Blockbusters are finally coming back to movie theaters. But the buzz is elsewhere in Hollywood. Streaming services are upending the film industry’s traditional model and consolidating power just as Hollywood’s major studios did during its Golden Age in the 1930s.
AT&T is spinning off WarnerMedia to merge it with Discovery, forming a giant content conglomerate. Amazon is acquiring MGM and its library of thousands of films, television shows and James Bond. And rumors of other mergers are swirling.
Most viewers will have noticed these shifts by learning they need to sign up for yet another streaming service so they can watch the latest Marvel entry (Disney+), the “Friends” reunion (HBO Max) or the new Mark Wahlberg movie (Paramount+). The so-called streaming wars are dramatically changing how studios compete. As the power to produce and exhibit films online consolidates under the control of a few select companies, that shift will reshape what gets made and seen.
Consumers are seeing an explosion of content from streaming platforms, and many have happily cut their cable cord over the last decade. But these platforms are slowly limiting the content they offer to what they produce themselves.
At this point, about half of Netflix’s shows are original programming; it expects to spend $17 billion on content this year. Disney’s investors, likewise, are pressing the company aggressively to create a slew of content, including dozens of Star Wars and Marvel properties.
From the traditional consumer value lens, audiences are winning: Streaming subscriptions usually cost less than traditional cable bundles while providing access to a broad range of titles as libraries consolidate. But the market looks very different from the vantage point of smaller competitors.
Small producers have always had to fight against the big studios to get their films seen. But they also relied on a robust independent theater market to help them break out. “Moonlight,” “Tangerine” and “Parasite,” for example, built their audiences first through word of mouth before becoming must-see theatrical hits and eventual award winners.
Under streaming, however, the switch to a subscription service upends that dynamic. Once a film is on the site, Netflix does not necessarily make an effort to make sure audiences hit play, and often it “buries” licensed films to prioritize its exclusive content.
The strategy is about forcing competitors to leave the market. Netflix has been outspending any other would-be distributors—paying $30 million for the indie drama “Malcolm & Marie” and over $400 million for sequels to “Knives Out”—though it is unclear whether these films actually can earn that much in returns. But what Netflix does get is one fewer competitor who could potentially profit from those movies or produce films that turn audiences away from Netflix, even for a night.
Skeptics will say that independent filmmakers will just hustle, as they always have. But that becomes harder when digital distribution—and the need to access these primary platforms to make any profit—strangles the industry. Giants such as Netflix are positioned to control which films get made and how, without necessarily following the preferences of consumers.
U.S. antitrust law offers a solution. It is time to investigate whether streaming giants should divest their film production divisions and operate exclusively as online exhibitors.
While that might seem drastic, history proved this out when the landmark 1948 case United States v. Paramount Pictures, and the subsequent consent decrees, forced the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains and end their unfair contract practices with independent theaters. The end of the studio system allowed studios and independent producers to compete.
President Joe Biden has set a robust antitrust agenda, and Lina Khan, the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission, is rethinking how to frame competition. They have the opportunity to expand their focus beyond Big Tech and toward Hollywood.
Consolidation in Hollywood’s streaming landscape is creating an anti-competitive market as pernicious as the domination of Google, Apple and Facebook in digital infrastructure. Shouldn’t Netflix face the same scrutiny?