Movie streaming services | Fingers in pies

Not every Hollywood studio is tying its future to a streaming service – but most of them are. Simon Brew sees who’s tied to who.

streaming services wrestling

Not every Hollywood studio is tying its future to a streaming service – but most of them are. Simon Brew sees who’s tied to whom.

There’s a parenting strategy, familiar to most with offspring, which goes like this. You pop your child in the corner – call it the naughty corner if you like – and ask them to fess up to what they’ve done. Chances are you’re instantly met by some degree of denial, but gradually the response of “it wasn’t me” eventually becomes “I might have done” to a full-on “yeah, I did”. In theory, anyway. Sequences have been shortened for the purposes of this anecdote.

In recent times, whilst it’s not been on the naughty step, this reflects a little Disney’s changing position when it comes to the biggest blockbuster movie on its immediate slate, Marvel’s Black Widow. That the answer as to whether the film would be a cinema exclusive has been, well, on the fluid side.

Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johannson, is expected to take at leas $1bn at the box office

The non-cinema universe?

In ordinary times – and of course, these are not – Black Widow, would be a shoo-in for a $1bn global box office take at least. Perhaps that’s why Disney held off with this particular film, even as it ferried plenty of its other sizeable productions to streaming first – Soul, Raya & The Last Dragon, Mulan for a start. Marvel is currently cinema’s biggest franchise though, and Disney seemed adamant that Black Widow’s theatrical release wasn’t up for debate.

Yet the answer to whether it would be cinema-exclusive – something multiplexes in particular are aching for – has evolved. The more the question has been asked, so things have gone from it’ll definitely debut exclusively in cinemas, to ‘heading to cinemas for now’ to ‘a last minute call’ through to the final position that’s now been confirmed, amounting to ‘hang on it’s off to Disney+’.

In Disney’s sizeable defence, cinemas in the UK and US – two huge territories for the movie – are still far from fully operating (mid-May is the key time in the UK for reopening), and with the already-delayed-several-times feature due in May 2021, it needed to make its mind up. Marketing campaigns needed to be triggered, and it needed to make a final call on the film. It has. It’s opted to delay the film once more, but launching it in cinemas and on Disney+ Premier Access simultaneously from June.

It’s a blow to cinemas juggling their reopening strategies, and a big one. This is just the kind of film that’s likely to tempt large numbers of people back to the big screen, the biggest since Christopher Nolan’s Tenet last summer. Unlike the $200m Mulan, at least the film will be available for theatrical exhibition. But will more people choose to pay Disney £19.99 on top of their Disney+ subscription to watch it at home instead?

Will viewers be willing to pay the price of a cinema ticket to watch a blockbuster at home?

Either way, Disney isn’t going to lose. Its Disney+ streaming service has gathered over 100 million monthly subscribers in fewer than two years, and long-term that’s a far more lucrative path to distribution than a cinema release. After all, there are no third parties to slice off the takings if you control the distribution via your own platforms.

What studios remain conscious of – Disney included – is that there’s an ‘event’ nature to a cinema release that can power word of mouth. Would, for instance, Warner Bros’ Joker have become the $1bn-grossing, Oscar-winning juggernaut it became without a cinema run to power it?

In the case of Black Widow at least, that’s about to become a moot question.

There’s a question as to what happens next, too. For the past near-decade, every Hollywood studio has been trying to copy the Disney model to an extent. Fewer movies, just bigger ones. A smaller number of weightier bets, a strategy it itself took from Warner Bros in the early 2000s. It’s no coincidence that strategy was pushed by an executive at Warners called Alan Horn, who Disney hired in 2012 to be its chairman.

CBS All Access was relaunched in the US as Paramount+, and may well be released in the coming months in Britain

Take back control

Currently, the Disney model has involved owning a streaming service, and it’s interesting that this is where the Hollywood majors are fluctuating a little. Some are following the path (and it’s a sizeable investment) – but not all.

