They're up to something in Hollywood — but no one knows what. Not even Apple.
by Saba Hamedy
They're up to something in Hollywood — but no one knows what. Not even Apple.
by Saba Hamedy
Heartfelt shout-outs to Tim Cook from the Emmys and Oscars stages -- how would that sound? Or lest we get too ahead of ourselves, how about a title card that reads "Apple Films" or "An Apple Original Series" in front of your favorite new movie or TV show?
It all has a bit of a ring to it, right?
Apple is undeniably at work on a future in which it produces original movies and TV shows on the level of fellow tech titans Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. The evidence can’t be denied: Top Apple brass have been taking meetings with agencies and producers, lurking at film festivals, recruiting key executive talent and lining up major office space in Los Angeles.
It's almost time for Apple's close-up. But that doesn't mean the tech giant is necessarily ready for it.
Apple has dabbled on the fringes of entertainment for years, and is finally launching its first two original reality shows -- Planet of the Apps and a Carpool Karaoke spinoff -- this spring. But its overall programming strategy remains unclear, several people in the industry have told Mashable.
Even internally, Apple isn’t sure what it will focus on -- or who’s going to be in charge.
"As of right now, there isn't a structural approach," a person in the industry familiar with Apple’s early programming efforts said. "There’s been a little bit of a moving target as to what exactly their plan is."
Apple declined to comment for this story, but all around town, the buzz is building: Another deep-pocketed player is quietly gearing up for a major content offensive.
Will it become the next Netflix … or the next Xbox Originals?
Ambar Del Moral
Nice to meet you, where you been?
To be fair, Apple's original programming “launch” technically already happened less than two years ago – with Taylor Swift.
Back in December 2015 (post-T. Swift hating on Apple Music, pre-T.Swift doing fun commercials for it) Apple partnered with the artist to bring 1989 World Tour LIVE Concert Film to its platform. Only Apple Music subscribers could see the in-demand concert video, the first time a major piece of video content would live there exclusively.
Apple had previously attempted to develop its own cable TV package, but negotiations with networks fizzled. Swift’s change of heart opened minds to the idea of exclusive programming on Apple Music.
A few months later, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Beats co-founder and rap legend Dr. Dre would executive produce and star in Vital Signs, his own six-episode show for Apple. It's unclear how far in development the project is now, but suddenly it was obvious: Like Netflix and Amazon, another Hollywood sleeping giant was beginning to stir.
The next big deal wasn’t far behind. In March 2016, Apple partnered with Vice to debut a docu-series focused on local music scenes from around the world.
The common theme of Apple's original programming is – and for now remains – music, tech and the culture around it. That could change very quickly, but one thing looks likely to hold firm: Like Swift's tour movie, Apple's new shows will also be available on Apple Music, the $10 per month streaming service with estimated 20 million subscribers since its June 2015 launch.
All about the Benjamins
To establish a beachhead in original content, Apple will need a strong squad of industry veterans – and whispers around Hollywood of TV execs taking interviews became a dull roar over the past year.
Though Apple has yet to make that one big, splashy hire that signals its direction, the names behind its first TV deals show serious intent to disrupt: Ben Silverman, former NBC Entertainment co-chair, Electus founder and The Office executive producer; and Ben Winston, executive producer of The Late Late Show With James Corden.
Silverman, a former programming wunderkind who parted with Electus last year after founding the studio in 2009, will serve as executive producer for Shark Tank-like reality show Planet of the Apps, alongside musician Will.i.am and Howard Owens, Silverman’s partner at Propagate. The app-developers’ pitch show will feature celebrity advisers including Will.i.am., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Gary Vaynerchuk.
Meanwhile, Carpool Karaoke is helmed by Winston, who helped turn James Corden's Late Late Show into a must-watch both on TV and YouTube. Winston has emphasized that the Apple show will be "fundamentally different," with 16 guest hosts rather than just Corden and a celebrity riding shotgun.
Apple also recently brought on former YouTube and Spotify executive Shiva Rajaraman to help with its video product push.
The Cupertino, California-based company has also upped its physical spaces in Los Angeles; some familiar with its plans suggest that Apple expanding its L.A. real estate footprint to accommodate more hires and potential studio space. One such location is Culver City, a stone’s throw from Sony Pictures Entertainment -- which has in part fueled rumors that Apple could be looking to acquire the entertainment division, which is reportedly exploring a sale.
