Category: Ideas

Why Most Netflix Subscriber Charts No Longer Include the US Only Numbers – Visual of the Week

This week’s “visual of the week” is a simple one: the number of Netflix subscribers in the United States over time. (You should know the top line number from my chart last week.)

One of my goals with this series isn’t to make all brand new charts, but update some of the best visuals. Last year, one of my best articles was showing how many subscribers Netflix has had over time. The challenge? Netflix changes definitions all the time on us. Meaning making an “apples-to-apples” chart is fairly difficult. This is why most US subscriber charts start around 2012, because that’s when Netflix started separating US streaming subscribers from DVD subscribers. (Technically they provided the 2011 numbers, but for some reason most subscriber counts couldn’t find that 2011 data comparison.)

Earlier this year, Netflix changed definitions again. They combined US and Canadian subscribers to make UCAN. So going forward, we won’t see many “US only” charts since most outlets don’t publish estimates. But I do. Since US subscribers are about 90.3% of UCAN subscribers, I use that to estimate.

Here is the update for Netflix subscriber definitions in the US over time:

NFLX Subscribers by Type

And in chart form.

NFLX Subscribers Over Time

Quick Thoughts

– In other words, every different color in the chart above is when Netflix has changed definitions. Last year, my goal was to find total subscribers, including paying DVD subscribers.

– As for forecasting, in Q3 of last year, I though Netflix would end the year with about 60.1 subscribers and they ended up with 61 million streaming only. Earlier in the year, I’d estimated 60 million subscribers, and I ended up being fairly close (off by about 1.6%). (Notably, my back of the envelope calculation that the price increase was needed to offset cash flow losses hit the 61 million on the head.)

– My other big prediction is that Netflix maxes out at about 70 million total subscribers in the US. So far we’re on track for that, but the Covid-19 lockdowns threw off all the timing. Mainly because Covid-19 pulled forward a lot of subscribers. Which will make 2021 fascinating to see if Netflix continues to add US customers, or if it slows down. (Already Netflix is seeing quarterly fluctuations in the US/UCAN numbers, with three quarters less than 500K adds and one quarter losing US subscribers last year.)

– As for the end of this year, Netflix is currently at 73.1 million UCAN subscribers and my hot take is that I think they stay at about that level for the end of Q4. I could easily be wrong, but it seems safer to predict flat growth with Netflix more than it does high growth. 

– If you’re new to the Entertainment Strategy Guy, these three articles on Netflix are much deeper dives into how I gathered and calculated these Netflix numbers.

Jan 2019 “Prediction Time: Forecasting the Effect of Netflix’s Price Increase on US Subscribers”

Sep 2019 “Why I Think Netflix Will End Up with 70 Million US Subscribers: Applying Bass Diffusion To The Streaming Wars

Oct 2019 “Why Most Netflix Charts Start in 2012: A History of Netflix Subscribers”

Netflix Has as Many Subscribers as Disney+ and Prime Video Put Together In the United States – Visual of the Week

Let me tell you a pet peeve of mine. It’s folks citing how many Amazon Prime Video subscribers Amazon has. 

Because they don’t know.

What you know, or have been told once, is how many Amazon Prime subscribers there are. With Prime comes access to Prime Video. We don’t know how many members actually use that service or, more importantly, know how many value the service enough to pay for it on a recurring basis. (What a subscription is, by definition.)

But here’s what’s crazier: we don’t even know how many Amazon Prime subscribers there are by country. They could have 50 million US Prime members…or 125 million. Literally know one knows. (In fact, we haven’t gotten an update on Prime membership since January.)

This is indicative of a larger phenomenon of the “streaming wars”. The streamers have barely told us how well they are doing. By my estimates, only 4 of the 12 biggest streamers have shared actual US subscriber numbers! (Hulu, ESPN+, HBO Max and Starz)

That’s right, due to non-disclosure, global-only numbers, or definitional craziness, we really can’t compare the streamers to each other in the United States.

Well no more!

I’ve decided to fix this glaring mistake. What I’m going to do is provide the EntStrategyGuy Definitive Estimate for all the major streamers US subscriber base. Today, I’ll provide my table, chart and some notes, then tomorrow I’ll provide the longer, gory details. First, here’s the chart:

Chart - US Paid Streaming SubscribersAnd the table, which I’ll explain tomorrow:

Screen Shot 2020-11-18 at 9.03.01 AM

About That Headline

If the internet weren’t a cesspool of clickbait, I could have just explained what this article is, “My estimate of US subscribers for the streamers.” But that doesn’t get the clicks. A flashy headline on Netflix? That does.

Tomorrow, like I will say multiple times, is where I’ll really provide insights into this process and data. For now, though, if you have one takeaway, it should be that the streaming wars are messy. They are filled with nuance. The more that someone online pushes a simplistic narrative (Netflix has already won; Disney+ will kill Netflix; TV is dead) the less you should listen. There are no simple narratives.

