The Streaming Future Is Already Here for the Movie Business

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

WarnerMedia’s announcement last week that it plans to stream every movie from its 2021 Warner Bros. Pictures slate on HBO Max the same day they open in theaters has left much of Hollywood in stunned disbelief, setting off what will be a very long and heated debate over the Future of Film. But as producers and pundits and Christopher Nolans argue about what it all means, streaming subscribers are already living in that future right now: Between Thanksgiving and this Christmas, more than a dozen major first-run movies — titles which in years past would have surely played first in theaters — will instead debut in living rooms. The pandemic played a role in pushing a couple of these movies to streaming first, of course, but this month’s feature-film frenzy is about more than temporary disruptions caused by a novel coronavirus. Streamers have decided that the release of first-run movies — not just occasionally, but on the regular, and with well-known stars attached — is fundamental to their programming mix, and just as important as original series and reruns of Friends and Grey’s Anatomy. If Peak TV defined the first decade of streaming, the 2020s may well be known as the era of Big Movies on TV.

First, let’s acknowledge that what Warners announced last week is a very big deal, and that it is entirely logical for early coverage to have focused on what this all means for movie theaters and filmmakers. It’s a massive paradigm shift. Of course people are freaking out. And yet when put into the broader context of the entertainment industry’s transition to streaming as the primary hub for distributing the works of artists — or “content,” if you’re a bean counter — the logic of the Warners play becomes, I think, much more obvious. The company desperately needs to lock in a certain mass of subscribers for HBO Max, and it needs to do so sooner rather than later, particularly with Disney+ off to such a fast start and Netflix and Amazon already well established in the space.

Tentpole movies are becoming as important to a streaming platform’s overall offering as originals series and library offerings. And while HBO Max had already been developing its own slate of movies, most of those are a year or two away. By contrast, look at where three of its biggest rivals stand on the movie front:

Netflix has been making just shy of 60 features every year since 2018, with plans to release roughly as many next year. Not all are tentpole-level films on par with what would play in theaters, but the percentage of them that are — think Mank or Jingle Jangle or Over the Moon — has been increasing and now easily matches the output of most legacy studios. Under movies boss Scott Stuber, the depth and breadth of Netflix’s offering has expanded to the point where it can now promise subscribers a significant new film every week. And indeed, that’s exactly what the streamer has been doing since marketing began for The Trial of the Chicago 7 in October: TV ads for Netflix movies now end with the tagline, “New Movies. Every Week.” Netflix this year is once again using the holiday season to roll out its most Oscar-friendly films, with Mank, The Prom, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Midnight Sky all coming out during the Thanksgiving-Christmas window.

Amazon’s feature output has multiplied exponentially under Amazon Studios chief Jen Salke, who has also shifted from a strategy of producing movies for theaters first to a philosophy closer to the streaming-centric Netflix model. Amazon will have premiered 24 original films in 2020 by the end of the month, nearly triple its roster the past two years, and it has already announced plans to release 26 next year. It has similarly targeted a wide range of genres, and is making movies with budgets both small and large — including a development deal with Nicole Kidman, which I’ve confirmed is still active, to produce “sexy date movies.” The service’s holiday slate is typically diverse, ranging from festival acquisitions The Sound of Metal and Sylvie’s Love to the Rachel Brosnahan vehicle I’m Your Woman.

Disney is well behind Netflix and Amazon in terms of making movies intended for streaming — but that has been quickly changing. Hulu, which only came into the Disney universe in 2019, has been slowly ramping up its movie game, releasing about a half-dozen original films in 2020, including the buzzy Palm Springs and Run. Disney also used the pandemic as an (legit) excuse to debut several big titles on its platforms this year, including last month’s successful launch of The Happiest Season on Hulu (the TriStar-produced movie had its theatrical run upended by COVID) and the upcoming Christmas release of Pixar’s Soul on Disney+. Disney also experimented with using its Disney+ subscription platform to generate premium video-on-demand revenue when it debuted Mulan as a $30 add-on for Disney. Industry insiders are expecting the Mouse House to have a lot more to say about its streaming-movie strategy later today.

