How In-flight Movies and TV Get Licensed to Airlines

How In-flight Movies and TV Get Licensed to Airlines

Confirmed: “There are lots of ‘plane movies’ playing up in airplanes.”
Photo: Studio Canal/Shutterstock

We once had no choice at all when it came to in-flight movies. Even a couple of decades ago, if your flight happened to have a movie — usually just one or two, which someone at the airline picked — it played over little CRT monitors that jutted out of overhead-baggage compartments and were spread so far across the plane that you had to squint to make out the picture. Nowadays, your entertainment options are both richer and closer to what you might experience at home: an array of options that include movies and TV, genre and prestige fare for kids and adults alike.

“The airlines do a very good job making it feel like you’re replicating the streaming experience,” says David Decker, president of Warner Bros. Discovery’s content sales. Decker’s division licenses programming across streaming, linear, and other channels — like the screens airlines these days install in the backs of the seats in front of you. Although in-flight licensing isn’t Decker’s highest priority, it’s unique in the licensing business in that it raises questions among everyday consumers — like how titles are chosen, why a given film might be censored, or why a show canceled and removed from, say, HBO Max might still be flying around the world. Decker addressed all of these questions on a recent call as we tried to better understand how in-flight programming works.

How many hours per day would you say that you think about what people watch on airplanes — in-flight entertainment?

Airplanes — not that often, maybe twice a week.

No one subscribes to in-flight entertainment, obviously. They’re trapped in a tin can with it and can choose whether to turn it on. Sometimes the options are better than we’d expect. How is that programming curated?

We work closely with our partners at the airlines, and each partner has a slightly different reason to pick certain programming, and it’s about enhancing the customer experience. On the in-flight side, a lot of our buyers are curators, so they’ll pick content that they feel resonates with their customer. They know their customer better than we do. Then we help them curate additional content around their picks and come up with some promotions and maybe marketing angles that help highlight our content.

Do you have a sense of what a Delta customer wants versus someone who flies American, JetBlue, Alaska, or other airlines? When you say they know their customer, who is that customer? 

We could only see that from their buying behavior, because we don’t have access to their actual customers on the plane. It really turns more on the individual taste of the people doing the buying. From our side, a hit is a hit, and it works everywhere. The Last of Us is going to be in huge demand. Game of Thrones is in huge demand, and our big movies are in huge demand.

Where it gets interesting is what else you offer to a customer in flight. Do you offer a full season of an HBO show, or do you offer a collection of classic movies? That often varies not just by the airline but by the people doing the curating and buying. If someone really likes classic movies, they might program more classics versus someone who likes dramas or new releases that are maybe more art-house. From our view, we go where the buyer wants to buy, and we’re going to then help supplement that with the broadest content offering we can. It’s going to be more nuanced based on their buying preference and, frankly, their experience.

How much data do you get on what customers might be watching? Do you have information on, say, whether The Last of Us has been watched by this many customers this month in flight?

No. Airlines generally do not share that data. It’s generally proprietary, and that’s most streaming services — with the exception that with the big streaming services in the U.S., there are third-party services now providing data and analytics. And in in-flight, there’s not.

There’s no Nielsen for planes?

Correct. Or Parrot Analytics.

It seems like you would benefit immensely from having that.

Always. The data allows you greater insight, and that’s why it’s proprietary. That’s why people don’t want to share it. And it varies by the platform and partner.

Do creators and producers of some of these shows or movies get a heads-up that their creation might end up as in-flight viewing?

Sometimes. It often is a natural part of our business when we’re doing movie licensing, because the airlines will want certain edits, and those tend to have approvals required by the director and sometimes the producer of the film.

What kind of approvals?

Big directors will have approval over certain changes in a movie that aren’t just removing language or nudity. Some of the airlines will want the films edited for different levels of standards. There’s more editing as you move to cultural standards that are different than in the U.S. — like in the Middle East. So a lot of that will fall back on us following the guild rules, because the guilds have certain requirements in terms of editing. Sometimes we have contractual obligations to directors, and sometimes it’s just a relationship that we want to give a director a heads-up that there’s an additional cut our licensee is asking for.

And we get calls, because people watch their movies in various places. Anecdotally, I’ll tell you, we got a lot of calls during COVID, because people were home watching a lot of programming. They were watching their movies on cable networks and seeing edits that they either weren’t familiar with or didn’t remember that someone had given approval over.

