail revenue number, it suggests that the total is slightly lower.

Since Blockbuster has plans that range from $9 – $17 per month, it gives us a range to consider. If a decline of $76 million represents 30%, it would suggest that they are currently earning $14.8 million per month from by mail subscribers.

If we assume that 100% of them were $9 per months subs, it would mean that the maximum number of subscribers that they could have at this point would be 1.64 million and if 100% of the subscribers were paying $17 per month, it would peg the minimum size of their subscriber base at 870,000.

Since $12 – $14 is a more reasonable estimate for what the average Blockbuster by mail subscriber pays each month, it gives us a ball park range of 1 – 1.25 million current subscribers.

I wasn’t surprised to see a drop in subscribers right after Blockbuster abandoned their total access plans, but to see them drop below TA levels has to be concerning for Blockbuster Execs. This is the one part of the company that should be firing on all cylinders, but clearly Netflix’s Watch Now service has been poaching their members.

Blockbuster may have put up a good fight in the DVD wars, but with nearly 10 times the number subscribers, Netflix is now threatening to do to them, what they did to Wal-mart’s DVD by mail program.

The smaller membership gets, the harder and harder it will become for Blockbuster to run their by-mail program at a profit. They could always raise prices, but that would only lead to additional defections. With Blockbuster on the ropes, don’t be surprised to see Netflix maintain the price war for another 12 months while they wait for Blockbuster’s bond owners to take control of the company.

In the meantime, this data only highlights the fact that Blockbuster’s problems aren’t because of a lack of opportunities, it’s an issue with their execution.

Why Is Redbox Afraid Of The Big Bad iPhone?

Over the last few years, Redbox has been able to build an impressive DVD rental network by being innovative and flexible while their competitors were still laughing at the concept of kiosk rentals. Over time they’ve added features to the Redbox website that allow customers to browse and reserve titles online. They’ve linked their kiosks together so that unlike competitors (ahem: Blockbuster), you can actually rent a movie from one location and return it at another. Redbox’s core business may ultimately be, plain old boring DVD rentals, but there’s no denying that they’ve been an innovator in their industry. This is why I am so perplexed by their most recent decision to go hostile against iPhone owners.

Given the company’s reputation for thinking progressively, I was disappointed to learn that they’ve decided to take a technological step backwards by putting pressure on the Inside Redbox blog, to kill their Inside Redbox iPhone application.

I haven’t jumped on the iPhone bandwagon myself yet, but I can understand why some people think of their phones as an extra appendage. The apps store was a brilliant move by Apple and has created all kinds of interesting software programs that wouldn’t have existed if people had to rely on big companies to build them.

By taking advantage of the GPS features inside the phone, Inside Redbox was able to give iPhone customers the ability to look up which Redbox was closest to them at any given moment. It also allowed customers to find out whether a specific title was available before wasting time visiting the kiosk in person.

The best part about the application though, was it’s ability to reserve movies directly from the iPhone. This means that if you’re standing in line at a Redbox and the person ahead of you is taking too much time selecting a movie, you could theoretically use your iPhone to digitally cut in line and reserve the last copy of Harold and Kumar instead of having to wait impatiently.

When you consider that one of the biggest customer service complaints about Redbox are the long lines when customers try to return DVDs, it blows my mind that Redbox would discourage consumers from using their own mobile device by having them monopolize a kiosk instead.

Whether a customer prefers to order their movies from the internet, a kiosk or the middle of the store while shopping for groceries shouldn’t make a difference to Redbox. No matter what, they are still making a sale, even if they don’t have 100% control over the purchase.

Inside Redbox is mum on details and calls to Redbox’s PR agency didn’t shed any light on the situation, but the two most “controversial” features included in the app is a list of codes for free Redbox movies and the fact that the app relies on Redbox’s website for most of the content.

One theory for why Redbox doesn’t seem to care about iPhone customers is that while they’ve been able to get a lot of buzz using their free movie offers online, consumers haven’t been all that aggressive about redeeming the promotions. Since iPhone customers have access to the most recent free offers while they are actually standing in front of the Redbox kiosk, it makes it easier for customers to take advantage of their specials.

