The Movies Now Ruling Netflix’s Top 10 Reveal Who Really Won the Streaming Wars

… Hint: It wasn’t the old school movie studios.

biggest movies on Netflix in January 2024 include Elvis, Super Mario Bros.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures / Universal Pictures

For loyal Netflix users who have been booting up the Big N since before Blockbuster went the way of the Dodo, it must feel like deja vu. If you go to your streaming app right now in the U.S., the available movie selection is still dominated by Netflix originals that the algorithm desperately wants you to be aware of. Maestro; Society of the Snow; maybe the new Dan Levy project, Good Grief. However, if you scroll past those—or look simply at the top 10 movies on the app at the moment—you see a more striking story being told.

The Equalizer 3; The Meg 2; The Super Mario Bros. Movie. All are major studio-released intellectual property, and all of the films came out in the last year—in the last six months in the cases of The Equalizer 3 and The Meg 2. And if you broaden the net to 18 months ago, Warner Brothers’ Oscar-nominated blockbuster Elvis was also in the top 10 this week, alongside some of WB’s most popular (and IP-branded) brands from the last five years: Joker, Aquaman, and Justice League (whose appearance in the top 10 suggests users are starting it before realizing 10 minutes in they’re not watching the Max exclusive Zack Snyder’s Justice League from a few years ago).

Together, this collection of relatively recent IPs tell a story: one that should feel good in the short term for Netflix users who want a wider variety of new movies. Yet for the industry that makes those movies, it paints a bleak picture. The results are in from the streaming wars that began about five years ago. And the only victors are the companies who were only ever in it for the streaming.

Of course Netflix was always going to be one of the winners. As the company that reached the promised land first, Netflix built the most popular service around the globe for on-demand video content. Their success was a bit like when James W. Marshall came down from the mountains of California and cried, “There be gold up in ‘em hills!” There might be, but it turned out to be a fool’s gold for the old school movie studios—or “legacy media” in the parlance of Netflix’s Silicon Valley brethren—who rushed after Netflix into the brush, pick ax in hand.

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Over the past decade, nearly every studio with a “content library” rushed to build their own streaming service: HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, and Paramount+ all launched inside the past five years. One of the few “Big Six” who didn’t, 20th Century Fox, sold itself to the House of Mouse, which paid $71.3 billion because they were sure some X-Men movies, The Sound of Music, The Simpsons, and Home Alone would be just that valuable to Disney+ (plus a couple Alien flicks and maybe Fight Club on Hulu and Disney Star).

Elsewhere, WarnerMedia (as it was then known) became so thirsty to up its HBO Max subscribers (also an antiquated brand name now) that they burned bridges with numerous filmmakers so they could put their entire 2021 film slate day-and-date on what is today a defunct service. This even cost them a 20-year partnership with Christopher Nolan, whose next film, Oppenheimer, outgrossed all of WB’s superhero product in 2023.

Perhaps that is why David Zaslav, the CEO of the restructured and retitled Warner Bros. Discovery, broke new ground in 2023 when he revealed he was essentially giving away WB’s crown jewels to the highest bidder (so Netflix). Last November, the same executive who shelved the nearly completed Batgirl for a tax write-off explained he would be licensing pieces of WB’s coveted superhero movie library because it would supposedly make consumers desperate to subscribe to Max in order to watch more.

“People come back and then want to see the full bouquet of DC movies,” Zaslav said, “and the only place to do that is with us. Or it enhances the quality of the DC library.”

Uh huh. It’s hard to figure why a Netflix user who can watch last year’s The Batman on Netflix right now—or the DCEU’s biggest success stories like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Joker—would feel the need to pay another $10 a month so they can watch the Christopher Nolan Batman movies too (or $16 to do it without ads). Even if that is true though, the benefit Max might glean from some of WB’s priciest newest releases like The Meg 2 and Shazam! Fury of the Gods appearing on Netflix is inscrutable—never mind Universal putting its biggest film of the year, Super Mario Bros., on Netflix less than six months after it premiered on the vulnerable Peacock.

In truth, these studios are looking more like the other majors, or mini-majors, that didn’t pursue a streaming service or a Disney buyout. Sony shares its wares with Netflix and Disney+ both. Right now you can also watch their biggest hits of 2023, including Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Equalizer 3, No Hard Feelings, and The Pope’s Exorcist on Netflix. Meanwhile Lionsgate has put the entire John Wick library on Netflix, except the new Chapter 4, which you still have to pay at least $6 to rent on VOD. By not having a service, these studios can act as mercenaries, selling content to whichever bidder they prefer, and using it to advertise new product that has a longer shelf life as a VOD rental.

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But for WB to undercut Max, and Universal to kneecap Peacock, confirms a tacit admission: the streaming wars are over, and in the aftermath there is more money to be made by selling their supposed must-see content to the same handful of tech companies they were hoping to compete against: Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. There’s even been talks now to kill another major studio, Paramount, because boardrooms believe that by combining Paramount+ and Max’s libraries, WBD might finally be big enough to compete with the tech giants.

The irony of this is that so many of these companies undercut the theatrical model that had been their bread and butter for a century in order to chase the mirage of streaming gold. For nearly two years, including well after the worst restrictions of the pandemic faded, Disney continued putting their animated films, particularly Pixar, on Disney+ on the same date the movies opened in theaters (if they had a theatrical release at all). Consequently, families were trained to begin thinking of Disney’s animated films as disposable content they can wait for at home—a problem Universal’s Illumination Entertainment avoided by holding onto its most valuable animated franchise in Despicable Me until COVID anxieties subsided.

Disney’s strategy to (over)saturate the market with Marvel TV shows on Disney+ during the last three-plus years also more than likely contributed to now demonstrable superhero fatigue which turned The Marvels, a sequel to a billion-dollar grosser, into one of the biggest flops of 2023. The fallout from going all-in on streaming even caused renewed Disney CEO Bob Iger to concede in November that “quantity in our case diluted quality, and Marvel has suffered greatly from that.”

The movie studios accelerated—if not arguably engineered—the downturn of the theatrical exhibition model over the last decade by conditioning audiences to only be excited by the prospect of IP blockbuster “events,” and to wait until everything else came to streaming. Now many of those same blockbuster events, be it DC superhero movies or Indiana Jones, are floundering, and the streaming services the studios bet the future on have turned into such financial quagmires the studios would rather lease their most valuable new IP to Netflix than try to waste it on a money-loser.

There is something deeply ironic about this. But for Netflix, the company which made it their business strategy to disrupt movie theaters—the one avenue most traditional studios can still rely on to generate major revenue—it must be quite funny to see all the white flags going up.