PART III on Streaming vs Theatrically-Released Films: Are Straight-to-Streaming Films More Like Made-for-TV Movies or Theatrical Films?

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(Just a reminder: every article in this series is being collected in one giant substack post/article here. It’s sort of like a little e-book for all of my subscribers.) 

PART III – Customer Reviews, Awareness & Interest Metrics

Though I always push myself to question my assumptions, conclusions and data—hence my self-dubbed, semi-sarcastic nickname “Entertainment Nuance Guy”—I try to not get too distracted anticipating feedback/pushback/counter-arguments ahead of time. If you’ve been a writer long enough, especially in the internet era, you eventually figure out that a lot of feedback just isn’t in good faith.

I think there’s a lot of people who, after reading this series, will push back, regardless of the data and mountains of evidence and say:

You don’t get it! Streaming exclusivity is just more valuable to a streamer. You just can’t quantify it.

Thinking about this possible rebuttal, I think I came up with the question that I’d ask in response:

Are streaming films actually just made-for-TV movies?

I’ve heard some other critics/cultural pundits make this point before, including the iFanboy crew on their media roundup podcasts and the three hosts on the Across the Movie Aisle podcast; watching a film on your TV just isn’t the same as watching it on the big screen, so straight-to-streaming films feel like TV movies. 

Which might sound insulting to straight-to-streaming films—and it kind of is—but I think it frames the issue nicely. For nearly a decade now, Hollywood (or many in Hollywood and Silicon Valley) have convinced themselves that streaming is superior to theaters, but in actuality, streaming is just television. And for many viewers, straight-to-streaming films just aren’t as special as movies that went to theaters. They don’t feel as big, notable or cinematic. They’re made-for-TV films.

Both of the podcasts I mentioned above brought up Netflix’s “made-for-TV movie” problem while discussing All Quiet on the Western Front, to which you might be like, “What? Nothing is more cinematic than a war film!” And I agree! But nothing is less cinematic than watching a movie, at home, with your phone in hand. And even though TVs are larger than ever (especially for wealthy people, who own larger homes and larger TVs), the experience still isn’t the same as seeing it in theaters. 

And so I wonder with straight-to-streaming films…can they feel big? Can they feel special? And to answer that, let’s see what viewers think. 

The focus today is user reviews—looking at IMDb—and interest metrics—like Wikipedia page views, Google Trends search traffic, and TV Time interest metrics. To be clear: it wasn’t until I collected today’s data that I felt confident saying that (most) movies should go to theaters first. For the first two articles in this series, I only used Nielsen ratings data, but the overall pattern (theatrical titles are more popular than straight-to-streaming movies) holds true over almost any dataset or measurement metric, from viewership to customer reviews to interest and awareness metrics.

Let’s dive right in. 

Customer Reviews – IMDb

I just saw a tweet—complaining about a very popular show getting renewed for a second season compared to a far less popular show not getting renewed—that cited Rotten Tomatoes user reviews. Well, don’t expect me to make that comparison. Compared to other websites, IMDb has far and away the largest number of regular users. Both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, in terms of user reviews, are tiny in comparison.

For now, to gauge what’s more popular, streaming films or feature films, let’s look at IMDb. For new readers, a quick reminder: I don’t care about a film’s rating alone, but focus more on the overall number of reviews. More popular films tend to have more reviews, usually more reviews by an order of magnitude. Or two. Elite films have hundreds of thousands or millions of reviews and ratings above an 8.

(Quick data note: for the IMDb, Google Trends and Wikipedia data today, I pulled the numbers for the top 20 “straight-to-streaming” films for 2022, in terms of total viewership, then I pulled the top 20 Pay 1 and “early” films in terms of top streaming viewership (which I label “Top Streaming” in the graphs below). Then I added any other theatrical films that didn’t appear on streaming, but showed up in the top 20 films by domestic box office for 2022 (which I label “Top 20 Domestic Box Office” in the graphs below). I did this because there are still big, big films that show up in interest metrics, but didn’t have streaming releases for various rights/licensing or timing reasons. For example, Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t on streaming yet and The Batman came out when HBO Max’s viewership still wasn’t public.)

Once again—trying to answer the question of what’s more popular, films that go to streaming or not—the results are stark. First, here are the averages on the most apples-to-apples comparison:

I did not predict that the average score of a theatrical film would be higher, but that makes sense; people who see a movie in theaters are probably more likely to like that film. Then again, that difference is very small, 6%. But the difference between the number of reviews is gigantic, which sort of makes any difference in customer ratings moot. 

And here’s the scatter plot, where you can see the results for yourself, with theatrical films in green (for money) and streaming in grey:

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The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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