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Apple Wins Cuarón, but Hindsight Is the Streaming Wars’ Most Valuable Weapon

Apple TV+ beat Netflix in this round of the streaming wars, but Amazon Studios is this week's real winner thanks to hard-won experience.

Alfonso Cuaron - Director, Orignal Screenplay and Cinematography - 'Roma'91st Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019

Alfonso Cuaron and his three Oscars for “Roma” at the 2019 Academy Awards

Andrew H. Walker/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Another day, another auteur picks his or her side in the streaming wars. This week it was Alfonso Cuarón, the Netflix golden boy who switched allegiances after “Roma” and signed an exclusive TV deal with Apple. It was for a lot of money, and he joins a growing list of big streaming deals that include J.J. Abrams at Warner Media, Phoebe Waller-Bridge at Amazon, Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes at Netflix, and…

Sorry, just couldn’t type that paragraph one more time. Filmmakers who strike big deals with deep-pocketed disrupters that are dead set on scooping the best talent out from under each other — it’s become so familiar that it threatens to become a trope. And with less than a month before the launches of Apple TV+ and Disney+, stoking the fires around all this empire building starts to obscure something more important.

For streamers, the checks they cut are as massive as the talent they’re buying, and these alignments will do much to shape the future of entertainment. Still, there’s an element of tulip mania in the nonstop dealmaking. Although the streaming wars are very real, no one can know the creators’ true market value until their work is on the air — or, even more telling, when some inevitably fail. Market response reveals the parameters of the businesses they’re building, and the kind of spending needed to fulfill them.

Just ask Amazon Studios leader Jennifer Salke. She’s been in the role for 18 months, first concentrating on the TV side and now focusing on the film business. Over the last three years, Amazon’s film fortunes have hit highs like “Manchester By the Sea” and “The Big Sick,” but it also saw Mike Leigh’s $18 million Amazon Original “Peterloo,” with Amazon Studios as its U.S. theatrical distributor. Budgeted at $18 million, it grossed $152,000 in North America. (A project, it should be noted, that predated Salke.) However, as she told the New York Times this week, she has a plan going forward: Make a lot more movies, albeit ones that spend less time in theaters — if they go there at all.

So while Amazon’s film division launched by making deals with Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Todd Haynes, and Richard Linklater, it will now concentrate on making young-adult titles, dark thrillers, and provocative dramas that will attract the masses to Amazon Prime. And where Amazon Studios released 12 movies in the last two years, Salke plans to produce up to 30 annually. As she told the Times, “I will have streaming movies that I will deliver at a regular cadence to my customers globally.”

While that very corporate-sounding strategy may not bode well for indie filmmakers, who could fault her for it? Amazon tried one way, it didn’t work, and now Salke is trying something else. Amazon is still working with top talent, like producer Jason Blum and director Jennifer Kent, but it’s taking a very different approach.

So no matter how much money Apple has — with a market cap of over $1 trillion, it’s enough to launch a studio and, in theory, buy Disney and Netflix, all without breaking a sweat — its spending will become increasingly targeted over time. Like all streamers that launch in the wake of Netflix and Amazon, Apple has the benefit of their hindsight. And soon, it will have some of its own.

Here’s 5 of this week’s best IndieWire stories you shouldn’t miss:

I’m Married to a Trans Woman. And I Miss ‘Transparent’ Like I Miss My Old Life by Libby Hill

Learning that my wife was trans felt like a chiropractic adjustment that I didn’t know I needed. My life was fine. Having been together for nearly 20 years, my wife and I had developed a routine that wasn’t perfect, but worked for us. Her truth hit me so hard that every bone in my body trembled. My teeth loosened. My lungs deflated…. Emily being a woman, instead of the man the world presumed her to be, felt as though my editor had just sent back the last 20 years of my life for a hard rewrite. In that moment, I realized why Soloway’s first impulse upon their father coming out as trans was to write a TV script. If you graft a lightly fictionalized narrative onto your life, it allows you to feel like you have control in a situation in which you feel powerless.

Ang Lee Deserves More Respect For the Ambitious Digital Experiment of ‘Gemini Man’ by Chris O’Falt

“They are trying to make digital look like film,” said Lee during an extended interview with IndieWire this week. “It’s a different media with different perception, different requirements. Digital doesn’t want to be film, it wants to be something else. I think we need to get past that and discover what it is.”

The Academy Will Allow Oscar Voters to Stream Almost All Awards Screeners [exclusive] by Anne Thompson

“We want to make the move to online viewing,” said Academy president David Rubin. “There’s an endeavor to support the Academy’s efforts at being an international organization: Part of that is to connect with international filmmakers and international audiences. All of the efforts to enable people to see international feature films is with that goal in mind. This has never been the American Academy. While original commercial and popular filmmaking may be essentially American in origin, the motion-picture world is international.”

From ‘Downton Abbey’ to ‘El Camino,’ TV Drama May Be New Frontier in Hunt for Theatrical Franchises by Tyler Hersko and Chris Lindahl

A theatrical adaptation of “Downton Abbey” represented a solid business opportunity to expand the franchise to new audiences. “The series was wildly successful, and had a huge fanbase around the world,” said chairman Peter Kujawski. “The film’s production was driven by the belief that it would be a good business decision overall for [parent company] NBCUniversal to have the ‘Downton’ IP out there in new and bigger ways.”

From Netflix to Dada, MoMA’s Reboot Wants You to Reconsider Film History [exclusive] by Eric Kohn

“I have been saying for a while now that MoMA will be the last place in New York — and even the world — where you will be able to see a film as the artist intended it,” said MoMA chief curator of film Rajendra Roy. “We will dedicate ourselves to showing film on film, to having a cinematic experience experience that’s rich and full and authentic as possible. I hope that’s in 70 years or never, but whenever that comes, MoMA will be the last place, if that’s what we need to be.”

Finally, check out a gallery of the best vampire films, and one that’s devoted to ranking the best episodes of “Breaking Bad” (thanks to Tyler, our in-house obsessive). In honor of “El Camino,” of course.

Have a great weekend,

Dana

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