So my headline is 100% true, and building this chart makes that clear. When it comes to one single streamer in the United States, Netflix is about twice as far ahead as its nearest competitors. Really, they are in the first tier by themselves. Then there is a second tier of services with about 35 million subscribers (Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max and Prime Video). Then a third tier of folks trying to break into that second tier (Apple, Peacock, Starz, CBS, Showtime, maybe AMC+). 

Yet, this look is in many ways a backwards looking view. The three oldest services happen to be the three oldest. The difficulty is forecasting what comes next. If we’re looking at growth, Netflix at the top was flat last quarter and down earlier in the year. And likely would have stayed that way all year in America except for Covid. Meanwhile, can the new streamers add subscribers? I think they can.

At least now, we/I have a common fact set to evaluate the United States performance of the streamers.

Quick FAQs

– What about global? I’m just focusing on the United States since many of these streamers are US-only. And we have the best data for this country. As the streaming wars continue, though, I’ll do a similar look for worldwide. (Though comparing global numbers to US only numbers is not a good method to do that.)

– How did you get that Amazon number? It’s an estimate of an estimate of an estimate, which makes it a guess. I’ll explain tomorrow.

– Why didn’t “smaller streamer TBD” make the list? I set the cut off at roughly 2 million subscribers. Anything smaller would have made the chart difficult to read. Again, I’ll explain my rules tomorrow.

– What if you disagree? Well, tomorrow I’ll explain how I calculated each one, so if you want to adjust the estimates you can. That will allow you to disagree, but within the right zone of possible answers.

– [From Corporate PR] You got our numbers all wrong! One, if you don’t put them out, then no I didn’t. If any company wants to correct my math, send me three years of financial data and I’ll happily provide an exclusive update.

(This is the first article in a three part series estimating how many US paid streaming subscribers there are in the US. Read about how I calculated the numbers here or here.)

The Decay is Real: Streaming Films on Netflix (and others) Lose Viewership Very Quickly – Visual of the Week

In December of 2018, Netflix let loose with their first datecdote™. They told us this…

But they went further! By their earnings report, they started telling us how many folks were watching their films in the first 28 days. Including an updated number for Bird Box of 80 millions subscribers watching 70%. Which allowed me to draw this conclusion:

IMAGE 1 - Film Decay Bird Box

As I wrote at the time, “the decay is real!”

Specifically, films that premiere on Netflix tend to have a significant chunk of their viewership in the first week or weekend. This is a binge-release wide phenomenon. Yet I had trouble proving the case. The other main piece of data I use is Google Trends data. But Google Trends isn’t viewership, just interest. I needed another data source (or leak) to prove it.

(Prove it to you, by the way. Not me. I know it’s true from personal experience at a major streamer. But non-disclosure agreements mean I can’t use that data.)

The decay of films has direct ramifications on the streaming wars. The steeper a film decays, the harder it is to monetize long term. So knowing how shows and films perform over time is important for the streaming wars. To show just one example, my Mulan analysis relied on forecasting its decay over time.

So I had a pretty strong hypothesis but couldn’t prove it beyond one example. Until today!

See Nielsen has been releasing weekly top ten lists of the most streamed shows. By total minutes viewed. They provided my their data going back to April of 2020. What I can do now is analyze movie performance to see if my hypothesis bears out. And it does. 

But let’s start with what this data is. I complain bitterly that most articles don’t lay this out, so here you go.

Who – Streaming customers
What – Total hours viewed (Nielsen provides million minutes and I divide by 60)
What (platform) – Any service
Where – In the United States
When – From March 30th to October 18th 2020
When (time period) – Measured Monday to Sunday.
How (did I get it) – Nielsen provided.

This data set ended up being 29 weeks of data, or 290 data points. Separating out the films gave me 17 unique films that ended up on the streaming top ten, 16 Netflix and one Disney. Of the 17 films, only six had two weeks of data. So I plotted the decay and got this:

IMAGE 2 - Total per WeekHypothesis failed! Look at Extraction or Old Guard. They only decayed at roughly the rate of 28% and 20% respectively. 

Ah, but apples-to-apples, am I right? Nielsen starts their data on Mondays. And not all Netflix films were released on the same day of the week. Historically, Netflix released big films on Fridays, but started moving some films to Wednesday. Like Enola Holmes. So let’s account for this and change our metric to hours per day (millions):

IMAGE 3 - Per WEekThere you go! See, the decay is real! (69 and 65% decay for Extraction and The Old Guard.)

But we can go one final step further. See, no Netflix film made it in the top ten for three weeks in a row. (With the caveat that we won’t know Hubie Halloween results until next week. Maybe it breaks the trend due to its theme.) This means we know that at the very least the lowest rated film in the top ten is the ceiling for our five films decay. That gives us this chart:

IMAGE 4 - Per WEek with with 3To iterate, the week 3 numbers is the maximum number of hours per day a film could have received based on the number 10 film in Nielsen’s streaming rates. The actual number could be even lower. So I’d say Extraction, The Old Guard and Project Power (all Friday releases) are the best look at what decay for a given title looks on Netflix week-to-week. (I would bet lots of money Enola Holmes and The Wrong Missy lost viewership into week 3.)

