During The Walt Disney Company’s quarterly earnings call on November 9th, CEO Bob Iger casually dropped some news. The tidbit that made the biggest headlines was that the company had just closed a deal with writer-director Rian Johnson to create a new trilogy of movies in the Star Wars universe, giving Lucasfilm the kind of long-term pact with a single director that it’s arguably been missing since George Lucas handed over the keys in 2012.
But another comment may end up having a more significant impact — not just for Disney, but for the entertainment world at large. Iger announced that Disney is developing a series of original television shows for its upcoming video streaming service. They include a live-action Star Wars television series, a new Marvel show, and programs based on High School Musical and Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. franchise.
For those not paying attention, the news could have just been background noise — a few more TV shows in development somewhere in the bowels of Hollywood. But the comments really sounded like something else: Disney winning the online streaming service wars without firing a single shot.
That sounds like hyperbole, but to get a real sense of the gravity of this news, we need to take a step back and look at the larger dynamics of the streaming market. Once upon a time — way back in 2011, when Netflix first divorced its online streaming service from its legacy DVD business — the company’s focus was on library titles. Licensing deals with multiple studios and cable channels like Starz gave Netflix a wide selection of films and TV shows that made it seem like an unparalleled bargain for consumers, particularly as broadband speeds increased across the United States, and the quality of streaming caught up to the visual potential of high-definition TVs.
But with competitors like Amazon joining the game, it soon became clear that content was going to be the great differentiator. Audiences primarily care about shows and convenience, not network or service names. Faced with multiple streaming options, they’ll naturally gravitate toward whatever service has the most programming they want to watch. That led to exclusivity deals, with companies paying to be the only streaming service carrying Orphan Black, or any upcoming Marvel movies. We’ve frequently seen this strategy with subscription music services, but licensed exclusivity isn’t a stable platform upon which to build a business. It’s just a business transaction, and any deal can be altered or broken. Which is why original programming has become such an incredible focus for streaming services. A company that makes a show can guarantee nobody else gets that show. Hits like Stranger Things (Netflix), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), and Transparent (Amazon) have made original content the coin of the realm, with each service vying to become the next HBO.
And then there’s Disney. Since Iger took over in 2005, the company has built its movie-business dominance on the power of multi-billion-dollar acquisitions: first with Pixar in 2006, then Marvel in 2009, and then, after another three-year breather, Lucasfilm. The returns have been astronomical. On this week’s earnings call, Iger touted that the average global box office for Disney’s animated movies is now more than $665 million. Marvel films have averaged $840 million each at the global box office, and The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story alone have brought in over $3 billion. It’s the power of incredibly prominent intellectual property, combined with established creative teams that know how to execute. Disney doesn’t try to copy somebody else’s strategy, or build an expanded universe from scratch. It just buys up the people who are already making the things it wants to sell.
That’s why Netflix’s stock dropped in August when Disney announced it would be ending a 2012 deal that brought all of the studio’s films exclusively to Netflix. Losing Star Wars, Marvel, Disney’s live-action output, and Pixar’s many franchises would be a huge blow unto itself. But even more ominous was the revelation that Disney was building its own streaming service, on which its many blockbusters would be exclusives.
Just the titles Disney is pulling from Netflix would make the new service formidable, especially to families with young children. But Netflix has maintained its upward trajectory without a consistent movie selection for years now. Like Amazon and Hulu, it’s focused on specifically targeted library programming, with an ever-increasing investment in original content making up the balance. Netflix is upping its ambitions with moves like buying Mark Millar’s comics publishing company — enabling the service to both get into the comics game and develop its own comics-inspired properties in-house — but Disney’s streaming television goals point to a checkmate scenario, where the success of its streaming service isn’t just likely; it’s a given.
We’re talking about a 360-degree view of intellectual-property exploitation that hasn’t really been seen before. A world in which a new Star Wars movie hits theaters, and then is available for streaming only on Disney’s service. The same service that is the exclusive home for new Star Wars television shows. And then that same company will offer fans the opportunity to actually visit the lands they’re watching through Disney’s theme parks, and then read about them in books and comics put out by Disney publishers. It’s a holistic ecosystem of entertainment, all under one corporate umbrella, with each division pushing audiences to engage with every other division. Without outside deals or restrictions, it is all just Disney.
I wrote earlier this year that the Millarworld deal indicated Netflix had far grander ambitions than just being the best streaming service out there, and I think that continues to be the company’s strategic vision. But Disney’s aggressive pivot toward streaming makes it clear that its leadership plans to leverage its impressive library of properties to full effect, essentially making its still-unnamed streaming service a no-brainer subscription for anyone even remotely fluent in modern pop culture. Along with the new TV shows and traditional film titles, Iger also stated during the call that Disney plans to make four to five films a year specifically for the streaming service. Disney hasn’t historically been known for the high quality of its direct-to-video titles, but if some of those films are part of the Star Wars or Marvel universes, and are just part of a service people are already paying for, that kind of distinction may cease to matter.
There is also the simple matter of price. Netflix, hoping to make original content half of its catalog by the end of next year, recently revealed that it will spend $8 billion to hit that goal. Perhaps not coincidentally, it raised its prices just last month. Disney, on the other hand, is already a successful box-office machine, breaking records year after year. Those big-screen properties are already being used to generate revenue across the company’s other divisions. Which is why Disney will be able to undercut Netflix on price. “I can say that our plan on the Disney side is to price this substantially below where Netflix is,” Iger said on the call.
The biggest properties in the world, all on one service, with original offshoots and expansions ready for streaming whenever somebody’s interested, at a lower cost than what people already pay for Stranger Things and Mindhunter. At that point, it’s not just a question of whether Disney’s service will attract customers. It’s a question of whether its service will so radically reset consumer expectations in the streaming market that a $9.99 Netflix subscription just won’t seem like a value any longer.
At that point, Disney would be able to just lean back and starve everyone else out, knowing that its movie-franchise head start will be impossible to match, no matter how many billions its streaming competitors throw at the problem. And if Disney has to pick up a 20th Century Fox along the way to keep building that intellectual property portfolio, Iger seems to be just fine with that idea, too.
Of course, this also points to a possible future where almost all of our blockbuster entertainment comes from a single course. That would seem to be dystopian and horrific, something that audiences would neither want, nor stand for. But if it means an infinite stream of Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars stories until the end of time… well, maybe it will be a little easier to swallow.