Focusing on major movies could prime Apple TV+ for success [Opinion]

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It's the perfect time for Apple TV+ to makes its move with movies.
It's the perfect time for Apple TV+ to makes its move with movies.
Photo: riviera 2005/Flickr CC

The deal to bring legendary director Martin Scorsese’s future films to Apple TV+ sounds like a gift for movie fans who subscribe to the streaming service.

But signing Scorsese and other top filmmakers could turn out to be a shrewd and self-serving move that benefits Apple, too. Focusing on films crafted by the world’s top directors could differentiate the fledgling Apple TV+ from dominant rivals like Netflix. And it looks like Apple might be timing the market perfectly.

Apple isn’t the first streaming company to go the movie route, of course. Before its leap into original TV series, market leader Netflix carved out a name for itself with its extensive lineup of licensed films for streaming. Now, hot newcomer Disney+ offers the Star Wars films, the Marvel movies and, of course, the sizable Disney back catalog. Amazon offers movies via Prime Video.

What’s the home of original streaming movies?

As the drive to produce or acquire original content ramps up, streaming companies make more and more of their own movies. But no streaming service has yet cornered the market on movies — and made itself the go-to outlet for cinematic streaming. When considering Netflix, most people will think of successful series like Orange Is the New Black or Stranger Things long before middling movie efforts like Bright come to mind.

Most movies dumped on streaming services these days still carry the same B-grade veneer that straight-to-video movies did in the 1990s. Even a high-end production like Scorsese’s The Irishman failed to make Netflix synonymous with high-quality original movies.

This lack of a clear leader could give Apple TV+ execs the opening they need. Apple fiercely opposes the idea of acquiring existing content in the form of TV faves like Friends or The Office. It calls itself “the first all-original video subscription service and home for today’s most imaginative storytellers.” And yet, Apple Originals so far garner mostly mixed-to-positive reviews. The streaming service can’t boast of anything like a breakout TV series that gets everyone talking.

Apple TV+ movies: Early signs look promising

However, the early signs for its movies look far more promising. When Apple TV+ salvaged the Tom Hanks World War II movie Greyhound after COVID-19 scuttled its theatrical release, the premiere reportedly became a huge hit for Apple. Opening weekend viewership supposedly fell in line with what Greyhound would have achieved in theaters pre-pandemic. Impressively, 30% of viewers were reportedly new to Apple TV+.

And that’s just the beginning. Right now, Apple TV+ can start to build buzz over a slew of big-name productions in the works. There’s Will Smith in Emancipation, Jake Gyllenhaal in an adaptation of graphic novel Snow Blind, and Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (plus whatever else he comes up with next).

Apple also inked multiyear deals with big names including Ridley Scott, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alfonso Cuarón, Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle and others. Not all of these deals involve movies. However, these are nonetheless top creatives best known for their work in cinema.

Are movies the answer Apple TV+ has been searching for?

Apple TV+ still has plenty of new TV shows on its slate, too. However, movies represent a bigger and bigger piece of the Apple TV+ pie with every new deal. And the company’s willingness to splash the cash on films is evident. It paid a reported $70 million to acquire Greyhound. And the budget for Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon supposedly stands between $180 million and $200 million.

With all its services, Apple wants to hook mainstream fans. (Look no further than Apple Arcade’s shift toward more-commercial games for proof.) Prestige projects get movie fans — and Hollywood and mainstream media outlets — talking.

Releasing a string of top-flight original movies could ultimately raise the profile of Apple TV+ and set it apart from the streaming crowd. Most of its competitors offer a deluge of content, making it easy for new shows and movies to get lost in an ocean of things to watch. On Apple TV+, releasing a highly anticipated original film can become a must-see event.

Slow and steady looks like a winning strategy

The timing couldn’t be better for Apple to take this tack and focus on movies. Even before the coronavirus shuttered theaters, the cinematic middle class began evaporating. Studios increasingly favored either low-budget movies (Blumhouse Productions turned this into an art form) or big, all-conquering blockbusters like Marvel’s superhero blowouts.

That led to a dearth of medium-budget movies featuring top-flight casts and directors but not tied to a particular franchise. These original properties posed a big risk to Hollywood studios. These projects lacked a built-in audience, but still cost enough to do real damage if they flopped. Such films don’t thrive in a movie industry obsessed with the enormous opening-weekend ticket sales that only known quantities (Spider-Man! Star Wars! Lego!) typically provide.

As is its way, Apple prefers to take things slow and steady. That seems like an ideal model for releasing movies, especially since Apple doesn’t face the same opening-weekend pressures that drove the old studio system, pre-COVID-19. Instead, Apple can build up a catalog of hits for a unique streaming service that will pull in more and more viewers over time.

Posting a handful of original TV episodes each month for $4.99 sounds like a ripoff. Releasing two or three grade-A movies for that amount? That sounds like an unbeatable deal.