In the old days, movie studios shared box office information in real time, allowing Hollywood and its denizens to quickly and easily assess whether a film was a hit or a flop. The streaming revolution has changed things, ushering in a “take our word for it” culture, in which the likes of Netflix, HBO Max or Amazon release vague pronouncements about how well “Bird Box,” “Wonder Woman 1984” or “Borat 2” did on their respective subscription-based streaming service without providing much in the way of empirical evidence.
Over the weekend, Disney shook things up, revealing that not only did “Black Widow” set a pandemic-era box office record with its $80 million domestic debut, but it also padded those numbers with an additional $60 million in rental revenue on Disney Plus. That rare moment of transparency is intensifying pressure on other media companies to share more data about how their films perform with audiences. Studios were already feeling some heat to offer up more information, sources say, particularly from talent agents who gripe that it’s become harder for them to get top salaries for their clients without evidence that their latest film for Netflix, Hulu or their ilk was a success. Some are even willing to live in a world in which the misses are reported on, as well as the triumphs, preferably by some third-party arbitrator akin to how Comscore is the go-to source for box office data or Nielsen is the best-known chronicler of audience engagement.
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Despite this mounting tension, many entertainment industry analysts believe that Disney’s decision to share information about “Black Widow’s” on-demand revenues was an anomaly, not a sign of things to come. That means Disney may not be as forthcoming with its global consumer spend for “Jungle Cruise,” which opens July 30 in theaters and on Disney Plus under its Premier Access banner.
“Personally, I think studios haven’t been willing to release streaming metrics for films because the numbers haven’t been very good,” says Eric Handler, an entertainment industry analyst with MKM Partners. “‘Black Widow’ appears to be the first major film where [premium video-on-demand] was truly successful.”
Handler also notes that reporting “Black Widow’s” revenues from on-demand helped burnish coverage of the Marvel movie’s commercial performance. By linking that rental revenue with the domestic results ($80 million) and international numbers ($78.8 million) allowed the film to have an all-in opening weekend above $200 million.
In the case of “Black Widow,” Disney Plus subscribers could watch the film for $30 exclusively on Disney’s own streaming platform, enabling the media company to pocket nearly all of the rental fees without sharing the riches with other services. The transactional model is a bit of “walled garden” ecosystem-ing that rivals Apple. But that’s not possible for upcoming releases on services such as HBO Max, Netflix or Amazon, all of which include new movies at no additional charge as part of their monthly subscription fee. Those companies will need to report viewership, not rental revenues on individual titles.
Netflix has started to flirt with this, revealing more of its viewership numbers for high-profile films like “Extraction” starring Chris Hemsworth or Kevin Hart’s”Fatherhood” and including a “top 10” list on its site of the most popular films. However, an issue with streaming metrics: they don’t capture the full audience. Analysts and rivals gripe that even when Netflix releases its carefully selected data, its definition of acclaim is so capacious that critics say it obfuscates, rather than reveals the true size of the audience. The company registers anyone who watched at least two minutes of a movie as a viewer. Other services have followed suit, using opaque measurements to tout big winners and conceal embarrassing blunders. HBO Max, for example, reported in April that “Godzilla vs. Kong” enjoyed a “larger viewing audience than any other film or show on HBO Max since launch” but it stopped short of offering guidance as to how many people, you know, actually sat down to watch the epic showdown between the two otherworldly monsters.
So where does this leave the other players in the great streaming wars? Internally, some companies are feeling the pressure to be transparent with streaming statistics. Others have pushed back, objecting that if Netflix doesn’t have to share anything substantive, they shouldn’t either. Warner Bros., which has its entire 2021 film slate premiering simultaneously on HBO Max (the two share a corporate parent in AT&T/WarnerMedia), does not have any immediate plans to release more granular viewership data on upcoming films like “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” but that might change with later films on its release calendar like “Dune” or “The Suicide Squad.” For its part, Amazon’s decision to share little in the way of numbers comes from on high, and is part of a larger corporate mandate from the highest echelons of the e-commerce juggernaut.
Handler says that subscription-based streaming services, the Netflixes, HBO Maxes and Amazons, have little incentive to report tangible measurements on separate titles. Wall Street is more interested in the overall number of paying subscribers rather than the achievements of one particular movie. Investors don’t necessarily care that “Wonder Woman 1984” stands to lose money for the studio if it means that tens of thousands of people signed up for HBO Max to watch it from the comfort of their couch.
“For the moment, how well an individual title does is less relevant than the subscriber growth,” Handler says. “Companies view subscriber growth as the most important metric. Profitability is secondary. That’s why Warner Bros. can afford to take a full year of films and use them as losses to grow HBO Max.”
Universal, on the other hand, has the ability to disclose video-on-demand sales in a meaningful way. The studio signed a historic deal last year to put its movies on premium digital rental services earlier than usual. That method, like buying tickets at the box office, requires a transaction on every title. Universal attempted clarity once. (Spoiler alert, it wasn’t received well.)
Last April, NBCUniversal’s CEO Jeff Shell told the Wall Street Journal that “Trolls World Tour,” the studio’s animated film that skipped theaters to debut on demand, racked up nearly $100 million in rentals in three weeks. Shell said the film was more profitable in that period of time than the original “Trolls” movie was after five months in theaters, a fact that was less thrilling to movie theater operators. AMC, for one, threatened to no longer play Universal’s movies in response. In ensuing months, Universal has put several films early on premium VOD, including “The Croods: A New Age,” “Nobody” and “News of the World,” as well as “Promising Young Woman,” “Boogie” and “The High Note” from its specialty label Focus Features. Sources at Universal have indicated that all but one film released by the studio in the past 18 months have been profitable, yet it hasn’t reported any figures that would allow the studio or the filmmakers to take a victory lap. The mostly positive press surrounding “Black Widow’s” global opening weekend, nearly all of which focused on its $60 million haul on Disney Plus, could incentivize rivals to issue their own bragging rights. More transparency in streaming revenues, however, would also require studios to own up to commercial flops, something they’ve been able to mostly avoid for now.
“As the businesses matures and people start focusing more on the bottom line, that may change things,” Handler says. But for now, he adds, “I’m not holding my breath. I think [‘Black Widow’] was a unique situation.”
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