The Streaming Wars: And The Child Shall Lead Them

The Post has been covering the Streaming Wars for some time now. In the past several months, a number of new developments have taken hold. These include services embracing a new kind of Video-On-Demand (VOD) model, some new service launches, and several layers of content reshuffling. HBO Max, Peacock, and Quibi all launched with various problems, while CBS All Access seems headed for a merger with a larger platform. And then there’s The Mandalorian, which barnstormed social media with breakout character “The Child” (aka “Baby Yoda”) on its way to a jaw-dropping 15 Emmy nominations. But what about stalwarts like Netflix? And how does the Age of COVID-19 change the shape of what’s to come? Here’s your war report.

Lockdown on Demand: When theaters closed across the country with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, studios scrambled to change dates and look at alternative delivery formats. One victory was found at the drive-in; the built-in social distancing that comes with watching a film from your car allowed some new releases to filter out, some old favorites to come roaring back, and for some small films to generate (for them) big numbers. One of the first movies that was slated for a big theatrical release, but shifted to a VOD delivery, was Trolls World Tour. The sequel to the hit 2016 animated musical became available for digital rental on April 10 (which was the same day that it debuted in a limited number of theaters), but at a steeper rental price point that would be more akin to taking a family of four to the movies. The film made a startling $40 million off of rentals in its opening weekend. IndieWire estimated in August that it’s made around $150 million in rentals through the life of its release. Other studios have followed suit with select releases. Bill & Ted Face the Music from United Artists bowed in select theaters and for a $19.99 rental across a number of services. In just four days, it was Fandango’s top title for all of August.

The trailer for Mulan. (Uploaded to YouTube by Walt Disney Studios)

However, it looks like Disney+ is in line to have lightning strike twice. The first major mouse move was to bring the filmed version of Hamilton to the service months before it was scheduled to arrive in theaters. The July 3 release spurred a quarter of a million new Disney+ subscriptions that weekend, and Variety reported that roughly 37 percent of all the app’s subscribers watched the musical in its first month. The second big release shuffled to the platform was the live-action remake of Mulan, which debuted September 4. Early indications are that Mulan’s performance may easily surpass Hamilton’s, with one major catch; Hamilton was simply an addition to the platform, whereas you presently have to pay $29.99 to get Mulan. With Disney+ passing 60 million subscribers in August, it would only take 8 percent of subscribers ordering Mulan for the film to clear nearly $150 million. That would be a major victory for the company, and it would make it much more feasible for other delayed blockbusters (like Black Widow) to make a profitable simultaneous home and theater debut.

New Launch Woes: Even as the traditional HBO channel is garnering attention and praise for its new series, Lovecraft Country, the rollout of the new HBO/AT&T/WarnerMedia app HBO Max has been something of a headache. When HBO Max landed in May, it wasn’t available through Roku or Amazon/Fire devices . . . and it still isn’t; the problem is that those two options represent approximately 70 percent of the streaming player market in the U.S., and they’re locked in a dispute with HBO Max over fees. Additionally, roughly 20 million people who subscribed to HBO, and who would have gotten HBO Max rolled in with their sub, simply didn’t activate the service when it started, meaning that HBO Max only had about 4 million official users by the end of June. There was also confusion when HBO’s other apps (HBO Go and HBO Now) went away and were replaced with, simply, an app called HBO. That app offers the programming that Now did, including current series, but doesn’t have access to the Max exclusive series or the wider content libraries (like the Criterion Collection) that were rolled into Max. Confusing content deals haven’t helped; while the Harry Potter franchise and various DC Comics-based films were heavily advertised for the launch, pre-existing deals with other services meant that many of the DC movies vanished in the first week, and the app lost the Potter films in August. The struggling DC Universe app will have its content rolled into HBO Max, but questions linger about whether its extremely popular digital DC Comics library will make the transition or go elsewhere.