If this is the reason why Redbox killed the application, my response would be that Redbox hasn’t solved their problem, they’ve just made it more difficult to work out a reasonable compromise with their customers. It won’t take consumers very long to figure out that they can bookmark Inside Redbox’s list of free codes or RedboxCodes.com on their iPhones and still have access to the same information.

Rather then fighting progress, Redbox should be using the relationships formed through the application to streamline their movie promotions. They already restrict some of their offers to new customers only, so why can’t they work out a deal for iPhone promotions? Wouldn’t it be better for Inside Redbox iPhone users to have a 10% chance at “winning” a free movie instead of killing the app and forcing these customers underground? By trying to lower the wham hammer on this neat little application, they’ll only end up upsetting customers instead of addressing a weakness in how they’ve choosen to promote their service. Just because the iPhone app doesn’t fit into their mold of what marketing should be, doesn’t mean that killing it is the best solution.

A second theory for why Redbox may have requested that the app be pulled is that Inside Redbox uses Redbox.com’s website for a healthy chunk of their content. Some businesses may object to this and want to have 100% control over how their customers are “allowed” to use their product, but smart companies see the benefits of being open. In fact open API’s are becoming increasingly common in the tech industry. By allowing third parties to mashup and repurpose your data, entirely new creations are possible. This is why some of the most successful companies have business models that encourage outsiders to partner with them. The Inside Redbox app may repackage content from Redbox’s website, but when push comes to shove, it’s really no different than an internet browser. Is it really better for Redbox to force their customers to have a subpar experience using the Redbox.com website on the iPhone instead of an app that is specifically designed to be viewed on the small screen? I don’t think so.

Asking Inside Redbox to pull their program is a bit like asking Microsoft to not allow Redbox’s website to be shown on Internet Explorer. If Redbox really objects to how their content is being used, they have the power to change it. Instead of trying to kill the third party programs that tap into what they’ve already created, they should be encouraging their fans to mix, mash and experiment to create new experiences for their customers.

To date, Redbox has managed to stay ahead of the competition by being nimble and by nurturing a passionate and dedicated fan base. Their decision to now turn on the very fans who cared about them long before their mainstream momentum, says a lot about how fickle their business decisions really are. Instead of acting like the innovator that I know they are, they are acting like a big media company. Hopefully, Redbox comes to their senses and “authorizes” the use of an app that only makes their service more valuable to their customers.

Night Of The Living DivX

Night Of The Living DivX

The last couple of years may have felt like a bad dream to most investors, but for DivX shareholders it’s been nothing short of a nightmare. They don’t hand out Oscars for businesses, but if they did DivX would have won hands down for best horror flick.

When the company first went public, expectations were high. YouTube had just been sold for $1.6 billion, DivX was demonstrating 75% gains in their high margin core licensing business, and their unique business model looked like it offered a very strong moat from competitors like Apple and Microsoft.

At one point DivX’s market cap exceeded $750 million, today it barely closed above $150 million. Over $600 million dollars in capitalization wiped out by one misstep after another. Admitedly, the tough economic environment can be partially blamed for DivX collapse, but the sad truth is that much of the value destruction could have been avoided.

Suicide Kings

Shortly after DivX went public, Jeran Wittenstein wrote “DivX was founded just before the dotcom bust in February 2000 after Greenhall managed to convince Jerome Rota — a French software engineer who created DivX’s founding technology — to join him in building a company. Including Greenhall and Rota, eventually there would be five co-founders, all of whom are younger than Greenhall and still with the company.” (Note: bold print added by me)

They may have been able to survive the dot com collapse, but DivX’s founders weren’t able to survive the success of going public. In December 2007, Jordan Greenhall, Darius Thompson, & Tay Nguyen all left the company after DivX’s board of Directors made the inexplicable decision to cancel their spin off of Stage6. Joe Bezdek officially left the company 10 months later and now I hear that Jerome Rota, DivX’s original creator, resigned from the company on February 6th of this year.

While Rota remains on the DivX board of Directors, the loss of his day to day influence can’t be understated. I only had the opportunity to meet him once, but was impressed by his remarkable vision. These five individuals may not have had the spit and polish that Wall St. expects from traditional executives, but they weren’t afraid to take risks and knew how to motivate the troops beneath them. The impact from the loss of these employees goes well beyond their individual contributions and investors have already seen shockwaves from these loses ripple through DivX’s employee base.