Did they get mad? Were they like, “Why did you cut my show?”

It’s a privilege being at Warner Bros. We have a great team of people who work on relationships with creators all the time, so it’s always collaborative. It’s usually a heads-up. It often comes up when we have an edit and someone pulled a different edit. You can imagine that every one of our licensees may want a different length of movie or different set of editing done, so you end up with multiple versions of a film.

And it could be as subtle as this: Does a client want the word deleted, or do they want it dubbed over? When you drop the audio, it’s called “lip flap.” But if you just drop the audio, you can still see someone mouth the word, so an airline or another buyer may want that lip flap not present, or they may want a different word put in its place. You can have multiple edited versions of a film pretty quickly.

Is there any request that a client might ask for that, as Warner Bros. Discovery, you would say no to? What’s a red line you won’t cross?

We allow editing for standards and practices and reasonable editing for time. Beyond that, we’re not going to allow editing for editorial perspectives. The work is the work. That’s what they created, and we’re not going to alter it.

I wanted to ask about creators, because a situation like this came up last month when Claudia Forestieri, creator of Gordita Chronicles, which was canceled and removed from HBO Max, felt blindsided by the fact that her show was only available to watch on airlines like JetBlue or American. How does something like that happen, where a title might be removed from a streaming service but still appear on other channels or platforms?

We’re licensing content globally, so you have to take into account that you have multiple markets. Then we’re licensing content in multiple platforms. There are airlines. There are cruise ships. Hotels. We do transactional deals, so you can buy content digitally through electronic sell-through. You can buy DVDs, then we license the content — often to our sister affiliated companies, like HBO, and to third-parties. And sometimes to multiple parties. Every case is somewhat different, but there’s often a moment when a title can be available in one place and it seems peculiar that it’s not available in other places. It could be between deals. There could be a reason that it’s not on a certain platform. It varies greatly as you look across all of our shows and movies across all territories.

Are there any common recurring requests that you see across different airlines? I assume anything plane crash–related is verboten? I’ve never seen anybody watch Lost or Yellowjackets on a plane.

We always get asked how soon we can make the movies available on the airlines. And the bigger the hit, the sooner they want the movie.

Of course.

Which is expected. And again, the windowing decisions have lots of trade-offs, so we work closely with all of our theatrical partners and other windowing partners to figure out the sequencing of a movie in different outlets at different times. That’s where we spend a lot of our focus.

Getting things early, before other people have seen them, is now where we’re seeing some of the market. The airlines are looking for ways of making the experience better than that of their competitors. We’ve done a couple of interesting events where we’ve gotten an episode and made it available on a plane before you can see it in a lot of other places and done it as a premium window, a preview window, or an exclusive window.

I haven’t heard about those. What are some examples? 

We did one with the spinoff of Sex and the City. There are a couple of them we’ve done. They’re hard to execute, so they’re few and far between, because it’s hard to get the movie or TV show pushed all the way out to the actual, physical airlines. There are a lot of steps to get there, so getting it early enough in our distribution plan to get it pushed out to the airlines often makes it challenging. You can have a delay of weeks, and sometimes months, getting content pushed out to specific airplanes.

There have been some organic blockbuster licensing hits over the years. I remember that years ago, Netflix got the streaming rights for Breaking Bad. That deal paid off for both Breaking Bad and Netflix, increasing both of their footprints and linking the two in the public eye. Is there an example of any blockbuster hit for in-flight entertainment like that?

I like that question. We’re not going to see those sorts of synergies between the studios and airlines, because there’s no data, like we talked about before, from the airlines. The airlines aren’t ordering, for example, new seasons of those shows. I’ll give you an example of what can happen. We license Manifest to Netflix. And we license the prior seasons off of NBC to Netflix. It became a huge hit on Netflix, and Netflix ended up ordering a new season directly from Warner Bros. Television. That’s a great phenomenon that can happen when you have these relationships between the studios and all of the different partners.

The airlines don’t have the size, budgets, or marketing reach to do something like that. So you’re not going to find an example where a series or movie went up on an airline and it became a massive hit because of its exposure on the airline. What you will find is hits that work in multiple places tend to work in almost all places. If a series is doing really well for a streamer, it’s going to do really well in flight. People tend to gravitate toward either what’s buzzworthy or timeless. I think we like to talk about different genres that tend to work in different places. So in an in-flight experience, people tend to want to kick back and relax. You’re going to have a higher usage of more “lean-back” films, we call them, versus “lean-in” films. A lean-back film is a action movie, a comedy, or something that doesn’t require an immense amount of concentration, and a lean-in title is one where you have to follow every scene and hang on really tight. They’ll still work, but they’re not going to work as well in that environment.

