(Bloomberg Opinion) — When 2020 began and the public didn’t yet know of the coronavirus, the television and entertainment industry was in the midst of a makeshift effort to challenge Netflix Inc., the undisputed leader in streaming. Disney+ and Apple TV+ had just launched, and HBO Max, Peacock and the already dearly departed Quibi were just entering the market. The playbooks were all lacking. The new entrants craved Netflix’s success while resisting how Netflix got there: providing a whole heap of programming unencumbered by a need to support more profitable theatrical or cable-TV businesses.
Then the world changed, and Netflix’s way became the only way.
Streaming was beginning to take over before Covid, but it was playing out in the way a slowly buffering online video does when the connection is strained by too many other devices in use. The industry had other big businesses that needed attention and resources, and it didn’t want to cannibalize them. Then suddenly, all those competing “devices” were shut down, and the focus completely shifted.
Think back to what activities you may have been doing in mid-January. Perhaps grabbing a bite with friends, booking ski vacations or maybe even going to the movies. On the weekend of Jan. 17, 2020, North American theaters sold $62.5 million of tickets to the opening of Sony Pictures’ “Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence — not a Marvel superhero smash, but a box-office hit in its own right. The $204 million that it has generated in total so far would have ranked around tenth in a typical year. Instead, the action-comedy threequel — graded 77% on Rotten Tomatoes — is the No. 1 film of 2020, according to data from The Numbers. And it grossed more on that January weekend than the entire box office did in all of November.
Of course, not long after “Bad Boys” hit the big screen, Covid-19 forced theater chains such as AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the largest in the U.S., to close all locations for what everyone thought would be just a few months, at most. Then a few months became nine. Now they fear permanence. Meanwhile, more than 60 million people have signed up for Disney+, about 30 million for Netflix and nearly 13 million activated the new HBO Max. Netflix has released streaming hit after streaming hit, from “Tiger King” to “The Queen’s Gambit.” And AMC? It warned last week that it will run out of cash by the end of January unless something changes.
Until now, major studios had treaded carefully in their relationships with theater operators because the industry was too important. After all, Disney took a one-third share of the $11.3 billion box office in 2019, while AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., Sony and Comcast Corp.’s Universal split another third. But in the wake of Covid, the companies seem be giving up on cinemas in some ways. Even with a vaccine, theater patronage may never bounce back to the level needed for any entertainment giant to justify prioritizing theaters over streaming. Warner said this month that each film it puts in cinemas next year will immediately become available on the $15-a-month HBO Max app for one month.
Disney is taking a different tack: “Black Widow,” its next Marvel film, will still go to theaters, as will others. But it’s leaning heavily on the lucrative Marvel and Star Wars brands to fuel Disney+ subscriber growth, with 20 new shows from those two franchises alone slated for the next few years. Some of those series probably would have been movies in pre-Covid times. The next Star Wars theatrical film, “Rogue Squadron,” isn’t coming until December 2023.
Both Warner Bros. and Disney’s plans were well-received by their shareholders, despite the price their income statements will pay for these decisions. Disney doesn’t expect any of its streaming apps to begin making money for another couple of years; together they lost $2.8 billion in fiscal 2020. And yet its share have risen 22%, outpacing the S&P 500 index. Theater stocks, on the other hand, have cratered. Cineworld Group Plc — a British operator that acquired U.S. chain Regal in 2018 — has lost 71% in market cap. AMC’s operating losses widened to $675 million last quarter, unable to cover its $94 million of debt interest expense.
The goal for Disney+, HBO Max and the laundry list of other services is to crack lists like Nielsen’s weekly top-10 streaming programs. It tends to look like this — all Netflix, with maybe one show from another service:
It’s also not just about amassing hundreds of millions of subscribers paying a monthly fee. (Disney projects at least 300 million by fiscal 2024.) It’s the value of owning the data on all those subscribers. And the elephant in the room is the TV-advertising industry, which is salivating at the opportunity to tap into streaming services (Comcast’s Peacock is already welcoming it). Beyond that, the success of Disney+ and its Star Wars shows, for example, will continue to feed innovations for the theme parks, interest in the cruise ships and purchases of consumer products in the same way Disney’s traditional entertainment businesses have. Think of all the “baby Yoda” sales that came from “The Mandalorian.” For AT&T, CEO John Stankey sees streaming as a way to 2help to keep wireless customers from jumping to other carriers.
When the year began, the financial results for Disney’s streaming operations were relegated to the last section of its quarterly reports — an afterthought to the cable-TV networks, film studios, theme parks, resorts and cruises. The $318 billion company recently reorganized into just two reportable units — Disney Media and Entertainment, and Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. The first seems to emphasize streaming above all. CEO Bob Chapek called it a “strategy that puts the consumer in charge.” This was the slide Disney showed investors in explaining the new structure:
Notice where the two people on the left are sitting — not in a theater auditorium, but at home. That may be the most enduring change to come out of 2020. Netflix should enjoy its lonely winter on top, because in 2021 the streaming wars are finally heating up.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.