If WarnerMedia had the luxury of time, it might have simply spent a few years building its own movie slate, the way Stuber and Salke have been doing the past few years. But Jason Kilar, the former Hulu exec who now runs WarnerMedia, clearly believes he can’t wait, and I think he is right to be impatient. While I do not think HBO Max is the sort of chaotic mess some folks in the industry clearly think it is, its entrance into the streaming wars has been less than perfect, and the pandemic delayed production of key programming. Whatever short-term profit WarnerMedia may sacrifice, or however many egos may be bruised, HBO Max will now go into 2021 much better armed as it looks to sign up subscribers. (Sidenote: If you haven’t already, check out Alex Sherman’s deeply reported dive into the streamer. It’s a great read, even if I would respectfully argue it gives a bit too much space to critics who worry owner AT&T is destroying HBO. While there are good reasons to worry about the phone company’s handling of Hollywood-adjacent matters, it’s worth noting almost every key creative exec involved in the day-to-day running of the network is still at HBO, and those folks have now — rightly — been handed control of HBO Max!)

Old hat for the TV biz: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the film business and thus won’t pretend to know for sure whether Kilar should be brought up on homicide charges for killing the movie business. As I noted earlier, I get why folks in the film world (and on Film Twitter) are so worried. But as one TV-industry veteran pointed out to me this week, this development perhaps feels slightly less seismic for those of us more familiar with the TV side of the business because we’ve had time to adapt to the digital apocalypse. “Streaming has already transformed so much of what we do. We’re used to this,” he told me. “The film people are just now really getting disrupted in the same way.” 

Empathy aside, in some ways the slack-jawed disbelief over what Warners is doing feels similar to the reaction eight years ago when Netflix decided to stream all ten episodes of the first season of House of Cards at once, rather than release them weekly. Nearly every TV exec I spoke to back in 2013 rolled their eyes at the move, as well as the company’s decision to green-light two seasons of the show without filming a pilot episode. Now? Straight-to-series orders and full-season releases are de rigueur. What was revolutionary has become common. That doesn’t mean TV is better for the change, of course. And the wave of layoffs at legacy linear networks over the past few weeks underscores the painful side effects of streaming’s disruptive qualities — just as much as the endless trade stories about new series green lights and they paid how much? overall deals point to its short-term benefits.

The movie theater side of things: I also think those outraged over Kilar’s gamble should redirect some of their skepticism toward the big theater chains. AMC and Regal are not mom-and-pop operations bravely battling to keep the bijou hopping and bopping. They are monopolistic enterprises that have put the moviegoing experience out of reach for millions of Americans through their failure to figure out ways to keep the cost of a theater trip affordable.

It should also be noted that Kilar isn’t looking to cut theaters out of the movie business. Warners still plans to release its titles on big screens, and in fact will only stream them on Max for a month. As Kilar tells Kara Swisher in an interview for her podcast Sway, “We’re not taking the theatrical experience away.” Indeed, why is it a given that nobody will choose to see a movie in a theater if it’s available on TV? The teens and 20-somethings who make up the most lucrative demographic for blockbusters are still going to want to go out on the weekends (they’re finding a way to do so now, even in a pandemic).

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos has long said he believes in giving consumers a choice, but theater owners have stubbornly resisted any sort of experimentation. I get why: The likelihood that overall movie attendance will go up if theatrical releases are simultaneously released on streaming is next to nil. But I don’t think shortening or eliminating the theatrical window of exclusivity means cineplexes are headed for extinction. What does seem certain is that WarnerMedia will not be the last big company to decide to make streaming the focus of its movie strategy.

One more thought: While it may seem new-ish, getting first-run feature films in front of consumers as quickly as possible has been an essential part of the pay TV business for a half-century, or more specifically, since HBO was born on November 8, 1972. On that night, the network — whose iconic initials are, after all, short for Home Box Office — beamed the Paul Newman flick Sometimes a Great Notion into roughly 385 Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, homes, a mere eight months after the movie was released widely in major cities such as New York. That might not seem like a big deal now, but back then, major movies generally didn’t come to television until at least two years after they arrived in theaters. It was very much a big deal to TV viewers, even if only a handful. And just like Netflix today, HBO’s marketing at the time leaned into this revolutionary development: “You get the best seats in the house. Your house,” a network advertisement promised.

The Streaming Future Is Already Here for the Movie Business