It’s time for another deep-dive into viewing numbers and today, we’ll be looking back at 2023 at what the biggest movies in streaming in the United States via Nielsen viewership numbers.
In this analysis, we use the CVE metric (Complete Viewings Equivalent) in millions over the first 14 days of release on a service. Why 14 days? Because it allows us to compare more films over more services and most of the watching happens during the first two weeks of release, it gives us a general idea of the most-watched films, even if some exceptions can happen.
The data comes from Nielsen, the leading firm in streaming audiences in the US, which has been releasing every week since August 2020 via a weekly top 10 list of the most-watched content on streaming. Data also comes from leaks by third-party people for specific streaming services, which helps fill in the blanks for some films.
Now, there is one big caveat when it comes to Nielsen that we need to keep in mind before going deep into their numbers. Because it uses audio recognition of content through boxes present in the homes of thousands of people, Nielsen can’t differentiate if people watch films on streaming services or on demand. This means that for all the theatrical films mentioned in this article (films that are usually available on demand too, whereas streaming original films are mostly available exclusively on one service), numbers can be inflated by Nielsen to the tune of 5/10% per my calculations.
If you want to see data purely for Netflix from Netflix itself – check out our 2023 winners and losers guide.
Editor’s note: This is an English translation of the post that first featured on the Substack Netflix n Chiffres.
The 20 Most Watched Films of 2023 on Streaming in the US
So, let’s dive into Nielsen’s data and see which films were the most watched over their first 14 days of release.
The first one is a film deemed a flop when it was released in theaters, and that’s Pixar’s Elemental on Disney+ with an estimated 32.7M CVEs over its first 14 days of release. It’s no surprise, as Pixar films have been historically huge draws on Disney+, but more on that later.
The second film on the podium is quite a surprise as it’s Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind on Netflix with Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke with 31.5M CVEs. The third film is the comedy You People with Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy, which managed to be watched the equivalent of 29.7M times over its first 14 days on Netflix back in January. That’s quite a US-centric success, as the film did not perform as equally well on Netflix’s global hourly figures.
Nine of those twenty films were released in theaters, while 11 are streaming originals. Among the nine theatrical films, only three are what you could call “original films” not linked to any IP or cinematic universes: Elemental (although you could argue that Pixar is an IP of its own right), No Hard Feelings, and A Man Called Otto.
Among the 11 streaming originals, 9 are “original films,” and that’s interesting as Netflix is one of the few services out there that manages to make its subscribers watch films that do not hinge on big IPs or cinematic universes. Disney+, on the other hand, relies heavily on Marvel, for instance.
Super Mario Bros: The Movie appears twice because it managed to perform very well on Peacock for its first two weeks and then perform again even more on Netflix after it transitioned from Peacock to Netflix. If you had to crown one film winner of 2023, that would be “Super Mario Bros” as it managed to be a success in theaters and on streaming, not something a lot of films can achieve, as we will see.
Disney+ Biggest Movies of 2023
Let’s take a closer look at individual Top 5 for each service other than Netflix (as 14 of its films are in the Top 20) by starting with Disney+.
Its Top 5 is only made up of theatrical films, and 4 of them are based on existing IPs, such as Marvel (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), its previous animated films (The Little Mermaid), or its previous live-action films or park attractions (Haunted Mansion).
No streaming original films from Disney+ made the cut as the streamer really thinned down its line-up in 2023, only releasing a handful of films such as Peter & Wendy or Dashing Through the Snow, which failed to attract viewers.
Prime Video Most Watched Movies of 2023
Amazon Prime Video is on the other end of the spectrum, with its top three most-watched films of 2023 streaming original films: “Candy Cane Lane, Shotgun Wedding, and The Burial.
Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Lopez had a great year on streaming, flexing those star power muscles on films that attracted American audiences. Eddie Murphy starred in Candy Cane Lane and You People, while Jennifer Lopez headlined Shotgun Wedding and The Mother on Netflix, the 5th most-watched film of 2023. They both have new original streaming films lined up for 2024, as Eddie Murphy will be in Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. on Netflix this summer, and Jennifer Lopez will be in This Is Me…Now: A Love Story on Prime Video and possibly Atlas for Netflix.
The two other films in Amazon Prime Video’s top 5 underline two different aspects of Prime’s strategy when it comes to streaming. AIR was Amazon’s big return in theaters, and the results are… mixed. The film was not a big success in theaters and not a big success on streaming. Jurassic World Dominion being fifth is a reminder that Universal films also go to Prime Video after a short exclusive window on Peacock.
Max (HBO Max) Most Watched Movies of 2023
Max is a bit trickier to estimate as most of its films did not manage to stay very long in Nielsen’s charts for me to narrow down my guesstimates, but three films were quite tied at the top.
Taking the top spot is Barbie, but notably, it only stayed one week in Nielsen’s Top 10 (more proof that theatrical successes do not automatically mean streaming successes) and is far from the overall Top 20 with only an estimated 8.6M CVEs.
Avatar: The Way of Water is even trickier as it was released on Max and Disney+ on the same day, and Nielsen does not differentiate between services. It did the equivalent of 16.7M complete viewings on both services, and based on their usage, I estimated 8.5M CVEs.
The Menu is probably the most interesting of them all as it managed to stay in Nielsen’s charts for several weeks and did basically the same as Barbie and Avatar: The Way of Water.
The last two films of the dying DCEU complete the Top 5.
Hulu Most Watched Movies of 2023
Hulu did release a bunch of original streaming films in 2023, and 4 of them managed to be in the Top 5.
Up first is the biopic Flamin’ Hot, which did very well on the service, with approx. 7M CVEs over its first 14 days.
