Hot Stocks: Netflix Finds Success in Innovation, While Other Video Rental Companies Fight For Survival

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Video rental king Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) years ago usurped Blockbuster Inc. (NYSE: BBI)'s throne as the No. 1 video rental outlet, but now it's focused on cementing its status as the market leader as other video rental companies struggle to play catch-up.

Blockbuster, still king of brick-and-mortar rental stores, learned first hand the threat an innovative upstart can pose when it ran up against Netflix's DVD-by-mail business model.

With movie theater tickets costing upwards of $10 (and that's not including the popcorn or sodas), Netflix's $8.99 1-DVD plan with unlimited exchanges and streaming video access represents a decidedly better deal for consumers that are tightening their spending amid rising unemployment and waning confidence.

Netflix celebrated its 10 millionth subscriber in February, noting that it added more than 600,000 net subscribers since the beginning of the year. In its second quarter ended June 30, Netflix said it had a total of 10.6 million subscribers, with paid subscribers representing 98% of the membership. The company expects its total membership to rise to between 11.6 million to 12 million by the end of the year, upping its previous quarter's guidance of 11.2 million and 11.8 million.

Churn, a measurement of customer cancellations, rose to 4.5% in the second quarter from 4.2% a year ago, Netflix said.

"It could be the economy," Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings said of increasing churn in an interview with The Motley Fool. "It could also be that we make it very easy for subscribers to put their accounts on hold if they go on vacation or don't have enough money for a month or two. When a subscriber goes on hold, we count that as a cancellation. What you can look at – as a good stable indicator – are net additions. And net additions continue to grow."

Netflix's top and bottom lines continue to grow as well. Revenue grew to $408.5 million in the second quarter, up from $337.6 million in the same period a year ago. Profit grew to $32.4 million in the second quarter, up from last year's $26.5 million.

As subscribers, sales and profit rise, so too does Netflix's stock. Shares of Netflix have jumped more than 45% since the start of the year, and managed to sidestep the doldrums experienced by the markets in March.

Still, it's no time for Netflix to rest on its laurels, lest it suffer the same fate as Blockbuster. That's why CEO Hastings is quietly preparing for the death of DVDs themselves. Ultimately, consumers will one day dump the plastic discs in favor of movies delivered straight over the Internet, Hastings told The Wall Street Journal.

So Hastings, who is a self-proclaimed student of companies that stumble by failing to adapt to technology shifts, is quickly trying to shift Netflix's business so that more videos are available online.

While Hastings is having success in getting Netflix instant video onto devices, the biggest challenge facing his company is convincing Hollywood executives to license their content. While 12,000 choices may seem like a lot, many are older AAA movies or TV shows, or newer movies that weren't commercially successful. New releases of hit movies usually take months or even years to appear in Netflix's streaming video catalog.

That's because Netflix is competing with pay cable channels such as Time Warner Inc.'s (NYSE: TWX) HBO and Viacom Inc.'s (NYSE: VIA) Showtime, which gain exclusive rights to show movies and generally have larger audiences. To get the movies and TV shows consumers want, Netflix will have to boost its licensing spending from the roughly $100 million it spent last year, an anonymous source told The Journal.

"Netflix has yet to show that it has the resources and profitability to be in the markets where licensing is the business policy," said Warren Lieberfarb, former head of Time Warner's Warner Bros. home video division.

The company has had some success in the licensing department earlier this year when it inked a deal with Liberty Media Corp. (Nasdaq: LMDIA) to show movies from its Starz pay cable channel.

Netflix's library of 100,000-plus DVD titles is made possible by the "first-sale doctrine" of U.S. copyright law, which allows buyers of DVDs to lend them out without the consent of studios.

Too Little, Too Late?

It's difficult to say when Blockbuster's fall from grace began, but it was somewhere between its well-publicized late fee fiasco and the proliferation of Netflix.

Blockbuster's operating income at the end of its second quarter in 2004 was $105.3 million. That was just before Netflix entered mainstream consumer consciousness. Blockbuster's operating income at the end of its second quarter this year was a loss of $1.5 million.