So that is an insight you do have. Even if you don’t have the hard numbers.

Yeah. We did a study a long time ago called the need states, and people want to relax. It’s one of your basic needs: You want to tune out. You want to enjoy yourself. That’s the majority of the viewing experience, and that’s what we all do in our viewing behavior. When you’re alone on a plane for a couple of hours, you want to lean back, relax, and enjoy something.

What are some popular lean-back titles right now?

Black Adam is very entertaining. Elvis is great, because it’s a good, long, fun, visually immersive musical ride. The Harry Potter films always work. Some big comedies always work. I love walking down the aisles of airplanes, because I travel a lot for work and I like spotting what everybody’s watching. I can say right now that a disproportionate number of people are watching Top Gun: Maverick — as they should.

Of course.

It’s an amazing movie. It plays really well over and over again, and there are a lot of people watching Top Gun in an airplane.

Perfect plane movie.

It’s a plane movie! Like you said, there probably aren’t many “plane crash movies,” but there are lots of “plane movies” playing up in airplanes.

Are there “lean-in” programs you would say buck that trend? Things that come back over and over again.

I think that the HBO series are very immersive. If you’re watching Game of Thrones, you have to pay attention, and that does really well. Those are the ones that buck the trend, and they check off those other boxes. They’re very entertaining and visually incredible, so that helps.

Are there any factors that might put a show or film out of bounds, where you’d say, “We can’t license this. This is a no-go”? You mentioned that The Last of Us is a success. Is there any scenario in which a show is doing well and you are putting that show in one market and intentionally limiting it in another market — in flight or somewhere else?

None comes to mind. If we’re distributing, we’re going to distribute widely. I don’t think you limit it from one market versus another, either because of what it is or what it isn’t. One of the things we are focused on is giving people enough of the shows and movies so that they get a real feel for them — so they want to go home, then subscribe, if they haven’t already, or that they open up their subscription. You’ll see the first seasons of maybe some classic HBO shows up there so that people can discover them for the first time, because there are amazing shows in this library that people have heard of but haven’t seen yet — whether it’s The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, or Curb Your Enthusiasm. We like it when airlines pull these classics and early seasons of them and make them available to people, so they can check them out for the first time.

How many titles would you say that, for example, American, Delta, or JetBlue might be licensing from the overall Warner Bros. Discovery library at a time? Some of these things turn over — I think, monthly? Or maybe on different timelines?

When we add up the Warner Bros. library, the HBO library, the Discovery library, and the CNN Library, it’s massive. You’re seeing hundreds of titles on each of these airlines from us. Some of the airlines can swap them out monthly, and some do it quarterly. Figuring out how to get them “a little bit of a lot of them” is always a great process with the airlines, because the libraries are so big. You want to serve up enough things and not change it too fast, because you want to give people time to find things and experience them, but it’s hundreds of titles at any one time, and they’re limited by capacity, by storage capacity. The airlines do a very good job making it feel like you’re replicating the streaming experience, but it’s a subset, because it’s really what the plane carries.

They only have so much space on their hard drives on a given plane.

Most people don’t know that.

I’m actually speculating. Is it literally just a hard drive on a plane?


And I guess it’s probably operating a server? A local server like Plex or something?

I’m not a tech person, so I can’t speak to how it actually works, but there’s a limited storage capacity on planes. They do a really good job replicating the experience of a streaming service or streaming services. It makes you feel like there’s a lot of content in there. I think I meant for a great viewing experience, because we don’t hear people complaining that there’s not enough HBO content or not enough Warner Bros. movies up in the sky.

Do you get complaints in general — either from the airlines themselves or from individual passengers? Is there even a pipeline for that?

Like a suggestion box?

I don’t even know what that would look like. It’s an honest question.

Yeah, I don’t know either. No, we don’t. We don’t have a pipeline for in-flight customer feedback.

I did want to ask you what people in first class versus economy watch, what people on red-eye flights versus daytime flights watch, but I’m not sure you can answer those questions.

I can’t. If you find out, let us know. We’d love to hear some insights. I’m curious too.

This conversation has been edited for length, altitude, and clarity.