Comedy Vacation Friends 2 with John Cena is second with 4.6M CVEs before the thriller No One Will Save You and the comedy Quiz Lady with 4.2M and 3.8M, respectively.
Paramount+ Most Watched Movies of 2023
I could not do a Top 5 for Paramount+ as only four films managed to break into Nielsen’s Top 10 this year, but I estimate that “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts did the best launch for a new film on the service in 2023, followed by Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves.
One interesting thing to note is that unlike Disney+ or even Peacock, animated films are not a huge draw on Paramount+, compared to live-action films anyway.
Peacock Most Watched Movies of 2023
Speaking of Peacock, it had a killer year with at least two big streaming successes, the first being Super Mario Bros: The Movie.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is second, and that’s an interesting case as it was a day-and-date release, meaning that it was released the same day in theaters and on streaming, with both exploitations being successes in the US.
Genie with Melissa McCarthy is the only Peacock streaming original film of the Top 5.
Apple TV+ Most Watched Movies of 2023
Let’s end with Apple TV+, which is even harder to analyze as its films rarely make more than a blip on Nielsen’s radar.
There are two obvious winners this year, though: The Family Plan with Mark Wahlberg and the action comedy Ghosted with Ana de Armas and Chris Evans.
For all the talk about how Apple TV+ is the home of “quality films and series,” it’s also quite noticeable that the films that are being watched the most are not what you could consider “quality.”
The Evolution of the Top 20 Most-Watched films on Streaming between 2021 and 2023.
Nielsen started to share weekly Top 10 in mid-2020, so that means that we have more than three years of data to compare, with some caveats.
Nielsen only started to count Max in July 2022, Peacock in November 2022, and Paramount+ at the start of 2023, so that means that their successes from 2022 and before were not accounted for by Nielsen, especially since Max did its whole Project Popcorn in 2021 putting its entire theatrical slate on Max on the same day it hit theaters, which probably did really well on the service but we have no numbers for that.
Let’s take a look at the Top 20 most-watched films over their first 14 days of release in the US in 2021 and 2022.
There are a lot of things to analyze in this chart, and most of them are illustrations of the streaming wars and the state we’re in now. For instance, only five theatrical films managed to get into the Top 20 in 2021, then 7 in 2022, and finally 9 in 2023.
This is a sign that most of the streamers pulled out of the original streaming movies in recent years, such as Disney+ and Prime Video, which reduced its scope.
This evolution is also a consequence of several windowing deals that were signed in 2021 and after, such as the one between Netflix and Sony for the pay-1 window for its theatrical slate or the one between Netflix and Universal for its pay-2 window for its animated titles. The consequences of those deals are important as Netflix’s share of Top 20 titles went from 11 titles in 2021 to 14 in 2022 and 2023.
The inclusion of Peacock, Max, and Paramount+ did not really make a dent in the amount of Netflix titles in the Top 20, but it probably did hurt Amazon Prime Video and Disney+.
Streaming original films are still an important part of Netflix’s tally of Top 20 films, and it stayed quite stable between 2021 and 2023, going from 11 to 10 titles, even if Netflix’s film output decreased since 2021.
The fall of Disney+ titles in the Top 20 also highlights the many changes that happened in the company since 2021.
Back then, Bob Chapek was very much bullish on its streaming service, releasing Pixar films first and foremost on streaming and experimenting with Premier access, a paid tier for films that were released at the same time in theaters and on streaming, such as Cruella, Jungle Cruise and Raya and the Last Dragon. Original films overperformed, with Hocus Pocus 2 still being the biggest launch for a live-action film on Disney+, and the three Pixar films released straight to Disney+ (Luca, Turning Red, and Soul) averaged 38.5M CVEs over their first 14 days of release and fast forward two years later with Bob Iger being back at the helm of Disney.
The next two Pixar films that were released first in theaters (Elemental and Lightyear) only averaged 26M CVEs over their first 14 days of release on the service, and no live-action Disney+ films were really a success; the service prioritizing now theatrical films as it downsized its original output.
Let’s finish with Prime Video, which had quite a great slate back in 2021, with US comedy sequel Coming 2 America, the huge blockbuster The Tomorrow War and the action film Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, all of which made the Top 20 list in 2021.
In 2022, only one made it, and it was the animated film Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, in 2023, Eddie Murphy did the job with Candy Cane Lane. A reduced slate on streaming in the scope of films that is starting to show.
The 20 Biggest Films Launches on Streaming between October 2020 and December 2023
As 2024 starts, it’s the best time to see which 20 films did the best launch on streaming over the past three years. Out of those 20 films, only 5 were theatrical titles, and 4 of them were animated titles (Encanto, Elemental, Super Mario Bros, and Sing 2). Those animated titles had very different fates in theaters, from huge successes (Super Mario Bros) to flops (Encanto) without those mattering much when they hit streaming.
Thirteen were released on Netflix (ten streaming original films and three theatrical films from their deals with Sony and Universal), six on Disney+, and one on Amazon Prime Video.
The billion-dollar question that underpins this whole analysis is, “Is it better to have the biggest success possible on streaming or in theaters?”.
The answer is way above my pay grade, but let’s say that if you want success on streaming for an original film that brings a lot of usage of your service and new subs whilst keeping existing subs, a straight-to-streaming release seems the way to go. But that’s only if the streaming subscription is your only business model, and of all the streaming services mentioned in this article, only Netflix is in that position, and they’re staying the course with even better success now than they had at the peak of the streaming wars because the competition is fading away.
2024 will be interesting as we will have data on Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon for Apple TV+, for instance, one that could inform us if the pivot to theatrical releases did, in fact, have an impact on the streaming successes of Apple TV.
We’ll be watching!