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Streaming-Movie Startup Row8 Signs Deals With Four Hollywood Studios (EXCLUSIVE)

Row8, a fledgling digital movie service, is looking to take on transactional VOD players like Apple and Amazon with a focus on movies — and a few pricing twists.

The L.A.-based startup has inked licensing deals with four major studios — Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. — for rights to rent and sell new releases and a selection of library titles.

Row8 first launched a year ago with exclusive U.S. rights to a selection of foreign and indie films. Now, it sees the opportunity to cater to mainstream moviegoers by bulking up its selection.

“We looked at the marketplace, did a lot of research, and we felt like there was an opportunity to zig where the market was zagging toward subscription VOD,” Row8 CEO John Calkins said. Calkins is an industry veteran who spent six years at Sony Pictures Entertainment, most recently as exec VP of digital distribution, and before that led digital licensing for Warner Bros. Entertainment.

But how can Row8 possibly compete with giants like Apple, Amazon or Google, let alone players like Vudu or FandangoNow that have been in the transactional VOD biz for years? After all, the startup isn’t getting any advantage in terms of exclusive windowing versus any other digital retailer. While Calkins wouldn’t discuss business terms there’s no chance Row8 is getting a better deal from studios than the industry heavyweights. Row8 is offering industry-standard pricing for new-release rentals ($5.99) and with catalog titles $2.99-$3.99.

Here’s one way Row8 hopes to stand out: It has a “Movie Love Guarantee,” which will let customers who aren’t happy with the movie they’ve rented “trade it in” to get a credit for another title. “It’s like sending a dish back at a restaurant,” Calkins said.

In addition, the startup also is offering limited-time discounts. On Tuesdays, Row8 will knock $1 off the price of new releases. It’s also offering a $1 discount in an off-peak 15-hour window — from midnight to 3 p.m. local time — on new releases and catalog titles. The catch: For the off-peak “matinee pricing,” Row8 will give customers only a three-hour period to view the title (i.e., so people don’t purchase a rental earlier in the day to watch later in the evening).

“We know it’s a discount-responsive category,” Calkins said. For now, Row8 offers only VOD rentals but expects to begin offering electronic sell-through (EST) later in 2019.

Another differentiation for Row8, according to Calkins, is that the service stocks only movies — not television shows — which he claimed provides a cleaner, more simplified user experience. “We set out to design a service that would appeal with heavy, new-release fans,” he said. “It’s films in their first windows that aren’t on Netflix yet.”

Still, Calkins understands that Row8 has a big marketing challenge: “It’s getting the consumer to click on that initial title.”

The deals with the four studios will bring Row8 more than 500 titles. Those include “Bumblebee,” “What Men Want,” “Ghostbusters” (2016), “The Equalizer,” “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and “The Fate of the Furious.” Notably absent are Disney/Fox and Lionsgate but Calkins said, “We’ve had discussions with both of them and hope to get them on the service soon.”

Row8’s studio partners are rooting for the company to gain a foothold in the market. “We are pleased to be making films from Paramount’s world-renowned library available to Row8’s user base of avid film fans,” said Richard Smith, Paramount’s SVP of digital sales and distribution. “Row8 makes it easy for movie lovers to find classic and contemporary films that are immediately available to stream, simplifying the at-home viewing experience.”

Row8 was founded in 2016 by entrepreneurs and investors George Christoph and Jasmina Christoph, who tapped Calkins as CEO. The company’s advisers include entertainment lawyer Ken Ziffren; Craig Kornblau, formerly Universal Studios’ home entertainment chief; and media consultant and producer Thomas Augsberger.

Currently, the Row8 service is available via the web, on iOS and Android devices, Roku players and Samsung connected TVs. Comcast Technology Solutions is powering the service on the back-end, and video encoding is provided by Vubiquity. The Row8 interface was initially built by Accedo, but the startup has since taken that development in-house. “We tried to not reinvent the wheel,” Calkins said.

Row8 is based in West Hollywood and has 18 staffers, including full-time employees and consultants. As for the meaning of the company’s name, Calkins said that in a theater, the optimal viewing location is two screen heights away — hence, Row8. “We wanted something that would capture the cinema experience,” he said.

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