What a year it's been for streaming. While Hollywood studios have postponed big-ticket blockbusters, fearful that widespread cinema closures during the pandemic will affect box office receipts, bosses at streaming companies, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, have seen subscribers and share prices rocket. When Netflix announced last week that it will be releasing 70 – yes, count them, 70 – films this year, it almost felt like rubbing salt into the open wounds of the beleaguered studios.
"Netflix will bring you a new movie every week featuring the biggest stars," trumpeted the press release, and the company wasn't joking. Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Dwayne Johnson, Jennifer Lawrence, Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock … it's a glittering roster of talent. Once upon a time, such A-list players would be wheeled out at CinemaCon, the annual Las Vegas gathering of cinema exhibitors, where studios such as Warner Bros and Paramount go to promote their latest flicks.
Now it's a different story. CinemaCon has moved from April to August in desperate hope that the pandemic subsides. But in the interim, streaming platforms are shifting gears. In the past year, Netflix and its rivals have moved from being outsiders or "disruptors", to use an industry term, to front runners. The Oscar nominations are yet to be announced, but it seems likely that Netflix will lead the pack with films such as Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7, and could well secure its first Best Picture award.
A star-studded roster
Virtually every movie coup over the past year has been streaming related. Amazon cut a deal with Sacha Baron Cohen for his much-praised reprisal of Borat, with the movie launched during the US election cycle and featuring an outrageous, shame-inducing moment with Donald Trump's legal counsel, Rudy Giuliani. Amazon also snagged from Paramount the long-awaited sequel to Eddie Murphy's 1988 classic comedy Coming to America, due out in March.
The new Disney+, meanwhile, has been a resounding success. Films such as Mulan and Pixar cartoon Soul, both originally destined for cinemas, wound up being shown on the streaming channel instead. Last month, shortly before Netflix's 70-movie announcement, Disney promised 10 Star Wars spin-off series, 10 Marvel series and 15 Disney and Pixar series in the next two years. The message, conveniently in the era of Covid-19, is clear: stay at home and stream.
Disney has a wealth of intellectual property rights – owning Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars. It has learnt from its mistakes, too, with a show such as the Star Wars-inspired The Mandalorian revitalising the sci-fi franchise in a way that the recent movie sequel trilogy failed to. That the quality – acting, writing and special effects – is on a par with anything seen in cinemas, is another reason audiences are rushing to subscribe. "Truly the only difference between these and our feature films is length," says Disney executive chairman Bob Iger.
Disney+ aims to increase its current tally of 86 million subscribers to a staggering 300 to 350 million by 2024, eclipsing Netflix's current 195 million. Last year, these two outfits were joined by Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ as the fastest-growing streaming sites, a rise that doesn't seem like it will stop anytime soon. Apple TV+ also lured the likes of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray (in father-daughter comedy On the Rocks), Tom Hanks (in Second World War drama Greyhound) and Mariah Carey (for her glitzy Christmas special) on to its books.
Meanwhile Warner Bros has tried to counter having closed cinemas by announcing that its 17 titles destined for release this year – including The Suicide Squad, Dune and The Matrix 4 – will simultaneously come out on HBO Max, a streaming channel as yet unavailable in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It made many filmmakers apoplectic. "I want the audience to understand that streaming alone can't sustain the film industry," Dune director Denis Villeneuve wrote in an impassioned op-ed piece for trade magazine Variety.
Is this the death of cinema?
He might be right; the big-screen experience – once it's safe to return to cinemas – will undoubtedly be back with a vengeance. But actors and filmmakers will always go where the money is and, right now, that's with the streaming companies. That Netflix has managed to secure DiCaprio, Streep, Lawrence, Timothee Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Ariana Grande, Himesh Patel and Kid Cudi in the same movie – Adam McKay's comedy Don't Look Up – shows how alluring the company has become. For A-list stars, making a movie for theatrical distribution is no longer the only way to further their careers.
The freedom streaming platforms afford filmmakers, without interference, is another reason talent is flocking to them. Netflix has cemented relations with Martin Scorsese and David Fincher, bankrolling their long-gestating films The Irishman and Mank, two projects that traditional studios shied away from. The relatively low cost of distributing a film via streaming compared to theatrically has also allowed companies such as Netflix to take more risks with content.
The only thing liable to stop the platforms is audience fatigue, as viewers become unwilling to pay for the many subscriptions needed to keep up with the growing number of channels. Inevitably, some will fade. But with home-cinema systems lowering in price, it's hard to see the idea of streaming a movie or TV show directly to your living room disappearing any time soon.
Who will win the streaming wars? That’s a tough one to call, the battle is far from over. But the big losers in all this must surely be the old-fashioned, increasingly antiquated movie studios.