Original content may decide who wins the streaming wars
Where were you when you found out Netflix would lose “Friends” next year? How many sad face emojis did you use when you Retweeted the news “The Office” would be leaving?
Much of the news surrounding the launch of streaming services from all the big media companies has focused on the fate of what we’ll call “legacy IP,” shows and movies that are at least a few years – if not decades – old. HBO Max will soon host “Friends” while “The Office” will go to NBCUniversal’s still-unlaunched service. Disney+ will be the exclusive home of Star Wars, Marvel and other franchises.
That these older properties still hold so much allure and potential for the companies that own them is telling in and of itself. Their continued popularity makes them pure revenue generators, their production costs long since recouped and little additional expenditure required. Better to keep selling audiences what’s old and familiar because it’s cheap to do so.
The future of media is, it seems, largely dependent on the availability of 20+ year old sitcoms. Some surveys have shown that licensed content is what people want from a streaming service. It’s likely safe to include legacy IP in that since it makes up a good chunk of that licensed content.
Despite this, each company also realizes the need for original material. Apple has a reported $6 billion budgeted for original shows and movies. Quibi has raised $2 billion for the new shows it seems to announce every other day. The $15 billion earmarked by Netflix includes acquisition as well as production. By these measures, the $1 billion Disney is said to be spending on production for Disney+ is miniscule, but given the strength of the catalog titles it has at its disposal it’s understandable it would start smaller.
So much money being devoted to producing original series and movies shows there’s an appetite for that material among the audience. That would also explain why the announcement of each has come with a list of what new content will be available. HBO Max was touted as featuring two movies produced by Reese Witherspoon and four by Greg Berlanti and just made a new Steven Soderbergh film its first major acquisition. Disney+ will offer a handful of remakes of classic films along with new movies starring Anna Kendrick, directed by Tom McCarthey and so on.
We already know that advertising for the services themselves – which usually includes snippets of highly sought-after content serving as the core proposition – has dropped recently.
While a handful of teasers and promotions for some of the series and shows coming to these services have already been released – Apple dropped the full trailer for its much-anticipated “The Morning Show” just a couple days ago – we’ve yet to see any marketing for the films and movies scheduled.
Still, a number of assumptions can be made based on the campaigns run for original films on Netflix, Amazon, DC Universe and other streaming platforms.
Trailers will likely be released on YouTube and social networks. This despite the fact that all these platforms are in many ways competitors, featuring their own original content productions and/or deals. Shows exclusive to YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and others compete with those currently found on Netflix or coming from Disney etc for the time, money and attention of the audience. Still, the critical mass built up by those platforms as distribution hubs seems to trump any concerns about using a competitor’s infrastructure.
One has to wonder how much longer this will be worth it, though. It’s already clear that Facebook in particular actively prioritizes its own material in the content it shows users, illustrating how these platforms act in their own self-interest. For the time being, though, use of third-party video hosting remains the default and I don’t know if we’re actually headed toward a return of the days when trailers were available only as uploaded media on an official website.
Putting distribution to the side, the format of trailers may also be up for a bit of reinvention. The standard 2:30 running time is one dictated by the MPAA as the maximum allowable. While objectively a short amount of time, it’s eons in terms of online video. User preferences on social platforms are much shorter. It’s possible instead of one primary trailer and subsequent shorter shorts studios begin to create collections of :45 second promos. Each could offer a specific value proposition instead of trying to cram as much as possible into a single, longer video.
Whatever the case, studios need to stop simply cropping 16×9 videos for formats preferred by social networks. That’s terrible.
Websites themselves are even more questionable. The attention paid to them by studios of all kinds has waned in recent years to the point where the content shared is limited to a single trailer, a brief story synopsis and links to buy tickets. Some movies get more attention online than others, but the default now seems to be minimum viable effort, just enough to justify securing the URL.