In total, this makes 9 films that show this sharp decay. The six above, plus Bird Box (see opening) and The Irishman and Murder Mystery, which are the only two other films that Netflix confirmed the opening weekend and 28 day totals. (Murder Mystery had 45 million subscribers opening weeekend and 73 million at 28 days, at 70% completion. Irishman had 26 million opening week at 70% completion into 47 million 28 days.)

Now that I have my film data set cleaned up, there are a lot more questions to answer. What type of films made the top ten list? What does this say about Netflix’s strategy? What about the correlation of US Nielsen minutes viewed to Netflix global 2 minute datecdotes? What films made Nielsen’s list but not Netflix’s datecdote list? Those are all great questions, but will come in future articles. 

Thanks to Nielsen for providing the data. If you’re an analytics company that wants to give me data, send me an email.

(By the way, if you wanted to know the Google Trends look of those films, here you go:

IMAGE 5 - GTrends

Read My Latest “Why Did Netflix Cancel ‘Away’? (Hint: The Company’s Going Through A Midlife Crisis)”

It’s fairly clear Netflix is cancelling more shows sooner than they have in year’s past. The latest victim is the space epic Away. This move is more than a streamer cancelling an expensive show that underperformed, it shows that Netflix is embracing (some) cost discipline as it enters its third decade.

Read about that at Decider. This one is short, but it packs in a lot of biz thoughts.

Visual of the Week – Netflix Top Ten Series by Total Minutes Viewed

One of the big questions every quarter is whether or not Netflix will hit its quarterly subscriber growth estimate. This leaves analysts scrambling to read the tea leaves from app downloads and what not to try to figure out if they are on track or not. Tomorrow (Tuesday Oct 20th) will tell us one way or another.

My contribution to this is to note that often having valuable content drives adoption and usage, and hence subscriber growth. This sounds relatively benign, as a statement, but has profound implications for whether or not Netflix has a “moat”. Or indestructible defensive position. If Netflix is simply another content creator whose success depends on producing good content, well they’re as mortal as the rest.

So my data of the week is one look at content. There are lots of ways to do this (Hedgeye Communications used Google Trends to brilliantly show this in a newsletter last night), and the data set I’ve been playing with recently is Nielsen’s top ten streaming shows each week. Here is the total minutes viewed for Netflix from Nielsen by week for the United States from end of March to present, with a big gap:

Screen Shot 2020-10-19 at 10.45.22 AM

And here’s the table for folks who want the raw numbers. I also included how many titles they had in the top ten.

Screen Shot 2020-10-19 at 10.50.29 AM

Ramifications/Thoughts/Insights

– Hits drive the ratings. Again, this is so obvious and has been true for decades it sounds silly to restate it, but in the “digitally disrupted” world, we have to relearn old lessons.

– Man, look at March! It turns out Tiger King and Ozark drove huge viewing to the platform. Almost 2.5 times more viewing to the top ten.

– Likely this means that content in Q2 was much more popular than Q3. Tentatively, this would portend a drop in US and Canadian subscribers in the next earnings report. (Some application sign-up and download data is presaging this outcome as well.)

– Yes, the last three weeks have seen 1 to 2 non-Netflix shows make the list, making this time series not totally apples-to-apples over time. That said, I ran the list with the Amazon and Disney shows, and it looks mostly the same. Meaning that the top 3-5 shows tend to account for most of the viewership, so having one or two small shows with 500 million minutes viewed doesn’t radically change the numbers.

– I have a ton to unpack for these Nielsen numbers to learn/prove more insights about how content behaves on Netflix and other streamers. (Trust me, I know a ton from my previous role about how the content behaves, but I want to show/prove it in the data. And for the most part, it behaves the way I expect.)

– Long term, I hope to compare Nielsen’s data to Netflix’s Top 10 data (provided by Flix Patrol) to Netflix’s own datecdotes to Google Trends and more, but that takes time. Also, if you have a data set you want to share, my email is on the contact page!

– Specifically, I’m on the look out for the missing weeks of top ten data from this Nielsen data set. Someone sent me the April and May numbers, I’d love to have March, June and July if anyone has them. Your confidentiality assured.

Visual of the Week – Netflix Produces 3.3% of Its Top Streaming Shows

Over the last six weeks, Nielsen has released a top ten list of the most streamed series/films by total minutes viewed. I’ve been taking this data and adding a layer of detail on top, specifically who produces and who distributes what shows on Netflix, Amazon and so on. Now that we have six weeks of data, we can start to parse some insights. 

(Thanks to Kasey Moore of Whats-On-Netflix for saving the Nielsen lists for me.)

The visual of the week for this week is just a look at who owns what in the streaming wars. Of the 52 billion minutes of TV tracked by Nielsen, here’s who produced what and what shows they own (by parent company):

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 8.48.12 AM

And here is the table if you want to see how the sausage is made.