Depature is one of many originals headed to Peacock. (Uploaded to YouTube by Peacock)

The NBCUniversal app Peacock kicked off for Xfinity users in April; it landed on other platforms in July and worked up to 10 million viewers by the end of that month. It has a free tier that accesses 15,000 hours of content; the pay levels unlock about 5,000 more. With NBC Sports deals for soccer and content with third-party providers like ViacomCBS and Paramount Pictures on the way, Peacock is putting together a big library, and is looking to Parks and Recreation (arriving in October) and The Office (arriving in January 2021) to boost subs. However, it has one big problem in common with HBO Max: you won’t find it on Roku or Amazon. Peacock also had some of its big launch-day draws, like the Fast & Furious franchise, The Matrix, and Shrek already vanish. New content has taken a hit due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. In the face of these issues, which users have complained about readily on social media, there has also been praise for a “channels” feature that runs clips and content around different themes. The Today All Day channel gathers The Today Show segments, and other channels are devoted to Saturday Night Live and other themes.

Quibi is a mobile streaming platform that launched with free trials in April with an eye toward shorter programming. The 10-minute episodes are referred to as “quick bites” (a phrase that was truncated into the service’s name). While a number of high-profile companies invested in the service and stars like Anna Kendrick and Kiefer Sutherland dot the programming, the download numbers for the app crashed after the first month of operation. The company cut staff in June amid reports that its 2 million subscribers fell well under a proposed 7.4 million user goal. The Verge reported in July that the conversion rate from free initial user to paid subscriber was a poor 8 percent.

A Viacom Mind-Meld: CBS All Access has put together a base of around four million subscribers. The service has bet big on Star Trek so far, with three active series (Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks) and two coming (Strange New Worlds and Section 3). One much anticipated show is the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, which launches in December. Like Apple TV+, CBS All Access has been actively gathering other content; parent company ViacomCBS looks to merge All Access with programming from its other brands (MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, etc.) with the notion of competing with the bigger services.

Update: Early on Tuesday morning, September 15, one day after this story originally posted, ViacomCBS announced that CBS All Access will be rebranded in early 2021. Under the new name Paramount+, the service will roll in CBS All Access programming with the other brand verticals mentioned above for a larger, more competitive service.

The Morning Show has been a major success for Apple TV+. (Uploaded to YouTube by Apple TV)

Apple in the Middle: Apple TV+ is doing all right. The streamer already renewed most of its original drama and comedy series and the service claimed 18 Emmy nominations, including nods for The Morning Show, Defending Jacob, and Beastie Boys Story. While Apple had intended for the service to focus on original content, it went into acquisition mode in the middle of the year after COVID-19 shut down original productions. The app actively bought films like Tom Hanks’s Greyhound and Will Smith’s upcoming Emancipation to bolster content offerings. Apple also has a robust development slate for series and films spread across the next few years; it has the potential to develop into destination viewing for unique programming over the long term.

The Big Kids on the Block: Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, and Hulu remain the big dogs in the yard, with Disney+ joining the pack. Prime Video is available to Amazon Prime’s 150 million subscribers around the world, though about 26 million actively use it. Hulu has 35 million paid, with over 3 million of those opting for Hulu+Live TV to replace cable service. Disney+ passed 60 million in their first year, stomping their initial estimate that it would take until 2024 to get 60 to 90 million subscribers. Netflix remains the numbers champ, with 193 million paid users.

Each of those services continues to offer strong performances in various areas. Prime’s The Boys has been a breakout critical and commercial hit, and anticipation is high for the forthcoming Lord of the Rings series. Hulu had a big quarantine hit with original film Palm Springs, a strong development slate, and offers returning water-cooler programs like The Handmaid’s Tale. Netflix is, of course, Netflix, and wields enormous programming influence; the primary viewer complaint about the service is the impression that many series don’t get past three “seasons” or that they appear very quick to cancel shows that might grow with more time. Nevertheless, Netflix cuts a dominant figure, especially with the success of films like Extraction, break-out series like The Witcher, and their ongoing live-comedy specials.

The trailer for The Mandalorian Season One. (Uploaded to YouTube by Star Wars)

As for Disney+, its first year has seen a subscription base that exceeded expectations, 19 Emmy nominations, and a legitimate pop culture phenomenon in the form of The Child, the inhumanly cute “Baby Yoda” that co-stars in The Mandalorian. That Star Wars spin-off accounted for 15 nominations, including an unexpected nod for Best Drama. The service also had the good fortune to have The Mandalorian season two filming completed before the pandemic; editing and effects continued remotely, which will allow the next set of episodes to debut in October as scheduled. Additionally, the much-anticipated Marvel Cinematic Universe installment The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is still expected to debut this fall after an initial delay from the COVID shutdown. All of that is, of course, on top of one of the most powerful libraries in entertainment, which includes the Marvel and Star Wars brands, the Pixar films, Disney animated classics, and National Geographic, in addition to acquisitions like Beyoncé’s video album Black is King.