If you accept the current Hollywood major studios as Universal, Paramount, Sony, Disney and Warner Bros (Fox now folded into Disney of course), with MGM and Lionsgate bubbling under, then some of those have very much aimed to follow the pathfinding that Disney has been undertaking.

If anything, Lionsgate was ahead of them all. The US cable and satellite network Starz was snapped up by the studio in 2016. Lionsgate was at that point enjoying the financial rewards of its The Hunger Games franchise, a series of films it pretty much bet the house on making (Lionsgate infamously cut the budgets of other films it was working on at the time to be able to fully financially commit to The Hunger Games project). The acquisition of Starz was seen as Lionsgate diversifying away from purely cinema (Disney had long done this, with its purchase of the ABC network in the States back in the 90s), and in America at least it would also give it a streaming outlet.

Not long after Disney announced its plans for Disney+, Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros also reacted and got in the same line.

Warner Bros already had some skin in the game with its HBO business, but that wasn’t a streaming platform in its own right at that point. Paramount’s parent company had the service CBS All Access in operation, which it was debuting new Star Trek episodes on. But they’d both reshape their on-demand services in the light of the entertainment industry’s shifting plates.

As such, CBS All Access was officially relaunched in March 2021 as Paramount+. It’s not been released in the UK as of yet, but in America the rebadged service plays up the ties to the movie studio. It’s also home to material from CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon and other subsidiaries of parent company Viacom.

Paramount sold the rights to Netflix for Coming 2 America, starring Eddie Murphy


Paramount, though, has been dealing with third party streaming services more overtly and longer than any of the other major studios of. It famously sold the non-US distribution rights to Alex Garland’s terrific sci-fi film Annihilation to Netflix all the way back at the end of 2017, when it figured it was going to struggle to get a return on giving it a cinema release. It was a deal that shook the industry to an extent, even if it looks more commonplace now.

For Paramount it has been. It’s subsequently sold projects such as The Cloverfield Paradox, Coming 2 America and the upcoming Beverly Hills Cop 4 to streamers (Netflix and Amazon Prime Video being its key customers there). It’s also producing films on their behalf too, although how the launch of Paramount+ affects that remains to be seen.

Warner Bros meanwhile has been open with its HBO Max streaming service and its plans for that. It similarly shook the entertainment industry with the news – announced at the end of 2020 – that it’d be sending its entire 2021 movie slate to the US streaming service day and date with their theatrical release.

Whilst it’s now dialled back from that a little – confirming that its 2022 line-up will have at least a 31 day theatrical window, and up to 45 days in some cases – it’s also behind the scenes merged responsibilities for its streaming services and movies under a single chairperson, Ann Sarnoff. The streams are being crossed at the studio.

Universal meanwhile officially launched its own Peacock streaming service in the summer of 2020, albeit with a slightly different model to its rivals. It offers a free version of its service that the others don’t (a premium version with more material comes with a traditional paid version), supported by more traditional advertising. Again, this one’s not made it to the UK as of yet.

Furthermore, at present, Universal not used Peacock as a place to send its brand new movies either. The studio, when lockdown first began, was the first Hollywood major to experiment with sending theatrical releases to debut on premium video on demand platforms (Trolls World Tour the first to bypass cinemas altogether in the UK), yet it’s also – as its upcoming packed slate testifies – still holding tight to theatrical releases. It might just be that this summer’s Fast & Furious 9 now becomes the film to beat at the box office, at least until the studio (finally) unleashes No Time To Die this September.

Sony Pictures have no intention on giving up Venom: Let There Be Carnage to streaming services

Odd one out

The outlier amongst the Hollywood studios though remains Sony – and it’s turned into a fascinating exception to what appear to be the new rules.

Owners of Columbia Pictures and the TriStar Pictures labels, Sony is the one Hollywood major that’s not got immediate plans for any kind of streaming service of its own. Or if it has plans for one, it’s keeping it very quiet. The closest it had was its PlayStation Store, where it’s been selling digital movies for years. But from 31st August 2021, it’s going to stop selling film and TV rentals via that platform.

