Virus Crisis May Spur More Hollywood Studio Mergers, Analyst Says

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The Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex on April 23, 2020

"The production and distribution of media content will be permanently changed," including fewer U.S. cinema screens and a further focus on tentpole titles, Michael Nathanson says in his report "Say Goodbye to Hollywood."

"We have a strong belief that the production and distribution of media content will be permanently changed by this crisis," Michael Nathanson wrote about the coronavirus pandemic in a Friday report entitled "Say Goodbye to Hollywood."

Among his predictions: The U.S. will end up with fewer cinema screens, and most studios will have to look for mergers and acquisitions as "only a few studios will have the right mix of assets to survive" and profit from an accelerated shift to streaming services.

"Heading into 2020, we had argued that the fundamental pillars of media were starting to crack," Nathanson wrote. "Now, we fear that they will crumble as customer behavior permanently shifts to streaming models. The impact should be felt in both the traditional TV ecosystem and the film industry as content producers reexamine the economics of producing linear TV content and feature films. As a result, when this is all done, the top streaming platforms — Netflix, Amazon and Disney — will emerge with the lion's share of scripted content creation."

"Aside from Disney and their control of Disney+/Hulu and (AT&T/WarnerMedia's) Warner Bros. with HBO Max, the three other majors (Sony, Paramount, Universal) and the two minis (MGM and Lionsgate) will likely need to consolidate to increase selling clout and accelerate cost savings," Nathanson argued. "Indeed, this is what occurred in the recorded music industry over time as six once-mighty global recorded music companies merged into three healthier ones."

The music industry survived by "leveraging their copyright assets over a new crop of streaming distributors," the analyst highlighted, while in the film and TV sector "the streamers have decided to build out and own their own copyright, which accentuates the need to consolidate."

Once moviegoers get comfortable returning to theaters after the virus crisis, Nathanson predicted that most film fans would eventually return to cinemas and "we continue to believe the theatrical window will remain a critical driver of profitability and social awareness for tentpole movies." But, he said, "we question how much capital the studios will be willing to allocate to movies. … It is the small- to medium-sized budget movies that we worry about. We have already seen the share of movies that generate under $100 million at the domestic box office fall from 52 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2019, and we expect this trend to accelerate further. Mid-budget, non-tentpoles will not be worth the cost and expense of traditional theatrical distribution."

Nathanson is also predicting that the number of movie screens in the U.S. will fall. "Clearly, as a result of the current shutdowns, 2020 will end up as a fraction of [the] historical admissions range," he explained. "However, we think there will be lasting implications on future attendance even after fears around COVID-19 abate given the moves from both the studios and streaming services."

Movie theaters have been able to push prices higher, but chains will be able to invest less in renovations and upgrades while they focus on repairing balance sheets post-crisis, he added. "The broader adoption of streaming services that will offer their own selections of original film choices, the slowing theater upgrade cycles due to the need to repair balance sheets and the fact that many theaters are connected to zombie malls will hurt film attendance and shrink the number of screens in the industry," Nathanson concluded. "As a result, ticket prices will need to be raised, and as we have seen in other industries, that is typically the worst thing to do when demand weakens."

What can exhibitors do to help offset lost attendance from less smaller-budget product? "One idea is to come to an agreement with Netflix and other SVOD services producing their own original movies (and some acquired from other Hollywood studios)," Nathanson wrote. "We think it would serve the interests of both exhibitors and Netflix to reach an agreement (that would likely be applied to other major studio product as well for non-tentpoles) in order to help fill in any lost product directly from the major studios. Looking out, if indeed this happens, we see the potential of more aggressive theatrical windowing strategies for studios and the shortening of home video and pay 1 windows. In essence, this crisis could likely accomplish what theaters have, up to this point, long feared."