Netflix’s Accidental Coup

The streaming service is thriving at a time when many industries, including theaters and movie studios, are frozen.

Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The global economy is plummeting in response to the coronavirus. Whole industries are frozen, and businesses such as movie theaters are facing months of lost revenue. But at least one company is thriving in a time when people are being urged to stay home: Netflix. Yesterday, the streaming service announced a staggering rise in subscriptions during the first quarter of 2020. Some 15.8 million people around the world signed up for the service through March—more than double what Wall Street analysts had predicted.

In short, despite mounting financial panic for most of the planet, Netflix just had its most successful quarter ever. This explosion of new subscribers—the only metric that really matters for Netflix—amounts to an accidental coup of sorts for the company, an unforeseen acceleration of its growing dominance in the entertainment industry. It’s a media story unlike any other right now, as traditional film conglomerates face a grim reality: Because group gatherings are mostly banned, cinemas and major studios simply can’t compete.

With movie-theater chains temporarily closed due to the pandemic, big studios have begun postponing summer blockbusters such as Fast & Furious 9 and No Time to Die for months or longer. Netflix doesn’t have that problem, and has continued to drop original content week after week for a captive viewing audience. The company’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, said in a new video presentation to investors that Netflix’s 2020 slate is largely shot and in postproduction, so there shouldn’t be delays. “We don’t anticipate moving things around,” he said.

While the broader circumstances are unfortunate and largely outside of Netflix’s control, the tremendous jump in subscribers is a result of the company’s long-standing strategy of placing the home viewing experience above all else. Since entering the original-film market in 2015, Netflix has typically released new movies online the same day as they debut in cinemas. During the past two Oscar seasons, some of its awards players (The Irishman, Roma) got limited theatrical runs. But they couldn’t be shown in major chains, because Netflix insisted on getting the movies online quickly—an approach that theater giants such as AMC have denounced.

Though Netflix has made more concessions to cinemas recently, the majority of its money is made from streaming subscriptions. As hundreds of millions of people remain stuck indoors, its distribution model has become the only game in town, to the point where some other studios are now attempting strictly online releases of films intended for theaters.

Universal Pictures distributed Trolls World Tour as a $19.99 streaming rental and reported a record digital opening, though official figures have yet to come out. Another family film, Warner Bros.’ Scoob!, will follow the same release model in May, while Disney’s Artemis Fowl will debut directly on Disney+ on June 12. Most big-budget blockbusters remain in a state of limbo. Expected hits such as Wonder Woman 1984, Marvel’s Black Widow and The Eternals, and many more are being shuffled down the schedule in hopes that theaters will be able to reopen sometime in the coming months.

Unlike Netflix’s, the profit models for the likes of Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures depend on crowds. Beyond the profits that can be made from a successful theatrical release, these conglomerates are also missing out on revenue sources from cruises, theme parks, and broadcasting live sports, all of which are on pause. Though each is rolling out subscription-based streaming services (Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock, respectively), they aren’t expected to become serious parts of the companies’ earning portfolios for years. Despite the initial success of Disney+ (which has attracted more than 50 million subscribers so far), Disney doesn’t expect to make actual profits from the venture for some time.

Netflix is similarly funded by venture capital and debt offerings, but it’s much further along as a streaming service and has an enviable subscriber base. This year’s surge in new viewers could level off somewhat once the pandemic abates. But for the next few months at least, theaters will have no answer to Netflix’s instant-access library of thousands of hours of content. Even more concerning is the apparent likelihood that when cinemas do reopen, they’ll have to abide by social-distancing rules, limiting the number of people who can attend a showing to just 25 or 50 percent of the original capacity.

Jon M. Chu, the director of the upcoming musical In the Heights, alluded to this reality in a tweet announcing that the film’s release had been delayed a year to June 2021. “#InTheHeightsMovie didn’t take 10 years to get made only to be left in half empty theaters [without] the crowd it deserves!” he announced. His statement is fair, but it overlooks the many other movies with planned 2020 releases. Should they come out and suffer from decreased revenues and limited audience numbers, or also wait for the pandemic to totally subside? If most projects opt for the latter scenario, then cinemas will have very little to offer this summer, giving Netflix the chance to lap them again and again.