Two and a half years later, investors have voted with their feet, all five of the founders have now left the company, cracks are beginning to form in their moat and their franchise is very much in danger. The company has gone from being an innovative risk taker to a zombie of her former self. DivX now stands at a crucial crossroad. Are they willing to risk potential annihilation to save consumers from their zombie masters or do investors have Dawn of the DivX in store for a sequel?

“Affliction comes to us all, not to make us sad, but sober; not to make us sorry, but to make us wise; not to make us despondent, but by its darkness to refresh us as the night refreshes the day; not to impoverish, but to enrich us.” – Henry Ward Beecher

There are many instances where management has stumbled, but the end result all comes down to a loss of confidence. They’ve lost the confidence of their shareholders, the analysts, their employees and most importantly, the consumers who drive demand for their products.

Without a dramatic turnaround, I fear that this lack of confidence will spread to their manufacturing partners and we’ll see DivX lose their digital video franchise. While there is still plenty of cash flow left to milk from the DVD market, without aggressively expanding their market position, DivX’s influence will be over before they have a chance to finish the revolution they started.

Barbarians at the gate

When DivX went public, investors were willing to pay a premium to get exposure to the stock. At one point investors were paying more then 10 times sales, a P/E over 30 and over five times DivX’s book value. Based on the midpoint of DivX’s 2008 guidance, DivX is now valued at 1.15 times book, 1.66 times sales and a p/e ratio of 9.5. When you consider that DivX is holding $120 million in cash and short term investments, investors are pricing them more like a blank check IPO, then a strong growing company. You can argue that this is a result of the poor financial markets, but I think it speaks volumes about the lack of confidence that shareholders seem to have in management.

DivX’s response to their problems has been to try and slash and burn their way out of it. When they closed Stage6, they also layed off approximately, 10% of their staff. After Yahoo! backed out of their toolbar arrangement, DivX fired another 10% of their staff. If DivX was struggling to get by, I could accept these types of sacrifices, but the reality is that these cuts are only designed to boost earnings for the company.

I believe that DivX’s management is under the impression, that if they can increase earnings enough, investors will reward them by returning to their stock. The problem with this strategy is that it may be easy for DivX to position themselves to feed off of years of hard work, but without continuing to invest in the business, they have little chance of realizing meaningful growth. When DivX presents their 2008 earnings in early March, I believe that their focus will be on strong earnings results. This may look impressive from a distance, but don’t be distracted unless it’s accompanied by strong revenue growth. Earnings are certainly nice for investors, but if DivX has stopped growing, then investors won’t pay a very high multiple.

When DivX presented at the Thomas Weisel technology conference earlier this month, they used the following graph to illustrate their past growth. On the surface, it’s hard to criticize the progress they’ve made.

DivX Revenue Company Perspective

While there’s no doubt that DivX has accomplished a lot in a very short time, where they are going is more important then where they’ve been. Sadly, over the last year they’ve seen their progress come to a screeching halt. Another way to illustrate, the same information that DivX used in their Thomas Weisel presentation, is to graph the percentage that revenue has grown each year. Even if we exclude things like the Yahoo! toolbar fiasco, the trend for DivX’s core business doesn’t offer a lot to get excited by.

DivX Historical Revenue Growth

In 2003, DivX grew their core licensing business over 700%, in 04′ they saw 184% growth, in 05′ they saw 84% gains, in 06′ they almost experienced a 76% increase in growth. In 07′ signs of danger started to appear, but they still realized 40% growth from their core business. If we use the midpoint of their guidance for 08′ revenue, DivX should see a 13% increase in core revenue for 08′.

As DivX’s business has grown, there is an expectation that the law of large numbers will start to kick in, but if current trends continue, it would appear that DivX’s core licensing revenue will hit near term maturation sometime this year.

Jordan Greenhall said that 2007 would be a building year for DivX, Kevin Hell said the same thing about 08′. With the company in self destruct mode, how optimistic should investors be for 2009?

