2021 is a crucial battleground in the streaming wars

Watch: Trailer for Amazon Prime comedy Coming 2 America

Streaming services are supposed to have bottomless pockets. For many years now, the received wisdom has been that the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime essentially walk through the movie industry like a video game player willing to hammer the cheat code buttons for unlimited money. It’s early days, but 2021 seems like the year that might just test that maxim.

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic first shuttered cinemas in March last year, the streaming sector has become an even more essential part of the movie landscape than it already was. Indeed, it seems as if Netflix is the biggest player in this year’s awards season mostly because of its willingness and ability to keep the release calendar moving. Few other studios can boast of the combined heft of Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — to name just three.

Read more: Netflix upping prices as England enters third lockdown

Rather than the awards movies, though, it’s at the bigger end of the spectrum that the battle for 2021 feels likely to be fought. That’s not to say that bigger necessarily means blockbusters. In fact, two big Amazon stories are the key cases. Huge sci-fi actioner The Tomorrow War, starring Chris Pratt, is currently being shopped to streamers and Amazon is reportedly offering $200m (£146m) to secure the lucrative star vehicle. Meanwhile, the same company shelled out approximately $125m (£91m) last year to acquire comedy sequel Coming 2 America.

'Coming 2 America'. (Credit: Amazon Studios)
'Coming 2 America'. (Credit: Amazon Studios)

These mammoth price tags — as well as the $80m (£58m) Amazon reportedly paid for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — show the value to streamers of all kinds of movies. A highly-anticipated comedy property is just as valuable as the sort of film that would stand a chance at earning in excess of $500m (£365m) at the global box office in normal times. Big money is being shelled out, particularly by Amazon, in order to create the most exciting slate possible. That’s what brings in the subscribers.

Read more: Most exciting movies coming in 2021

Netflix isn’t scrimping on its catalogue either. The platform announced this week that they have an enviable supply of brand new movies on the way, releasing at least one new original film every single week in 2021.

There are awards-courting projects like Malcolm & Marie rubbing shoulders with the likes of zombie actioner Army of the Dead, starry Adam McKay outing Don’t Look Up and blockbuster Red Notice. The latter combines Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds. If there’s a more bankable trio in Hollywood right now, I’d love to know who they are.

Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson are set to join forces in 'Red Notice'. (Credit: Hiram Garcia/Dwayne Johnson/Instagram)
Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson are set to join forces in 'Red Notice'. (Credit: Hiram Garcia/Dwayne Johnson/Instagram)

Warner Bros is also taking a big swing this year. The studio risked the ire of its fans and indeed directors — hello Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve — with its announcement that the entire WB slate in 2021 would be released simultaneously in cinemas and via the HBO Max streaming platform. This will certainly bolster subscribers for HBO Max — something Wonder Woman 1984 seems to have already illustrated — but many are concerned it could permanently diminish the value of the cinema experience. If audiences can watch Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong at home this year, will they be willing to go back into cinemas for Dune 2 and Godzilla vs. Kong vs. Mothra vs. King Ghidorah in a few years’ time?

HBO Max, notably, does not yet exist outside of the USA and it is not yet clear how Warner Bros is planning to release movies in other countries. Wonder Woman 1984, for example, has just arrived on premium VOD in the UK — a month after its cinema release into the pre-lockdown world of December. Meanwhile, this week’s HBO Max premiere Locked Down — a pandemic heist movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway — is yet to nail down a British release date.

Read more: Wonder Woman 1984 and other films that defined 2020

There’s also the Disney-sized elephant — or mouse — in the room. Alongside its Marvel and Star Wars TV shows, Disney already has animated blockbuster Raya and the Last Dragon scheduled to arrive on the Disney+ streaming service in March. After releasing Pixar animation Soul for no extra fee over Christmas, Raya will use the same “Premier Access” model that the company deployed for the release of Mulan in September.

Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac in a still from Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. (Warner Bros.)
Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac in a still from Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. (Warner Bros.)

As we move into a new year — and one which looks set to be mostly devoid of cinema experiences — the streamers are noticeably upping their game in terms of tactics and sheer quantity of material. The casual assumption that households are willing to pay for Amazon, Netflix, NOW TV, Disney+ and others all at once is seemingly ebbing away. There’s an implicit acknowledgement that, with family incomes squeezed by the pandemic, something has to give.

Read more: Most searched-for streaming shows in 2020

Suddenly, the streaming wars are a contest of sabre-rattling, chest-beating and just about every other macho gesture you can imagine. The consequences are huge. Not only are there billions of dollars at stake, but the future of cinema as an art form may depend upon who emerges with the most cash when the dust of COVID-19 finally settles. If the streaming wars have been cold for the last few years, they’re certainly heating up now.

In the meantime, though, those of us who are lucky enough to have access to these platforms will be able to watch a tonne of really great films. And not all of them will star Adam Sandler. That’s well worth celebrating.

Watch: Netflix unveils trailer for 2021 movie slate