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 8.48.19 AM

Now some insights/details.

— Some shows were co-productions, in which case I split ownership between the two companies. Meaning, the percentages won’t add up to 100%, since some shows were counted in both owners’ percentages.
— Two films/series were not on Netflix (The Boys and Mulan), but that only boosts Netflix to 3.3% in “Netflix-only” series.
— I focused on major producers only. The traditional conglomerates. Usually, any of these shows has a bunch of smaller producers attached; I counted who likely paid the production budget.
— I use Wikipedia to determine producers with another source who tracks everything on Netflix by copyright ownership. The closest call was Umbrella Academy, which is also co-distributed by Netflix. However, NBC Universal owns the copyright outright so Netflix will not own it in perpetuity. Moreover, they aren’t listed as a producer, so didn’t make this list.
— That’s really what I’m trying to get at by focusing on producers versus distributors. The idea that who “owns” a piece of content so they can eventually maximize the value of it.
— I can hear the criticism, “Well this list is mostly library content.” And that’s true, but not 100% correct. Even the list of first and second run content by Netflix is almost entirely licensed content.
Seriously, don’t use “Netflix Originals” as a descriptor. It really doesn’t capture the key parts of ownership in content.
— I will run this same analysis on the FlixPatrol data for Netflix’s Top Ten list, but I haven’t had time to do that yet.

Bottom Line: A core thesis of Netflix’s content spend has been to build a “moat” of original content they own in perpetuity. Clearly they have a ways to go before they truly own their content.

The Content Battles are Competitive in the Streaming Wars

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling
The Flywheel Is a Lie!

Wars tend to have their own cadences. Some start quickly and one side gains an advantage, and wins the war. Sometimes in months. (The Franco-Prussian War, for example.) Some wars bog down into stalemates, that take years, with neither side getting an advantage. (The first World War, for example.) And in some wars, one side gains a huge advantage, everyone assumes they will win for sure, only to find that the initial leaders lose the war. (The Axis in the second World War, for example.)

For years, a lot of folks have assumed the streaming wars are the first type of war. Netflix started streaming in 2008, and got out to such a commanding lead it looked unlikely that anyone would catch them. And as I’ve shown in charts before, Netflix really is far ahead.

IMAGE 1 Netflix a Broadcast

Netflix is so far ahead, some analysts say the war is over. (You know who they are, so even though I’m not linking to them, this isn’t a straw man argument.)

Of course, this begs the question: what type of war is this? Is this a Franco-Prussian War that is already over before it starts? Or a World War II, where Germany and Japan are doomed, they just don’t know it yet? 

Over at Decider, I’m writing a recurring feature where I’ll take stock of the last month (or so) and declare a “winner” for the most popular piece of content. (The latest went up last Friday.) I’m in love with the concept, because it forces me to check in regularly with how well shows are actually doing. In last week’s edition, I got a TON of insights that one article couldn’t contain them all. So here is one for today:

The streaming wars are increasingly competitive.

In other words, I think the streaming wars will look more like World War II than the Franco-Prussian war. (Fine, enough with the war metaphors.) 

If you want to know what separates the “bulls” from the “bears” on Netflix’s strategy/future/stock price, it’s this view of the war. If the streaming wars are already over, then Netflix is priced too low. If new entrants can gain audience share, then it’s a genuine competition. The last two months of data show an increasingly completive content landscape, and it’s a trend which will likely pick up stream. Let me explain why.

To start, we have more and more data to understand (American) streaming viewing.

Back in July, I mostly used Google Trends data to estimate what was the most popular film in America. I used some of the customer ratings too, but not much more. The problem is that each of these data sources can be noisy. Since then, though, the data situation keeps getting a lot clearer, as I wrote about in August:

– FlixPatrol is having their data consolidated by Variety VIP. FlixPatrol has shared their data with other folks as well. (They count Netflix, Amazon, Disney and other top ten lists around the world.)
– Nielsen started releasing SVOD Top Ten lists (though four weeks delayed) by total minutes viewed.
– And after Mulan came out a few companies gave peaks at their data, including 7 Park, Reelgood and Antenna. (They all measure in slightly different ways.)
– Parrot Analytics has been releasing their weekly top ten since last year.

Are any of these data analytics firms perfect? No. In fact, I have issues with each of them, ranging from questions about their methodology to questions about their sample size/make up.  Be assured, when the Entertainment Strategy Guy is reviewing a data set, I’m looking for outliers which make me question the data. If I see them, I’ll try to call them out.

Thankfully, most of the data sources are directionally aligned, meaning they are all likely measuring signal, not noise. 