Trouble In Never Never Land

Some investors may cheer the savings in earnings, but make no mistake, it has had a tremendous cost. The coup to get rid of Greenhall, the divisive nature of current management and the layoffs have all had a tremendous impact on employee morale. DivX may claim that their employee relations are normal in their SEC filings, but there is too much evidence to suggest that DivX now suffers from Yahooitis! These creative individuals are the soul of the company. If DivX continues in their zombie state, more and more employees will leave, feelings will become even more bitter and the company’s progress will be stalled.

If you want to see proof of how bad employee relations have become, take a look at DivX’s reviews on Glassdoor.com. Kevin Hell’s current approval rating is 15%. That’s worse then GW’s numbers, when he left office. To put this into perspective, Hell’s ranking gives him the dubious distinction of being the 18th worst CEO of the 7,185 companies that Glassdoor is tracking.

If you read the comments on the site, it’s very revealing about what’s going on behind the glass curtain.

“It’s party time…if you are a VP or above…”
Pros
It’s a fun atmosphere and very social if you are of the right mindset. Lot’s of cool people and talent…
Cons
Watch your back…I didn’t trust any of the management at all after seeing my boss’ team cut without her knowing beforehand. Very closed, “open environment”… If you are looking to complete a project to add to your portfolio…think again…my projects changed scope every 3 weeks. The strategic direction changes everytime the wind blows.
Advice to Senior Management
Hire new management that cares more about the company’s success than their cushy compensation packages… Layoffs in 2008 were taking place while senior management was cashing in on millions of $$ in stock…even at very low strike prices….Something very fishy is happening here…”

or this one from a current employee who goes by the name anonymous

Anonymous in San Diego, CA: (Current Employee)
“Great company, TERRIBLE management.”
Pros
You get a chance to work with a lot of cool, talented people.
Cons
All the cool, talented people are getting laid off/fired/quitting.
Advice to Senior Management
DivX had so much energy and drive but the management seems to have succeeded in beating that out of the company almost completely.

Here’s one that calls out DivX CFO Dan Halvorson

Developer in San Diego, CA: (Past Employee – 2008)
“DivX was a fun place to work…. at one time”
Pros
DivX has a wonderful group of bright engineers. The camaraderie in my team was superb and we made the best of the otherwise dismal situation. The HR department is better than most in that they truly seem to care about the needs of the employees. There is an opportunity to do something big, and that can be exciting as well.
Cons
I’m not sure where to start! The CFO Dan Halvorson has a reputation for layoffs and cash-outs. He was rumored to have said, “I love it when people quit”. It’s gotten to the point where Halvorson avoids the office and never sticks around at company events. I suppose he knows he isn’t welcome. The constant layoffs and lack of openness to employees gives people an sense of uneasiness and all you can really do is speculate what they’re upto. At least with Jordan, he would be straight with you. The Hell regime seems pretty secretive and sometimes dishonest most times. The Stage 6 debacle was a train wreck. So much of the company’s resources were thrown at this pig and look what came of it? Nothing. A number of long time employees left around this time? Coincidence? Maybe, but not likely. I am guessing the founders got tired of the games and politics.
Advice to Senior Management
Get rid of Halvorson, he is dragging morale down all on his own. No one likes him or wants him there. Be more honest and forthcoming with employees.

The most accurate of them all though, is the bittersweet summary of DivX’s short history.

Anonymous in San Diego, CA: (Past Employee – 2007)
“Good While It Lasted”
Pros
The culture, when it first started was remarkable. There was a great vibe in the office and you constantly felt that you were being challenged and motivated.
Cons
After they went public, and Stage 6 launched, there was a massive series of mistakes that killed morale.
Advice to Senior Management
Listen to your employees.

It may be tempting to write off comments like these as disgruntled employees, but there’s obviously friction between labor and management. Shareholders may not want to acknowledge it, but they would be foolish to ignore it.

If DivX’s reign of Hell is allowed to continue, labor problems will only get worse. Lower payroll may be good for the bottom line, but it does nothing to boost their revenue, long term potential or the health of the underlying business. Going into zombie mode may be the safest way for management to keep their jobs, but zombies move slow and now is the time for action, not caution.

DivX’s digital eco-system is shifting like quicksand beneath them

Like the DVD, DivX’s codec is being made obsolete by high definition. To DivX’s credit, they saw this trend earlier than most and had the foresight to buy MainConcept to help manage this shift, but even there we’ve seen talented defections.

