Streaming milestone: Global subscriptions passed 1 billion last year

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo in "Hamilton."
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo portray Alexander and Eliza Hamilton in “Hamilton” on Disney+.

The number of streaming service subscriptions passed 1 billion worldwide for the first time in 2020, highlighting massive growth in Hollywood’s direct-to-consumer business as the COVID-19 pandemic kept moviegoers glued to their sofas.

Online video subscriptions soared 26% to 1.1 billion last year, according to a report by the Motion Picture Assn. on the theatrical and home entertainment market. The Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group represents the legacy Hollywood studios and Netflix.

The report, released Thursday, reflects the staggering effect that COVID-19 has had on the entertainment industry. It’s also the result of legacy media companies investing heavily in their own streamers — such as Disney+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max — and Netflix and Amazon bringing more original movies and shows to their apps.


During theater closures, Disney funneled movies such as “Hamilton” and “Soul” to its streaming service, while Warner Bros. debuted “Wonder Woman 1984” simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Sony sold the Tom Hanks picture “Greyhound” to Apple TV+, and Amazon acquired “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” for Prime Video. Disney recently reported 100 million subscribers for Disney+. Netflix has more than 200 million.

Chart showing the growth of streaming subscriptions from the Motion Picture Assn.

Meanwhile, global box office sales experienced a stunning downturn, dropping 72% to just $12 billion as multiplexes remained largely closed for the bulk of the year, according to the report.

That total includes an 80% dive for receipts in the U.S. and Canada, which contributed a paltry $2.2 billion. Less than half of the U.S. population went to the movies at least once in 2020, down 76% from 2019. International box office shrank less than the U.S. — dropping 68% — reflecting recovery in markets such as China that were able to reopen theaters after gaining better control of the coronavirus. China eclipsed the U.S. and Canada as the top box office market, with $3 billion in sales.

Movie houses in Los Angeles and New York have only just started to reopen due to relaxed restrictions amid the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, leading to hope that the industry can begin its long-awaited recovery.

For America’s theater chains, this could finally be the start of what’s expected to be a long recovery for the moviegoing experience.

March 16, 2021

But 2020 was clearly the year of the living room-bound moviegoer, a trend also reflected in the 47 combined Oscar nominations earned Monday by Netflix and Amazon Studios.

Global consumer spending on home entertainment exploded, growing 23% to $68.8 billion, thanks to online viewing. The digital home entertainment market increased 33% in the U.S. and 30% internationally, according to the MPA report.


Share of box office and home entertainment market, from the Motion Picture Assn.

Digital entertainment accounted for 76% of global home entertainment and box office last year, compared with 48% in 2019. Physical discs continued their long-term decline, plummeting 20% to $7 billion. The numbers were even more lopsided in the U.S., with 82% of entertainment spending coming from digital.

Though the streaming surge helped make up for some of the declines in box office attendance, the combined theatrical and home entertainment market still shrank. The worldwide total for 2020 was $80.8 billion, an 18% decrease from a year earlier. The MPA’s report did not include the pay-TV industry.

Global box office and home entertainment market chart from the Motion Picture Assn.

Far fewer movies were released in theaters as studios delayed their big pictures to 2021, sold them to streaming services or sent them directly to their own online platforms.

Just 319 new feature films were released in theaters, down 63% from 2019. The number of theatrical releases from MPA members was 60, or less than half the previous year’s tally.

In a twist, though, the MPA — which provides parental guidance ratings — rated slightly more movies last year than in 2019. The board gave ratings for 497 pictures in 2020, up from 488 in the previous year. Those included movies that were rated in 2020 but not yet released.

Much of the increase was from growth in the number of movies streaming services such as Netflix produced and released. The MPA rated 194 movies from its members, up 23% from a year earlier. The number from non-MPA companies, including indie distributors, fell 8% to 303 from 330.

Much of the streamed viewing in the U.S. was driven by older material from traditional networks and studios.

The most-streamed movies of 2020 in order were Disney Animation’s “Frozen II,” “Moana” and Universal-Illumination’s “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” according to Nielsen. Those were followed by last year’s Pixar release “Onward,” 2018’s Illumination release “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” and “Hamilton.”

Among series, acquired shows such as “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds” were top performers on streaming, all three of which were on Netflix but which originally aired on broadcast networks. The top original series were Netflix’s “Ozark,” “Lucifer,” “Tiger King,” “The Crown” and Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” according to Nielsen.

Here are Nielsen’s U.S. top 10s for 2020, listed alongside their streaming providers:

Original series:

  1. “Ozark,” Netflix
  2. “Lucifer,” Netflix
  3. “The Crown,” Netflix
  4. “Tiger King,” Netflix
  5. “The Mandalorian,” Disney+
  6. “The Umbrella Academy,” Netflix
  7. “The Great British Baking Show,” Netflix
  8. “The Boss Baby: Back in Business,” Netflix
  9. “Longmire,” Netflix
  10. “You,” Netflix

Acquired series:

  1. “The Office,” Netflix
  2. “Grey’s Anatomy,” Netflix
  3. “Criminal Minds,” Netflix
  4. “NCIS,” Netflix
  5. “Schitt’s Creek,” Netflix
  6. “Supernatural,” Netflix
  7. “Shameless,” Netflix
  8. “New Girl,” Netflix
  9. “The Blacklist,” Netflix
  10. “Vampire Diaries,” Netflix


  1. “Frozen II,” Disney+
  2. “Moana,” Disney+
  3. “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” Netflix
  4. “Onward,” Disney+
  5. “Dr. Suess’ The Grinch,” Netflix
  6. “Hamilton,” Disney+
  7. “Spencer Confidential,” Netflix
  8. “Aladdin,” Disney+
  9. “Toy Story 4,” Disney+
  10. “Zootopia,” Disney+