Next, all of the sources are showing the trend of more and more “non-Netflix” shows/films in the top ratings

I noticed this first when reading Variety VIP’s write up of 7 Park’s subscriber data from August and July. 7 Park analyzes wether a unique customer watches a piece of content, so it’s gives some insight into how many different shows are being watched by various customers. Here’s the data from August and September that 7 Park shared with me. This is measuring “audience share” meaning it doesn’t account for how much customer watches, simply whether a unique customer engaged with a piece of content:

IMAGE 2 IPB Streaming Content Battle

That’s four different streamers in both charts. Hulu, Amazon and Disney+ each put a top show into the measurement. AA year ago, it would have been all Netflix red. Even Amazon wasn’t breaking through. 

(A note on 7Park data: I do have some questions about their sample size. It may over-represent avid streamers, as the Apple TV+ usage is higher than I would have guessed. This applies to some of the other folks as well, such as Reelgood.)

Like I said, though, directionally this lines up with other sources. Yesterday Nielsen updated their latest Weekly SVOD Top Ten. For the first time since they launched in August, a non-Netflix streamer made the list. And not just one, two!

IMAGE 3 - Nielsen Data

Again, Netflix is still the king. This is because usage makes it even harder for the smaller streamers to catch up, so Netflix owns 80% of the list. But the story isn’t about who is currently leading, but who is catching up. Here’s Parrot Analytics look at the current most “in-demand” series.

IMAGE 4 - Parrot Analytics

In this case, since they measure demand not simply viewership, the spread is much broader. This is driven by the popularity of a lot of traditional firm’s IP. 

(Regarding Parrot Analytics, I have concerns their data overrates the conversation around super heroes and genre. It also lags a bit too much for my taste.)

The Viewership Wars are Joining the Streaming Wars

Overall, this change shouldn’t be too surprising. The battle for viewership and dominance of ratings has been the quest of TV channel executives since the dawn of TV. And the battle for the dominance of box office has been even longer. 

Over both those battles, various channels and studios have taken leads. In the 1990s, NBC looked unstoppable. (Must See TV) CBS took over broadcast ratings in the 2000s by launching a series of “acronym” shows and Chuck Lorre comedies. In film, Disney took over box office in the late 1980s, then again in the 2010s. Even as most executives can’t sustain permanent advantages, everyone so often someone does.

Netflix is currently the leader. Can they retain it indefinitely? Probably not. 

Even now, as far ahead as Netflix is in viewership, it doesn’t own a majority of all TV viewership. In fact, it doesn’t own a majority of streaming time. This is why when you look at Parrot Analytics demand measurements for all TV, the view features even fewer Netflix shows, since streaming is still only 25% of all TV time.

IMAGE 5 - Parrot Analytics

This shows up in the Reelgood data as well. Reelgood tracks audience behaviors on a range of services, but inevitably their customers seek a wide range of shows and films. Take this look from the week Mulan launched.

IMAGE 6 - Reelgood

That’s everything from Disney films to films only on TVOD to Netflix Originals. In short, viewership is diverse in America. Netflix doesn’t own it all, even if it owns the mental headspace of many critics, analysts and decision-makers in the United States.

It seems clear that as more traditional broadcasters, cablers and studios launch their own streamers, they’re going to fight more and more for the streaming viewership audience. Ideally, if I had Nielsen’s data for the last two years, we’d be able to chart this rise. Ideally, I’d have Nielsen data for the last two years, and show that August or maybe last November was the first time a show made the top ten list.

But I don’t have that data and Nielsen just started releasing weekly top ten lists. Instead, I’m speculating here, but increasingly, it seems like the Disney’s, Prime Video’s and HBO’s of the world are launching the most popular shows in the world.

What Does this Mean for the Future? What Should We Look For?

Well, the streaming wars are going to be competitive. That’s what this means. The more shows that become “must watch” means the more services folks will need to own. Game of Thrones and Lord of The Rings prequels will fit this bill. Same for Disney’s big shows. And I think Peacock has the best chance of developing new additional shows that fit this bill since they have a track record of doing that. (Their library with HBO’s is also the strongest.) Don’t count out Hulu or Paramount+ nee CBS: All Access either.

This means that split wallets are likely to be the case in the future. I don’t think anyone should have a model that implies that Netflix owns 50% or greater of a customer’s wallet. Probably even less than 25%. 

Obviously, this means that Netflix will be fine for the streaming wars. No one should say “Netflix killer” because they are clearly such an indispensable part of the streaming diet for so many customers.

Unless, of course, you care about the stock price. This competition means that Netflix can’t pull back on spending, because then the top shows chart will only feature more shows from other streamers. It also means they can’t raise prices or can only do so slowly. Given that Netflix has one of the mostly highly valued stocks compared to underlying economics, any situation where it fails to conquer all TV has a lot of downside.

If content is king—it is—this is a battleground to continue monitoring in the streaming wars. Looking at the colors on these streaming charts is key. If they stay all red, that’s great for Netflix. If they look like—pun intended—a peacock’s feathers, that’s good for the traditional players.