Service Name Price Per Month Program Highlights
Amazon Prime Video $8.99 standalone; $12.99 w/full Prime The Boys, The Expanse, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
AppleTV+ $4.99 The Morning Show, For All Mankind, Servant
CBS All Access $5.99 Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, ST: Lower Decks
Disney+ $7; $12.99 bundled with basic Hulu & ESPN+ The Mandalorian; The Imagineereing Story
HBO Max $14.99; $143.88 for 1-year deal available Raised by Wolves; Doom Patrol
Hulu $5.99 basic; $54.99 +Live TV; ad-free tiers also available The Handmaid’s Tale; Castle Rock; Shrill, Letterkenny
Netflix $8.99 basic; $12.99 standard; $15.99 Premium The Umbrella Acadmey; Cobra Kai; Lucifer; Away

The streaming landscape has become a crowded, constantly shifting place. It’s possible for multiple large outlets to co-exist; even with the pervasiveness of Netflix, it’s obvious that several other companies have very healthy options. The big question is how many of these services will thrive in the long term. At some point, every household will hit saturation on the number of services that they actually use, or can afford. Until then, the various entrants will continue to jockey for position in a race that is much more a marathon than a sprint.

Featured image: Ivan Marc / Shutterstock

We Are Lovecraft’s Country

Howard Phillips Lovecraft remains, 130 years after his birth and 83 years after his death, a study in contradictions. Mostly unknown during his lifetime, the reputation of his work has grown in the years after to the point where the adjective “Lovecraftian” is universally used to describe otherworldly or “cosmic” horror. He insisted on the use of proper English grammar and pushed to raise the bar for supernatural fiction while publishing primarily in the pulp magazines that were frequently reviled by critics. His view of horror and science fiction expanded the minds and possibilities of the writers he influenced, and yet he himself held intensely bigoted, racist, and misogynistic views. He supported and encouraged a wide circle of writers, but criticized others if they wrote for mainstream publications like, ahem, The Saturday Evening Post. And now, at possibly the height of his literary and cultural influence, Lovecraft is back in the public eye thanks to the new HBO series, Lovecraft Country. Based on the superlative novel by Matt Ruff, the series reckons with Lovecraft’s legacy of intolerance through the lens of a Black cast in the 1950s. One episode in, the series is already inspiring debate, discussion, and myriads of internet think pieces on the racism of Lovecraft. Of course, and possibly unsurprisingly, as is always the case with the best horror, some of the most unsettling themes and images are directly applicable to today’s America.

Portrait of HP Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft in June, 1934. (Photo by Lucius B. Truesdell; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Although he’s a towering figure in fantasy, horror, and science fiction literary circles, he’s still a sort of peripheral figure to the mainstream. His most famous creation is the tentacle-faced Cthulhu, a monster that has had an increasing presence in popular culture in the past few decades, popping up everywhere from T-shirts to Metallica songs and surprise appearances in films like last year’s Underwater. His work has influenced the likes of Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Alan Moore, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and many more. During his lifetime, he corresponded with writers who became important figures unto themselves, like Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Psycho writer Robert Bloch, and August Derleth, founder of the publisher Arkham House (and yes, that’s where the Arkham Asylum of Batman fame got its name).

And so, his influence persists, and therein lies the heart of the problem. Lovecraft isn’t just problematic; his work and essays and his more than 100,000 letters have incontrovertible evidence that he was xenophobic, with negative opinions about people of other colors, countries, and religions. He compared Black people to “beasts,” decried the “mongrelization” of the human race, and wrote a 1912 poem called “On the Creation of N——.” He even owned a cat named, somewhat unbelievably, “N—– Man.” He is perhaps the ultimate avatar of the notion of trying to separate the artist from the art. The majority of today’s talents who look at Lovecraft as an influence readily decry his deeply rooted racism, and note that it’s his broad mythology of gods and monsters that remains the draw.

