New data breaks down the dramatic increase in movies that went straight to streaming or digital-rental platforms in 2020

  • New data from the streaming search engine Reelgood shows the growth in video-on-demand movie releases in 2020.
  • Streaming releases tripled from Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 as movie theaters struggled during the pandemic.
  • The pandemic has accelerated a shift to streaming and digital-rental platforms.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

2020 saw a significant rise in straight-to-VOD movies as the coronavirus pandemic devastated the theatrical industry.

While movies studios are still committed to theaters for some of their tentpole releases (Disney’s “Black Widow,” for example), they’ve also turned to streaming and digital-rental platforms (TVOD) as an alternative for others. 

The streaming search engine Reelgood provided Insider data from its 2021 VOD catalog insights report that shows how much SVOD (streaming video-on-demand, such as Netflix) and TVOD (transactional video-on-demand, such as iTunes) grew in 2020. 

Streaming releases tripled from Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 and TVOD releases grew by nearly four times in the same period. 

The increase was noticeable starting in Q3 2020 when the pandemic continued to upend any plans for theaters to return to normalcy.

Even though many theaters in the US reopened in August after being closed for five months, 133 movies went straight to streaming services and 132 went straight to TVOD platforms. In Q2, there were 84 released on streaming and 50 released on TVOD. 

Reelgood only counted movies that hit streaming and digital-rental platforms within 14 days of their theatrical release, if they had one. So, straight-to-streaming releases like “Soul” and day-and-date releases like “Wonder Woman 1984” were counted. Netflix originals like “Project Power” were counted. But other Netflix movies like “Mank” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that had limited theatrical releases more than 14 days prior to streaming on Netflix weren’t counted. 

The chart below breaks down the growth from Q4 2019 to Q4 2020.

While the pandemic has accelerated a shift to streaming and digital among traditional Hollywood studios, Netflix was already ramping up its output of original movies.

The company’s VP of original film, Scott Stuber, has helped build the streaming giant into a formidable movie force with blockbusters like “Extraction” and Oscar contenders like Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” This year, it plans to release at least one new original movie every week, the company said in its earnings report in January.

Stuber told The New York Times last month that he was still interested in negotiating with theater chains to screen Netflix movies, which has been a topic of contention in the past due to theaters’ strict windowing policies. But the pandemic has led to the collapse of the traditional theatrical window, in which a movie played exclusively in theaters for at least 75 days.

Universal has struck deals with major theater chains including AMC, the world’s largest, to shorten the theatrical window to in most cases just 17 days. After three weekends in theaters, Universal can choose to debut a movie on digital-rental services, which typically cost $20. 

“I do believe we all needed a bit of an evolution to give movies that were not made from intellectual property an opportunity,” Stuber told the Times. “Now we are waiting to see what the theater business becomes. When that tectonic plate stops, we will be able to have those conversations. We are open to those conversations.”

Other studios have pivoted to their own streaming components. Disney debuted its live-action “Mulan” remake on Disney Plus for an additional $30 fee and in theaters in international territories where it’s not available.

It then released the Pixar movie “Soul” straight to Disney Plus at no extra cost for subscribers in December. The company has plans to release more movies to its streaming service that were initially meant for theaters, such as the animated “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Warner Bros. is going many steps further and plans to release all of its movies this year simultaneously to theaters and on parent company WarnerMedia’s streaming service HBO Max. It first tried this strategy with “Wonder Woman 1984” in December, which gave Max a much-needed boost. Viewers spent 2.25 billion minutes watching the movie during its first weekend on Max, according to the research company Nielsen. 

As movie theaters continue to struggle during the pandemic, the rise in VOD releases could continue. But even after the pandemic, it’s likely that studios and theaters would work together on hybrid models. The pandemic has accelerated many shifts in the movie business. 

“I think the old window concept was so outdated,” Harold Mintz, the president of the movie-research company CinemaScore, told Insider during a recent interview. “The pandemic forced it, but it was bound to happen eventually … most movies are played out [in theaters] after three weeks so it just makes sense.”

Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.

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