Apple aims for box office glory with rollout of Martin Scorsese epic

Tim Cook is not known for the theatrical flair that came naturally for Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder. But after 12 years as Apple’s chief executive, the softly spoken Alabama native appears to be discovering his inner Hollywood mogul.

This weekend Apple will roll out acclaimed director Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon in more than 3,600 US cinemas and thousands more in 63 other markets around the world. Cook has taken a deep personal interest in the film, appearing at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and throwing his support behind an auteur-friendly Hollywood rollout that is more rooted in the celluloid era than the iPhone age.

“For Tim to go all the way to Cannes and be a part of that was a huge thing,” noted a senior entertainment industry executive. “So I think Apple is definitely enamoured with the [movie] business.”

The epic western, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and clocks in at about three and a half hours, has a guaranteed 45-day “window” in cinemas before it moves on to the Apple TV+ streaming service. The strategy marks a complete rejection of the streaming-first philosophy espoused by industry leader Netflix.

Apple’s theatrical push will continue in late November with the release of Napoleon, a biopic directed by Ridley Scott, and Argylle, a spy thriller directed by Matthew Vaughn, next year. All three films have budgets estimated to be close to or over $200mn before marketing costs — figures that traditional Hollywood studios might be hard-pressed to justify for films that do not feature superheroes or lightsabres.

Exactly why Apple is going so heavily into the traditional film business is a hot topic in Hollywood. Many believe it is about presenting a talent-friendly image to attract Hollywood’s brightest stars to its projects. Others say it is about building awareness of its streaming service. And some say putting films in cinemas is simply the best way to sell films.

“They want a big global release to show that Apple makes high-quality movies,” the entertainment executive said. “It might not be profitable theatrically, but it will do well for them when it comes to Apple TV+ later, 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 want your finest directors and your finest actors.’”

By one important measure, Cook has already made this point. In 2022 he beat Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos by becoming the first streamer to win an Oscar for Best Picture with CODA, a film it acquired for $22mn at the Sundance Film Festival. But an Oscar for a homegrown Apple Original film would be another notch.

Apple’s commitment to the full cinematic experience comes at a difficult moment for Hollywood, where the screen actors’ union remains on strike and traditional studios are grappling with the financial upheaval caused by streaming.

Some Hollywood executives are worried that Apple’s perceived lack of budget constraints — a notion the company rejects — will create problems for the legacy studios, which are all in belt-tightening mode.

“With Apple, they’re making movies at a price that I don’t believe traditional studios can make,” the executive said. “So it does hurt the general economics of filmmaking because it just drives prices higher for everything.”

Dua Lupa and Henry Caville in a scene from ‘Argylle’

Cinema owners are not complaining, however. Netflix’s unwritten policy of releasing films into a small number of theatrical venues to qualify for awards has long generated resentment among cinema owners. But Apple’s big theatrical push — along with Amazon’s recent release of Air in theatres — is giving them a sense of vindication.

“All the evidence is that a film which has a period of theatrical exclusivity does better in subsequent revenue streams [such as streaming]. It’s not just a zero-sum game anymore,” said Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association. “It’s water cooler moment stuff: people who’ve seen the film in a cinema talk about it and it gets a halo effect of marketing.”

Out of the big streaming services, Netflix is now the only major holdout to have eschewed deploying a theatrical release window for some films. Clapp argued that “too much energy has probably been expended trying to convince Netflix to change their mind”.

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene in the film ‘Napoleon’

Apple is not entering the blockbuster business alone, however. It has partnered with Hollywood studios on Killers of the Flower Moon, Napoleon and Argyll to handle tasks such as distribution and marketing — the art of “getting butts in seats”, as one industry executive called it.

For Killers of the Flower Moon, Apple is working with Paramount, which owned the rights to the celebrated David Grann book on which the film is based but was not willing to cover the cost of the film. Apple financed the movie and handled marketing and publicity, while Paramount managed its distribution.

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

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

Apple will partner with Universal on Argylle, which is scheduled to be released in February.

Many in Hollywood see the traditional studio marketing campaigns that accompany a theatrical release as essential for creating buzz around a film — and ultimately lead to better performance on streaming services such as Apple TV+.

Bringing new subscribers to the streaming service is surely a goal for Cook, but Niels Juul, an executive producer on Killers of the Flower Moon, said he came away from a conversation in Cannes with the Apple chief executive believing he had other objectives too.

“Tim has an understanding of the role that watching movies in a theatre plays in our culture,” said Juul, chief executive of Hollywood production company No Fat Ego. “He’s genuinely interested in making a cultural impact.”