Support for H.264 doesn’t automatically mean that their codec won’t be skipped over in lieu of generic HD certification. The biggest threat to DivX’s business model is that CE makers will use the DivX to HD transition as a way to build support for generic certification. If consumers aren’t demanding DivX support, it will make it easy for them to cut DivX out of the equation. Managing this change to their eco-system, should be the company’s top priority. If DivX can’t convince device makers, that consumers really want their product, more and more manufacturers will leave DivX for cheaper alternatives, creating a downward spiral on their licensing business.

Winbox COO, Niklas Samios shares his rationale for choosing to skip DivX certification

Since Hell took the helm of the company, DivX has been focused on licensing premium content from the major studios. They have scored agreements with Sony and Time Warner, but between their P2P reputation and their Stage6 experiment, one can understand why some of the studios would be reluctant to dance with them.

Last August, they announced a partnership with Cinema Now for showcasing DivX content. While it’s unclear as to when their collaboration will start, it sounds like they are working on creating some kind of new entertainment destination.

According to CEO Kevin Hell DivX is “actively working with retailers to launch sites that can sell content leveraging our DRM in the marketplace. We announced Cinema Now last year and we are actively working to launch a retail offering with Cinema Now and other parties that are out there. The whole idea being that we want to bring content and allow that content to move to all the different devices out there that have our DRM inside.” (Note: Bold added by me)

While I’m of the belief that there can never be too many internet video sites, I did find it curious that Hell used the word “launch” to describe their initiative. When you consider how difficult it’s been for businesses to gain traction in the online video space, it’s a little surprising that DivX wouldn’t be using Cinema Now’s own flagship website as their distribution system.

What the need for a brand new site reveals about DivX content initiatives is a fatal flaw in their Hollywood ambitions. Even with a third tier internet video provider, they can’t convince Cinema Now to incorporate DivX into their main site, because they’ll never be able to get a license from all of the content providers.

Even if they could get a couple more studios on board, their lawsuit with UMG will effectively torpedo any hope of them ever being able to offer a comprehensive catalog to consumers. If you think UMG has any intention of backing down on this one, take another look. Read through DivX’s latest dust up over whether or not UMG should be allowed to use Audible Magic on Stage6′s 60 terrabyte database and form your own conclusions as to how far UMG seems willing to take this.

In the past, DivX management has argued that access to premium content was a key component to their growth, but at the Thomas Weisel investor conference, Hell backed away from previous comments.

“this space does I think take some time to play out, I think that there’s a lot of interesting opportunities out there right now in the premium space, but they’re taking time to really play out, so we’re making sure to pace ourselves in this space and not get ahead of the market”

Going after the studio content is a mistake in my opinion, it’s like ditching the girl you took to the prom for the cheerleader that all the jocks are already trying to make a move on. If DivX had a clean record and was bulging with cash, they might have a shot at some of that hot mainstream content, but when their P2P ex-girlfriend is more horrifying then Carrie to the content providers, it seems foolish not to stick with the girl you took to the dance.

DivX doesn’t need Hollywood content, they need consumers to DEMAND support for DivX in their consumer electronics. Supporting the dark side of the content business wouldn’t earn them any friends in Hollywood, but it would win them the hearts of consumers and would rebuild their moat in high definition.

One of the biggest challenges that Blu-Ray players have faced, isn’t so much the high cost of the hardware device, but the extra money that studios are insisting for Blu-Ray content. DivX could turn themselves into a recession play if they’d be more vocal about advertising the “free” content that people can use on their devices. As Paul Sweeting so aptly put it earlier this year, “hardware makers are adding all sorts of other gimmicks to their Blu-ray players, too, from wireless connectivity, to portability, to, wait for it…VHS playback. Yep, anything to try to avoid slashing the price of players. And anything to try to give consumers options beyond paying $30 for Blu-ray movies.”

Instead of promoting their latest licensing scheme as an H.264 solution, DivX should be pointing out that DivX Plus certification offers “Blu-Ray quality” high definition without this $30 cost. Again, it wouldn’t help their content negotiations, but it would help drive consumer demand back to DivX Plus devices, which is what ultimately drives CE interest and powers DivX’s business.

