'Frozen II' gave an early boost to Disney Plus.

'Frozen II' gave an early boost to Disney Plus.

No one was expecting the coronavirus outbreak when some of Hollywood’s biggest companies decided 2020 would be a good time to launch a host of streaming offerings.

But the new services, as well as those that have been available for years, have suddenly become beacons for an entertainment industry disrupted by the darkness of a global health crisis.

Whether it’s a relative newcomer like Disney Plus or a standard bearer such as Netflix, streaming services are benefiting from the drive to stay connected that, according to Forbes, fueled a 70% surge in internet usage and a 12% increase in streaming engagement in late March.

Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Plus, which launched in November, announced in early April that it had surpassed 50 million subscribers. That included a jump of more than 21 million new subscribers during the first month-plus of shelter-at-home restrictions.

Apple TV Plus immediately went on the offensive after Disney’s announcement. Apple’s service, which reported 34 million subscribers in January, said April 10 that it would widen free access to its service, which provides original shows, movies and documentaries in contrast to Disney Plus’ libraries of Disney-owned programming.

Entertainment industry analyst Scott Kushman of Stamford, Conn.-based Kushman Media said Disney’s family entertainment brand fueled its success with children home from school. Certainly, Disney had the bored-kid demographic in mind when it released “Frozen II” — the No.1 animated movie of all time at the box office — on Disney Plus on March 15, three months before the originally planned date.

Disney also recently announced plans to release its $75 million film version of the hit musical “Hamilton” on Disney Plus on July 3. The film was originally slated for release in October 2021.

“Obviously the captive audience of everybody staying home with the pandemic has helped fuel the rise in viewership (but) I think one of the most interesting things was that right before the pandemic hit, (Disney) rolled out a whole catalog of family-friendly shows,” Kushman said.

Big wins have not been limited to new services. On March 21, Netflix Inc. reported a jump of nearly 16 million subscribers for the first quarter of 2020 — a period of record growth that lifted the Netflix total subscriber base to nearly 183 million. Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings said the company had predicted 7 million new subscribers before the Covid-19 shutdown.

Not every service, however, is experiencing the same bounce. Newcomer Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-form media platform, launched April 6 but has yet to find its footing, despite a war chest of $1.75 billion.

Katzenberg has said his mobile-only, millennial-focused service is considering a TV viewing option that’s more in tune with audience needs during a pandemic.

Kushman said the jury is still out on whether streaming services will continue to grow as people stuck at home sample other digital options, including the rapidly expanding TikTok and video giant YouTube.

Anecdotally, though, Kushman said the streaming businesses seem to be well positioned for an extended run.

Case in point: his own parents. “I got them Netflix. We share a subscription between me, my brother and my parents,” he said. “I brought them groceries and (saw) all of a sudden they are bingeing shows on Netflix.”

Kushman observed that older generations already familiar with 23-year-old Netflix, which he calls the “Coca-Cola” of streaming brands, may be starting new Netflix subscriptions or using existing subscriptions more than before, increasing chances they will renew or subscribe to more streaming services even after the Covid-19 crisis is over.

Keep reading the 2020 edition of the LA500.

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