Netflix’s rivals take aim at its stream of success

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The online entertainment service has rapidly become a dominant maker of films and TV shows, but established players are hitting back

The trailer for Will Smith’s latest movie looks like a blockbuster-in-waiting for the Hollywood star. Set in a Los Angeles of the future where aliens live alongside humans, Bright has car chases, explosions and witty quips from Smith’s cop character. It also has a big studio budget: the film, which premieres in December, cost a reported $90m to make.

Yet Bright will not be released in cinemas. Instead, it will be available only on Netflix, the digital streaming service that is shaking up Hollywood’s hierarchy and television networks by offering on-demand entertainment to subscribers around the world.

Netflix is a relatively new buyer of original material but is spending more than $6bn a year on content, regularly outbidding traditional Hollywood studios and TV networks for the most sought-after scripts and ideas. This year its shows won 91 Emmy nominations — second only to HBO, the cable channel that has long dominated the TV awards. It announced this week a first TV foray by film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen, a six-part Western. “We are streaming motherfuckers,” the brothers said.

The company has emerged as one of the juggernauts of the entertainment industry in a very short period. Netflix started life as a DVD mail service and gradually moved into streaming. By 2012, the year it released its first original series, the Kevin Spacey-starring remake of House of Cards, it had 30m subscribers.

Since then expansion around the world and hits such as Orange is the New Black, Narcos and Stranger Things have pushed it past 104m subscribers in more than 190 countries. Describing that tally as a “good start”, the company said recently “some day we hope to entertain everyone”. That growth has propelled its market value to $74bn, more than big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox or Sumner Redstone’s Viacom.
It has also given Netflix a place at an elite table beside Facebook, Amazon and Google — the so-called “Fang” technology stocks that have wildly outperformed the rest of the market.

Such a rapid rise prompts an inevitable question — can it be sustained? Some of the companies that have traditionally dominated the production and distribution of entertainment are trying to fight back against a company that relies heavily on leverage to fuel its expansion.

Walt Disney, the world’s largest media company, announced this week that it will pull movies it has licensed to Netflix in 2019 and put them on a new streaming service that it is developing itself: the titles will include movies from Pixar and Disney’s own animation division, such as upcoming sequels to box office favourites like Frozen and Toy Story.

Deep-pocketed rivals, such as Amazon, compete with Netflix for many of the best scripts, stars and programme ideas, which has driven up the cost of buying and making content.

Netflix has used debt to finance the production and acquisition of films and series such as the acclaimed The Crown, which cost an estimated £100m. While annual revenues have grown sharply to $8.8bn and the company is profitable, it borrows heavily, which has alarmed some analysts.

Their fear is that it will be held back by the high cost of expansion and the need to pay the highest fees for the best content. “The current model is akin to a new restaurant serving the best filet mignon for $10 per steak and watching happy patrons fill every seat,” Michael Nathanson, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, wrote in a research note. “At some point, the restaurant’s owners, and lenders, will start asking for a return on that investment.”

Regardless of Netflix’s long-term prospects there is little doubt the company has played a leading role in a TV revolution that is ushering in a new era of video entertainment. It introduced viewers to “binge-watching”, whereby entire series can be watched at once or in succession, rather than having to wait for episodes to be screened at an allotted time. “It has also permanently altered people’s desire to watch advertising,” says Rich Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG Research, pointing out that, unlike most commercial TV, Netflix programming is ad-free.

Its rise in popularity in the US has coincided with the emergence of “cord-cutting” — the cancellation of subscriptions to cable and satellite services after decades of soaring growth. Consumers, Mr Greenfield says, are turning away from large bundles of channels that they rarely watch in favour of on-demand, digital viewing.

“Netflix has changed people’s desire to watch linear TV,” he adds, referring to traditional broadcast or cable TV where viewers tend to tune in at particular times. “And it has killed the concept of channel brands.” Viewers, he says, “no longer know or care” which channel their programmes come from after “decades of broadcast and cable networks trying to build brands”.

Top stars have embraced streaming, largely because Netflix has been so willing to pay more than traditional broadcasters or movie studios.

Comedian Dave Chappelle was paid a reported $60m for recording two stand-up comedy concerts for the streaming service while actor Adam Sandler is on course to earn $80m for four lowbrow comedy films he starred in and produced for Netflix (the three released so far have been panned but are among the company’s most popular titles).

This week it bought Millarworld, the Scottish comic book publisher behind Kingsman, Kick-Ass and Wanted, all of which eventually became big budget films.

It is unclear how much Will Smith will be paid for Bright but he and the film’s director, David Ayer, who made Suicide Squad for Warner Brothers, praised Netflix’s hands-off approach, which Smith suggested was a contrast to other studios. “I’m sure this will end soon, but they just give you the money and say, ‘go make a movie’,” he told an audience at Comic-Con in San Diego last month.

Not all of Hollywood is on board with the company’s approach to producing and distributing movies. Unlike Amazon, which made this year’s Oscar nominated Manchester by the Sea, Netflix does not release its movies on hundreds of cinema screens, preferring instead to debut its titles on its streaming service — and keep them there. For some actors and directors, this is unacceptable. “If you make a theatrical film, it’s to be played in theatres,” Christopher Nolan, the director of Dunkirk, said recently.


Still, judging by the Oscar nominations garnered by its documentaries, such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and the recent round of Emmy nominations, Netflix has established itself as a critical force. “Netflix has proven to talent that you don’t have to be on legacy TV to create great content,” says Mr Greenfield.

Yet fears persist that Netflix’s debt splurge could become problematic — particularly if subscriber growth slows unexpectedly or its borrowing costs substantially rise. Netflix says it could trim content spending if it needs to and that it is relaxed about how much it spends — so much so that Reed Hastings, its chief executive, recently said its borrowing levels pointed to positive future performance.

“The irony is the faster that we grow and the faster we grow the owned [original productions], the more drawn on free cash flow that we’ll be,” he said on the company’s recent earnings call. “So in some senses, negative free cash flow will be an indicator of enormous success.” Not everyone is convinced.

“Netflix is an amazing consumer product,” Mr Nathanson says. “As a business model we think the jury is still out.”

Now Disney has Netflix in its sights. The owner of characters from Mickey Mouse to Han Solo once considered a bid for Netflix with the aim of plugging its films and TV programming into the company’s digital network. But it did not make an offer and the private view within Disney is that it missed its moment: Netflix has become too expensive.

Disney’s plans for its own streaming services and its decision to pull its animated movies from Netflix had only a muted impact on the company: Netflix shares fell this week but rallied after the Disney announcement. This may be because Netflix has survived the loss of what looked like must-have content in the past, moving away from licensing film and TV programming to producing and owning its own.

“They have built up so much of their own content that it has mitigated their risk,” says Mr Greenfield. As for the cash it is burning through, if Netflix was not choosing to expand internationally, “they would be making more money”.

By the end of 2019 we think Netflix will have 158m subscribers and Disney will be starting from scratch,” he adds. “Netflix knew Disney had to [launch its own service] at some point but its lead is insurmountable.”

Yet there are plenty of threats for Netflix in what has become a crowded streaming market. Few companies have more resources than Amazon, which competes with Netflix around the world, while CBS, the US broadcast network, revealed this week that its streaming service had hit 4m subscribers three years ahead of schedule. HBO’s digital service is also expanding — and if, as expected, regulators approve the sale of its parent company, Time Warner, to telecoms group AT&T this year, HBO is likely to have more financial firepower.

Despite the challenges, the company that started the streaming revolution continues growing. But there is a target on its back — and it is getting bigger.

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