With streaming dominating the industry — and more services on the way — IndieWire is taking a closer look at the news cycle, breaking down what really matters to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars — and how they’re pulling ahead. By looking at trends and curating developments down to what matters, the Streaming Wars Report will offer a clear picture of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming.
What Streamers Are Best Prepared for Coronavirus Production Delays?
As the coronavirus sparked the first major cancellations and closings, the too-crass-to-be-spoken idea was, “Wow, what a boon for streamers.” After all, everyone is at home, isolated, with nothing to do but watch TV. (What else can you do? Read?!) The entire world is looking for original content to distract them from the news, their confined quarters, and rationing toilet paper, making the many, many streaming services the ideal entertainment source for The Great Shut-In.
But then the shut-in became the shut down — production shut downs, to be specific. Yes, in these early days, the Internet is filled with lists of what shows to catch up on while stuck at home (IndieWire has one, too), and yes, these service posts are indicative of a culture scrambling for content from streamers. But long-term, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to cause chaos for everyone, streamers included. As everything from “Stranger Things 4” to “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” are put on hiatus, those deep libraries of licensed content are looking more important than ever.
Disney+ can keep releasing “new” content for months, opening up that fabled Disney vault and highlighting old gems long forgotten as a means to freshen up their homepage. (Or, as I’ll get into below, they can start pushing theatrical releases onto the service early to keep subscribers engaged.) HBO can encourage its audience to revisit the best television shows of all time, like “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” and “The Leftovers,” while HBO Max is happier than ever to have deals for “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” locked in for the service’s May launch (though launching the service will bring its own issues right now). Apple TV+ may be light on content (and can ill-afford a lengthy break between new releases), but at least the nascent streamer has been hocking its service as a hub for all streaming options, instead of just one, singular original content provider.
Services built on offering new options every week — or even every day — face more of a challenge if the coronavirus causes long-term production delays. What happens with Netflix in the coming months will be a particularly intriguing test. The dominant streaming service has built its brand around a steady influx of content. It’s gone from dropping new originals every Friday, to releasing shows, movies, specials, and more just about every day. Considering how much the streaming giant is spending on all that content (more than $17 billion on originals in 2020) and the high-profile losses of acquisitions like “Friends” (already gone) and “The Office” (at the end of 2020), Netflix is more reliant on originals than many of its competitors.
After eight years of building its own library, the service has a deep bench of content, but it’s not what subscribers are paying for; Netflix has become a utility because a massive audience regularly latches onto new shows, movies, and specials — the service’s newly added Top 10 lists reflect as much, with many new releases dominating the daily updated list before fading away in a matter of weeks. (“Spenser Confidential” is a curious test: The Peter Berg film sat at No. 1 most of last week, dropped out of the top spot on Saturday, but climbed back to No. 1 on Sunday.) If Netflix can’t consistently pump out originals to its many different demographics — meaning not just fast and easy reality TV, but also high-quality prestige series — that could cause a problem.
But from a perception standpoint, Netflix should be able to keep up the pace. Netflix offered eight new releases on Friday, March 13 alone. If it scales back by even two or three offerings per week, the streamer could spread out its content and still maintain an unparalleled output of fresh originals. Numbers crunchers would note the decline, but subscribers wouldn’t — at least, not until their favorite shows stopped returning, at which point they could start looking elsewhere for their entertainment needs.
That is, if there’s anywhere else to look. Hulu, which relies on an influx of content from broadcast TV, and Quibi, which promised to put out new episodes every day, could struggle to match their established or planned outputs. And even streamers with big libraries need new, hot-ticket releases (see below).
Amazon Prime may be in the best position long-term, but not because of its deep library or in-the-can originals — the shipping parent company is protecting the video service more than ever, with households ordering more necessities online than usual. All that being said, we’re still in the early days of the virus. It’s hard to tell how long productions will need to be shut down, and there are plenty of ways to release television without big groups coming together. Shows already in post-production could be delayed to fill gaps caused by production delays elsewhere, or services could shift release strategies from all-at-once models to weekly rollouts. If executives have to get creative to feed the entertainment-starved masses, they will. But they might want to start brainstorming now.
