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As cinemas stayed closed during the coronavirus pandemic, streaming subscriptions hit a billion. Photo: Getty Images

Coronavirus pushes global streaming subscriptions to one billion in 2020, as audiences stay at home and studios debut major movies online

  • With cinemas closed, and lockdowns and work-from-home initiatives in place, streaming services have benefited hugely
  • Disney, Apple TV+ and others have also invested heavily in their own services, premiering new content online

The number of streaming service subscriptions passed a billion worldwide for the first time in 2020, highlighting massive growth in Hollywood’s direct-to-consumer business as the Covid-19 pandemic kept film-goers glued to their sofas.

Online video subscriptions soared 26 per cent to 1.1 billion last year, according to a report by the Motion Picture Association on the theatrical and home entertainment market. The Washington-based lobbying group represents the legacy Hollywood studios and Netflix.
The report, released on Thursday, reflects the effect that Covid-19 has had on the entertainment industry. It’s also the result of legacy media companies investing heavily in their own streaming services – such as Disney+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max – and Netflix and Amazon bringing more original movies and shows to their apps.

Disney funneled movies such as Hamilton and Soul to its streaming service, while Warner Bros debuted Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max. Sony sold the Tom Hanks picture Greyhound to Apple TV+, and Amazon acquired Borat Subsequent Moviefilm for Prime Video. Disney recently reported 100 million subscribers for Disney+. Netflix has more than 200 million.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was released on Amazon. Photo: Amazon

Meanwhile, global box office sales dropped 72 per cent to just US$12 billion as multiplexes remained largely closed for the bulk of the year.

That total includes an 80 per cent drop in receipts in the US and Canada, which contributed a paltry US$2.2 billion. Less than half of the US population went to the movies at least once in 2020, down 76 per cent from 2019.

International box office takings shrank less than the US – dropping 68 per cent – reflecting the recovery in markets such as China that were able to reopen cinemas after gaining better control of the coronavirus. China eclipsed the US and Canada as the top box office market, with US$3 billion in sales.

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In Hong Kong, ticketing revenues at local cinemas plunged 72 per cent to HK$537 million last year, from HK$1.92 billion in 2019, according to Hong Kong Box Office Limited, and this month the UA Cinemas chain shut down.

Cinemas in Los Angeles and New York have only just started to reopen due to relaxed restrictions amid the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, leading to hope that the industry can begin its long-awaited recovery.

But 2020 was clearly the year of the living room movie-goer, a trend also reflected in the 47 combined Oscar nominations earned by Netflix and Amazon Studios.

Tom Hanks in a still from Greyhound. Photo: Apple TV+

Global consumer spending on home entertainment exploded, growing 23 per cent to US$68.8 billion. The digital home entertainment market increased 33 per cent in the US and 30 per cent internationally, according to the MPA report.

Digital entertainment accounted for 76 per cent of global home entertainment and box office last year, compared with 48 per cent in 2019.

Although the streaming surge helped make up for some of the declines in box office attendance, the combined cinema and home entertainment market still shrank. The worldwide total for 2020 was US$80.8 billion, an 18 per cent decrease from a year earlier. The MPA’s report did not include the pay-TV industry.

Gal Gadot in a still from Wonder Woman 1984, which was released simultaneously in cinemas and online. Photo: Warner Bros

Far fewer movies were released in cinemas as studios delayed their big pictures to 2021, sold them to streaming services or sent them directly to their own online platforms.

Just 319 new feature films were released in cinemas, down 63 per cent from 2019. The number of theatrical releases from MPA members was 60, or less than half the previous year’s tally.

Much of the streamed viewing in the US was driven by older material from traditional networks and studios.

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The most-streamed movies of 2020 in order were Disney Animation’s Frozen II, Moana and Universal-Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets 2, according to Nielsen. Those were followed by last year’s Pixar release Onward, 2018’s Illumination release Dr Seuss’ The Grinch and Hamilton.

Among series, acquired shows such as The Office, Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds were top performers on streaming, all three of which were on Netflix but which originally aired on broadcast networks.

The top original series were Netflix’s Ozark, Lucifer, Tiger King, The Crown and Disney+’s The Mandalorian, according to Nielsen.