Is the Streaming Going to Run Dry?

And what might fill the program gap

Finally, there’s time enough at last to catch up on Killing Eve and to binge all those lengthy, commercial-free Westworld seasons and to watch Netflix’s streaming tiger show until your eyes dry out.

Now you sit atop your mountain of streaming content, your big, steaming, hot pile of never-thought-I’d-have-time-to-watch-but-now-I-am-stuck-inside content. Did you know that when you consume that many movies and TV, it starts to taste like content, a rapidly graying gruel?

In the back of your mind, though, grows a nagging awareness that surely this can’t last. Surely there can’t continue to be new stuff in perpetuity.

There’s all that content in the pipeline, but it will eventually dry up, right?

Well, yes, and also no.

The irony here is that as the COVID-19 crisis continues, likely into the summer months, more people than ever are streaming more programming even as studios have halted production on practically everything and even though sports no longer exist. But that hasn’t stopped entertainment conglomerates from trying to salvage their slates. Movies that only had a short run at movie theaters such as Emma and The Invisible Man shifted to On Demand services much faster than normal while Pixar’s Onward went from theaters to On Demand to Disney+ streaming in a matter of a few weeks.

Invisible Man
Elizabeth Moss, in’The Invisible Man’, expressing how we’re all feeling right now.

And while it’s pretty likely that Trolls World Tour would have been a big hit in theaters, it’s also a hit at home at $20 per rental, apparently, DreamWorks won’t say whether the movie made as much money as the first Trolls film’s opening weekend, but the studio gets the bragging rights of claiming the biggest On Demand movie debut to date. That has to count for something.

There’s a lot of that going on, trying to make slightly profitable lemonade out of unprecedented lemons, and some of the strategies, such as getting sports fans to tune into esports instead, seem particularly misguided.

Based on the tea leaves of what we’re seeing so far, here’s what else is most likely to happen as the coronavirus freeze on the entertainment industry continues:

A second shot for indie movies and shorts

It’s very very grim for filmmakers who were gearing up for production or who have ongoing projects in various stages of development.

And the cancellation of film festivals such as South by Southwest and the Cannes Lions Festival this year has meant that films and indie shows looking to get distribution and to raise buzz won’t get that opportunity. But some of these festivals are moving the content they would have screened online to avenues such as Amazon Prime where they might actually draw more eyeballs than they would have on the festival circuit.

And another byproduct of an eventual shortage in content might be that filmmakers who have languishing but already-made indie projects may get another shot at the table with distributors such as Netflix, Hulu, or even the new pipsqueak on the block, Quibi.

Curated art-house movies and re-releases from theaters

Indie cinemas don’t want to lie fallow for the duration. They’ve already geared up to create “virtual cinema” experiences, bringing the films you would have paid for at the theater to your home much earlier.

They’re hoping patrons will see this as a way to support their screens and also an opportunity to bring weird, fringe films to home audiences who might not otherwise seek them out or find them on services such as Hulu or Disney+.

Once movie theaters start opening back up, we might see the re-release of blockbusters to prime the pump for other releases, as is happening now in China.

More reality TV and quick-hit programming

When the gap in streaming programs does come, reality television and anything that can be produced by skeleton crews or by working-from-home filmmakers who can collaborate online might fill that hole. That might include animation projects, projects that use pre-existing footage, or shows meant to touch on the current situation, such as the recent experiment “SNL At Home.”

When people are able to go back to work, expect the machines to take a while to gear back up on major productions, with quick-to-make reality TV, news documentaries, and bare-bones productions flooding the market for a while.

A reluctance to return to business-as-usual

The big question is what happens after, assuming there’s an after, all this is over. There seems to be a sense that the coronavirus crisis is so huge, and is affecting so many people, that the entertainment industry may never return to normal, and that neither will our viewing habits or our expectations of what the programming itself will be.

Experts are already predicting that the crisis is speeding up the decline of traditional pay-TV subscriptions while streaming services grow, but the bigger change may be in what filmmakers and TV showrunners want to talk about when they begin putting out new work.

In a Hollywood Reporter story, Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum, who had his studio’s film The Hunt shift to VOD recently, said all artists are going to want to say something about what we are experiencing now.

“Everything that we’ve done pre-[COVID-19] will seem dated much more quickly than it would have in an ordinary time,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

What will they produce? Lots of ponderous navel-gazing meditations on tragedy like we got after 9/11, but perhaps also some harrowing medical dramas. A tragic boatload of documentaries about the notable lives lost in the pandemic. And, probably, an Adam McKay expose on what went wrong and why. Too bad someone already took the title “The Big Sick”.

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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