Last week came news that Disney would be pulling its movies from Netflix at the end of the current arrangement, and that Disney would in future launch its own streaming service. This licensing agreement generated a vast amount of coverage, much of it ill-informed, and ignoring wider issues in the market.
There are a few key issues to discuss here.
Disney Films on Netflix
Netflix originally signed a deal with Disney back in 2012, whereby Netflix took over from a previous Pay TV deal Disney had with Starz. Library films became available immediately on the streaming service, while Netflix gained the Pay TV window rights for new Disney movies (including Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm) released theatrically from 1 January 2016. In reality, that means first-run films would appear from late 2016 when the Pay TV window opened.
A Note on Windowing
It’s probably worth detailing how movie studios traditionally “window” their wares.
The Theatrical Window is usually first, and theatre owners demand that films don’t get released for usually three to four months (it varies by territory, with countries like France enforcing much stricter rules). Then is the so-called Video Window with digital pay-to-own (e.g. iTunes or Google Play Video) and physical DVD and Blu-ray releases. The former is often released a week prior to the latter. Then, a few months later, comes the Pay TV window, when films end up on premium cable and satellite channels like Sky Movies in the UK, or Starz in the US. After that initial Pay TV window, films may then go into a Second Window with perhaps a free-to-air broadcaster, or streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Obviously with both Netflix and Amazon active in making and acquiring films, they can choose to either go straight to streaming, or miss out some of the other windows. And there is talk of a Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) window between 30 and 45 days after theatrical release that would be priced high for early streaming access. Theatre owners worry about such things because if you know you only have to wait thirty days, then you might not bother going to the cinema to see a new film.
The key thing throughout all of this is that films tend to get less valuable as the windows progress.
At the time of the Disney deal, media estimates were that the deal was probably around $300m a year for Disney, and was seen as a good deal for all concerned. Netflix paid big, but got big films as a result. Disney dramatically increased what Starz (or HBO or Showtime) would have paid, but as a studio they couldn’t miss with their Marvel films alongside the relaunched Star Wars series, as well as their high-performing Disney and Pixar output.
Now the deal is coming to an end, and films released from 1 January 2019 will not appear automatically on Netflix. Furthermore Disney is launching its own streaming service. More on this latter point below.
Cue lots of words about how this could be the beginning of the end of Netflix. The thinking is that if Disney can do this, then surely others can too. And that breaks Netflix’s model.
Well only up to a point.
It’s worth reiterating that this was a US only deal. The deal does not, and did not apply elsewhere. That’s not to say that Disney material hasn’t and doesn’t appear in other territories. It does. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released just ahead of 1 January 2016, so didn’t make it to Netflix US. It did appear on Netflix in Canada however. Meanwhile Netflix UK has a number of Marvel films on its service, although these are second window films. They have already had runs on Sky as part of Sky’s deal with Disney (In the UK, Sky has exclusive Pay TV deals with most of the major US studios, usually locking out competitors for twelve months).
In Netflix’s recent earnings release, they reported that they had 94.36m paid memberships of which 49.38m were in the US. That leaves 44.99m outside the US, and that’s important. Within the next two or three quarters it seems likely that international will outstrip the US in terms of paid subscriptions. While that isn’t reflected in profits (international rollout is expensive), it’s important to remember that Netflix US is not the same as other versions of Netflix. Due to the way that the entertainment industry has historically worked, rights are sold on a territory by territory basis. Furthermore, different studios may own the rights to different films in different territories.
What this all means is that while Netflix losing Disney seems like a big deal, on further examination its notable that the deal didn’t extend to other territories. And those territories are growing just fine without Netflix serving up first-run Disney films.
Disney Already Streams
The other big part of this was that Disney announced that it’d launch a new Over The Top (OTT) streaming service once the Netflix deal ends.
A fact that has escaped many – including a large number of British news reports – is that Disney already has a streaming service. It’s in the UK, it’s called DisneyLife, launching at the end of 2015. Originally priced at £9.99 a month, making it more expensive than Netflix, in time it dropped its price to a more palatable £4.99. For that you get unlimited streaming access to Disney and Pixar movies, as well as all Disney’s TV programming. That amounts to about 400 movies available. The TV programming is both live and on-demand box sets. The service also offers Disney music and audiobooks, and it offers a 10% Disney Store discount.
That all said, new Disney films still get onto Sky Movies before they reach DisneyLife (in other words, the service doesn’t offer first run films during the Pay TV window), and Disney still sells its top films to free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC. I assume that maximising audience also means maximising merchandise revenues from those later rebroadcasts.
Whether Disney renews its Sky agreement in the future, or goes it alone in an attempt to bump up overall revenues will be worth looking out for. But it would seem that the UK has been used as a beta test market for the newly announced Disney service.
(Note that DisneyLife is a different service to Disney Movies Anywhere, which is Disney’s own brand download-to-own digital service.)
It’s notable that the UK DisneyLife does not include Marvel or Lucasfilm output. That’s likely to be either because Disney already had lucrative deals in place with Sky or others at the time of launch, or that including that output it doesn’t make quite as “clean” a service. The audience for Frozen is different to the audience for Ironman.
