Disney vs Netflix: The Cultural War for Our Attention

Disney vs Netflix
The Cultural War for Our Attention

It is no secret that Netflix has dominated the streaming industry for the last few years. Starting as a delivery service for movies, the executives were able to perform an outstanding transition that led to the consolidation of one of the most important companies of the 21st century. No, I’m not exaggerating. Different from foods, clothes, cars and other industries; Netflix had no real competitors on the streaming world for quite some time, allowing them to get a head start with exhibition rights of various movies and shows, which eventually led to the moment they started producing original content and finally (with some covid help) replaced the distribution role of IPs that were actually destined for the theatrical treatment. So, how could Disney compete in this market that every single company was (and is) trying to take a slice of?

In 2013, Netflix released the first season of its first fully original show “House of Cards” which proved to be a huge success with audiences all over the world. The run of this show opened the doors for the company. On one hand, Netflix saw the potential that the original content had to retain viewers and bring new clients on board. According to statista.com Netflix launched an estimated 2,769 hours of original movies, TV shows and other productions from 2012 to 2019. Even more, the quality and creative directions of some shows like “Daredevil” also led important artists to see that this platform was not only investing money but listening to the creators and viewers. It even expanded borders by financing and bringing in shows like “Money Heist” (La Casa de Papel) and “Dark” to a shining spotlight even though they were spoken in a foreign language. Yet none of the afford mentioned things were what made Netflix a cultural game changer. 


While Netflix grew in the online market, Disney kept their lead in the movie theaters year after year, creating something way bigger than several hours of original material ever could. With the acquisition of Lucas Films and the release of “The Avengers” in 2012, Disney had actually started their counter strategy to whatever could come from Netflix even before they knew they may need it. By 2015, Disney released “Star wars: The Force Awakens” breathing new life into the Star Wars franchise with an opening close to 250$ million dollars. As Netflix grew in popularity and subscribers, Disney grew in box office, intellectual properties and most importantly customer loyalty. In other words, Disney had a dominating market when it came to Superhero movies (with 2 outing per year of new MCU movies), a strong front for families (with Disney and Pixar’s animated properties) and a cinematic behemoth with the new Star Wars trilogy and its anthology complements. Besides, we could take into account the shows that aired in the Disney Channel. An other way of putting it is that the advantage Netflix had wasn’t the content volume or quality; it was the release format, in other words, the platform it was standing on. As a matter of fact, even when people discussed trending shows from Netflix, they still were never able to generate the global buzz that phenomena like “Game Of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad”  did. Even more so,according to IGN the top TV show on Netflix in the U.S. in 2020 was “The Office”, making clear the fact that even though the original content might be filling some of the users time it is definitely not the only reason why it is chosen. A strong variety of previously known popular media is also a VERY big part of the platform’s appeal.  And so one day, Disney announced Disney+ and the ground shook at Netflix HQ. Would this content be enough to sustain the race once Disney+ arrived?

Today both platforms are accessible to most countries of the world and during this pandemic state, both have proven to be a central piece of the cultural market for audiovisual consumerism. So, did Disney dethrone the king of streaming or did the almighty mouse fall short in front of the red N? There is no definitive answer yet, nor will there be one… at least in the short term. But at least,  right now we can behold a defining characteristic that will probably turn out to be the main difference between the two combatants; the release format. How can a small aspect of the streaming service determine so much of the overall outcome? Well, like the final meaning of any David Lynch movie; the answer lies within the spectators mind… even if they themselves don’t know it yet. 

In today’s landscape of home entertainment, the way you release your content is a major factor that affects the perception of your company and (to some extent) the impact of your products. For example; some  years ago, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings proclaimed, when asked about Amazon Prime, that their biggest competitor was sleep. This statement is actually an accurate depiction of the way the platforms interface treats the viewers nowadays. Netflix finds itself constantly releasing and announcing new content that is afterwards dumped all at once for people to consume in a single binge watch. Leaving shows that deserve attention buried under the next thing that is coming our way. By using this method, in order to win the race with its competitors by sheer volume, Netflix has become partly responsible for shaping the way media is being consumed today. Movies, shows, documentaries end up only as a way to feel the empty spaces and silences of that average joe’s day and nothing else. Since Netflix is a dominant force in the streaming world, this phrase starts to ring true: “A few bad apples spoil the bunch”. Another way of putting it is that because of the consumption habits that Netflix encourages, people start to look towards the other streaming services as complementary supports to ingest while Netflix replenishes its stock with fresh releases. Until one of the streaming services they enter is Disney +, that offers a huge library of classics to revisit but also uses distribution differently. 

Disney+ Home Page
Netflix Home page

Even though Disney+ is a young project, The Walt Disney Company has experience to throw out the window and its strategies in this first year of service were remarkable. While Netflix adds a shuffle option to literally offer people random moving pictures in front of their faces, Disney’s home interface presents a clear picture of what content is available and how to access it. Dividing content not by genre but through the different intellectual properties they have acquired was a smart move, not only on a design standpoint but also exposes a clear brand statement: “We don’t do genres like everyone else, we have (almost) all content in the same genre that is represented by the Disney brand”.  This is the reason why most of the content that belonged to Fox was not dumped instantly here, because there are aspects that Disney seems to value more than sheer volume of content. And talking about sheers volume, that brings me to the way Disney has chosen to release its content.

In the case of movies, the deal is fairly simple; Disney has been slowly transitioning towards a  release strategy that allows viewers to choose their own experience. The movies see a simultaneous release date in both movie theaters and the platform. Both ways demand a fee (which makes it different from the HBO method of letting subscribers watch the new releases as a part of the whole package) making the people actually think which would be the best way for them to experience the film. On the other hand, new shows like “Mandalorian” or “WandaVision” not only seem to be on the same league as their movie counterparts in regards to production quality, but have also come out in a weekly fashion. This simple change allows Disney to maintain (or milk) the show as a trending topic during several weeks which is always beneficial from a marketing and financial standpoint but it has proven also beneficial for the viewers in general.  This model lets people fully enjoy the content while also promoting other behaviors like  discussions on different aspects of each episode and not only of the season as a single product, better understanding of aspects like character progression and feeds into the classical structure of anticipating the next step through clever cliffhangers or growing mysteries. These quick examples are just a few of the ways that the way we consume the content provided stimulates us to move away from the screen in order to elaborate through our minds observations, theories or reflections.

To conclude, I am not evaluating the quality of the content each platform provides or the values of the enterprises in general; I just want to shed light on the fact that these are our main sources of entertainment and in some cases sources of culture in general. meaning that the impact they have over our lives is actually far greater and important than what we perceive. In the end, both companies are following the money trail and it’s no secret that Disney is actually planning on producing so much content that it will probably overflow the entire medium.  But that doesn’t take away the fact that thanks to the release dates Disney+ has been using, I can go to the theater to catch a movie with a level of quality that I cannot access anywhere else and afterwards take my time to talk to my friends about how well written, directed, acted and more was a single episode of a show before watching another one. And if someone is in such a hurry to continue watching… watch something else, grab a book, play a game or just watch that episode again. To Each his own, am I right?

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