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Apple’s Movie Plans: Like Amazon and Netflix, but Maybe Nicer

AppleTV+ says it doesn't want to face the same theatrical struggles as Netflix — but what does the alternative look like?

Matt Dentler, Head of Feature Acquisition, Worldwide Video, Apple, Alex Heffes, Composer, Victoria Stone, Director, Mark Deeble, Writer/DirectorApple's The Elephant Queen at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 27 Jan 2019

At Sundance 2019: Matt Dentler, Apple’s head of feature acquisition, worldwide video, with “The Elephant Queen” composer Alex Heffes, director Victoria Stone, and writer-director Mark Deeble

Arthur Mola/Shutterstock

As studios trim their theatrical release slates, the streamers’ continue to grow. Like Amazon and Netflix, Apple now has its first slate of theatrical releases. Documentary “The Elephant Queen” will bow October 18 and arrive on Apple TV+ for its launch date, November 1. “Hala” will be in theaters November 22, and on Apple TV+ in December. And on December 6, Apple will release Anthony Mackie’s “The Banker,” starring Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson; that goes to Apple TV + in January.

When it comes to servicing those distribution deals, Apple is spreading the wealth: A24 will service “The Elephant Queen,” Greenwich Entertainment has “Hala,” and Bleecker Street will handle “The Banker.”

A24 is also handling the theatrical release of Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” starring Bill Murray, in mid-2020. That film is an Apple-A24 coproduction; last November, A24 and Apple announced a partnership to make a slate of films over a multi-year period.

Beyond movie dating, what’s more interesting is how this big-screen move is intended to trickle down to Apple’s many, smaller screens. According to the Wall Street Journal report, Apple has made a concerted effort at exhibitor outreach in an effort to dodge the agitas that continues to dog Netflix and its theatrical strategy. (As an Apple source told Variety: “We don’t want to be Netflix.”) It wants to distribute its films more like Amazon — a three-month exclusive for some, and only a couple of weeks for others.

The icons of streaming services Netflix and AmazonPrime Video are pictured on an iPhone on in Gelsenkirchen, GermanyNetflix Amazon Prime Video, Gelsenkirchen, Germany - 15 Nov 2018

Although closed systems are the Apple ethos, using a range of independent distributors to service its films is straight from the Amazon playbook. Before opening its own distribution and marketing company two years ago, Amazon had its biggest theatrical successes with other distributors like Roadside Attractions (“Manchester By the Sea”), Lionsgate (“The Big Sick”), and Bleecker Street (“Logan Lucky”). After a traditional three-month window, these films went to Amazon Prime.

However, it’s worth noting that Amazon seems to be rethinking its strategy, even with major acquisitions. “Late Night” went wide, and grossed just $15 million. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” had a slow rollout, starting with five theaters August 23 and peaking last weekend in just over 1,000; it will likely end its run at around $6 million. And Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report” will premiere on Amazon Prime November 29, just two weeks after its theatrical release.

Although closed systems are the Apple ethos, a standalone distribution arm seems less likely. Beyond the very heavy lifting required, there’s the Amazon Studios track record: 12 titles in two years, with an average gross of $3.8 million. Like Amazon Studios, AppleTV+ revenue doesn’t rely on theatrical performance — but that’s not necessarily inspiration to go it alone.

Sources who spoke to the Wall Street Journal also made the point that Apple wanted a theatrical exhibition strategy that attracts big-name directors and producers. However, as the Apple story broke, press were crowding in for the very first screenings of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” backed by Netflix and opening the New York Film Festival. Other Netflix directors slated for awards attention include Steven Soderbergh, Noah Baumbach, and Fernando Mereilles, joining a significant list of other filmmakers who are more than happy to align themselves with a streamer that provides only a modest theatrical window. Money talks.


“The Irishman”


Apple has enough money to buy Netflix, but even the wealthiest companies want their entities to be proiftable. And as it enters a very competitive field with an initial price at a very low $5 per month, Apple TV+ needs films with strong appeal. In that context, theatrical is a loss leader — whether the film has awards on its mind, or simply a wider audience. Working with an outside company and gaining traction for later streaming means less risk; it also parallels early assessments that Apple TV+ is going heavy on original series.

Of course, as with everything in streaming, all is subject to change.

Dana Harris-Bridson contributed to this report.

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