Streaming services have rediscovered the value of the back catalog
HBO Max and other competitors are forcing Netflix to reconsider its content strategy
When HBO Max launches next week, its most exciting asset won't be the hours of original, top-quality programming it has promised, but an animated children's movie from 1988. For the first time ever in the United States, My Neighbor Totoro — as well as the rest of the 21-film Studio Ghibli archive — will be available for streaming.
Elsewhere in the world, fans of the beloved Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose studio "has become synonymous with top-level animation," are already watching movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke — on Netflix. Just three months after HBO Max's deal was announced last fall, Netflix swooped in to announce the acquisition of rights to the Ghibli library for all territories outside of North America and Japan, thereby beating HBO to the bragging rights of being the coveted studio's first streaming home. The move is one of the clearest examples that — while conventional wisdom has long held that a successful streaming service needs to have original, exciting, and ideally viral content to draw in new subscribers — the real battle for audiences is now being waged in a service's back catalog of classic movies and shows.
On Tuesday, this was all but confirmed. Last November, Apple TV+ launched with a slate of expensive original content that received middling reviews; the tech giant has since changed its strategy, and is now looking to acquire "older movies and shows" with the intention of building "a back catalog of content that can better stack up against the huge libraries available on Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+," Bloomberg wrote. Of particular note: while Apple may have attracted subscribers with programming like The Morning Show starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, "only half" of Apple TV+'s 10 million odd subscribers still "actively used the service," Bloomberg reported. In other words, a successful streaming service might manage to entice audiences over with the powers of FOMO, but audiences need a tried and true back catalog to keep them actively engaged.
Netflix, for its part, changed the game when it first began introducing its own content like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards back in 2013. But ironically, the streaming giant built its empire on its library in the first place. In the early days of streaming, Netflix attracted subscribers due to the sheer number of films it had available to watch, from classic Hollywood features like the original Man Who Knew Too Much to rare foreign films like The Color of Pomegranates to arthouse favorites like Mother by Bong Joon Ho (you know, that fellow who won the Best Picture Oscar this year). Netflix, though, began to prioritize its original content as it grew more successful, eventually adopting a kind of "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" method for producing shows and movies. As a result, the quality varies wildly — great shows can get dropped after only a few seasons, while viral hits like Tiger King or Extraction attract millions of viewers, despite it being doubtful anyone will remember they exist in nine months.
All the while, Netflix has neglected its back catalog. "According to data from a third-party Netflix search engine, the service's movie catalog has 2,000 fewer films than in 2010," SF Gate wrote last year, counting just six "real classics" left available to watch on the streamer. In my own frustration, I've actually resorted to a Netflix DVD subscription — yes, it still exists! — to try to make up for the weaker streaming catalog. As Newsweek observed several years ago, "Streaming rights are expensive, and Netflix probably doesn't think the audience for old films is big enough to make it worthwhile."
Yet that wisdom seems to have changed. Enter Disney+, which racked up 10 million subscribers within a day of its U.S. launch last November. Sure, the service promised great original content like The Mandalorian, but the real draw for families was clearly one-stop-shopping for all of Disney's older content, from Pixar favorites to the Star Wars and Marvel collections to the beloved, classic animated features that previous generations grew up with. Following suit, HBO Max, which is launching a week from today, will have 700 movies from the Warner Bros. archive, the Criterion Collection, and third-party studios ready to stream — basically acting as a kind of resuscitated FilmStruck. Dozens of movies that were once on Netflix before being pulled, like Citizen Kane, Jules and Jim, and Breathless, will be available to watch with a subscription; additionally, HBO Max has ensured it will be the exclusive home of fan-favorites like Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In total, watching all of HBO Max's initial offerings would take about 10,000 hours of your time.
Recent multimillion-dollar deals for back catalog padding — like Netflix snatching up Seinfeld and NBCUniversal grabbing The Office for its streamer, Peacock — are frequently chalked up to the power nostalgia has on bringing in new subscribers. But perhaps the limits of original content are just as much at play. Every fad show is a gamble of quality, and a reliable and robust back catalog makes it a lot more appealing to fork over a monthly fee if you know you'll always be able to find something to resort to if whatever Real Rob is turns out to be a bust. Netflix is clearly starting to figure this out, too, hence their global Studio Ghibli deal. Despite spending $8 billion to create new content, the streaming giant's most-watched shows in 2018 were The Office, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy — and "the first Netflix original title on the list was Orange Is the New Black, which was No. 7," AdWeek reports.
Of course, a back catalog isn't everything, otherwise The Criterion Channel, which is nearly all classic movies, would be the most popular streamer around. Instead, it is the streamers that have quietly built up robust catalogs alongside their original programming that could potentially dethrone Netflix, now that it has flown too close to the sun (if the sun were sensationalist docuseries, reality TV, and formulaic action films, anyway). Amazon Prime, which has one of the deepest (albeit impossible to browse) catalogs a subscription can buy, hasn't seemed to manage to quite pull together its original programming just yet. But with a little success — its Lord of the Rings adaptation, perhaps? — it could become unstoppable thanks to its solid foundation. HBO Max is making the case that it wants to be in the running, too.
While the new competitiveness between streamers over back catalogs might require more subscriptions, or switching between services, ultimately this is great news for fans. It once seemed like entire archives and collections were at risk of vanishing from streaming altogether if something like Netflix didn't see them as worth investing in, and now there are a plethora of ways to access foreign, art house, independent, and classic Hollywood films online. For years, such content seemed to be a mere afterthought for streaming giants; now it couldn't be more vital.
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