Strap in for a whole new era of the streaming wars

The streaming market is fragmenting but it can be good news for audiences and filmmakers

Choice paralysis. Overchoice. The paradox of choice. If you’ve ever flicked through all of your streaming services and not been able to find a single thing you actively want to watch, then you too have been afflicted by this specifically 21st century version of what’s also known in psychological terms as choice overload. The increasingly busy world of streaming services means film distributors are willing to test whether it’s actually possible to have too much of a good thing. Interestingly, for all our indecision, we don’t seem to be at that point just yet and audience behaviour is effectively changing the way that the industry functions.

Looking at the current market in 2022, the streaming wars are hotting up even further. The UK has just seen the arrival of US streaming services Peacock and Paramount Plus, once again fragmenting the already heaving subscription space. Yet every time a new offering is announced, the headlines dutifully scream ‘do we need a new streaming service?’ and, despite the increasing financial constraints of the last few years and rising costs, the market seems to reply with ‘It’s not so much need but want’.

Looking at more recent additions, audiences have clearly voted with their wallets. It’s been three years since the launch of Disney Plus in November 2019. A rich and compelling supply of classic Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, and STAR content has meant that subscribers have risen globally from 26.5 million in the first quarter of 2020 to a healthy 137.7 million in this second quarter of 2022. Despite the fact that a lot of this success coincided with a time when most of us weren’t allowed out of the house, the fact that the subscription base has continued to grow means that all is apparently going well for the House of Mouse.

It’s easy to see why. At an attractive £7.99 a month price point for exclusive fan favourite movies and big budget TV in 4K, audiences aren’t complaining. They’re getting exactly what they want, after all. Importantly too, with shows like Loki and WandaVision, writers and directors are able to take more inventive and creative risks to make the most of the fresh platform. Co-writer of Black Widow Jac Schaeffer had never written for television before but sounds joyful about leading a writers room through WandaVision’s “uncharted territory” in a piece for The Hollywood Reporter.

It wasn't too long ago that Netflix was the only viable streaming option. Coffee, meanwhile, has been an option for much longer.

Apple also launched its premium subscription tier, Apple TV Plus, in November 2019 and, while it’s not been as adopted as heartily as Disney, there are now 25 million paying subscribers and another 50 million households subscribed thanks to a free year with a new Apple device. And, as more and more decadently expensive-looking TV arrives, embracing the talents of Hollywood A-listers and even Sir David Attenborough with shows like Prehistoric Planet, subscribers too will gradually increase.

But it’s time to talk about the red elephant in the room. The one making that tudum noise… If Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus are toddlers in the streaming space, Netflix is a grumpy teenager and it’s… well, it’s a typical teenager and it’s having some problems. For the first time in a decade, Netflix is losing subscribers. In April 2022, shares fell more than 35% as the streamer haemorrhaged 200,000 subscribers with the expectation to lose another 2 million over the coming quarter. This is down to a number of factors.

Subscription costs have risen significantly over the years - it now costs £15.99 a month for an ultra HD membership - but the fragmentation of the streaming ecosystem simply means that not everything is just sitting on Netflix anymore. The big budget shows are there - the spectacular new season of Stranger Things has even popped Kate Bush at number one in the iTunes charts - but audiences now understand that it’s far less likely you’ll find everything you want on Netflix.

And don’t underestimate the power of a cultural shift. A new company memo was recently leaked suggesting its own employees should quit if they’re offended by Netflix content after understandable dismay and criticism of comedy specials with transphobic jokes from both Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais. It might have created the worldwide vernacular of Netflix and chill but a subscription simply isn’t a given anymore.

While the fragmentation of streaming services is looking increasingly more expensive if we want it all, there is now a vibrant market for niche content. Last we heard, of the 200 million Amazon Prime members globally, 175 million of those members were streaming content through Prime Video. And why sit with just Prime movies and TV when you can additionally subscribe to bonus channels for an extra monthly fee? Want to mainline as many Real Housewives seasons as possible? You’ll want a Hayu sub. Feeling intellectual? Why not tack on the BFI Player for £4.99 a month? The list goes on and on and they quickly add up in cost but it’s now possible to make sure you’re feeding your very specific interests with a streaming service.

The big question is: do we have enough space on remote controls to give every single streaming service its own button?

One major success story for both audiences and filmmakers is horror streaming service Shudder. It’s got an add-on Amazon channel but you can also download the app for your device to sink your teeth into as much fresh horror as possible for a monthly cost. The company picks up successes from the horror movie festival circuit, delivering movies that would potentially never have been able to access traditional distribution channels. Shudder was the first to platform Zoom-based lockdown horror hit HOST, transforming both the success of the streaming service and elevating indie filmmakers of the genre.

Graham Hughes is the writer and director of found footage horror Death of a Vlogger, which met with positive reviews at its premiere at UK festival FrightFest in 2019 and is now available for free on Amazon Prime Video. He is passionate about the new opportunities offered by the streaming revolution. “The proliferation of streaming services - particularly niche streaming services like Shudder and Mubi - has made it so much easier, especially for independent filmmakers or arthouse filmmakers, to find an audience for their work,” he says. “Independent filmmakers like me, we now have a more accessible route to distribution. The cost of that; whether it be via cinema, DVD/Blu-ray or even getting in touch with television broadcasters was restrictive, high priced and basically inaccessible. But now, with streaming platforms, it’s completely accessible in a way that just wasn’t the case before.”

But this doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and kittens for indie filmmakers. Hughes says the ease of putting content on streaming can be a double-edged sword and cinemas seem out of reach for many. “A lot of films tend to get dumped onto streaming platforms that could have reached a better audience if they were in cinemas,” he explains. “The cinemas just get packed out with blockbusters. The fact that it’s so much cheaper and more accessible for filmmakers and studios to distribute through streaming platforms means that only the big boys get to compete in cinemas.” There is now a very clear delineation as cinemas become event spaces for blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, while other movies quickly switch to streaming services after a matter of weeks or release in both simultaneously to get a double bite of the cherry.

The future of streaming then is an exciting one. Creative big budget TV shows continue to appear across the industry behemoths, but plucky niche genre upstarts are also finding their way in this thriving but increasingly fragmented market. We can’t say exactly what’s coming next but it’s safe to say that that concept of choice overload isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Louise Blain
Louise Blain is a broadcaster and writer. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and can also be found on BBC Radio Scotland and The Evolution of Horror podcast. Louise’s bylines include T3, GamesRadar, TechRadar, The Guardian, The Week, and NME.

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