The launch of Disney+ in November 2019 was a declaration of war on licensing. If you wanted to watch anything Disney’s made, past, present, and future, now there was only one place to do it. It was the new testament for streaming, embraced by everyone from Netflix to HBO Max: Control the narrative by producing must-watch movies and shows for your own platform. So why is Comcast — which is still nursing its fledgling Peacock — weighing the possibility of giving “Fast & Furious,” “Jurassic World,” and other Universal franchise installments to… Netflix and HBO Max?
For the last eight years, most Universal movies head to HBO (and now, HBO Max) after their DVD debuts — about nine months after their theatrical releases. NBCUniversal animation division Illumination Entertainment has its own deal; films like “Despicable Me” go to Netflix. The last iteration of that deal was 2013 — less than three years after then-TimeWarner CEO Jeff Bewkes mocked the idea of Netflix domination to being conquered by the Albanian army. It was also the year that Netflix got into the original content business with “House of Cards.”
As Bloomberg reports, the Universal-HBO output deals are set to expire at the end of 2021, and Comcast executives remain open to licensing Universal films to HBO Max or Netflix. The appeal is clear — those deals net hundreds of millions in reliable revenue — but if building Peacock is a priority, it also means giving up some of its most valuable assets to competitors. Peacock has about 33 million subscribers; Netflix has 200 million.
Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter told IndieWire that he expects Comcast will gradually wean HBO from access to Universal films. That said, any Comcast decision will signal its intentions for Peacock. If Comcast does opt to license, it strongly suggests that the Comcast strategy for Peacock doesn’t include taking a run at Netflix. For executives at Comcast and any other company that might hold hopes of being a serious Netflix competitor, there’s much they have to consider beyond streaming dominance.
“What gains and what losses are you anticipating within which time frames?,” said Jimmy Schaeffler, CEO of media consultancy the Carmel Group. “Beyond that, what is your profit threshold? What is your patience level and time frame? What are your plans to grow your brand and image? What relationships are you trying to invest in with the competition or not? What is the risk tolerance for the company, decision by decision? That,” he said, “would be the rather eventually quite complicated algorithm I would start to build.”
The company’s reported rumination on the question of licensing stands in sharp contrast to the approach it took in 2019. That’s when Universal opted not to renew an output deal with FX that gave the network the rights to air Universal movies for a seven-year period after they were released on DVD and aired on HBO.
In 2020, then-NBCUniversal Chairman Steve Burke indicated that the HBO deal could be renewed. “We are looking to take back – we are taking back the FX window, so Peacock will have every single movie ever made by Universal,” he told Deadline. “They just won’t have them in that three-month period [while they are on HBO] and we don’t think that’s a problem. It’s never been a problem for the broadcasters.”
For the moment, “Fast & Furious” fans with Netflix accounts can only watch “Fast & Furious Spy Racers,” the animated series produced by the streamer that launched on the service in 2019; the rest of the franchise strewn across Peacock and HBO Max. But with “F9” on the release calendar for June, Universal’s strategy could change faster than anything the speed demons of its signature franchise could dream up.