As mighty players including Apple and Disney prepare to go up against the likes of Netflix and Amazon, industry observers are busy speculating about which corporate behemoth will come out on top in the coming streaming wars. But cinephiles, filmmakers and the traditional gatekeepers of the movie business have their own concern: namely, will the art form they love benefit from this clash of the titans, or will it end up suffering collateral damage?
That the film business has already been profoundly reshaped by streaming will come as news to no one. In less than a decade, Netflix and Amazon have upended a century-old distribution business and accelerated moviegoers’ shift from their neighborhood multiplexes and toward their big-screen TVs, tablets and (gasp!) even their phones. Widely branded a mortal enemy to traditional moviegoing, streaming services have nevertheless won over many movie fans and filmmakers by creating a vibrant new market for the sort of risky, outside-the-tentpole fare that has largely been abandoned by the major studios.
Over the next six months, the entry of three major newcomers into this already topsy-turvy landscape — Disney+ Plus, Apple TV+ and HBO Max — will likely heighten the general sense of uncertainty. Executives at all three companies either declined or were unavailable to speak with The Times about their plans. But from what they’ve announced so far, it’s possible to begin to glean a sense of their varying film strategies — including just how much of an emphasis they may place on movies relative to the more binge-able series that are the bread and butter of the streaming realm.
Launching Friday, Apple TV+ has announced that its first three films will receive theatrical releases before debuting on the platform, a necessary step to qualify films for awards consideration. But those releases will be limited, given the major theater chains’ long-held resistance to the shorter theatrical windows common for streamers.
The documentary “The Elephant Queen” opened in select cities Oct. 18, two weeks before it will be available as part of the Apple TV+ launch lineup. Director Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age film “Hala” opens Nov. 22 before hitting the platform in December. The period drama “The Banker,” starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, arrives in theaters Dec. 6 before debuting on Apple TV+ in January. The company’s highest-profile original film project, Sofia Coppola’s dramedy “On the Rocks,” is expected to debut in mid-2020 after what some believe could be a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
By adopting this approach, Apple — which signed a partnership last year with indie studio A24 — is clearly signaling its intention to vie with Netflix and Amazon to attract major filmmakers, who by and large still prefer to see their pictures play on the big screen.
Amazon has historically released its films in theaters 90 days before making them available on its Prime Video platform, though it has begun testing shorter windows (upcoming releases “The Report” and “The Aeronauts” will be streaming two weeks after opening in theaters) and will forgo theatrical releases for some titles going forward.
Netflix, which puts out more films per year than all the studios combined, has offered exclusive theatrical windows for a number of its recent awards contenders (Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will be in theaters for 27 days before its streaming launch, and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” will get 30 days), but it still releases the bulk of its titles either simultaneously via streaming and in theaters or, more often, solely on the Netflix platform.
Apple TV+ will have just one original film available at launch, compared with nine new series — not to mention that it has TV right there in the name — suggesting where its priorities may lie, at least in the near term.
Disney+, which launches Nov. 12, is taking an entirely different tack, one that reflects its already dominant position as the leading movie studio in terms of market share. For Disney, whose pipeline is perennially stocked with big-screen offerings from powerhouse brands like Marvel, Pixar and “Star Wars,” the streaming platform will provide a home not just for its vast catalog of existing titles but also for smaller new films that may not have quite as wide an appeal but will nevertheless attract family audiences.
At launch, Disney+ will offer just one original film, a live-action reboot of its 1955 animated movie “Lady & the Tramp,” compared with eight new series. But several other new pictures are slated to debut on the platform in its first year, including the Christmas movie “Noelle,” starring Bill Hader and Anna Kendrick; an adaptation of the 2000 YA novel “Stargirl”; and a sled-dog adventure movie called “Togo.” During the company’s most recent earnings call in August, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger told Wall Street analysts that Fox Searchlight, which the studio acquired as part of its purchase of 20th Century Fox, will also make movies for the streaming platform, portending further potential shifts to come in the awards season landscape.
Scheduled to launch in spring, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max has not revealed much yet about its film strategy, though its slate of original series and miniseries is already robust. This year, the company announced production deals with producer Greg Berlanti (“Love, Simon”) as well as with Reese Witherspoon’s production shingle, Hello Sunshine, to initially produce four and two films for the service, respectively. Production is underway on the inaugural movie under Berlanti’s deal, an adaptation of the YA novel “UNpregnant,” as well as a new film from director Steven Soderbergh, “Let Them All Talk,” starring Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges.
Earlier this month, HBO Max announced it had picked up the Melissa McCarthy comedy “Superintelligence,” originally slated to hit theaters in December, for an exclusive streaming release this spring. Given HBO’s traditional strength in documentaries, the service is also likely to provide direct competition to Hulu, which has prioritized nonfiction movies, including “Minding the Gap” and “Ask Dr. Ruth,” in its own original-film strategy.