The official trailer for Lovecraft Country. (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

That’s one of the things that’s so potent about Lovecraft Country as both a book and a series. By placing Black characters at the center of the narrative, it’s a refutation of Lovecraft’s views even as it honors his place in the supernatural canon. Then, by taking the extra step and using the Jim Crow-era 1950s, with its deeply-rooted prejudices and unnerving historical details like “sundown towns,” it adds an extra dimension, a real-world dread that overlies the indescribable monsters of Lovecraft’s prose. The most frightening scene in the first episode isn’t the climactic monster attack in the woods; it’s the scene of the three protagonists trying to drive out of the county before sundown as they’re tailed by a racist sheriff who is keeping a very close eye on the speed limit. We may not be able to conceive of Elder Gods from the outer darkness, but the reality of that scene is, especially in light of recent events, all too real.

The phrase “Lovecraft Country” is rooted in literary analysis of his works. A Rhode Islander, Lovecraft set his tales in New England. It may be the area of the Ivy League (and Lovecraft’s own fictional Miskatonic University), but it also contains stretches that are pastoral and parochial. The descriptor is meant to evoke the rolling hills dotted with small towns and country regions that could, behind the veneer of daylight, hide existential dread. Certainly, Ruff’s use of the title for his novel was meant to evoke that dissonance.

The first episode of Lovecraft Country, “Sundown.” (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

But the issue also goes beyond that. It’s much harder to separate the artist from the art if you belong to a group that he maligned. If one exists in a kind of bubble of privilege, one might only see the veneer of daylight, and not the darkness that others have to contend with on a daily basis. Lovecraft Country consciously dives in the great contradiction of Lovecraft, acknowledging his work as an elder statesman of the genre while likewise address his deep flaws, flaws that continue to bedevil the United States a century later.

Books by H.P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft collections published by Del Rey. (Photo by Troy Brownfield. Cover art and book editions ©Del Rey Books)

Horror fiction usually arrives right when it’s supposed to, reflecting a society’s fears and demons at the time when the work was created. Lovecraft Country manages to address hundreds of years of horror and decades of division while also being entertaining. Which brings us again to the great contradiction of H.P. Lovecraft: while his own life and work bear the stain of the kind of irrational hate that he harbored, its existence and influence allow others to present some harsh lessons and explore some equally harsh truths. For better or worse, America is Lovecraft’s Country, but he’s gone; horror story or happiness, the ending is up to us.

Featured image: Lovecraft collections published by Del Rey. (Photo by Troy Brownfield. Cover art and book editions ©Del Rey Books)

5 Ways Game of Thrones Played Us

What made a worldwide TV audience embrace Game of Thrones to point where it became a legitimate phenomenon, and how did it manage to succeed while defying the odds for a “high fantasy” program? On the eve of the premiere of its final season, we look at five things that made all of us become obsessed with Game of Thrones.

1. It’s Faithful to George R.R. Martin

Benioff and Weiss tell the story of how they got involved with Game of Thrones.

When you adapt any kind of lucrative and beloved property into another form of media, you run the risk of not capturing what was special about the original work. The success of franchises like Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, The Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe all share a common factor of treating the source material with respect and being as reasonably faithful as one could expect while occasionally making necessary changes to enhance the television or cinematic experience.

That is the path that showrunners and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss followed when they set out to adapt George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series. Their original five-hour pitch meeting with Martin impressed the author, who countered with one question (he asked the pair what their guess was as to the true identity of Jon Snow’s mother). Benioff and Weiss pitched the series to HBO (which, given the nature of the material, was both reasonable and in line with Martin’s vision of the network as the only place where Thrones could really conceivably be done).

Since then, the producers, writers, directors, and actors have shown amazing devotion to Martin’s work. No, it isn’t an exact translation. Yes, some characters or elements have been combined or omitted. But the show’s ability to approximate the feel and direction of the books has been frankly incredible. That adherence to Martin helped cement acceptance of the show within the literary fanbase, and the program’s willingness to use the strong skeleton that was already there made it easy for new viewers to get hooked.

2. The Plot Is Clever and Full of Twists

In a scene loaded with symbols and hints of things to come, the Starks find orphaned dire wolf pups.