That shift reflects changes in the overall media landscape in the last half-dozen or more years. Many media companies no longer see “drive traffic to website” as a primary goal of their online marketing, choosing to produce content that lives solely on one or another social media profile. Asking people to click from Twitter to a website in order to buy tickets isn’t as efficient as simply putting the ticket-buying link in a social update where it can be immediately acted upon.
It’s likely at least some of the streaming services will follow Netflix’s lead and simply abandon the standalone website altogether. That company, with a couple high-profile exceptions, hasn’t even bothered to create sites for its movies, a tactic that makes sense given the call to action for them is “watch now” or “subscribe now.”
Social media, for that reason, is more likely to continue being a tactic consistently implemented. This is how studios are going to increasingly reach modern audiences who live on their mobile devices and use those networks for news, personal connections and work.
Hints as to how those networks could be activated are likely found by looking to not only Netflix but smaller studios like IFC Films. Both rarely create standalone profiles for their films, preferring to support them on the brand channels. The level of that support varies from film to film, though. IFC recently paid little attention to Vita & Virginia since it was busy promoting The Nightingale. And Netflix props up its original shows much more frequently than it does the movies it debuts.
You can see that brand-centric approach already being taken by Disney+, which recently made headlines after debuting its Twitter account and engaging in conversation with all the IP it manages.
The reality is that creating Facebook and other profiles for every individual movie has never made a whole lot of sense. Movies are products whose expiration date is clearly displayed on the label, so devoting significant resources to building up an audience for each one – and audience that is then abandoned within months of acquisition – seems wrong-headed.
Posters are also a format that may not be long for this world. While Netflix and other streamers have continued producing them over the years, in a world where theatrical distribution is reserved for only the biggest of the big releases there wouldn’t seem to be much rationale for creating the 24×36 one sheets designed to fit in backlit cases in theater hallways.
Studios are already producing promotional graphics formatted to work well on social platforms, so why not drop the facade of needing to create a “theatrical poster?” As with trailers, focus instead on a series of images that, when released in sequence, tell some sort of story.
That’s what Netflix did on the Instagram profile for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, posting several collections of images that on their own weren’t much. When viewed in “grid” mode, each collection showed a full picture of one of the movie’s stories, offering a better look at what audiences could expect in a way formatted to take advantage of how that platform was used.
Advertising campaigns could also be due for a shakeup. Studios usually begin paid campaigns around the time the first trailer debuts, using Promoted Posts on social networks, putting pre-roll ads on YouTube and placing banner and other ads elsewhere on the web. TV commercials are often reserved for the last month before release.
Some of that could be retained in a streaming-centric world, but general online ads are likely to be changed significantly. For theatrical movies those ads point to websites where people can buy advance tickets, but Netflix usually reserves online ad buys for *after* a movie is available to watch, not before. That’s a big shift in tactics and could have serious implications for the kinds of sites that depend on movie ad revenue.
Again, we’ve yet to see marketing campaigns for the original films from Disney+, HBO Max or any of the other to-be-launched streaming services. So it’s not clear what kind of marketing support they will receive or how tactics may change.
One factor that could play a big role in how these campaigns are rolled out is that, unlike Netflix, the companies behind these streaming services all have long histories of theatrical releases. While Netflix has battled on many occasions with theater chains, WarnerMedia, Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount and others all have comfortable relationships with the MPAA, NATO and others in the exhibition industry.
Those groups – and their members – have previously supported the big media companies as being continued supporters of theatrical movie-going, especially compared to upstarts like Netflix. Even Amazon has preserved those relationships by giving their original features theatrical distribution prior to streaming, though that window is shrinking from months to weeks with upcoming titles like The Report and The Aeronauts.
It’s possible, then, that the campaigns for streaming exclusive films could be decided based on which feathers are or aren’t being ruffled by companies that want to continue to live in both worlds.
More clear is that the current function of movie marketing campaigns have been dictated by the form of release patterns, specifically putting films in theaters. As that default setting is increasingly no longer applicable, the function will change in ways more relevant to today’s consumers, whose media habits change daily.