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Credit: Disney+/Marvel Studios/HBO Max/Netflix/Peacock/CBS All Access

Blame the pandemic or inevitability, but 2021 is the year streaming finally grows up

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Dec 28, 2020, 3:03 PM EST (Updated)

Streaming has been the boogeyman of traditional TV and cable ever since the nascent days of Netflix’s first batch of original series like Hemlock Grove (remember that one?). But after a decade of handwringing, 2021 will be the year streaming finally breaks, well, everything. From The Matrix to the MCU, it’s now clear that streaming is it.

And the future begins right now.

We’ve already seen subscriptions for streaming services steadily surpass cable in recent years, and the launch of newer streamers like HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, Apple TV+, CBS All Access, Shudder, and plenty of others has only hastened that transition. But there’s one new catalyst that has obviously altered the trajectory of the media landscape unlike anything in modern history: the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic was a perfect storm to flip the TV and movie ecosystem on its head, with most folks largely staying home for the year out of safety and theaters mostly closed (or severely limited in capacity where open).

What made this so consequential was simply the timing of it all. Out of pure coincidence, the lockdowns just happened to coincide with the launch of new A-list services like Disney+ and HBO Max, which for the first time ever gave those major studios a way to bring their content straight to viewers — no theaters, networks, or anything else required. We saw the first baby steps in early-to-mid 2020, with Disney moving films like Artemis Fowl and Mulan to its streaming service, and other studios bringing planned theatrical releases like Bill & Ted Face the Music and Antebellum straight to premium VOD.

But the real earthquake came from Warner Bros. The studio already shocked the world with the decision to roll out Wonder Woman 1984 with a simultaneous theatrical and streaming debut on HBO Max on Christmas Day. But WB still had an entire year’s worth of movies sitting on the shelf — many delayed due to the pandemic, while others kept losing their already slated 2021 spots to their unaired predecessors. And with the theatrical model expected to be hobbled for the foreseeable future, WB adopted the streaming model for its entire 2021 theatrical slate.

Credit: Warner Bros.

That sends would-be blockbusters like Dune, The Suicide Squad, and The Matrix 4 straight to HBO Max. It marks the first time a slate of films of that caliber will ever go straight to streaming — and doing it for an entire year is arguably more than enough time to rewire the way people think about movies on a fundamental level. Of course, not everyone is happy about it, beginning with some of the talents behind those movies. But regardless, it’s happening.

Then Disney+ used its late 2020 investor livestream to drop more surprises than you’d find at San Diego Comic-Con in a typical year, led by an absolute laundry list of Marvel and Star Wars originals — many of them focusing on characters from the films, with budgets and concepts that rival anything you’d typically find on the big screen. I’ve said before that Disney’s goal seems to be turning Disney+ into a “premium” streaming service, leveraging its massive IP library to create film-caliber projects — complete with the movie stars and heroes you know and love — all for the price of $7.99 per month (already up from the $6.99 launch price).

The first Star Wars live-action series, The Mandalorian, a monster hit in its own right, is just the tip of the spear. A Star Destroyer full of new Star Wars projects are coming, and the first MCU projects will hit Disney+ in 2021, bringing series like WandaVision, Loki, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to the streamer (plus a lot more). The service will also be targeting some major original films for Disney+, including projects like a new Pinocchio film starring Tom Hanks, and a new live-action take on Peter Pan. Those are all movies that would normally fit into Disney’s theatrical rollout — and they’re headed straight to streaming, for no additional cost. Blurred lines get blurrier and blurrier.

Though those companies might be leading the charge into this new era, don’t sleep on the other players. Netflix remains the dominant service despite a who’s who of heavyweight challengers, and continues to invest in more and more blockbuster movies with each passing year. The service dropped ambitious genre fare such as Enola Holmes (starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill), The Old Guard (with Charlize Theron), and Extraction (starring Chris Hemsworth) in 2020 — and has even more big movies in the works for 2021. Netflix is also expected to have new seasons of genre TV hits like Stranger Things and Locke and Key on the docket for 2021 as well. It’s amazing how far we’ve come from just a few years ago, when Netflix made headlines dropping mid-budget surprise films like The Cloverfield Paradox. Now, Netflix is building its own film franchises from the ground up.

Then there’s everyone else. Disney’s other streaming service, Hulu, has two of its most high-profile projects expected to arrive in late 2021 with Alien and Y: The Last Man, plus the return of hit series The Handmaid’s Tale; Peacock is developing a Battlestar Galactica reboot (and is also adding mega-hit The Office to its back catalog, complete with bonus material and super-sized episodes); CBS All Access is rebranding as Paramount Plus (with several new Star Trek shows on the horizon, along with its high-profile The Stand miniseries rolling out now); Amazon Prime has new seasons of its hit shows like The Boys and Upload on the way; and even Apple TV+ continues to beef up its originals with no slow-down in sight, with new seasons of Servant, For All Mankind, and See in the works.

It’s nothing new for streaming services to offer a lot of options (that's kind of the point, right?), but we’re moving beyond that in 2021. Inertia has been trending toward streaming for years, but the traditional foundations of the entertainment world — namely the billion-dollar theater business — were keeping the seismic shifts at bay. Until now. With theaters closed and studios, streamers, and everyone else scrambling to find ways to get their movies and shows in front of an audience, the explosion of streaming services over the past year has only accelerated that shift. Plus, what better way to grow your new streaming services fast than by dropping a ton of AAA content? And why not? With theaters hobbled anyway, many studios see no better time to experiment — and streaming is the entire R&D division at this point.

Of course, the pandemic won’t last forever. Vaccines are already being administered, and the hope is that the United States — and the world — can return to some semblance of normal by mid-to-late 2021. But by then, the genie will have long been out of the bottle. The past year has started conditioning audiences to the convenience and accessibility of being able to access pretty much anything from their living room, and it’s only getting easier in 2021. Obviously, the theatrical business isn’t going away (though there could be fewer theaters around, following a dreadful financial year), and as soon as theaters can safely reopen there will almost certainly be an appetite from filmgoers to get out of the house and return to that communal experience of watching a big movie on the big screen. 

But for the first time in history, some of the biggest and most eagerly anticipated releases of the year won’t be in theaters or on primetime TV or premium cable — they’ll be streaming. You want the latest from Marvel or the big new Star Wars adventure? They’re streaming. You want the latest big Warner Bros. movie releases? Streaming. Big movies with big stars? There are a whole lot on streaming these days, and more coming. Ambitious TV shows based on major properties? Yeah, you guessed it. Streaming.

After years of creeping toward the cliff, 2021 will be the year we finally take the plunge. Streaming has come a long way from the days of bingeing The Office on Netflix (namely, it's on Peacock now). The audience is there, and with the most ambitious slate ever — across virtually every service at this point — the stuff we want most will be there, too. Fate may have transpired to hasten the change, but for a while, it merely felt inevitable. Now, it’s here.

It’s a streaming world — and the time has apparently come for us all to pick up a few side-gigs to pay for all the service subscriptions we'll be shelling out for now.

SYFY, SYFY WIRE, and Peacock are properties of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.

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