Content deals make sense as a way to extend their eco-system, but only if it’s on DivX terms. Instead of begging studios for access, DivX should be developing their consumer pipeline and rewarding the content companies who recognize the benefit of being able to access millions of consumers at their television sets. DivX greatest opportunity is the caos caused by Hollywood’s licensing terms. If they go through official channels, it will be years before they can reach their core fans, but if they fight against the system, they will be the only international solution for a very long time.

How much buzz could DivX get, if they actually spoke out about their lawsuit against UMG or if they ran some kind of “pirate” friendly promotion like giving free ISOhunt toolbar installations, while trying to find a replacement for Yahoo! These moves wouldn’t make them any money, but it would be a clear signal about who their end customer really is. DivX does almost zero marketing because their consumers have built their brand. By going hostile against Hollywood, DivX would magnify the strength of their signal. When consumers show passsion for the DivX brand, CE companies will quickly fill the void.

Fat Tube and little DivX

DivX other big “growth” initiative has also turned out to be a flop. Despite two years of pitching the concept, DivX has yet to see Connected integrated into other consumer electronics. The sad part is, that I believe Connected could radically transform DivX’s value proposition.

Currently, if you want to play a DivX movie on a DVD player, consumers must find the content, transfer it to a portable storage device (i.e. burn a DVD or move the file onto a memory stick) and then physically transport the media to their DVD player. If you’re a hard core fan, it’s worth going through all this trouble to get access to your media, but I’d be shocked if more than 5% of users were taking advantage of this feature.

The beauty of the Connected business model is that it dramatically simplifies the process. If consumers buy a TV that is powered by DivX Connected, they’ll get curious as to how to take advantage of the functionality. Not everyone will adopt DivX, but if even 25% of those customers plug their television into the internet, it would drive mass adoption for DivX content.

Compared to their DVD licensing, DivX Connected could have an atomic impact on the content industry. Make no mistake about it, if Connected takes off, it will be a weapon of mass piracy from the studio perspective. Because Connected makes it so easy to access your content, it has the potential to turn mainstream customers into rabid file sharing animals. Why it hasn’t already taken off remains a mystery to me, but it could have a serious impact on the demand for DivX, if they can ever get it released into the wild.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to meet Hell in person and I asked him whether or not he felt that the premium they were asking for Connected had anything to do with manufacturer resistance.

His response was “I wouldn’t attribute it to the pricing, I think it’s more an issue of implementation and the fact that a lot of these guys are still trying to figure out what they’re doing there. They either have their own initiatives or they’re confused about it, they want to try X, they want to try Y, anything that’s out there to figure out what it’s all about and in my mind it’s a lack of coherent focus and understanding by the CE partners.”

Since then, CES has come and gone, but it looked pretty clear to me that the CE industry isn’t all that confused about their connected television plans. The fact that DivX hasn’t been able to get their product in the door may or may not have something to do with their pricing, but deep discounting may be their best option for jump starting the program again.

In 2002, DivX was struggling to convert their company into a licensing business. Manufacturers were skeptical that consumers would pay extra for the support. To prove the value of DivX certification, DivX signed a licensing agreement with a little know third tier DVD maker known as KISS. It was officially certified in August 2003. The product, immediately began to pick up buzz and less than six months later, Phillips signed on to have DivX included in their own DVD players as well. After Phillips made their move, other CE companies were forced to follow and by mid 2004, DivX DVD players were pretty much available anywhere on the globe. To this day, the Phillip’s DVP642 remains one of the most reviewed DVD players on Amazon.

A couple years after DivX helped to put Kiss on the map, Cisco bought them out for over $60 million. I would argue that there are many similarities between Divx’s initial efforts to convince DVD player manufacturers to licensing their technology and their current struggles in the Connected market. Rather then continuing to hold out for a premier deal, DivX would be well served in signing a teaser deal with a small television provider. When large CE companies see proof that DivX Connected can move TV sets, they’ll quickly begin signing contracts to ensure that they remain competitive. While heavy discounting is less than desirable from Divx’s perspective, getting more Connected devices in the wild, would at least give them an opportunity to prove that there’s still value in the DivX brand.

Death of a Salesman

While I support discounting when it helps to secure DivX’s moat, it’s hard to be encouraged by the cracks that we’re seeing in their value proposition.