Perhaps, in time, Disney will want to include these properties in its streaming service, but I’m not sure. The core Disney (and Pixar) offering is very defined and a parent subscribing knows what they’re getting from a service. Offering a film like Deadpool (15 rated in the UK; R rated in the US) would not work. Yes — I know Deadpool is a Fox film and not formally part of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but the possibility of R rated Marvel material is still there. Season 1 of Jessica Jones was rated 15 for its DVD release for example.
Finally, Disney just bought BAMtech, the streaming specialist company that was originally set-up in-house for Major League Baseball to stream their fixtures. It was spun off by them to offer streaming support to many companies around the world, and now Disney has bought it ahead of a larger rollout of a streaming service. Doing streaming well is hard as many companies have learnt to their costs, so this pay prove to be a very wise investment.
Disney Going It Alone is not Replicable
The reason that Disney is able to even contemplate a full-service streaming offering is because it has uniquely strong branding. Even the very youngest Disney film viewer quickly learns the name of the studio it comes from. They want to visit Disney Stores or visit Disney Theme Parks. I’m not at all sure that other studios have such significant branding across a wide range of output.
For example, do you know which studio is responsible for the Despicable Me franchise and its related Minions? How about Kungfu Panda? Or Shrek? Or Lego Batman?
All of those have been incredibly successful properties, but they don’t have the same consumer recognition at a studio level. I’m not saying that they couldn’t try to do the same, but that it would be hard. Most consumers, unless they work in the industry, have little to no knowledge of which studio produced which film. In today’s world, where budgets have soared, there are now multiple opening production logos at the start of feature films usually indicating many companies have stumped up the budget. What films would even be in Dreamworks or Universal branded OTT offering?
The regular concern you hear about Netflix is that its reliance on third party programming leaves it vulnerable. What if other studios pulled their output to get onto
I’m not saying that Warners, for example, couldn’t launch an OTT service off the back of their DC Universe films, but that might be a bit of a stretch. A handful of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman films does not make a full service, even if you throw in some animated and direct-to-DVD material.
A case in point might be Sony’s Crackle service which, although advertising funded, has not really broken through in the years it has been operating. Perhaps its biggest original hit, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld is moving to Netflix.
How Many Streaming Services Are Sustainable Anyway?
In the US, the market seems to have reached the point where cable cords are being “cut” in sufficient numbers to be of major concern to the industry. Where once a consumer might spend $100 a month on a few hundred channels, only a few of which they actually watched, they’re now increasingly choosing a mixture of “skinny bundles” (Perhaps $20-30 a month for a handful of key channels, possibly internet streamed), and OTT services (Perhaps HBO Now to get Game of Thrones and Veep, or CBS All Access for The Good Wife spin-off, The Good Fight, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery – which notably will be a Netflix exclusive outside the US). Currently, that’s a cheaper option than the $100 bill. But how many services cumulatively would a household buy?
In the UK, the market is slightly different, but beyond Netflix and Amazon, I could also subscribe to Now TV (for subscription free Sky TV), or something like Mubi for arthouse films.
Amongst many others, the BBC and ITV recently launched BritBox focusing on UK shows that are otherwise not sold to US broadcasters. There it competes with Acorn TV’s similar streaming offering.
Meanwhile sports organisations and channels from MLB to the NFL, and the NBA to NBC Sports Gold offer paid OTT options.
How many of these individual packages is one household likely to pay for? 2? 3? 5? More?
NBC has recently announced the closure of its comedy-focused Seeso network, when many might have thought that it was NBCU’s foot in the door into the paid streaming marketplace.
It’s worth remembering that the cable bundle offer meant you get quite a lot for your money, even if you don’t watch much of it. For example, perhaps you don’t watch the food TV channels
A la carte OTT offerings mean that if you’re not interested in food networks, then you don’t subscribe to them. The corollary of that is that if you do want to watch food TV networks, you’ll probably have to pay more to see them.
The economics of 100m US cable subscribing households all contributing perhaps $0.50 a month to make the channels viable with a monthly revenue of $50m. If only 5m viewers choose to watch, they would need to pay $10 month to achieve the same revenue for those channels.
It seems likely that a lot of more niche channels will become unviable without a significant number of subscribers prepared to pay a significant fee to see them.
Netflix in the Future
Netflix has made so secret of wanting to own more of its own programming. Whether it can become completely dependent on acquired programming is questionable, and perhaps isn’t really in its business plan. But beyond the not-insignificant production costs which are eating money, once it has built up a significant library, it becomes a more attractive proposition. That is, assuming that future generations will still be at least partially interested in today’s television. While Dumbo and Snow White are ageless, it’s not clear that the same is true of House of Cards.
Netflix’s international ambitions are not insignificant either. To achieve success in these markets invariably means locally produced programming. Making locally produced shows in France, Germany, India, Brazil and the UK is not cheap. But to break properly into these markets, that’s what Netflix has to do, and that does mean a huge cash burn.
It would be a fool who tries to predict the future of a company like Netflix, and I’m not a fool!
However, I don’t see the end of Netflix’s Disney deal as nearly as groundbreaking as some would position it. Netflix probably does need to broaden its portfolio in terms of earning income. Notably they made their first acquisition last week buying the comic company Millarworld which gives them access to a number of comic book characters as well as opening a new revenue stream. It seems that owning a comic-book franchise is critical for any serious studio. Could this be the start of a wider investment portfolio which supports the main subscription offering, but provides some diversity of income?