With Disney set to remove another bunch of its own shows from its Disney+ service to save costs, a few words about where streaming services now sit.
The month of June is continuing where the month of May left off, as the biggest streaming services continue to work out how to keep hold of their subscribers, whilst trying to cut a few costs. In a very high stakes game at the top end of the market, it’d be fair to say that some companies are having a bit of a wobble.
Netflix is trying to solidify its position via the front door, attempting to get extra monthly funds out of people who share a password, arguing that around 100 million people across the globe are accessing its service that way. On the Powerpoint slide somewhere in Netflix HQ, someone’s pitched this, working out that getting money from just a fraction of the people who aren’t handing any over is a path to continued riches.
Amazon and Apple have the luxury of streaming being an important, but not core business to both. In the case of the former at least though, it’s now spent billions on the MGM studio, and will be wanting a return on that. But so far, all quiet there.
Which leaves what’s been happening at Warner Bros and particularly Disney in the spotlight, not least where this particular piece is concerned. The actions of both over the past few months have in their own way offered a slightly changed perception as to where streaming sits in the world of film. And hopefully broken any perception that their respective streaming services are a safe, continued, dependable home for material.
Not that this is a piece lambasting streaming. The upsides of it, after all, need little highlighting. The sheer convenience of having a catalogue of films (and shows) available to watch and download has changed the way many of us watch films at home. No more getting off our backsides and getting the Blu-ray out the box: it’s sat there, we press a button (once we’ve decided what we want to watch, a minor drama in itself) and we’re away.
Most of us too are familiar with the way that streaming services remove and add titles each month, and for film fans, it means a handful of movies tend to be taken away, a handful added. We’ve long made peace with that.
Over time, particularly on Netflix, that’s meant a dilution in the number of older films in particular, and it’s been affected in particular the depth of the archive: early Netflix was far richer with films pre-1970, for instance, but its modern day algorithm presumably suggests that such depth is less demanded. At the time of writing, the most popular films on Netflix are the Harry Potter movies in the UK, and truthfully, who didn’t already have access to all of them?
Netflix’s adding and removal mechanic is nothing on what we’ve been seeing over at Disney and Warner Bros over the past few weeks. Both companies in their own way have been demonstrating that neither are the protectors of cinema that they could and perhaps should be.
Warner Bros, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a collection of reissues and re-releases, has an admirable surface commitment to its archive.
Furthermore, its willingness to remaster films and send them back to cinemas too is very, very welcome. Its physical media game is quite strong too, it’s just struggled a lot to come to terms with streaming.
Most recently, it opted to remove the individual roles of behind and before the camera talent from listings on its newly-rebranded Max streaming service. Nee HBO Max, it’s not a service we’re getting in the UK until 2025, but I’m told that the presentation of features on the service is very good once you press play. Yet it’s reversed-ferreted at speed over its move to take away the individual credits of the people who’ve made a particular film or TV show, and instead list them just as ‘creators’.
How many times have you got to the end of a film and wondered out loud who the ‘content creators’ are? Heck, who – outside of boardrooms – actually calls films and TV shows ‘content’ anyway? Oooh, I fancy a night out: I must go and see the latest summer content at the local Odeon. Doesn’t really stack.
Warner Bros also, on a smaller scale than the one we’re about to discuss, began removing films and shows from its Max service last year, so as to save on residuals and such like it otherwise would have to pay to, er, ‘the content creators’. Take 2020’s film An American Pickle, for instance, starring Seth Rogen, that was amongst a raft of titles that disappeared last August.
Mitigating that, at least it’s been released on disc, so there’s some way to watch it. But as we’ve been discovered with Disney and Disney+, that’s not always the case.
Disney has thus far spent this year the best part of $2bn on ‘content impairment charges’, so it can remove over 40 exclusive shows and movies from its Disney+ services. It’s done some sums, and worked out that through the miracle of Corporate Accounting ™, it’s cheaper to pay billions to remove shows than to keep them on its service.
Much has been written – including on this very site – about how programmes such as the high-profile Willow were removed from Disney+ in May. But the really worrying thing I’d suggest isn’t the removal and adding of shows and films, it’s the taking away of any way at all to watch them.
When streaming sprung up, there was an idyllic moment where it felt for a while that it brought some degree of permanence to a movie. That not only would it give us access to umpteen films in seconds, but that they’d always be there.
That’s not always been the case, as the Flixster Video debacle in the UK demonstrated. But it’s not a big stretch to believe that if Disney had made a show for its Disney+ service, it would, well, keep the show available on its Disney+ service.
That is, however, not so. And in the case of Disney, it reduced its physical media business to a shell of what it once was, meaning that all those productions it’s removed? You can’t even get the vast majority of them on disc. You can’t get them anywhere, to my eyes. That may change over time, but the more immediate threat is a further proposed ‘content impairment charge’ of $400m, which suggests around a dozen more productions are for the chop. Whilst Disney has indicated it’s reversing the decline of its physical media output, it’s also trimming back its streaming service further.
The likes of Star Wars and Marvel will be safe, of course. The big stuff, as a rule, always is. It’s the discoveries, the catalogue, the library, the hidden gems.
What we’re left with is a bunch of streaming services that primarily focus on the 10%. The 10% of films and television shows that are the most popular, or the most likely to get some degree of interest. The other 90%? Well, they’re part served by more niche streaming services – BFI Player, Mubi, Studiocanal Presents, Curzon, Britbox, Arrow et al – but there’s only so much they can do. Digital services also offer a number of films via video on demand too, and in truth, it’s a hell of a selection out there.
But it’s nowhere near permanent. The end of one rights deal, and a film can disappear. A bad set of quarterly results, and ‘content’ may need some ‘impairment’.
It’s a regular drum we beat here, but with physical media – VHS, DVD, UMD (remember them?), Betamax, HD DVD, Laserdisc, Blu-ray and such like – nobody, however much they liked, could come into your home and remove a film. You had a copy, it was there.
Something’s got to give here, and maybe we’re at a turning point. Maybe the assumption has gone that the big streaming services, no matter how convenient they undoubtedly are, are reliable archivists of films. The vast majority simply aren’t. Under the way film rights are issued, it’s clear that it’s near impossible to be a long term reliable resource of films.
Disappointingly, some aren’t even interested in trying, it seems. Even with the material they make themselves.
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