Mulan vs Tenet: I (Don’t) Declare a Winner

At first, I was tempted to call “Mulan vs Tenet” the biggest battle of the streaming wars. Each weekend in September, we’ve eagerly awaited answers to the hottest questions in film: Will Tenet save theaters? Will Mulan blow up the model? Who is making more money? Who is WINNING?!?!?

It turns out that the answer to the first two questions is probably no. As for the third and fourth, well, that’s tricky to answer. But since it’s the logical follow-up to my article on Monday, I’ll do my best.

But I wouldn’t call this a battle. If anything it’s a “skirmish” on one end of the larger distribution battle. (The sort of way that Pickett’s Charge was one tactical engagement in the larger Battle of Gettysburg.) Just because it is a skirmish doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Skirmishes are what win or lose battles! (For want of a nail…) 

So after three weeks of data, let’s analyze what we know. Here’s the outline of today’s article:

– First, two lessons on data that set the terms of the debate.
– Second, an analysis of what we know about each film, including US box office, International box office, and PVOD sales to date.
– Third, thoughts on each film’s revenue potential after these initial windows.
– Fourth, a comparison between the two films and declaring a winner.

Kidding! I won’t do that last part because I don’t know the answer. Moreover, I won’t draw giant conclusions about what this means for the future of film. Because frankly two films won’t fundamentally change the landscape. But I’ll explain that point in future articles. For now, the performance of these films to date.

(Also, I found that I was linking to a lot of my articles explaining the business of film. To keep this article clean and not polluted with links, I put a “reading list” at the bottom.)

Bottom Line, Up Front

– Comparing the box office of Tenet to PVOD of Mulan is comparing two different windows to each other. That isn’t apples to apples.
– That said, we can’t know the future value of either film because both “inputs” are “n of 1” meaning so unique that we can’t build a model.
Tenet will likely gross $325-350 in global box office.
Mulan will likely gross $70-100 million in global box office.
Mulan will end up with likely $155 million in global PVOD (with a big range of $105-$270 million.)
– As for lifetime earnings? No one really knows, because there aren’t good comps to make accurate estimates.

Two Data Lessons: Apples to Apples and “n of 1”

My primary job on this site, as I see it, is to explain the entertainment business. You can find lots of places on the internet opining about the entertainment business; I’m trying to teach you why it works the way it does. And in the “Mulan v Tenet” debate, I see two major mistakes being made.

First, Apples-To-Apples

That’s my simple term for comparing like-to-like. In some ways, statistics/data analysis/science is essentially the quest for comparing things like-to-like as much as possible. That way you can isolate the the true drivers of causality. (That’s why random controlled trials are random and controlled.)

Here’s a simple example from last week: folks saw that 7 Park’s data was much larger than peer analytics companies for Mulan’s debut. The key, though, was that they were measuring eight days of data, and not just the opening weekend. They were also measuring the percentage of folks who watched Mulan who were active users, not all subscribers. Once you accounted for this, their math (1.5 million subscribers), was close to other estimates (1 million at the low end for Antenna and 1.1 from Samba TV). Comparing things apples-to-apples solved the problem.

In “Mulan v Tenet”, the key question/claim at the center of the debate misunderstands this notion. Consider these major windows of movie revenue:

IMAGE 1 - Table Second Window Waterfall

The question I’ve seen written and been asked repeated is, “Is Mulan making more than Tenet?” We could reframe it based on the windows in question. Basically, “Is Mulan making more money in PVOD than Tenet in domestic box office?” That would look like this:

IMAGE 2 - MvT Current Debate

But this isn’t the right question. It’s comparing apples-to-hammers. (A Chuck Klosterman phrase.) Look:

Image 3 - MvT Good

This framing really sets the terms of debate better, in my opinion. Even after Tenet leaves theaters, it can go to US domestic TVOD and home entertainment. So even if the answer to the current question is, “Yes, Mulan has likely made more in PVOD than Tenet at the domestic box office,” the question doesn’t make sense.

(Since PVOD wasn’t a window when I first made this table, I added it above. And I summarized all digital/streaming the “pay windows” to show the timeline better.) 

Really the question is, who will make more domestic revenue? So we should fill in this whole chart, accounting for blacked out windows:

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 1.23.54 PM

And we can see that two big chunks of revenue for that are the same: who will make more in Pay 1, Pay 2 and library distribution? (That means all the future revenue implied by streaming (like Netflix), airing on premium channels (like HBO), cable (like TNT) and other places. Now that question is tricky because of our next data point.)

“n” of 1

I was inspired by the “n” of 1 after reading earlier this year an article in the Economist about the rise of “n” of 1 medicine. “n” is statistics jargon for sample size. If you poll 3,000 folks about the Presidency, your “n” is 3,000. If your sample size is all Americans, that’s a sample (population technically) of 300 million. “n” of 1 medicine is referring to treatments designed for one individual with a unique life-threatening condition. It means the “sample size” is so unique it’s a category by itself.

