Is Disney Planning to Bleed Netflix Dry?
Maybe the biggest story out of the entertainment industry this week is the news that David Benioff & D.B. Weiss—showrunners of the massively successful but ultimately disappointing Game of Thrones TV adaptation—have backed out of developing a new trilogy of Star Wars films, originally slated to debut starting in 2022. In isolation, this really only seems to be a big deal for the geek community. After all, unless you’re a big fan, why should you care who ends up developing the first Star Wars films to have absolutely no connection to the Skywalker saga, which is coming to an end this year?
Personally, though, I don’t think we can view this development in isolation. I think it must be viewed in its proper context as the latest volley in a brewing war between Disney (owner of the Star Wars franchise) and Netflix (new owners of Benioff & Wiess). It’s a war that’s been simmering since Disney announced its Disney+ alternative to Netflix back in 2018.
The first shots were fired when Netflix canceled all of its shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe owned by Disney (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, etc.). More recent skirmishes involved Disney deciding not to allow advertising for any Netflix series (or the service itself) on its numerous TV channels (including ABC, Freeform, Fox, FX, and National
Geographic). For some reason, ESPN is exempt from this ban, and it’s not clear whether it affects A&E Networks, of which Disney owns half.
The point is, the gloves are off. Disney is gunning for Netflix. Netflix is gunning for Disney (with some minor air support from Amazon, which refuses to allow the Disney+ app on its streaming hardware).
So, what do Benioff and Weiss have to do with any of this? The statement released by the duo about their departure says it all: “There are only so many hours in the day, and we felt we could not do justice to both Star Wars and our Netflix projects. So we are regretfully stepping away.”
It helps to know that the pair was originally picked to helm a new Star Wars trilogy back in 2018. But in August of this year, it was reported that an intense bidding war between Disney, Netflix, and Amazon for the rights to own Benioff & Weiss for the next five years had finally come to an end, with Netflix coming out on top, to the tune of $250 million.
If this seems extraordinary, it isn’t. Deals of this sort are
becoming the norm, with Netflix throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at content creators in an attempt to corner the market on exclusive content that keeps eyeballs on screens (and subscription dollars flowing). But Netflix isn’t alone. J.J. Abrams (also of Star Wars fame) just struck a similar $300 million deal with WarnerMedia, whose own HBO Max streaming service is launching in 2020.
But while the Warners and Apples and Amazons of the world are all breaking their necks to make deals of this sort, the real war continues to be between Disney and Netlix. And you could argue that Disney lost this battle.
But did it? Did it really lose? To be frank, Star Wars fans haven’t really been all that excited about Weiss and Benioff’s new trilogy since it became clear the quality of Game of Thrones took a huge nosedive once the duo ran out of A Song of Ice and Fire books to adapt for the screen. And let’s face it: If Disney really wanted to win the bidding war for the creators’ souls, it could have, given that it has the one thing Netflix doesn’t—a positive cashflow situation. Netflix hasn’t turned a real profit since 2011, after all, and is expected to go $3.5 billion into the red in 2019 alone.
It isn’t wholly out of line to speculate that Disney may be attempting to force Netflix to spend itself to death, perhaps so it can swoop in and pick the carcass clean with little to no effort. That’s certainly one of the likeliest ways for the Mouse to win this streaming war.
No matter which corporation is ultimately victorious, though (and let’s be honest here: By that I mean “if Disney is ultimately victorious,” because there’s no way Netflix can win this fight if it keeps fighting on Disney’s terms), I can’t help but think that none of this is good for us, the consumers.
Both Netflix and Disney are acting like brats. I love them both. I have subscriptions to both (I already paid for three years’ worth of Disney+ in advance, based purely on all of their original Star Wars programming). And I honestly believe the streaming marketplace needs them both to thrive. But it seems that both are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.
One of my favorite things about the rise of streaming and the decline of commercial cinemas as the dominant source of feature films is that smaller movies like The Irishman, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and The Meyerowitz Stories have, at least for a while now, been given room to flourish in a way they haven’t in years. But if the streaming landscape is going to become a battleground for bidding wars like this, I worry that—just as blockbusters have squeezed independent cinema out of actual cinemas—streaming services will soon become a simulacrum of the same phenomenon. (By the way, what would you call the streaming equivalent of a blockbuster? A pipeclogger? Oh well, that’s a topic for another day.)
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.