The streaming wars are going nuclear in 2021

It's cable TV all over again — but this time, studios are putting it all on the line.

You may have heard that the streaming wars began in 2020, and whoever told you that was technically correct. The past year has seen the launch of all of the announced players in the streaming wars after contenders like Apple TV+ and Disney+ started in late 2019. But despite the lofty ambitions of each, the COVID-19 pandemic has halted many platforms' big ambitions.

Aside from Netflix, which had more than a year’s worth of content on hand before lockdowns began, every major service experienced significant delays, pushing back their original slates of programming. With Hollywood productions back up and running for 2021, this will be the year the streaming wars begin in earnest.

Even when just looking at the smaller services, the year ahead should prove exciting. Apple TV+ is gearing up to release Foundation, its next flagship prestige series, along with new seasons of shows the service launched with. CBS All-Access will be rebranding to Paramount+, an effort to reflect the more diverse content offering outside the kind of shows geared to the, er, typical CBS audience. Amazon Prime will drop the first season of its incredibly expensive Lord of the Rings adaptation. Oh, and Funimation bought Crunchyroll, bringing the bulk of anime licenses into one place for the first time.

This will be the year the streaming wars begin in earnest.

However, the biggest players primed to make a splash in 2021 are Disney and AT&T (which owns HBO Max). COVID-19 has forced both of these media conglomerates to make big, bold moves in 2021 — accelerating their transitions to streaming-first businesses.

At first, Disney+ only planned for one Marvel series, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier to launch in 2020. WandaVision and Loki weren’t planned to debut until the Spring of 2021, with Hawkeye set to join the lineup in the summer. Now, beginning in January, Disney will have three of those shows premiering in the first half of 2021, giving plenty of new customers a reason to subscribe if they haven’t yet. Disney+’s original’s lineup is a bit more sparse at the end of 2021, but it still has some solid offerings in the form of Ms. Marvel and The Book of Boba Fett, to keep those new subscribers around.

It’s not just originals. Disney is also preparing to move into the next phase of its international rollout. While Hulu has shown impressive growth in the US, the brand has zero recognition outside of the States. While Hulu will remain the home for Disney’s more mature content in the US, the company will start to roll out its newer “Star” brand in international markets to house mature content. It will host many of the same “Hulu originals” found in the US, alongside the entirety ofFX's library of originals. In addition, Star will host the more mature titles found in the 20th Century catalogue, like Deadpool and Logan, that Disney acquired in 2019. This will expand the company’s appeal further in international markets where Netflix has been the only major player for years.

Star’s rollout will be different depending on where you live. If you’re in Europe, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, then Star will appear as an additional tile in the main Disney+ app in February 2021, with more markets set to receive Star later in the year. In Latin America, Star will be a standalone service known as Star+, meant to host the same Star library but paired with live sports and ESPN.

The combination of Star’s launch, along with Disney finally starting the expansion of its original streaming slate, is why the company is now projecting it could have as many as 260 million subscribers by 2024. These projections would put it over Netflix’s current subscriber count of just under 200 million. All this growth is expected without the company needing to move a single Marvel movie’s debut to streaming. “Black Widow” is still set to be a theatrical exclusive release in May — but of course that plan could change if theaters can’t open to full capacity come release day, which helps to explain the moves AT&T is making.

With the prospects of the Box Office next year being dubious at best, AT&T will debut every one of its movies scheduled for 2021 on HBO Max and theaters on the same day. Starting with Wonder Woman 1984 this Christmas, the plan includes much anticipated movies like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Most of these films on their own would be a great reason to sign up for HBO Max, and all of them together provide a more than convincing offering. Combined with an impressive library, the consistently great output from HBO, and Max originals exclusive to the service, HBO Max is making one heck of a value proposition next year.

The obstacle in the way of this plan is AT&T’s horrendous execution. The announcement of this full pivot to streaming has sent shockwaves across Hollywood, prompting prominent directors like Denis Villenueve and Christoher Nolan to speak out against the company. Reportedly, the 17 directors whose movies are being affected by the plan had zero notice prior to the announcement. Aside from all the talk of artistic intent being thrown around, some directors simply don’t want their movies to debut on streaming for financial considerations.

HBO Max is making one heck of a value proposition next year.

In the case of Wonder Woman 1984, those with a financial stake in the film’s box office performance like Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Dadot, were bought out of those interests with pay based on the assumption the movie would have made $1 billion at the box office in pre-COVID times. However, this is not the case with all of the 17 films slated for 2021. AT&T is deploying a complicated scheme of licensing fees and bonus adjustments which many talent agents believe will lead to their clients being screwed out of the money they would have eventually received had the company simply delayed their debuts. If AT&T wants to carry through with their plans, they’ll need to make a fair, but expensive, deal with every single film affected — or else they could face a mountain of litigation.

There's also the issues HBO Max has faced at launch which have bottlenecked whatever growth it may have seen this year. Aside from consumer confusion about what the service is, it also failed to launch on Roku devices — by far the biggest app ecosystem for streaming — which blocked it from a wealth of potential subscribers. That conflict has now thankfully been resolved. Now, while there are nearly 40 million people in the US who are eligible for an HBO Max membership at no extra cost, only 12.6 million of those have been activated to date.

Both Disney and AT&T have set 2021 to be an even more exciting year to be a streaming subscriber, but whether it will be enough to take the crown from Netflix, only time will tell. We can't wait to watch.