Christmas streaming battle goes dark

Christmas streaming battle goes dark

This should be the Christmas television ratings battle to beat them all. Never before in America have such expensive studio blockbusters opened on streaming services on the same day, turning living rooms into cinemas for a virtual Christmas premiere.

Yet when Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984 and Disney’s Soul hit the small screen on Friday, with budgets approaching $75m an hour, there will be no accurate way to decide the winner of this festive showdown. We might never discover whether these movies were wildly popular, disappointingly so-so, or the biggest Christmas flops of all time.

It is one of the quirks of the streaming age. Disney and Warner will — at least internally — know more than ever about who watched: not just how many views, but for how long, and whether a viewer just subscribed to HBO Max or Disney Plus, or ended up cancelling soon afterwards.

Yet such is the secrecy, the outside world will probably know less about how each movie performed than when It’s a Wonderful Life had its cinema debut in 1947 (it happened to be a box office washout).

The ratings blackout illustrates a broader trend: the growing asymmetry of information in the creative business. It is likely to vex Hollywood talent well after the pandemic has ended. For as transparency has taken a hit, so too has the bargaining power of suppliers to streaming services, the most important buyers in the business.

Making movies and TV has long been a numbers game, with a risk-reward model that has allowed the spoils from (rare) runaway hits to be shared with the creative teams behind them. That was the case for television series such as Friends or Seinfeld and surprise billion-dollar movies such as Joker or Avatar.

But such a model turns on shared, reliable and meaningful measures of success: box-office receipts, audience figures, syndication deals. The upside can be quantified and divvied up.

Subscription streaming services change the calculus. A hit is measured differently by Warner, Netflix and Disney. It might not be views, but new sign-ups, or retention of subscribers, or a mix of all of them. But the crucial point is this: the relevant data is monopolised by the streaming service.

A scene from the upcoming feature film ‘Soul’ from Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios
A scene from the upcoming feature film ‘Soul’ from Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios © Disney/Pixar

Numbers are given to some lucky filmmakers. But it rarely gives the full picture, or a sense of how it compares with other content. And that means, in the marketplace for creative production, only one side can define success. Streamers alone have the numbers to do the reckoning. And they aren’t sharing.

So streaming deals typically include no compensation for doing well — just a big lump sum to buy out all rights, based on the budget of a project. And when negotiations start about a follow-up film, or a second series, the prospective supplier is fighting blind.

Of course, it isn’t hard to distinguish a breakthrough success from a dud. But for content that lies somewhere in the middle, the full data really matters in establishing a producer’s prospective value.

Some independent estimates are available. Nielsen and smaller groups such as Parrot Analytics and Digital-i are attempting to replicate the insights from the real viewing data. But streaming services naturally say they are inaccurate.

Netflix has become more transparent — but on its own terms. Jason Blum, producer of Get Out and The Invisible Man, spoke for many in Hollywood in describing the “maddening” selective disclosure of viewing figures.

He thinks it cannot last — if, that is, streamers want inexpensive but popular content such as Get Out. That movie cost less than $5m to produce but made the creative team many multiples of that in box office profit.

“The funny thing facing producers right now is that if we have low-budget, very commercial scripts, it doesn’t make sense to do anything except release them theatrically, even if we have to wait,” Mr Blum told The Business podcast. “If we have very high-budget, left-of-centre stories, it makes a lot of sense to put them on streaming. Now that is not sustainable.”

It will take a lot to convince streamers to give up their data advantage, or offer real rewards for performance. Competition between services might do it, or a pitch for a too-good-to-ignore project. Warner also has some patching up to do with filmmakers furious about their 2021 blockbuster movies being put on a streaming service.

As for working out the winner of 2020’s Christmas blockbuster battle, for now we may only have one choice: waiting to see if such big budget movies are given a streaming release next Christmas.

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