It takes money to make money. You’ve got to pay to play. And the latest battle among the combatants vying to automatically charge your credit card $4.99-$19.99 each month is the content-spending wars. Spending they are, like drunken Pirates of the Caribbean — a joke that makes more sense when you see who is laying out the most plunder for shows and movies.
As any studio or streamer knows, spending guarantees nothing. The real trick is spending on what people want to watch while producing the volume necessary to keep them hooked. That’s a constant and evolving balancing act in its own right, but the more money means more attempts for success.
IndieWire compiled a list of major streamers/studios and and ranked them in order of their respective content spends. Some numbers are specific, others are estimates. All told, streamers will spend well over $50 billion on content this year — a very conservative estimate, but one that gives leeway for those that decline to provide guidance. However, one thing is very clear: For every streamer that belongs to a company that also houses a movie studio, the streamers’ production budgets dominates — if not dwarfs — their old-school counterparts.
It’s a tight call between Disney and Netflix, but Disney+ has a price tag that would make a Disney princess blush. The Walt Disney Company spent a whopping $25 billion on content in 2021, according to the company’s February 10-Q. That’s peanuts for Dumbo: Disney expects to spend “approximately $33 billion” in content this year, including sports rights, the SEC filing continued.
“The increase is driven by higher spend to support our DTC [direct-to-consumer] expansion and generally assumes no significant disruptions to production due to COVID-19,” the quarterly filing reads.
In addition to Disney+ and Hulu (of which Disney owns 67 percent with the remainder under NBCUniversal parent Comcast), these gargantuan numbers also include theatrical releases and linear-television programs. Analysts at MoffettNathanson told IndieWire they estimate $15 billion of that is for streaming and $16 billion for linear, leaving about $2 billion for theatrical content.
Netflix is still the streaming king, but with just the one small-screen platform to populate, it is not the biggest overall spender on content. In 2021 Netflix invested more than $17 billion into streaming shows and movies, in line with its 2020 spend. Netflix has not shared guidance for 2022.
Disney is in a clear effort to play catch up (Netflix started streaming in 2007 and began producing originals in 2012; Disney+ launched in 2019), but there’s no comparing the budgets of Disney movies and (most) Netflix movies. Since (most) Disney films earn hundreds of millions in theaters, they spend significantly more money producing and marketing the projects.
That box office component brings in more than big bucks; it also brings in big data. Yes, the almighty Netflix algorithm learns specific interests from streaming statistics, but it cannot exactly know what drives membership. Since theatrical consumers respond to specific content, they allow traditional movie studios to draw a bead on what the market values. In other words, should you pay to see “The Batman” this weekend, Warner Bros. knows exactly what property attracted the transaction. While streamers track what you watch, they can never be totally sure what piece of content (or really, what specific combination of content) made a subscriber sign up.
Leaders at the future Warner Bros. Discovery, home to HBO Max and Discovery+, are talking like the combined WarnerMedia-Discovery, Inc. will be a frugal spender, but the numbers might not back that up.
“We spent more than $4 billion for content in 2021 at Discovery alone — and obviously also on the WarnerMedia side they’ve been increasing the spend. So we are definitely spending enough from my perspective,” Discovery CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels said on his company’s recent quarterly earnings conference call.
But the company has already “baked in” what Wiedenfels called “a very significant increase” for after the merger. “It’s not about winning the spending war,” the German executive said, adding a (European) football adage. “Money doesn’t score goals.”
Maybe not, but the soon-to-be super-company is making it rain in an effort to push the ball up the pitch. All told, WarnerMedia will spend over $18 billion on content this year. That includes HBO and HBO Max, the Turner networks (including CNN and CNN+) and the Warner Bros. studio.
Prime’s total content spend on “video and music” was $13 billion in 2021, up from $11 billion in 2020. (Season 1 of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” cost nearly a half billion alone.) That number includes licensing and production costs, as well as “costs associated with digital subscriptions and sold or rented content” — so, payments to artists for Amazon Music streams, for example. It’s also good for fourth on this list.
Amazon can afford it: the former online bookseller is now worth $1.4 trillion. We do not have guidance for Prime Video’s 2022 content spending.
Apple, the richest company on this list (market cap: $2.7 trillion), is also the cagiest. A few years ahead of its Apple TV+ launch, the MacBook maker dedicated $1 billion to creating movies and TV shows. That ballooned to $6 billion by launch, according to the Financial Times. Aggravatingly, Apple says nothing about its TV+ budget.
Although its monetary commitment hovers toward the bottom of the list, perhaps no company has been more vocal about ramping up its streaming spending than ViacomCBS, which is now Paramount. At this writing, Paramount and Peacock may be neck-and-neck in content budgets, but Paramount is expected to pull away by 2024 — giving them the edge in our spending countdown.
ViacomCBS spent $14.7 billion on content in 2021. Of that sum, $2.2 billion was for DTC movies and shows, which is up from $1 billion in 2020 – when Paramount+ was still CBS All Access. Paramount executives said at last month’s investor day they now expect DTC content spend to ramp up to $6 billion in 2024, which is way up from the previous $4 billion goal for that year. The spending is expected to begin to decline from there, and Paramount+ may even reach profitability in 2025.
Peacock is, well, peacocking. The NBCUniversal streaming service forecast a content spend of $3 billion in 2022, double last year’s number. Peacock’s goal is to reach $5 billion in annual spending “over the next couple of years,” Comcast CFO Mike Cavanagh said on a recent quarterly earnings call. That doesn’t include linear spends at Universal Pictures or NBCUniversal.
Peacock is also no. 7 among subscribers, but it’s seen some success of late. Speaking at Tuesday’s Morgan Stanley Investor Conference, Comcast chief Brian Roberts said Jennifer Lopez’s “Marry Me,” released last month, was Peacock’s most-streamed day-and-date movie. On the series side, Roberts told analysts and reporters that “Bel-Air,” which premiered the same day as Super Bowl LVI streamed on the platform (in addition to airing on NBC and Telemundo), is Peacock’s most-watched original show.