Streaming exclusivity doesn’t matter anymore

In the early days of the streaming wars, library content seemed to be king. Peacock holding onto the rights of extraordinarily valuable parent-company shows like The Office looked like wins that would help the streaming service soar and felt like an existential threat to Netflix. But three years after Peacock’s launch, that’s not really how things have shaken out. In 2023, Netflix is still king of the streamers, and studios licensing out their most valuable shows and movies is starting to look like a great idea again.

Warner Bros. clearly agrees. Many have questioned the studio’s decisions since it merged with Discovery and came under the leadership of new CEO David Zaslav, but the recent choice to start selling some of its biggest movies to other streaming services makes perfect sense.

In recent weeks, several of DC’s biggest superhero movies have been added to Netflix, including The Batman and Man of Steel. Tuesday, the company announced many DC movies, including The Batman and Black Adam, are coming to Fox’s free ad-supported streamer Tubi. In the medieval days of the streaming wars, this would have been seen as inviting the enemy on top of your walls and across your drawbridge. But now companies are starting to see things differently. They’re coming around to what’s always been true: Selling content is way more valuable than hoarding it.

Margot Robbie rests her arms on a deli counter and looks pleadingly at her breakfast sandwich as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey. Image: Warner Bros.

The true winner of the streaming wars wasn’t Netflix, or Warner Bros., or Apple, or even Disney. That would be Sony, the one company that never came close to launching its own streaming platform. Instead, Sony kept licensing IP like the The Last of Us and releasing titles like Uncharted and No Hard Feelings, all the while selling them at a premium to streaming services desperate for content. On top of that added income, Sony hasn’t had to struggle through paying the massive expenses that come with running a streaming platform.

Now Warner Bros. is getting in on the same game. The value of having a streaming service where its big movies like Barbie or The Batman can land a few months after they hit theaters is undeniable. People who loved those movies in theaters — or didn’t get a chance to see them — are sure to tune in for their first run on streaming, and might even subscribe for the pleasure if they haven’t already. The more questionable value is why it matters that you’re the exclusive home of those movies two or three years after their release.

At this moment, you can watch The Batman on Max, or you can watch it on Netflix. Only one of those services had it plastered on its front page as a new release. In other words, this is a two-birds-one-stone situation for Warner Bros.: Netflix pays the company for content that still gets to live on Max, and Netflix advertises that content heavily. After all, The Batman 2 may be a little over a year away, but it’s never too early to fire up the marketing machines — and The Penguin is even closer. While The Batman on Max could theoretically drive subscriptions, The Batman on Netflix teasing those two titles seems even likelier, and by leaving the movie on both services, Warner Bros. gets the best of both worlds.

Daemon (Matt Smith) standing in front of Caraxes the dragon Image: HBO

While finding a new way to sell a movie a second time may be a great approach to making a studio more money, new originals are still vitally important to the health of streaming services. Warner Bros. shouldn’t give away premieres of House of the Dragon or The Last of Us season 2 — those are exclusives that actually drive subscriptions, rather than library titles that add value to existing subscriptions. Meanwhile, Apple TV Plus’ entire strategy is just original content, taking a savvier approach to running its own platform.

As with most things in Hollywood, none of this is really new. Breaking Bad and Mad Men may have been the exciting shows that make you think of AMC, but most of the hours of programming on the network on any given day are dedicated to second-run movies from studios looking to make a second wave of income on their productions. As often as streaming has been touted as a new innovation or Hollywood’s next frontier, it’s really all just cable television by another name. And studios selling their movies to competitors is just another step in that process. Get ready for channel bundling next.