This applies to box office and film revenue analysis. When we make forecasts based on opening weekend performance, we can do that because movies are similar and we can account for the differences to compare things apples-to-apples. Hence, we use Marvel films to forecast how much money films based on superheroes will make, while accounting for the time of year of the release and various other factors. (Scott Mendelson at Forbes is my favorite analyst at this.)

Once we have box office, we can use its results to forecast all the other windows a feature film is sold into. That’s how my film forecasting model works. It’s a fairly accurate system. We can also do it for PVOD, TVOD, streaming, TV and any revenue stream. Once we have an input, we can derive the rest.

The challenge for both Mulan and Tenet is they are unprecedented. They are without comps in the United States because: 1. No other blockbuster film has released during a pandemic that closed 70% of theaters and 2. No other film released to Disney+ exclusively for a one-time $30 payment. 

Because of this, making any forecasts about profitability is perilous. Or should I say, highly uncertain. Meaning, while I know what Mulan did in PVOD—see Monday—I’m much more uncertain about what this means for future windows. Conversely, while I know how well Tenet is doing, I don’t know what that means for future revenue streams, since Tenet is only available in 70% of US markets, that account for about 40% ticket sales.

So let’s start with what we do know.

The Data: International and US Box Office, Mulan PVOD and Forecasts

The easiest data to find is domestic and international box office. Since Tenet has been out a bit longer, it’s getting easier to see what its final total will be. So I’ve included the likely final box office total ranges offered by Scott Mendelson.

IMAGE 5 - Box Office with Rnagers

Are those numbers good or bad? Well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so who knows? As Mendelson makes the case, for an original material sci-fi live action film, Tenet is doing really well!

Meanwhile, even the ranges on Tenet are fairly uncertain. I put $350 million as the likely ceiling, but if New York and California reopen theaters, there could be give it a late boost (and stronger “legs”) as folks go to see it. Or not! A recovery that happens quickly is also unlikely so it could stay middling. 

Meanwhile, we know from Monday about how well Mulan is doing on PVOD.

IMAGE 6 Mulan Summary PVOD

The wildcard of the Mulan PVOD numbers is the fact that Mulan wasn’t just PVOD in the United States, but globally where Disney+ is available. My analysis from Monday focused on US analytics firms since there aren’t a lot of estimates for global performance. It turns out Mulan was released in every Disney+ territory but France and India, which includes these territories:

IMAGE 7 - Territories and Price

You’ll note it’s also cheaper in dollar terms in other territories. Time to go to the comps. What I did was find the last five Disney live-action remakes, pull down their box office by territory, and use that as a comp for demand:

IMAGE 8 - Disney Live Action Comps

The way to read this chart is that the “Disney+ territories that have Mulan” tend to account for 43-75% of the box office of the United States box office. Great! That becomes our tool to forecast PVOD revenue in those other territories. My low will be 40% (slightly lower than the Jungle Book comp) and I made a high of 100% based on Scott Mendelson’s back-of-the-envelope estimate. I consider that the far outlier, but with this much uncertainty that’s okay. Here’s the results:

IMAGE 9 Mulan International

Of course, I had high case and low case forecasts from Monday, which we could combine. The worry with our estimates now is that we’re making estimates on estimates, which doubles the uncertainty. Which you’ll see in how big our range is getting:

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 1.27.19 PM

What do we know? We have estimates for how Tenet and Mulan both did in their opening “windows”, one of which was PVOD/theatrical, and one which was theatrical only.

What don’t we know? What comes next.

The Comparison: Mulan v Tenet

Here’s a rough look at the current revenue of both Mulan and Tenet. As in how much each film has brought their studios as of this (rough) moment, roughly through their first month of releases:

IMAGE 11 Current Revenue

To answer the question I said you shouldn’t ask up above, yes Mulan globally has made more money than Tenet as of this moment. Crucially, the presumed 90% net take beats the 50% domestic/35% international split of theatrical. (Though I think that Disney’s split with PVOD partners like Apple, and Amazon may actually be lower than 90%, but don’t know for sure.) Here’s the look at the question I said we should ask:

IMAGE 12 Lifetime Estimate

I love this look because it clarifies how much we don’t know. Which is frankly how much Tenet will make on TVOD/DVD, how much Mulan will make in home entertainment, how much more Tenet can make by going to premium cable, and how much both will make in streaming.

Why not try to estimate it? 

Because I don’t believe the Tenet or Mulan numbers are good comps for forecasting. 

If Tenet’s US box office is depressed because of Covid-19, then it’s home entertainment could make as much as Trolls: World Tour or Mulan at home. Meaning it could have as large a window as Mulan had since 60% of theatrical attendees couldn’t see it. It’s rumored that Mulan will go wide on TVOD (including iTunes, Amazon and maybe even Pay-Per-View), but I don’t know if that viewership has already been cannibalized by this PVOD experiment. If it hasn’t, it could add 33% more revenue as Trolls: World Tour did when it went cheaper on TVOD in July.

