Bill Rouhana saw viewing habits changing. Now he’s on to the AVOD giant’s next big move
Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment chairman and CEO Bill Rouhana has been a leader in media, entertainment and communications for more than 35 years. But the 67-year-old executive told TheWrap’s Office With a View that he never intentionally set out to work in media.
“A friend of mine named Jonathan Krane… called me one day saying, ‘I want to raise $200 million for Blake Edwards to start a studio. Can you help me?'” Rouhana recalled.
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Edwards, of course, was the director of iconic movies like “The Pink Panther” series and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“I was practicing law in New York City and I said, ‘Sure, I can help you, but who’s Blake Edwards?’ Because I didn’t know, so you can see how media savvy I was… but Jonathan asked me to help and I did and we were successful. The next thing I knew, I had a law practice that was devoted 100% to financing entertainment projects.”
Rouhana worked as an entertainment and finance lawyer from 1977 to 1985. Prior to being tapped for his current role in 2008, he was the founder and CEO of Winstar Communications and Winstar New Media from 1993 to 2001.
Over his multi-decade career, Rouhana has seen various shifts in the media landscape. His best business advice for leaders is to always “look for trends in the industry and position yourself to benefit from them.” For people looking to advance in their careers, his advice is simple: “Take an extra minute to do things right.”
“Work hard, try hard, be persistent, accept rejection. All the normal things that you have to do in life to be successful anyway,” he added. “Be thoughtful, be smart, those kind of things.”
What separates Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (CSSE) from the competition?
We’re one of the top five AVODs that are out there. We have a number of AVOD brands — Redbox, Crackle, Chicken Soup for the Soul, PopcornFlix — and they’re kind of oriented in different ways for our viewers and I think that’s helpful. It’s a little tough for people to just go to one service and try to find stuff. So we’ve tried to curate our services so they fit a certain type of branding approach.
We are very widely distributed. A couple of years ago, we came to believe that there was going to be a real shifting market in terms of where people went to watch TV. It became clearer and clearer to me that people were congregating in a lot of different places to watch television, not just in one or two.
So we ended up with what we call the touch-point strategy, a place where our network exists on somebody’s distribution platform, whatever it may be. I think we may be the most distributed of any group of AVODs that are out there today: We’re at 160 different places and that has served us pretty well.
We don’t believe that streaming standing by itself is a business unless you are able to monetize content in every way possible. That’s why we bought a company called ScreenMedia in 2017, a substantial distribution company both domestically and internationally and a fast-growing part of our business. We’re up to about 12,000 [television episodes or movies] that we own or control long-term distribution rights to, in addition to our 60,000 or so AVOD assets.
We’ve added, through RedBox, wider distribution capabilities, so now we have 160 free live television channels on our FAST service, but we also have 35,000 kiosks which rent DVDs spread across the United States. And now we have the fourth biggest TVOD business in the country, which we also picked up in the Redbox acquisition. On top of all that, we’ve got a customer loyalty program with Redbox and over 40 million members.
What are your goals for 2023?
From my point of view, a sustainable business model requires that you have a profitable business model. So we’re focusing our business on profitability and cash flow and 2023 is the first year we could ever really seriously try to do that up until now. Until we had the Redbox assets, we were a pure growth company, we had growth assets. Now we’ve got assets that generate cash flow across the board and we should be able to have very meaningful free cash flow over the course of 2023. That’s really where I’d like to be.
What are your thoughts on Netflix and Disney+ launching ad-supported tiers? How will the move change the AVOD landscape?
Netflix and Disney’s arrival validated the AVOD model for sure, but on top of that it helped to begin the consolidation of the AVOD business, which we need. There are too many AVODs, there’s like thousands of them. And what the Disney-Netflix thing did is it pulled enough additional inventory into the market so that advertisers can focus on the bigger AVODs and didn’t have to go scrounging around for the little ones to actually find places to advertise.
For us, that drove a whole bunch of smaller AVODs to come to us and say, ‘Will you sell our ads?’ So we developed an ad-rep business which at the end of 2022 had 14 meaningful competitors who needed to get access to direct sales and now do it through us. That group was enough to attract the big advertisers whereas if those guys had been on their own, they probably wouldn’t have gotten very many ads. I think overall for us it’s been a positive. Time will tell.
Would you be open to a merger with another company or an acquisition to weather economic uncertainty?
I don’t feel like there’s much to weather. The way we’re positioned, as premiere entertainment for the value-conscious consumer, it’s kind of a good place to be in a moment of recession and inflation. The fact that you can go rent a DVD at our kiosk for less than half the price of streaming something at the same time is another good place to be for people who need to save money.
I think I have to be open to the possibility of scaling up and being a part of something different. If I’m not, I’m not doing my job as the CEO of a public company. We take that responsibility seriously. So of course we’ll do something if a good opportunity comes along to create value for our shareholders.
Lucas Manfredi is a TV Business reporter with TheWrap. He has a Bachelor of Science in Television-Radio from Ithaca College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.