In spite-of an 8.3% industry-wide increase in rental revenue, Blockbuster's revenue fell 13.3%.

The company blamed the drop partly on reduced inventory as it tries to generate more cash to handle its debt load, the Los Angeles Times reported.  Although Chief Executive Officer Jim Keyes told analysts in a conference call a renegotiation of a revolving line of credit meant stores would be fully stocked and more aggressively marketed, he admitted last week that didn't happen.

"Temporarily during the first and second quarter, we put our plans for increased availability on hold," Keyes said on the call. "We made this change with the recognition that we were also facing new and very aggressive competition who are better capitalized and would likely take share from us as we pulled back."

Still, Blockbuster is doing everything it can to stay afloat, from closing stores to kiosk deployment.

"We're deploying as many as 10,000 vending machines by the middle of next year," Keyes told Bloomberg News in a telephone interview, adding that his company is focused on increasing cash flow rather than boosting sales in a "very challenging credit market."

Blockbuster's $250 million revolving line of credit is due on Sept. 30, 2010, and the company has more than $350 million of long-term debt outstanding that it must pay by the end of next year, according to a research note written by Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc. analyst Michael Pachter. Blockbuster had $99 million in cash and equivalents as of July 5, down 36% from $154.9 million on January 4, Pachter said.

"[Blockbuster needs] the credit markets to loosen up and they need to refinance," Pachter told Bloomberg. "They're not on track to repay this debt in the time frame they need to, so they've got to extend the terms."

Pachter downgraded his rating on Blockbuster stock from "outperform" to "hold" last week. Blockbuster shares have tumbled more than 44% since the start of the year.

The Little Red Box That Could

Blockbuster was effectively rendered obsolete by Netflix's quick response to changing technology. But Coinstar Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSTR) Redbox Automated Retail LLC, which offers consumers new release DVDs for $1 per night, is hoping to avoid a similar fate.

Kiosk vendor Redbox, initially funded by McDonald's Corp. (NYSE: MCD) and Coinstar in 2002, saw Coinstar acquire its remaining shares in February. The company's $1-a-night DVD rentals are found in places like McDonalds restaurants, grocery stores, and numerous locations owned by retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) that serve at least 15,000 customers a week.

Redbox plans on having 21,000 to 22,000 kiosks throughout the United States by January, up from 13,700 a year earlier. The company's sales, which were $188.9 million in the second quarter, account for 57% of Coinstar's overall sales, up from 41% in the same quarter last year. Coinstar's stock has risen more than 62% since the beginning of the year.

At a time when consumers are strapped, Redbox is perfectly positioned for those looking to save money. But now Hollywood is looking to stunt Redbox's growth.

Tinseltown accuses Redbox of depressing DVD prices and depriving studios of the same revenue-sharing opportunities they now enjoy with traditional DVD rental houses such as Blockbuster, Reuters reported.

Three studios – News Corp.'s (Nasdaq: NWS) 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Warner Bros. and General Electric Co.'s (NYSE: GE) NBC Universal – are vowing to withhold their DVD distribution to kiosks like Redbox until 28 days after they are released.

To counter, Redbox has filed a lawsuit against at least one of the studios, 20th Century Fox.

"At the expense of consumers, 20th Century Fox is attempting to prohibit timely consumer access to its new release DVDs at Redbox retail locations nationwide," said President Mitch Lowe. "Despite this attempt, Redbox will continue to provide our consumers access to all major new releases including 20th Century Fox titles at our more than 15,000 Redbox DVD rental locations."

Speaking to the LA Times, Lowe said Redbox isn't a threat to Hollywood, but instead an additional source of income. However, Papi Capital analyst Richard Greenfield disagrees, writing that Redbox's pricing is a "substantial risk" to the movie industry.

"It sets an ultra-low price point for movie content that will impact consumers' decision-making process about all forms of movie-related commerce – theater-going, DVD purchase, video-on-demand," Greenfield wrote.

Of course, distribution withholding and lawsuits aside, if Netflix's Hastings is right and DVDs do walk the path of oblivion like CDs are now, Redbox will need to adapt and find a way to enter the already-crowded Internet video market.

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