Meanwhile, Tenet will eventually be on HBO and likely HBO Max. But Mulan will stay on Disney+ exclusively? Could I calculate that exclusivity value? Nope. Because I still don’t know enough about Disney subscribers to conclude that this PVOD experiment drove subscribers or that Mulan will have good replay value on the platform. (Unlike Netflix, who we have multiple years of US-only data to parse.)

This is the “n of 1” problem I discussed above. There are so many conflicting variables that my usual methods of forecasting are out the window. Same for the studios. They’ll basically have to collect the revenue and see what shakes out.

Thus, at $35 million dollars difference between the two, I’m calling this a push. It’s as likely Tenet makes more money for Warner Bros. as it is Mulan makes more money for Disney.

In short, we’ll never really know who “won” this skirmish since our numbers are close enough to call it a draw. I’d add, using one proxy for demand, Google Trends, it looks like Mulan peaked higher, but Tenet may last longer.

IMAGE 13 G Trends Tenet vs Mulan WW

As for how demand shifts from here, we’ll see as they release on additional platforms.

Reading List

Really, this article is a continuation of this series I started in December on “Should You Release Your Film Straight to Netflix? Part I” and “Part II” In that series, I explore the economics of taking a film straight to streaming.

Previously, I built a model on how to forecast “revenue” for straight to streaming titles in this series, “The Great Irishman Project”. It’s fairly tricky to forecast streaming revenue, but definitely possible. (Netflix does it!) See my methods explained here.

I also built and explained a film finance model for feature films released traditionally, which I first explained back when I launched the site in a series evaluating the Disney-Lucasfilm acquisition.

Visual of the Week – Is Netflix a (More Watched) Broadcast Channel?

We had a fun bit of data dropped via Nielsen in August which allows me to update my most popular article of the year, “Netflix is a Broadcast Channel”. Nielsen let us know how viewership looks through the Coronavirus lock downs as of August 2020. Here’s the original 2019 data and the update:

Screen Shot 2020-09-02 at 9.19.51 AMSince I promised this is in visual form, here’s the stacked bar charts…

Screen Shot 2020-09-02 at 9.20.15 AMQuick Insights

First, is this statistically significant?

Yes, tentatively. It all depends on what your confidence interval is, but with their panel of about 1,000 folks, Nielsen can have a margin of error either direction of about 3%. This is right on that border line.

That said, why use a 95% confidence interval? If you use a 90% confidence interval, than year we’re reasonably confident Netflix saw a bump. I’d add, everyone else was flat and next grew or declined. (Except for Disney+, which wasn’t on the platform last time.) That’s hard to interpret as anything but good to great news for Netflix. Contrariwise, if you want 99% certainty, then this is firmly within the margin of error.

So we’ll see how this number grows, but I’m inclined to think it measured a real trend.

Second, why not update your Primetime chart from last time?

You mean this one? Image 1 - Estimates

If this were extrapolated to Primetime, then Netflix has exceeded even CBS and taken the top broadcast spot. (They’d be at 8 million primetime viewers if we used the same math from August.)

First, and simply, I don’t have the linear TV viewing numbers to compare. Broadcast ratings could have increased by a similar rate, so it wouldn’t be apples-to-apples. 

Also, while the 3% increase in Netflix viewing is good, and the 7% surge in streaming video is even bigger, I’m skeptical that viewing came during primetime. Sure, folks can’t go out so TV viewing is likely up across the board at Primetime, but the 7% surge in streaming likely came from elsewhere. I see two options.

Option 1: People watching TV during the daytime. The notable thing about coronavirus is that everyone is sitting at home streaming during work. (Are those two things incompatible? I think so, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still happening.)

Option 2: Children. The other group that is probably streaming even more than ever are kids. And children. And teenagers. Again, not during primetime, but throughout the day. And my initial comparison was about primetime viewing. That’s why Disney+ went from not existing last fall to getting 4% share of streaming.

Visual of the Week – The Performance of Netflix Top Films Over Time

(This is a new feature from the Entertainment Strategy Guy. It’s a weekly “visual of the week” that will come out every two weeks. If you like it, consider sharing it on social media, just toss me credit.)

The big Netflix news last week was their earnings report. But the most fascinating story for a data wonk like me was Lucas Shaw’s scoop on the top Netflix films by viewership (2 minutes of a film) of all time. With this scoop, I’m up to 30 different “datecdotes” on Netflix film viewership over time.  

This visual of the week has two different presentations. First, Netflix raw viewership overtime, by quarter:

NFLX visual 3

(Details: This is by my estimates for 70% completion of a film by Netflix subscribers. This is global data. Time period is Q4-2018 to Q2-2020.)

Of course, that doesn’t account for the size of Netflix, so here’s the percentage of viewership:

NFLX visual 2

(Details: This is by my estimates for 70% completion of a film by Netflix subscribers divided by subscribers at the time. This is global data. Time period is Q4-2018 to Q2-2020. Constraint: Only films getting over 20 million subscribers are included.)

If you want more details on Netflix feature film performance, I started a big thread on it on Twitter.