The most pressing issue entertainment companies around the world are facing is what the rest of their year looks like. Production on sets around the world has completely stopped, movies are being delayed on a weekly basis as theaters remain closed and shelter-in-place orders from government bodies remain. Some analysts and industry insiders have already called 2020 a total write-off for nearly every company, except one — Netflix.
While Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, Paramount, and others continue futzing around with their schedules to try to salvage part of the year — even moving certain titles from theatrical releases to digital exclusives — Netflix is carrying on as usual. The company is confident it has enough content to last throughout 2020 without having to move around much of its slate or reduce the speed of its releases.
“Our 2020 slate of series and films are largely shot,” Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer, told analysts during the company’s quarterly earnings call yesterday, “and are in post-production stages in locations all over the world. And we’re actually pretty deep into our 2021 slate. We don’t anticipate moving the schedule around much, and certainly not in 2020.”
How is it that Netflix can have so much content ready to go compared to other traditional TV networks and studios? As Sarandos reiterated on the call, Netflix works much differently from the rest of the industry. Since full seasons of shows drop at once, Netflix shoots pretty far in advance. As it stands right now, there are more than 200 projects being worked on remotely. That includes scripted programming that’s already been shot, animated series, movies, and an assortment of other titles that Netflix has planned for the next 12 months or so.
The Crown’s highly anticipated fourth season is in finishing stages, for example, and is planned to release later this year. Steve Nason, research director at Parks Associates, told The Verge that while everyone is trying to figure out its original content strategy over the next nine to 12 months, Netflix is one of the only streamers that can release new titles as fast and consistently as they currently do. Even with the increased competition coming in from Disney Plus and new entrants like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, “none have the original lineup that Netflix does right now,” Nason said.
Netflix is in a particularly good position on both the TV and film side. Unlike Disney, Universal, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros., Netflix doesn’t release its films into theatres. It doesn’t have to worry about theatres being closed, ongoing deals with the National Association of Theater Owners (the other NATO), or consumer behaviour changes that could impact how many people go to theatres even when cinemas reopen. Even if theatres do reopen in 2020, studios might move their biggest films to 2021 as audiences might not be willing to go and sit in theatres together right away, even if they’re allowed to.
As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told investors on the same call, “The internet is growing, it’s a bigger part of people’s lives — thankfully.” At the same time, that aforementioned studios are looking at a possibly empty rest of the year in theatres, Netflix suddenly has room to completely dominate the year’s movie releases. Some studios are moving titles from theatrical releases to digital releases (Disney’s Artemis Fowl is now a Disney Plus exclusive and Scoob will be available digitally before moving to HBO Max), but for the most part, studios are relying on delays, not pivots. Netflix, on the other hand, can meet people’s demands for new movies the way they’ve always gotten new movies on Netflix: at home.
In fact, Netflix plans to release even more original content in 2020 than it did in 2019 — and that doesn’t include additional licensed content that Netflix might acquire. Netflix can help its competitors offload movies that were originally going to run in theatres. It’s beneficial for both parties; Netflix can continue to release new films to satiate subscribers’ appetites, and studios can earn a profit by selling above cost. It’s already something that’s starting to happen: Netflix recently acquired The Lovebirds from Paramount and Legendary Pictures’ Enola Holmes. The company is also raising $1 billion for content development, including using some of the cash raised for more acquisitions, according to Reuters.
That’s not to say that Netflix isn’t also facing some uncertainties about its future that could impact new content planned for 2021 and beyond. The company reiterated in a letter to shareholders that no one “knows how long it will be until we can safely restart physical production in various countries,” including the United States, and specifically Los Angeles, where shelter-in-place mandates are being used.
Even when production comes back up, the company says it can’t predict “what international travel will be possible, and how negotiations for various resources (e.g., talent, stages and post-production) will play out,” according to the letter. Right now, Netflix is only filming in two countries — South Korea and Iceland — and the goal is to use tools they’ve learned on those sets in other countries when production can continue.
But what is clear for now is that Netflix is still ahead of its biggest competitors and is even about to help those competitors out by providing a distribution platform for their stranded feature films. With 15 million new subscribers — and more than 180 million globally — looking to be entertained, Netflix has become the place that people go for regular new content. As Hastings and Sarandos said, they’re going to do that for as long as possible, by any means necessary.