Furthermore, whilst it’s sent some of its smaller releases to an on-demand digital release, it’s steadfastly held back the majority of its slate for cinemas, with little sign of budging from that. Films such as Peter Rabbit 2 (don’t scoff: it’s expecting to be one of the biggest family hits of the year), Monster Hunter, Cinderella and Venom: Let There Be Carnage are all very much on the cinema schedule for 2021, and there’s not been the slightest murmur about them being unleashed any other way.

This may be a risky strategy to be the only Hollywood studio without a direct-to-consumer distribution channel of its own – even MGM movies are available via a buy-in option on Amazon’s Prime Video service – but being the exception also has its advantages.

After all, look at the reaction of Hollywood’s most in-demand director, Christopher Nolan, to the news that Warner Bros was sending its entire slate to HBO Max. As he infamously said to The Hollywood Reporter last December, “some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service”.

Several directors of Warner Bros projects – particularly those set for 2021 – are believed to have been unsettled by the past few months. How many of those will choose to return to Warner Bros for their next movies?

Believe the rumours, and whatever Nolan’s next project turns out to be, he won’t be making it at Warner Bros. Instead, he’s likely to be seeking out a studio that still supports the big screen. Sony is sitting pretty there, and might just find itself a magnet for others who feel the same (Quentin Tarantino famously chose Sony over Paramount to back his 2019 movie Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, and was seen as filmmaker-friendly).

For the short term at least, Sony can at least go into negotiations with filmmakers and – with little quibble – point out that the cinema remains pivotal to its filmmaking strategy. Sure, a few financial disappointments may change that, but as things stand, it’s found itself in something of a unique position. It’s got the flexibility to offload projects and share risk where required too. It’s already sold its in-gestation Masters Of The Universe movie reboot to Netflix, and is partnering on the service with the screen take on the Matilda musical (which is shooting in the UK this year).

Furthermore, Sony will be of interest to Netflix, with the streaming giant now finding that the Hollywood studios around it are in more direct competition. More co-productions between the pair seem likely.

Quentin Tarantino opted for Sony Pictures over Paramount to shoot Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood


All considered though, from a straight commercial standpoint, few observers would suggest that Disney hasn’t made the smartest play here. Most filmmakers reconcile that the shift towards streaming, towards shortened-to-non-existent theatrical exclusive windows and towards a new distribution model has been a long time coming. Change has not been a surprise. It’s just that a pandemic has brought about those changes in a couple of years that otherwise might have taken a decade or so. The whole industry is having to pivot far quicker than expected.

Audience viewing habits have changed irrevocably though since the start of 2020, just the kind of genie that has no hope of being put back in the metaphorical bottle. As much as Disney is attracting ire for its ultimate decision over the release of Black Widow, for Disney shareholders, it’d simply become the most logical option. Those who still want to see the movie in a cinema will (hopefully) be able to do so, but also the streaming option will be available from day one (for a premium price).

If this model works, then it’s not hard to see this becoming the norm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward. If the biggest franchise in modern cinema sees that as the best way to release films ongoing, you can bet that pretty much everyone else is going to follow.

Depressing? Perhaps, to those who love cinema and the big screen. Realistic? Well, clearly so. Because at the moment, the safest way forward for a Hollywood studio is to have some kind of owned way to get material direct to consumers. Without that, never mind the naughty step analogy: there’s a risk of being left without a chair when the music stops instead. Even were the world pandemic-free, direct to consumer services were on their way.

Those were the runes that Rupert Murdoch read when he opted to get out of the film business and sell his Fox studio to Disney for just north of $70bn (in what turned out to be an important part of the Disney+ jigsaw). Whether the existing studio status quo can survive the next few years with the same number of studios intact is up for debate (there’s still a suggestion that Sony may sell its movie arm, for instance). Having some kind of skin in a streaming service may yet be pivotal there. Bottom line: Black Widow finally lands in June, and not for the first time over the past 12 months, things will never quite be the same again…

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