Within recent weeks, Amazon.com launched 14 original comedy pilot episodes, Netflix launched another new original series -- then lost hundreds of titles -- and Warner Bros. launched a streaming service for their Warner Archive.
The battle of the streaming services is heating up, and with good reason. Home spending on entertainment "rose about 5 percent in the first quarter," according to the Digital Entertainment Group (as reported by the New York Times). The same report noted: "Sales in digital formats, including video-on-demand, rose more than 26 percent to about $1.6 billion, from about $1.2 billion a year earlier. Packaged good purchases rose about 2 percent to roughly $2.1 billion in the quarter, driven by growing sales in the Blu-ray format."
Note the dramatic increase in digital format sales, as opposed to the smaller growth in packaged good purchases. The report observed that big-selling titles such as Skyfall and Argo buoyed growth all around, and there's no doubt that movies that were popular in theaters will continue to be popular on home video. Beyond the best sellers, though, the overall momentum has moved to digital formats, which includes streaming services with periodic subscription charges (usually monthly) and a multiplicity of Video On Demand (VOD) platforms, available via cable providers and internet services.
Amazon got into the original content business with the launch of Amazon Studios in November 2010. The company added a streaming service for subscribers to its Amazon Prime program in February 2011, and last year announced that it would be debuting a selection of pilot episodes produced through Amazon Studios.
The pilots are available to watch for free at Amazon.com; any shows that get the green light for a full season would then be available exclusively for Amazon Prime subscribers. What has Amazon wrought for their first bunch of pilots?
Eight of the shows are aimed at adults; the other six are intended for children, so I skipped those. Of the eight, two consistently made me laugh, three showed promise, and the other three flopped. Listed below in order of preference:
Excellent. Cheerfully profane, this mixes the demented spirit of Archer (deadpan, self-centered characters, hilariously so) with a smarter take on Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (the original TV cartoon).
2. Onion News Empire
Very good. The fake news site expands its reach by going behind the scenes of The Onion News Network. Glimpses of the news show are still seen, but this focuses on the ridiculous lengths to which the executives and reporters are willing to go to stay on top. Having only seen one episode each of this show and Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, I'll say that this one feels more "real."
Promising. Set at a social media start-up company in the Silicon Valley, the show stumbles out of the gate with inevitable comparisons to Big Bang Theory. (And also when it's revealed that the mobile app is a creepy stalker-like thing for finding romantic partners.) The promising part comes when it gets really silly, in no small measure due to Maya Erskine as an unpredictable object of attraction.
4. Alpha House
Promising. Garry Trudeau wrote the pilot, which follows the antics of four U.S. Senators who are roomates when in Washington, D.C. It's not terribly funny, but John Goodman gives good bluster and having Clark Johnson (The Wire) on hand doesn't hurt. If it goes to series, it needs to be more biting and pointed to be relevant. Also: this is the one that features Bill Murray in a very brief cameo.
5. Dark Minions
Promising. Imagine Star Wars from the perspective of two wimpy Stormtroopers sent to mop up the galaxy. Witty at times. Planned as a stop-motion animation project, the pilot mostly consists of animatics (animated video storyboards), which requires added concentration to imagine the possibilities.
Not promising. Original writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick penned the pilot, which was directed by Eli Craig, who made the very sharp and funny Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Sadly, this feels like a simple retread, with similar jokes and interplay between the characters that were seen in the film. More of the same is not always a good thing.
Not for me. This is Glee, set at The Huffington Post. I am not a Glee person, and I find The Huffington Post to be repellant. Nothing in this show changes my mind.
8. Those Who Can't
Ugh. Teachers acting like kids. Help yourself.
Overall, that's not a bad batting average, in comparison to the original shows on broadcast networks. But are a couple of good shows and a few promising ones sufficient to convince someone to sign up for Amazon Prime, which currently costs $79 annually?
Probably not. As content to supplement the films and TV shows that are already available through the service, however, it's not a bad start. I'd had Amazon Prime since February, and have no trouble finding things I want to watch; in part, that's because it allows sorting by multiple criteria, including genre and decade, which makes it much easier to narrow down the selection.
Netflix offers a more limited capacity to drill down through its still-massive selection, promoting instead its "recommended titles," based on viewing patterns. For example, because I watched their original series Hemlock Grove, Netflix suggests I watch horror titles such as Kitchen Nightmares -- yes, the Gordon Ramsay show about restaurants in need of rescue. (To be fair, the other titles all appear to be genuine horror movies.)
Algorithms are an inexact science, which means that viewers like me are more reliant on other services (and writers) to search out the more worthy titles. (I find Instant Watcher to be incredibly helpful, as well as Rupert Pupkin Speaks and other personal and team blogs.)
Netflix's selection drew increased scrutiny last week, thanks to an article on Slate that went viral. Film critic Sam Adams helpfully recommended 12 films that would be expiring soon on Netflix, but what made it go viral was his vivid coinage of "Streamageddon" as a handy description, as though this was an unprecedented event or a fatal cripping of the service; Adams also asserted that the titles were being removed by Warner Bros. in favor of their placement on their new Archive Instant streaming service.
Adams was misinformed, and the article has been corrected and updated. (The licensing rights to the titles were not owned by Warner Bros.) But the viral alert pinpoints a valid, ongoing concern: the widely held mis-perception that Netflix has every movie ever made available in its DVD and streaming library. That's not true now, and never was. And titles regularly expire on Netflix, as they do on all other services. (Here's a handy link at Instant Watcher that can be bookmarked, showing expiring titles.)
In a dream world, all content would be freely -- and legally -- available through one magical provider. But even if all the major U.S. studios agreed on a particular service, that would still leave a myriad number of independent studios, distributors, and producers to negotiate their own deals. And how will potential viewers find the most desirable titles in a worldwide haystack?
That is a story for another day.
Top image from Catalyst Web Designs.
Hollywood Beat is a column on the U.S. film and TV industry.