Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Disney had approached Turner Broadcasting, which currently holds the rights to broadcast the majority of the Star Wars films, looking to buy back the rights to stream the franchise on its forthcoming streaming service, only to be roundly rebuffed. The incident highlights a problem that other media companies will no doubt face as they work to establish their own streaming services: navigating a patchwork landscape of IP ownership to bring home the programming that they’re known for.
Disney’s 2016 deal with Turner was a major coup for the TV network — it allowed them to broadcast and stream much of the Star Wars franchise on networks like TBS and Starz, often in big marathons or on demand. Disney had also made a deal in 2012 with Netflix, allowing it to stream other Star Wars films, as well as its many recent Marvel superhero films. At the time, these deals made sense: TBS and Netflix are two big networks that draw a lot of eyeballs, and they would bring Disney’s films front-and-center for audiences in a way that Disney couldn’t at the time. But the landscape has changed drastically since then: where streaming services like Hulu and Netflix were the go-to for your favorite shows and movies, the goal now is to develop as much original content as possible, producing projects like Altered Carbon, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Star Trek: Discovery, as a way to draw in subscribers with stuff that you just can’t find elsewhere.
But companies like Disney and Warner Bros. already have extensive back-catalogs of material, and have launched their own efforts to bring out their own streaming platforms. Disney’s is expected to launch sometime in 2019, while Warner Bros. will launch DC Universe, dedicated to its superhero franchises, later this fall. Both services will help bring all of their larger content catalogs under one roof, but they won’t be comprehensive — yet. Disney has already said that it will end its deal with Netflix to bring its films back to its service, and that it intends for its platform to be the exclusive home for both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.
DC apparently has the same issue: when it launches, it will have classic films like Superman: The Motion Picture, Batman Begins, the classic animated shows, and others, but not, for example, the recent crop of DCEU films like Justice League, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman, or the CW network’s Arrowverse franchise (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow), which are all major draws in and of themselves. At San Diego Comic-Con, DC said that consumers will be able to rent or purchase those episodes, but in the meantime, it’s offering up its own slate of original live-action and animated shows to supplement the lack.
Bloomberg reports that Turner rejected Disney’s query, and says that “the talks haven’t advanced further.” Netflix is also apparently working to retain those Star Wars and Marvel rights. This highlights an issue for the companies that are jumping feet-first into the streaming world: those big properties that would make Disney or DC’s streaming services totally essential to fans are, well, attractive to others, too — others whose pre-existing deals were, in retrospect, a stopgap for the big companies’ former consumer pipeline limitations. Where platforms like Netflix and Hulu have long since been producing original content to attract customers, Disney and Warner Bros. will have to do the same, populating their own sites with things that people want to watch, before they can — if ever — regain those original rights. While they might produce quality original projects like Disney’s long-desired live-action Star Wars show and wrap-up Clone Wars season, or Warner’s original DC TV shows, the actual film franchises will be a massive draw for consumers, making securing them a major goal for those media companies.
But Disney’s or Warner Bros.’s mission to get their comprehensive catalog back under their own control is hardly the priority of Netflix or Hulu or HBO; in fact, it’s the opposite: the longer those outlets can hold on to their now highly desired prizes, the longer they can stymie their potential rivals. As the number of streaming services climbs in the coming years — practically everyone is looking into creating their own — the race is on to acquire subscribers with the best catalog possible, because there’s a limit to how many platforms a person or family will subscribe to, especially if they’re only checking out one or two exclusive shows. While Disney and Warner Bros. will have plenty to attract people to their services, those who simply want to watch Star Wars whenever they want can just hold off until their respective deals expire, and jump ship down the road.