To help take a closer look at DivX’s pricing erosion, I reached out to Jack Wetherill from Futuresource Consulting for data on global DVD player sales. According to Mr. Wetherill, “DVD players in their broadest sense (ie set-top players, recorders, integrated home theatres, DVD/VHS combos and portable DVD players) totaled 122m in 2006 and 127m in 2007. We expect the market to level off at 127m in 2008, although year end numbers are still being finalised.”

When DivX first went public, the company said that they had a 25% penetration rate in the DVD player market. This translated into approximately $47 million in core licensing revenue for 2006 or approximately $1.54 per DivX certified device.

In 2007, DivX grew their global DVD player market share to 37%, which translated into approximately $66 million in core licensing revenue or $1.40 per unit.

At the Thomas Weisel Technology conference, DivX said that they’ve now captured 50% of the DVD player market, but according to their own projections they are only expected to grow their core licensing business by 13% in 2008. With core revenues around $75 million, this would suggest that DivX is now earning a unit licensing fee of $1.18 per certified device. A decline of approximately 23% in pricing power since the company went public.

When you consider that consumer trends have been much kinder to upscaling DVD players (where you almost always find DivX) vs. traditional DVD players and when you consider that DivX’s core revenue numbers include other electronic categories and Main Concept revenue, one could argue that these calculations are much more conservative then the actual results.

DivX has always said that they provide volume discounts to partners, but with over half the market now captured, it would appear that DivX’s DVD upside is somewhat limited.

Saving Private DivX

Along the way, DivX has made their fair share of mistakes, but they’ve also achieved tremendous wins as a result of the risks that they’ve taken. Compared to the mainstream studios they may only be a tiny mouse, but when you look at affect that their technology has had on the media landscape, it’s clear that they’ve been able to frighten the Hollywood elephants.

The good news is that it’s not too late to turn DivX around, but without some kind of action, I fear that DivX will remain in cruise control while their franchise continues to lose value. What does DivX need to do in order to return to their glory days of growth? It all comes to restoring confidence in the company.

First and foremost, DivX must put a stop to the bleeding from employees leaving the company. Given their labor issues, I don’t believe that this can be accomplished without replacing their management team, so I believe that new leadership needs to be a top priority.

Once a new team is in place, I would take .25 cents worth of earnings and commit to investing it in DivX’s growth. DivX’s employees are more accustomed to the culture of a start up then a publicly traded company. DivX should be playing to these strengths. Spend $500k per month building out new businesses. Adopt a Google model where employees are encouraged to spend 15% of their time thinking outside the box. Become a technology incubator with the long term goal of spinning off divisions when the markets recover. Start funding a profit sharing contribution to the company’s retirement plan, so that DivX’s success is shared by everyone instead of those lucky enough to get options. Take the time to listen to your employees and address their concerns.

Secondly, DivX must restore faith to their investor base. New leadership could help to accomplish this, but it will likely take more than promises of growth, to soothe the rattled nerves of their investors. Reinforce DivX’s long term commitment to shareholders by paying a .25 cent dividend as a way to reward investors while they wait for evidence of a turnaround. Taxes on a dividend would be better avoided through a buyback, but further buybacks would only reward short term shareholders and would increase volatility by reducing an already low share count. With a 5% yield, a dividend should help to establish a floor on DivX’s share price until earnings multiples expand back to growth levels.

Finally, restore confidence in your consumer base by speaking out for consumer rights. Use the UMG trial as a way to create passion in your fans and to drum up support for digital rights. Squeezing marketing leverage from the lawsuit would at least help to justify the costs involved with going to trial. Focus on Divx Plus’ quality advantage for HDTV consumers. Instead of throwing good money after bad, abandon your content plans until you have better leverage. Use small independent content providers to show how powerful DivX user base can be to progressive studios. Sign a sweetheart deal with a small CE television manufacturer to put pressure on the rest of the market.

If investors do nothing, DivX won’t necessarily go bankrupt, but it will torpedo their brand and market position. DivX CFO Dan Halverson said that their #1 goal in 09′ is to protect the balance sheet. This may seem prudent during such difficult economic times, but sleepwalking through a format change won’t position DivX for the long term. There will be a time for Divx to cash in on all of their hard work, but to try and do so at such a crucial point in the digital transition seems foolish and short sighted.