After 80 years of fighting villains like the Joker and the Riddler, Batman faces his biggest battle yet: the streaming wars.
The Dark Knight, Wonder Woman and other Justice Leaguers appearing in DC comic books came under new ownership last year, when AT&T closed on its $85.4 billion acquisition of DC’s parent, Time Warner. And now they must prove their worth to their new bosses in an entertainment universe dominated by streaming.
Batman and AT&T joined forces in public for the first time this week at Comic-Con International, the annual comic book convention in San Diego, in an exhibit called “The Batman Experience Powered by AT&T.”
With comic book art, vintage video games, movie props and costumes, the exhibit celebrated the character’s 80th year as an American pop-culture staple. The centerpiece was the Dark Knight Dive, a skydiving attraction with a virtual reality element.
But the Dallas-based AT&T had bigger plans when it bought Time Warner, and its HBO properties like “Game of Thrones” and Warner Bros. films like the Harry Potter series. The combination of the two companies was intended to create something new in the media industry: a powerhouse that could reach millions of people through its vast distribution system of mobile devices and satellite networks, while also creating the content that will fill their screens.
That’s where DC comes in. As AT&T challenges Netflix, Disney, Amazon and others in the streaming business, it is likely to lean on Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and DC’s other crime fighters. “Content creation is a real area of focus,” said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research. “And this content has tremendous value.”
As consumers continue to cut the cord, annual revenue from streaming services worldwide is expected to climb 8 percent in 2019, to nearly $25 billion, according to Statista. Netflix leads the pack, with more than 151 million subscribers globally. Wall Street expects that company alone to generate $20 billion in streaming revenue this year.
AT&T’s main streaming service, announced this month as HBO Max, will arrive next spring. With the superhero genre showing no signs of slowing down its blockbuster run, the addition of Batman and the rest of DC’s vault to AT&T’s new service would make sense, analysts say.
“DC has a vast library of content they can put on this platform,” said Frank Louthan, a telecommunications analyst at Raymond James. “Logically, it would make sense to put the DC Universe on the HBO Max service.”
Batman and his fellow superheroes already have a streaming home, DC Universe, a hub that includes original content and classic TV shows and movies, as well as digital comic books, merchandise and a community forum. Planning for DC Universe was well underway before AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner went through last summer, and the service went live a few months afterward.
The competition in streaming will get tougher in the coming months as the Walt Disney Company enters the fray this fall with a new service, Disney Plus. With Pixar movies and the “Star Wars” franchise, among countless other hits, Disney’s service will certainly not lack for content — and at $7 a month, it will cost less than the typical Netflix subscription. Disney also owns DC’s main rival, Marvel Entertainment, the home of the Avengers, a team of superpowered frenemies that in recent years has generated more hit movies than its Justice League counterparts.
Unlike Marvel, DC has not created a cinematic universe dependent on interwoven, serial narratives. Its á la carte approach to superhero storytelling may have its drawbacks, but it has allowed consumers to watch movies like “Wonder Woman” and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not to mention TV series like “The Flash” and “Gotham,” without feeling lost.
Apple also plans to get in on the streaming boom this fall, with a lineup of shows from Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Reese Witherspoon and others, and NBCUniversal is prepping a service of its own.
Will AT&T’s content division, WarnerMedia — which includes HBO, the Warner Bros. movie studio and Turner Broadcasting — decide to keep the relatively small DC Universe as the exclusive streaming home for its stars?
Mr. Louthan, the analyst, cautioned that fatigue could set in for consumers forced to sift through too many platforms to find what they want. “We believe there is a limit to how many streaming services that customers will subscribe to,” he said.
But DC appears to be pushing ahead with its stand-alone service for a sophomore year. “Doom Patrol,” a DC Universe series about a misfit band of superheroes that premiered last year to critical acclaim, will return for a second season, making its debut simultaneously on both DC Universe and HBO Max, DC announced on Saturday.
DC declined to comment for this article. AT&T and WarnerMedia did not return a request for comment.
DC has also started to reorganize its comic-book lineup, dropping three imprints, DC Zoom, DC Ink and Vertigo, and moving its content under age-specific labels. Earlier this month, the company put Mad magazine on life support.
“They are looking to streamline the brand,” said John Jackson Miller, the founder and curator of Comichron, a database of comic book sales figures.
Just as movies built on comic-book franchises have dominated the box office, old-fashioned comic books themselves have thrived lately, with sales reaching a new high in 2018, climbing to approximately $1.095 billion in North America, an $80 million increase over 2017, according to Comichron and ICv2, an online trade magazine.
To produce the fresh content that entertainment companies need to stay relevant for streaming, AT&T is likely to have a use for comic book stories and characters that can translate from the page to the screen.
Vertigo, one of the canceled imprints, was a valuable resource for material aimed at adults. Several of its titles, including Constantine and V for Vendetta, were made into movies, while others like Lucifer and Preacher were adapted into TV shows. Offsetting the loss of Vertigo, the publisher has announced new deals, including a “pop up” line of comic books in a partnership with the horror writer Joe Hill.
Rather than keeping an exclusive focus on DC Universe and HBO Max, DC is free to license its content to other platforms. In one such deal, Netflix just ordered a series based on The Sandman, a Vertigo comic book.
Mr. Greenfield called this an arms-dealer strategy, in which entertainment companies sell to multiple platforms. “Warner Bros. has been one of the most successful arms dealers in history,” he said.
And the biggest hits must go where the eyeballs are, he added.
“Aquaman” is scheduled to appear on HBO Aug. 9, and Netflix is streaming “The Dark Knight.” DC Universe users are left with older titles from before the time when superheroes were all the rage, like that 1978 semi-classic “Superman: The Movie.”
“The quickest way to kill a franchise is to put it where nobody is watching,” Mr. Greenfield said.