Disney+ Flexes Its Power — and Fills a Void — with Early ‘Frozen 2’ Release ⇑⇑⇑
Welp, that didn’t take long. Disney announced late Friday that “Frozen 2,” the No. 1 animated film of all-time at the worldwide box office, would be arriving on Disney+ Saturday, March 14, three months earlier than anticipated. While the company didn’t specifically reference the coronavirus outbreak in its press release, it did say the early arrival was meant to help families “during these challenging times” — and it is a very early arrival. Until now, Disney has honored the typical distribution windows, giving their theatrical releases full runs both in cinemas and via home video release. Following that model, “Frozen 2,” which was released in theaters November 22, 2019, wouldn’t be expected on the service until July or August.
So is this just a nice gesture from the House of Mouse? Yes and no. While plenty of parents are certainly thrilled to give their kids a present they don’t have to leave the house to pick up, Disney+ is also being criticized of late for having such a big gap between releases for its branded originals. “The Mandalorian” ended in December 2019, and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” wasn’t scheduled to premiere until August 2020 — now it and the “Wandavision” production are both on hiatus, meaning subscribers have to wait even longer for their next must-see original.
Enter “Frozen 2.” It’s not an original series, but it is an essential piece of the Disney+ model: a popular family film kids will watch over and over, filling just as much time (if not more) than an eight-to-10 hour original series. If production delays continue (and the early release of “Frozen 2” helps maintain or gain subscribers), Disney could follow a similar tactic and release big ticket movies early on the service. Maybe “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will hit in April or May instead of August or September. Maybe they’ll experiment with quicker turnarounds for less popular theatrical releases, like Pixar’s “Onward,” which is getting dinged by audiences wary of going out to the theatre right now.
The key is that Disney can do this, at least for the foreseeable future. Putting out coveted films on a streaming service already offering a deep library could keep subscribers satisfied until productions can resume. With all the Marvel series shut-down, there will be delays on many of the streamer’s most-anticipated shows. (We could even get two seasons of “The Mandalorian” before we get one from Marvel, since production has wrapped on “Mandalorian” Season 2.) But far be it from any homebound parent to tell their homebound child they can’t watch “Frozen 2” again, because the $6.99 monthly fee just wasn’t worth it.
Clyde Phillips Returns to Showtime, John Boyega Takes his Force to Netflix ⇔⇔⇔
If you want to look at the breadth of talent deals out there, look no further than last week’s headlines. On Monday (March 9), Showtime and CBS Television Studios announced an overall deal with “Dexter” producer Clyde Phillips. An industry veteran for more than four decades, Phillips produced “Nurse Jackie,” “Suddenly Susan,” “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” and, most recently, AMC’s one-and-done drama “Feed the Beast.” He was also brought in as showrunner on “Goliath,” but was booted after one episode when star Billy Bob Thornton didn’t like the end result. Now, Hollywood doesn’t typically roll out the cash truck for anyone whose last project was a dud and who hasn’t gotten a new show on the air in four years, but Phillips is a proven veteran, Showtime loves “Dexter,” and ViacomCBS certainly wants more shows like it in the coming years. (Phillips’ shows can land anywhere within the company.)
Meanwhile, a day later, Netflix announced a partnership with John Boyega and his production house, UpperRoom Productions, to develop “film projects based on stories, cast, characters, crew, literary properties, mythology, screenplays and/or other elements in or around African countries.” Boyega, who founded the shingle when producing the “Pacific Rim” sequel, “Uprising,” in 2018, isn’t exactly a proven veteran — he burst onto the scene as an actor in the indie “On My Block” before being rocketed to stardom with the latest “Star Wars” trilogy — but Netflix isn’t banking on Boyega so much as the African market. They’re in the midst of a big push into the region, trying to expand their footprint (aka subscriber base) by creating originals for their new territory.
Whether streamers are catering to their base or trying to expand it, finding the right voices to lead the charge is of the utmost priority.
Top 5 Power Rankings (March 15, 2020)
2. Amazon Prime
5. HBO/HBO Max