Streaming or Theatrical Release?
Streaming might be dead…sort of.
When was the last time a straight-to-streaming film truly lit the internet or social media ablaze? Films released through this model of being dumped straight onto a streaming service, such as Netflix, Hulu, MAX, and the countless others, tend to feel like empty calories. The films might get a pop for a week with audiences tuning in, but they quickly fade away from memory and rarely ever leave a mark on viewers or the zeitgeist.
With countless movies released onto various streaming services every year, it seems likely that at least a sizable portion of the top films would be streaming exclusively. However, a recently released Nielson report has revealed the opposite, calling into question if the streaming model is even a viable method for studios.
The Nielson Report
Per the report, the top ten streamed films of 2023 were:
- The Super Mario Bros. Movie
- Minions: The Rise of Gru
- Sing 2
- Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
- Avatar: The Way of Water
- Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Of the top nine films, each of them received a full, theatrical release before heading to their respected streaming platform. The streamer with the most films was Disney+, which had six films on the list. Despite the fact that Disney+ released six original films in 2023, viewers continued to watch those that were released theatrically, especially those not released in the past year, including Frozen and Moana, rather than choosing a streaming original.
The Glass Onion Asterisk
The only film on the top ten list that was a streaming original was Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. However, the film does come with an asterisk, as it’s a sequel to a financially and critically successful film, and did receive a limited wide-theatrical release a month before its Netflix debut. It creates an unusual circumstance for a streaming original that bypasses the typical release strategy, at the same time demonstrating that this traditional streaming model isn’t necessarily the best mode. How the film would have faired if Netflix had treated it like all of their other films is unknown, but it does leave room to show that a form of theatrical release is more likely to boost a film’s chance on streaming.
The Over-Inflated Budget for Streaming
Netflix was one of the first, if not the first, of the streaming services to start investing money into their original content. In theory, it seems like a wise idea to dump more money into a project in the hopes of it turning out to be a better film, and in the age of streaming, streamers are desperate for catalog titles that draw audiences in numerous times. Take films like Moana and Frozen that have been out for years, yet viewers are still tuning in to rewatch them. However, whenever streamers pour more money into a project, those finances are not recouped in the same way as a theatrical release.
Looking at Netflix, they’ve made questionable decisions with regards to films they chose to finance. Their 2019 film 6 Underground starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Michael Bay had a production budget of $150 million, while both their 2021 film Red Notice and 2022’s The Grey Man came with price tags of $200 million. It seems odd to spend outrageous amounts on films when a movie such as The Mother, starring Jennifer Lopez, got roughly the same amount of attention with a budget of only $43 million. The more money a production costs does not equal higher profits, especially with streaming originals. Average viewers at home are likely not aware of how much the films they watch cost, so there likely isn’t a mindset in audiences that if a movie costs $200 million, they must tune in to watch. So why spend outrageous amounts on these films when you don’t even have box office revenue to help recoup costs?
The Roadhouse dilemma
Director Denis Villeneuve made headlines when he publicly shamed Warner Bros for their decision to release major films theatrically, as well as on HBO Max (now just titled MAX) on the same day. He became one of the first major directors, along with Christopher Nolan who was also displeased with the studio, to fight back against the straight-to-streaming model. A similar situation happened recently with director Doug Liman. Liman is helming the upcoming remake of Roadhouse for Amazon Prime and expressed his thoughts on the decision in an exclusive guest column for Deadline. When discussing that he wouldn’t attend the premiere of his film, Liman explained, “My plan had been to silently protest Amazon’s decision to stream a movie so clearly made for the big screen. But Amazon is hurting way more than just me and my film. If I don’t speak up about Amazon, who will?”
Liman continued in his column, “Without movie theaters, we won’t have the commercial box office hits that are the locomotives that allow studios to take gambles on original movies and new directors. Without movie theaters we won’t have movie stars.” Liman also explains how Amazon’s decision to dedicate a billion dollars toward theatrically released films, similar to how they’ve been releasing more high profile originals in theaters, such as Air and The Beekeeper. It’s not only the films that are being hurt by this straight to streaming model, but the executives as well.
“Film executives are also at risk,” Liman wrote. “Box office revenues are the war chests that allow studios the resources to make movies. It’s no surprise you see layoffs across the industry including at Amazon –without movies in theaters, there’s no revenue coming in. And once the theaters go out of business, it could take decades for the business to recover, if ever.” Liman later congratulated juggernauts like Christopher Nolan and Tom Cruise for their support of theatrical releases. “They proved that despite everything, we still enjoy gathering and sharing in the communal experience of watching a film together. People love going to the movies, despite the convenience of streaming. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, data shows that movies do better on streaming if they have been released theatrically first.”
Do Theatrical Releases Elevate Films?
The recent Nielson reporting only helps to demonstrate Liman’s comment about movies released theatriclaly performing better on streaming. With Disney’s top performing movies all having first been a theatrical release, with some of them being more than five years old, it’s almost as if movies released theatrically are given more value to consumers. Whether or not it’s due to theatrical films receiving wide marketing campaigns is up to debate, but as Liman stated, there is data to support it.
When 2020 forced theaters to shut their doors, viewers’ only options were to watch streaming originals, creating an uptick in demand. Countless original films premiered on the various services. It’s easy to think that audiences would likely get used to this model, however, theaters began to explode again with films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, and last year’s double header, Barbie and Oppenhiemer. These films and others showed that audiences still love going to theaters, with movies like the Avatar sequel proving that they can also help boost streaming service numbers more than an original film would. This isn’t necessarily a demand to studios to stop releasing films directly to streaming, but rather question them on whether or not they should be wasting their films on streaming, or give them a better chance at swimming in theaters.
Roadhouse is scheduled to release on Amazon Prime on March 8, 2024.