In the 1930s and 1940s, the film studio MGM pumped out 50 new movies a year, most of which featured the world’s biggest stars at the time: Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and countless others. MGM co-founder and lead executive, Louis B. Mayer, famously boasted that the studio had “more stars than there are in the heavens.” Not long after that, antitrust regulation and the advent of television ended Hollywood’s system of studio dominance, and no company has been as prolific since.
Netflix in 2021 is the closest thing.
The streaming service announced today it will release 70 new original movies this year—nearly 50 more than the next closest competitor, Disney. As traditional studios remain uncertain about if and how they can release content in 2021, Netflix’s playbook has hardly changed. For as long as the pandemic lasts, Netflix will dominate the film industry, releasing more movies—with more stars—than many of its rivals combined. It says it will release at least one movie every week for the entire year—a feat not even MGM in its heyday could accomplish.
Netflix is able to do this because, unlike the studios of old, many of the movies it releases are not produced in-house, but rather acquired from other companies. That’s helped create a diverse, star-studded lineup. On Netflix’s 2021 slate are films starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Chris Evans, Jonah Hill, Zendaya, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sandra Bullock, Chris Hemsworth, and Denzel Washington. It includes the directorial debuts of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Halle Berry and spans a wide variety of filmmakers and genres, from Zack Snyder to Jane Campion, from action epics to black-and-white dramas. Ten films will be in languages other than English.
Meanwhile, traditional studios are scrambling to figure out their schedules. The vaccine rollout in the US has gone slower than anticipated, leaving executives worried they might have to scrap—or at least adjust, again—their plans for theatrical movie releases. US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said recently that it may not be until the fall that theaters can return to unrestricted operation (and even then, audience members may still have to wear masks).
That leaves the studios utterly helpless to compete with Netflix’s output, lest they decide to sacrifice theaters entirely and release the bulk of their movies on streaming services, as WarnerMedia has done. But even in that case, WarnerMedia’s global reach and volume of titles each pale in comparison to those of Netflix.
Since the breakdown of Hollywood’s Golden Age studio system, we’ve seen other studios dominate before. It was only two years ago when Disney, off the back of its deep well of lucrative Marvel and Lucasfilm intellectual property, commanded a near 40% box office share. Disney’s empire of theme parks and merchandise is far beyond anything Louis B. Mayer could have dreamed of 90 years ago.
But even in Disney’s most dominant years, it never released nearly as many movies as Netflix plans to in 2021. Netflix’s situation is unique: It is the only film distributor (save for maybe Amazon) that is mostly immune to the effects of the pandemic. Disney’s streaming service is thriving, but its other businesses are languishing.
At some point, theaters are expected to rebound, and with them, the traditional studios, which can then cut back into Netflix’s cultural market share. But until then, Netflix will have movie watchers’ undivided attention—apparently every single week. And this year’s slate could further entrench Netflix with viewers around the world for many years to come.