Apple aims for box office success with Martin Scorsese epic

Tim Cook isn’t known for the theatrics that Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder, had. But after 12 years as Apple’s CEO, the soft-spoken Alabama native appears to be discovering his inner Hollywood mogul.

This weekend, Apple will premiere a film from acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. Killers of the Flower Moon in more than 3,600 theaters in the United States and thousands more in 63 other markets around the world. Cook took a deep personal interest in the film, appearing at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and supporting the auteur-friendly Hollywood film, which is more rooted in the celluloid era than the iPhone era.

“For Tim to come to Cannes and be a part of this was huge,” said the senior entertainment executive. “So I think Apple is definitely fascinated by the (film) business.”

The epic western, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and runs about three and a half hours, has a guaranteed 45-day window in theaters before moving to the Apple TV+ streaming service. The strategy marks a complete shift away from the streaming philosophy espoused by industry leader Netflix.

Apple’s theatrical promotion will continue in late November with the release Napoleonbiographical film directed by Ridley Scott and Argyll, a spy thriller directed by Matthew Vaughn, will be released next year. All three films have budgets estimated at around $200 million or more before marketing costs, figures that traditional Hollywood studios might have a hard time justifying for films that don’t feature superheroes or lightsabers.

Tim Cook, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese
Tim Cook, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese (from left to right) at the Apple TV+ event in Cannes for the film Killers of the Flower Moon © Eric Charbonneau/Shutterstock

Why Apple is so active in the traditional film business is a hot topic in Hollywood. Many believe it’s about creating a talent-friendly image to attract Hollywood’s biggest stars to their projects. Others say it’s about raising awareness of the streaming service. And some say that showing movies in theaters is simply the best way to sell movies.

“They want a big global release to show that Apple makes high-quality films,” the entertainment executive said. “It may not make a theatrical profit, but it will make them successful when it comes to Apple TV+ and will do well in the Oscar race next year.”

The person continued, “It’s a worthy investment to send a message to Hollywood that says, ‘Hey, we need your best directors and your best actors.’

In one important respect, Cook has already expressed this opinion. In 2022, he beat Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos to become the first streamer to win the Oscar for best picture. TAIL, a film the company acquired for $22 million at the Sundance Film Festival. But an Oscar for a domestic film Apple Original would be another step up.

Apple’s commitment to delivering a complete cinematic experience comes at a difficult moment in Hollywood, where the actors’ union continues to strike and traditional studios grapple with the financial turmoil caused by streaming.

Some Hollywood executives are concerned that Apple’s lack of budget constraints (an idea the company rejects) will create problems for legacy studios that are increasingly tightening their belts.

“With Apple, they’re making movies at a price point that I don’t think traditional studios can make,” the executive said. “So it hurts the overall economics of filmmaking because it drives up the prices of everything.”

Dua Lupa and Henry Cavill in a scene from the movie
Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill in the film Argyle, which will be released in February © Apple Studios

However, cinema owners are not complaining. Netflix’s unspoken policy of releasing films in a small number of theaters to qualify for awards has long caused resentment among theater owners. But Apple’s big theatrical push – along with Amazon’s recent release Air in movie theaters—gives them a sense of vindication.

“All indications are that a film that has gone through a period of theatrical exclusivity performs better in downstream revenue streams (such as streaming). It’s no longer just a zero-sum game,” said Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Film Association. “This is the moment when the waters cool: people who saw the film in the theater talk about it, and it creates a marketing halo effect.”

Of the major streaming services, Netflix is ​​currently the only major holdout that has scheduled a theatrical release window for some films. Clapp stated that “probably too much energy was spent trying to convince Netflix to change its mind.”

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the movie
Apple’s theatrical efforts will continue in late November with the release of the biopic Napoleon starring Joaquin Phoenix. © Apple Studios

However, Apple isn’t going it alone in the blockbuster business. He collaborated with Hollywood studios on Killers of the Flower Moon, Napoleon And Argyll tackling tasks like distribution and marketing—the art of “getting ass in place,” as one industry executive called it.

For Killers of the Flower MoonApple is partnering with Paramount, which owned the rights to David Grann’s famous book on which the film was based, but was unwilling to cover the film’s costs. Apple financed the film, handled marketing and advertising, and Paramount distributed it.

For NapoleonApple will collaborate with Sony, where the head of the Motion Picture Group is Tom Rothman, a longtime collaborator of director Ridley Scott.

“It will be released on Thanksgiving Day with a strong theatrical window and a strong marketing campaign before moving to Apple TV+,” Rothman said of Napoleon at a film convention earlier this year.

Apple will collaborate with Universal Argyllwhich is scheduled to be released in February.

Many in Hollywood believe that the traditional studio marketing campaigns that accompany a theatrical release are necessary to create buzz around a film and ultimately lead to better performance for streaming services like Apple TV+.

Attracting new subscribers to the streaming service is certainly Cook’s goal, but Nils Juul, executive producer Killers of the Flower Moonsaid that after a conversation in Cannes with the Apple CEO, he believed he had other goals.

“Tim understands the role that movie theater viewing plays in our culture,” said Juul, chief executive of Hollywood production company No Fat Ego. “He is genuinely interested in making a cultural impact.”

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