On Thursday, Disney unveiled a plan to add more than 50 new series and original films to its streaming platform, Disney+, over the next few years. Disney’s decision to supersize its streaming offerings mirrors WarnerMedia’s recent announcement that it will release its full slate of 2021 motion pictures directly to HBO Max. Directors and agents are wailing and gnashing their teeth (Christopher Nolan loudest of all) at media companies’ apparent abandonment of theatrical releases. But a different contingent—media pirates—let out a huge cheer at the prospect of so much quality content premiering online next year. As Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter noted, “[Warner] is pretending that pirates won’t pounce as soon as these films are streaming on HBO Max,” but pounce, they certainly will. Media piracy has seen several golden ages before, including Napster’s heyday (1999-2002) and The Pirate Bay’s peak years (2003-2008), but Warner and Disney’s new strategies all but assure 2021 will be the dawning of a platinum age. What we’re about to see will go down in pirate lore forever.
Despite the media industries’ ongoing attempts to impede internet piracy of films, television episodes, music, video games, and other digital cultural products, the peer-to-peer infrastructure through which millions of users illicitly upload and download copyrighted files has been fully functional for over 20 years. My spouse, Benjamin De Kosnik, and I have developed a suite of tools for sampling BitTorrent activity around specific media files, and our research shows that online piracy was already thriving thanks to streaming. The final episode of HBO’s hit Game of Thrones was downloaded 32 million times over the 15 weeks after its airing, and Disney’s 2020 film Mulan was downloaded 21.4 million times in the 12 weeks after its release. (Our data does not reflect the total size of pirate activity, since each downloaded file can then be distributed and streamed to thousands of viewers.)
Historically, pirates have suffered from a “zero-day” problem: When a film debuted in theaters, there were no perfect digital copies of the film that could be circulated; pirates either had to pay to see it in person, watch a low-quality “cam” version (made by someone in a theater covertly recording the movie), or resign themselves to waiting for months until a Blu-Ray release of the movie would be issued. But next year, when all 17 new Warner films premiere on HBO Max, pirates will immediately have perfect copies to share.
But they won’t be the only beneficiaries. This piracy boon will be good for media companies and content creators as well, even if they lose out on some ticket revenue and subscription dollars. In 2021, more people will watch films on their release date than ever before, because the Warner films will travel into homes through HBO Max and through the pirate network. Many pirates are also good fans, and they will heavily promote the Warner films they like on social media, which will drive up HBO Max subscriptions and increase the cultural value of whichever of the offerings they like best. Pirates could make some of the Warner 2021 films legends, by acting quickly to cement their reputations among movie lovers.
2021 will be a piracy bonanza, but there’s no reason to think it will be a one-time jubilee. Rather, it will mark the start of a new era for media corporations. Warner doesn’t stand alone in its decision to drop its planned theatrical releases on its streaming platform right away. Disney shifted first, debuting both Hamilton and Mulan on Disney+ in 2020 when the long-running Covid-19 crisis made cinemagoing either impossible or highly inadvisable. And because of Disney and Warner’s moves this year and next, it’s likely that, post-pandemic, studios will opt to release some big-name titles on streaming and in theaters simultaneously, and will open some titles on streaming only. In other words, the celebration probably won’t be limited to 2021, as pirates will get perfect zero-day copies of many motion pictures beyond next year.
One company will be much better positioned than others to profit from these major changes to the media landscape: Disney. Disney is poised to use its Disney+ hits to boost not only streaming subscriptions, but ticket sales for its parks, cruises, concerts, and other live events, whenever those become safe again.
In the post-Covid media economy, nearly all content could essentially serve as marketing campaigns for physical, in-person offerings. With so much recorded audiovisual entertainment becoming available relatively cheaply via streaming services or for free, via pirate networks, the one media-related category that seems likely to attract high consumer spending will be physical experiences. People will want to go to places—and do and see and smell and taste and touch things—after a prolonged period of restricted movement and limited socializing. People will also seek to populate their social media feeds with photos and videos of themselves in unique and exciting environments. Disney parks’ attendance was always going to go gangbusters after the pandemic, but with Disney feeding fresh media content to hundreds of millions of households during the pandemic—both via Disney+ and via pirate networks—the Mouse is nurturing a powerful collective longing to enter into Disney-themed spaces as soon as health protocols allow.
Which is why I suspect that Disney is deliberately playing into pirates’ hands. By debuting high-profile projects to massive global audiences through both licit and illicit online mechanisms, Disney ensures that an enormous hype machine will immediately promote those projects. It won’t matter that half or more of that machine is powered by pirates, because it will enable Disney properties to drive and define culture, and guarantee that, after Covid-19, massive crowds will pay top dollar to (temporarily) inhabit cultural worlds they have come to love through their screens. It doesn’t matter that Disney surrendered the huge box office that a movie like Mulan could have earned if theaters had been open in 2020. What matters to Disney is that a lot of people watched that movie, even if they didn’t pay for it, and that easy, constant access to its content has grown the fanbase, making fans eager to give Disneyland, Disney World, and Disney Cruises thousands of dollars in 2022.
So where is Warner’s park, or Netflix’s park? To reap high profits going forward, media corporations will need to win at both streaming and experiences. Universal has parks, but its streaming service Peacock has yet to gain cultural currency. A wise move on Netflix’s part would be to bid soon (if it hasn’t already) on a movie theater chain like Alamo Drafthouse, which combines the latest in projection and sound technology with a cool retro-nostalgia vibe, and serves high-quality food and drinks throughout each screening. Steven Soderbergh told The Daily Beast earlier this week that he sees an opportunity for large movie chains to become “repertory cinemas” in the future, attracting audiences who want to see classic films in theaters. Even if people can see movies in their homes at low or no cost, they may pay quite a bit for moviegoing as a special event.
A wide range of media-themed experiences are similarly likely to gain traction, including meet-and-greets, live performances, panel discussions (such as PaleyFest’s), and conventions (like Comic-Cons), where fans can pay for the privilege of seeing and even meeting creatives and cast members, play with official props, visit set replicas, and otherwise have embodied, theatrical encounters with their favorite actors, directors, characters, and settings—which they can then transform into social media posts in which they, the fans, are the stars. Fan events always served to promote TV series and movies, but in a post-Covid climate, this operation may work in reverse, too: shows and films could be promotions for exciting in-person activations.
Disney has long used media productions as inspirations, occasions, and advertisements for pricey live entertainment, and it is going even more strongly in that direction by dropping new titles online mid-pandemic. Other major media companies should follow suit if they can. 2021, pirates’ best year ever, may starve Hollywood’s old revenue models, but it may also nourish and nurture the future experience economy.
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