Christmas used to be a sleepy time for splashy new movie and TV releases.
By the time the holiday rolled around, Hollywood had pretty much packed up and headed off to Maui, Cabo, or Aspen, having unleashed their biggest winter movie releases over Thanksgiving—the end-of-year equivalent of Labor Day weekend for launching big, splashy tentpoles. By late December, movie executives’ only job was to check their phones periodically from the side of the pool to monitor box-office grosses from those films as they continued to trickle in.
Then came Netflix.
The streamer pioneered the idea of dropping not just one big movie while people were cooped up over Christmas break looking for things to do, but a relentless fusillade of movies and TV shows in December. In 2018 there was Bird Box, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and the Taylor Swift concert film, to name just a few. The effect was to transform the otherwise parch-dry entertainment season—when most people resorted to watching Frank Capra classics on TCM—into an all-out movie and TV-show bonanza that will induce days-long binge sessions on a multitude of streaming services.
Because, yes, now it’s not just Netflix. This year, its would-be rivals in the streaming wars have caught onto the act, in effect turning Christmas into a showdown between streaming companies looking to build buzz and drive up subscription numbers before the end of the quarter.
None more so than HBO Max, which is dropping Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel to Warner Bros’s 2017 blockbuster starring Gal Gadot, on Christmas day. Gadot’s caped crusader will go up against the endearing animated, middle-school musicians of Pixar’s Soul (the first time Pixar has gone streaming-first with any feature title) on Disney Plus the same day. Then there’s Bridgerton, Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes’s much-anticipated debut series since departing from network television in 2017 and signing a reported $150 million deal with Netflix. The Netflix series, which Rhimes executive produced but did not create (that would be Chris Van Dusen), is a Jane Austeneque period drama about betrayal and betrothal, based on the novels by Julia Quinn.
Naturally, Bridgerton isn’t Netflix’s only December surprise. The company unspooled Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on December 18, the last film Chadwick Boseman starred in before his death earlier this year. On December 23, it’ll drop George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky. These are merely the latest in Netflix’s holiday release schedule, which really started back in November with the release of Netlix’s Jingle Jangle (November 6) and kicked into another gear with Christmas Chronicles 2 (November 18). (The original Chronicles, starring Kurt Russell as the red-suited man himself, dropped in November 2018.)
This bombardment of content has caused at least one streamer to get a little nervous. Amazon Prime Video had originally announced December 25 as the release date for its Sundance acquisition Sylvie’s Love, starring Tessa Thompson. But it then moved the film up to December 23.
Netflix’s prescient insight—that people are looking to be entertained over the doldrums of December—has taken on even more weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are, quite literally, stuck at home looking for things to watch. This reality—combined with the beating that the entertainment industry has taken due to the pandemic and its desperate desire to keep things afloat by goosing its streaming services (seeing as no one in the United States is going to those theaters that are open)—has wildly accelerated the trend to streaming content all the time. Earlier in the summer, Apple took this approach with the Tom Hanks film Greyhound, premiering it on Apple TV Plus over the Fourth of July weekend. And WarnerMedia recently announced that all of its 17 films planned for 2021 will now be released simultaneously on HBO Max, starting with WW 84. In no other world other than the present one would the $200 million film ever have been envisioned as living room-first entertainment.
But as we’ve been learning, in 2020, the old Hollywood rules no longer apply.
Despite being tossed into the streaming lane, Warner Bros. has gotten behind WW84 like any other theatrical tentpole, aggressively marketing the film through billboards and omnipresent media spots. The same can be said for Bridgerton which is also being pushed to the media and Emmy voters with early access to the show that started December 21. As for Disney Plus, Soul plush dolls are popping up in McDonald’s Happy Meals.
In a few weeks’ time, it will be more clear which streamer will come out ahead on Christmas.
In the meantime, good luck to viewers trying to watch it all.