The streaming wars are kicking into higher gear, with an onslaught of new streaming options set to hit the market over the coming year. Perhaps the most consequential will be Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Apple TV+, which is hitting the market Nov. 1 at a disruptive subscription price point of just $4.99 per month, with a one-year free trial for purchasers of a new Apple device. Apple's enormous installed base of nearly 1.5 billion devices capable of accessing the service already gives the consumer tech giant huge reach and lots of space to market its new service, which will feature content from top-tier Hollywood talent.
But streaming services aren't just showing episodic television -- every big streaming company is also bankrolling feature films as well. On this point, there has been some controversy. Feature films have traditionally been granted an exclusive three-month window in theaters before going to DVD or premium download. A few months after that, films usually arrive on pay-TV services such as HBO or, in more modern times, streaming services like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX).
But with Hollywood studios and these pay-TV channels now often under the same corporate umbrella, many companies have been pushing for a shortened window between theatrical release and the time a film appears on a streaming service. These negotiations have been fairly controversial, with Netflix leading the charge for same-day releases in theaters and on the streaming service.
It looks as if Apple has decided it will be adhering to cinematic tradition and respecting theatrical exclusivity. In this respect, Apple is joining the side not only of most Hollywood studios like Disney (NYSE:DIS) but also other top tech companies like Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), which has also embraced the Hollywood tradition for theatrical exclusivity before bringing its films to Amazon Prime. Apple's choice thus tips the scales much more toward tradition, and it has the potential to further isolate Netflix, which could potentially have consequences for the streaming leader.
Talent may not love Netflix's strategy
Over the past few years, Netflix has been able to land some big-time talent for its original film slate due to its willingness to shell out big bucks as well as its outright lead in global streaming subscribers, which recently topped 151 million. Such wins included Will Smith's Bright, the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, and Sandra Bullock's Bird Box. Netflix usually gives these films very limited releases for about two to three weeks to qualify for Oscars, and only in a few indie theaters in New York and L.A. That trend is continuing this year for Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, which will be in select theaters for about a month before dropping on Netflix. That's a bit longer than Netflix had previously granted, but it's still too small a window for the largest theater chains in the country, which are still refusing to show The Irishman.
However, due to Apple's move and those of other big streaming services, Netflix may soon begin to feel pressure to extend its theatrical exclusivity even further.
If Spielberg likes Apple more, will others follow?
While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has still allowed Netflix to qualify for Oscars consideration thus far, this hasn't come without some controversy. Film director Steven Spielberg previously said he feels Netflix should only qualify for Emmys consideration if it doesn't respect the theatrical window most other studios adhere to. Another A-list director, Christopher Nolan, has called Netflix's policy "mindless" and "bizarre."
All else being equal, big-time film directors want their films shown in theaters, even though some were obviously willing to forego that in the past in order to obtain Netflix's funding and distribution power. Yet with Disney soon to launch its own platform, and with Apple now coming in on the side of Spielberg, Nolan, and the big theater chains, talent may now see the opportunity to have its cake and eat it too. Should Disney+ and/or Apple+ garner a significant amount of subscriptions (which most analysts think they will), top filmmakers will see an opportunity for both wide theatrical distribution and wide streaming distribution for the post-90-day pay-TV window.
That could, perhaps, be an opportunity for Apple, Disney, and others to entice top talent back to their platforms -- an area where they had been losing out to Netflix over the past couple of years. After all, the initial Apple TV+ rollout will feature Amazing Stories by none other than Steven Spielberg.
Should Netflix have to bend to the Academy and big movie theaters, it runs the risk of looking more like the other streaming platforms and perhaps losing some of its differentiated "disruptor" brand luster. Thus, it's not surprising that many investors have grown cautious on Netflix as Apple and other top tech companies enter the highly competitive streaming race.