The empires strike back
Disney, Comcast, AT&T battling for TV supremacy
As coronavirus vaccines roll out around the world, consumers are expected to return to restaurants, sports arenas and cinemas.
But with films such as Matrix 4, In the Heights and Dune hitting TVS at the same time as theatres, and Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki streaming on Disney+, will they even want to?
The pandemic accelerated a push to subscription streaming video services such as Netflix and Disney+ that was already underway, leading to a surplus of topshelf content being available to consumers in 2021. But behind the scenes of this new golden age of television is a battle over the future of Hollywood.
And 2020 was the year major media companies placed their bets, with AT&T, Comcast and Disney announcing new strategies around how and where they will distribute content. While their approaches vary, they are united by a singular focus on streaming video to appeal directly to viewers.
Less clear is who will emerge victorious once the pandemic is over. Will the experience of watching a film in a theatre — with a community of fans, a giant screen and enveloping sound — overcome the convenience and lower cost of watching it at home?
The answer will help decide the future of Hollywood in 2022 and beyond.
AT&T'S Warner Bros. studio took the boldest step of its peers when it announced plans to debut all of its 2021 films in U.S. theatres and on the HBO Max streaming service on the same day, including potential blockbusters like Matrix 4, The Suicide Squad, Dune and In the Heights. It released Wonder Woman 1984 in theatres and on HBO Max (and on demand in Canada) on Dec. 25.
Warner Bros. officials said the strategy, which AT&T chief executive John Stankey called a “winwin-win” for consumers and partners, would be policy for one year.
Comcast's Universal Pictures took a less drastic approach, chipping away at the theatrical window through deals with three major theatre operators — AMC and Cinemark Holdings in the U.S. and Canada's Cineplex.
The parties agreed to shorten the window between a film's theatrical and at-home release. After as few as 17 days in theatres owned by one of those operators, Universal could make films such as Sing 2 or Minions: The Rise of Gru available for purchase on digital platforms.
Rather than announce sweeping changes to its movie release strategy, Disney opted to supercharge its streaming services. The company plans to release 10 new TV series each in the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, including two spinoffs of The Mandalorian, on the Disney+ streaming service over the next few years.
In early 2021, Viacomcbs is rebranding its CBS All Access streaming service as Paramount+ — which will include episodes and movies from Viacomcbs-owned brands such as Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures, including series such as The Twilight Zone and The Good Fight.
These changes may not have happened as quickly without the pandemic, although some Hollywood insiders consider them inevitable.