The Empire Strikes Back
The guy from Bentonville, Ark., surely isn't on any of Hollywood's leading man lists. A 23-year Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) veteran, David Porter is the person at the retail giant who orders DVDs and slashes prices to move them. But this summer, Porter has been one of Hollywood's hottest acts, taking meetings with top studio brass like a producer with a hot script. His pitch: Wal-Mart isn't happy.
That prospect tends to send shivers through Hollywood's Gucci-toed corner offices. As the largest seller of DVDs, Wal-Mart accounts for roughly 40% of the $17 billion in DVDs that will be sold this year, a financial lifeline to big-spending studios. But now Wal-Mart's video business faces a potential threat by Steve Jobs and Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL ), which in mid-September, sources tell BusinessWeek, plans to announce it will start offering movie downloads from its iTunes store. The notion of kids running around with full-length movies on new, wider-screen iPods that Apple is expected to unveil as well is causing grief in Bentonville, according to Hollywood executives. The $312 billion a year retailer, they say, wants concessions that could include lower DVD wholesale prices.
With Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott assigning his point man Porter to roam the halls of major studios, skittish executives have for months delayed giving Jobs the rights to distribute their movies through his new service. The price Apple hopes to charge, now set at $14.99 for new releases and $9.99 for older movies, has risen from Jobs's initial plan to offer new flicks for $9.99, say industry insiders. And so far, Apple only has one studio signed on: Walt Disney Co. (DIS ), where Jobs is the largest shareholder following the entertainment giant's purchase of his Pixar Animation Studios (DIS ). News Corp.'s (NWS ) Fox Entertainment Group may join in later, as might independent Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF ), say Hollywood sources, but only if other studios come along, too.
So far, other large studios have taken a pass, especially after Wal-Mart earlier this year threatened not to sell Disney's High School Musical for a time after Disney released it initially only on iTunes. What does Wal-Mart want this time to play nice? Executives who have met with Porter say it wants marketing help when it launches its own planned download site. And it wants Hollywood to trim the current $17 wholesale price for DVDs. That would let Wal-Mart slash its own prices to the same $15 or so that Apple would charge. (The plan is for Apple to pay a $14 wholesale price for new releases, say sources, although negotiations continue.) A large wholesale cut for Wal-Mart, of course, would amount to hundreds of millions in lost studio revenues each year at a time when DVD sales are slowing.
TIRED OF TIPTOEING
Wal-Mart isn't the only issue that's giving some studios pause. Several are concerned about Apple's rules for using iTunes, which let users watch a film on up to five different devices. And others worry about letting Jobs set a download price they can't change, as he has done in music. Still, studios have embraced the digital concept and accept some "burning" of movies to DVDs. In addition to Apple, the studios are negotiating potential download deals with Amazon.com (AMZN ), AT&T (T ), and cable giant Comcast (CMCSA ).
No doubt Steve Jobs knows how to turn tiny digital media niches into a mainstream phenomenon. That's what he did in the music biz. But his patience for all this tiptoeing is wearing thin. Jobs recently hopped aboard his corporate jet for a little politicking of his own in Hollywood, and insiders say he called Scott to express the concern of a vendor who sells tons of iPods and Macs through Wal-Mart stores. Jobs would not comment for this story nor would any studios. Wal-Mart acknowledged that it's talking with studios about starting its own download service but disputed that it is "dissuading studios from conducting business with other providers," according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart.
By Ronald Grover, with Peter Burrows in San Mateo, Calif.
— With assistance by Peter Burrows