Martin knew what he was doing in terms of crafting the plot. He leaned on real historical intrigue, such as the battles surrounding the War of the Roses, and wove that and other ideas into a complex tapestry of seven kingdoms vying for control of the continent of Westeros. He populated the various houses with compelling and intriguing characters; some were bad people with some redeeming qualities, others were good people burdened by difficult things that they’d done. But almost none of them were boring. Weiss, Benioff, and the other writers worked from this blueprint to craft a well-paced show with an enormous variety of character types.

Additionally, the famous twists and surprises from the novels imported brilliantly to the screen. Big moments on the page like the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, that surprise execution in season one, and more became legitimate pop culture touchstones after they appeared in the show. In an age where it’s harder to have watercooler TV conversations due to fractured viewing audiences, it seemed like everyone had a take on the latest Thrones development. Having the show run on HBO only helped with this, as some of the more shocking moments, particularly related to violence or sex, would have never flown on a broadcast network. On HBO, the producers could keep Martin’s intent intact, and they mined it for ratings gold.

3. The Cast Is Stellar

Peter Dinklage discusses his time as Tyrion.

Speaking of gold, Game of Thrones has that literally and figuratively in casting director Nina Gold. Thanks to her and the minds behind the show, the series boasts what showbiz observers like to call “champagne casting.” That’s the idea that you’ve done such a perfect job of filling a role that it’s time to break out the bubbly. Thrones has been impeccably cast from the start, from Sean Bean’s noble but foolish Ned Stark to Lena Headey’s diabolical Cersei Lannister and beyond. Casting child actors that grow into strong adult actors is particularly hard, but Gold and company pulled it off more than a dozen times, securing the likes of Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark), and Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon). Kit Harrington, the man that would become the brooding center of the show, Jon Snow, landed Thrones as his first television role, period. That was also the case for John Bradley (Jon’s buddy, Samwell Tarly). For Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen ), it was her first regular series.

The enormously appealing cast was almost immediately embraced as fan favorites, but perhaps none more than Peter Dinklage. As Tyrion Lannister (easily the most popular character in the books), Dinklage has given a complex and quotable performance, managing to be sympathetic, comedic, vengeful, and charismatic, sometimes within the same scene. He was the first actor cast of the entire ensemble, and he’s won three Emmys and a Golden Globe for the role.

4. The World Is Its Stage

Season 5’s Battle of Hardhome took a month to film in the Magheramorne quarry in Northern Ireland.

The budget and support afforded by HBO has allowed the series to film in locations like Ireland, Iceland, Malta, Croatia, and Spain. The real-world settings, combined with top-flight set construction and effects, lend Westeros the feeling of a concrete and believable fantasy world, similar to Peter Jackson’s masterful use of New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings series. The frozen wasteland beyond the Wall in Thrones is all the more convincing thanks to the actual Icelandic landscape. The setting does a good deal of work for the actors, allowing them to be believable in environments that vary from deserts to a Europe-like autumn.

5. It’s Not Magic Right Away

A classic season 3 scene shows why you don’t mess with the Mother of Dragons.

Thrones opens with the suggestion of supernatural menace; its first scene, like the first scene in the novels, introduces the threat of the Others, the White Walkers from beyond the Wall. However, it puts that aside to build up the human characters and court intrigue. All the dragons are gone, the story tells us, and magic doesn’t really exist anymore. Or so we’re led to believe.

By delaying much of the fantastic in the fantasy, the series hooks the audience with plot and character. That’s when perhaps the biggest twist happens, and that is this simple fact: magic isn’t dead, and the dragons are about to come back. As the story expands and we begin to regularly deal with dire wolves, magic priestesses, shadow creatures, shapeshifting assassins, ice demons, zombie polar bears, and, of course, dragons, it’s all easier to accept because we as viewers have already embraced the complex and nuanced world that the various creators have built.

As we head into this short final season, the audience has a laundry list of questions. Can the alliance of Jon Snow and Daenerys overcome the Night King? What will happen when Jon’s true parentage is revealed? Will Arya take her revenge on Cersei? Is CleganeBowl going to happen? And, of course, who will sit on the Iron Throne? Whatever the answers, a worldwide army of viewers stands ready to complete the journey. Game of Thrones has been thrilling, engrossing, and sometimes exhausting, but at the end of all, it has been a distinct pleasure to watch.

Featured image: Promotion photo featuring Sean Bean as Ned Stark. (©HBO)