Big fish, bigger pond
Netflix and Amazon Studios have spent several years making the rounds at all the major film festivals, courting top-tier Hollywood executive talent and generating buzz with unique originals. Both took home their first Oscars this year. It's taken a while, but the major streaming services have certainly demonstrated that a player with enough cash and an iron will can break into the business – you just have to make a hit.
Is Apple going to make a big splash with Carpool Karaoke or Planet of the Apps? Almost certainly not. And that's expected. After all, it was scripted programming that positioned Netflix and Amazon as major players. Netflix struck gold on its first try with House of Cards, a $60 million-or-more gamble that sprang from deep analytics research, while it took Amazon several years and dozens of failed Prime shows to land on Transparent, its Emmy-winning groundbreaker.
Jeffery Tambor accepts the Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for 'Transparent'
Apple doesn't appear poised to try either method, at least not yet. For now it's content to dip a toe in the water with smaller-scale reality shows tied to recognizable names, perhaps to peer into its own audience analytics before making a major play. But as we've seen, they'll need a big, expensive hit revving the engine to get to the level of their competitors.
Apple knows this – and is certainly looking around for the right people to make that leap. Top Apple executives – including head of content Eddy Cue – have been meeting with film and TV veterans including with execs at Paramount Pictures and Sony TV, multiple sources tell Mashable.
Still, some familiar with Apple's meetings in Hollywood say it's confusing as to what exactly Apple is looking for at the moment.
"It’s not like they are coming to the table saying ‘We’d like to go buy six shows this year across three arenas,’" one insider said. "It’s much more opportunistic, which makes it hard to sell to them."
That's not to say Hollywood isn’t ready for another deep-pocketed major player to come shopping for shows.
"I think Showtime would look at them as new distribution opportunities," Tom Christie, Showtime's COO, said to Mashable during a panel at SXSW, when asked about Apple and other new emerging platforms. "Ultimately the more distributors the better for the consumers and the better opportunity for Showtime to get sold."
Apple – like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and traditional Hollywood studios and networks – also had a presence at the Austin-based tech and entertainment festival. But its about-face at SXSW is another sign of just how tentative their efforts are right now: Apple was initially planning a panel around its new slate, but ended up ditching those plans before they were ever officially announced.
Instead, the Apple Music house remained the company's main public attraction, and Apple Music creative director and Beats 1 head Zane Lowe gave the keynote during the music portion of the festival. Behind the scenes, Apple employees were spotted out and about, including at CW and Buzzfeed's Riverdale-themed party the first weekend of the festival.
Industry sources caution that unlike its perceived rivals, Apple doesn't necessarily need its first shows to be instant hits. "Apple has the luxury of time and money," one insider noted.
In the time Apple has spent not producing originals, it has been able to observe what works and what doesn't in digital, a landscape that evolves constantly. Hooking customers is no easy feat, no matter your resources.
Last year, Vine and Vessel – platforms home to many digital content creators – were axed by their respective parent companies. Verizon, which reportedly spent about $200 million on its millennial focused app go90, is still trying to figure out how to attract more eyeballs.
And remember Xbox Originals? Not even the fledgling studio’s deep well of capital, built-in distribution network and formidable executive suite could get it off the ground in time to survive.
Crackle, Sony's free streaming TV service, has also been looking for its big hit – adding shows with stars including Adam Brody, Martin Freeman, Rupert Grint and Ed Westwick. YouTube unveiled its TV bundle offering in February, adding to existing group of online TV upstarts including Sling TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, AT&T’s DirecTV Now and Hulu's forthcoming service.
Then there's also Spotify and Tidal – music streaming services that have launched into original programming and exclusive video content offerings, respectively.
"Apple, like other large scale technology providers, has to find ways to keep users engaged," said Brian Blau, Research Vice President at Gartner Inc. "Most if not all of the big players use entertainment media as one strategy, and its worked ... Apple stands a good chance of success as any in producing original content. They have had earlier efforts such as their live concerts. But it will take them time to develop their own style of TV and movie content as they find what appeals to their user base."
At the Code conference in February, Cue hinted there could be more shows on the horizon, but didn't indicate when or who else the company is interested partnering with.
"We're not taking the traditional route," Cue said. "We're not out trying to buy a bunch of shows. We're trying to do some things we think are creative and can move culture and we think that Apple can add some value to ... [We want to work on] a lot more content, and a lot more unique things that haven't been seen before. But how much and how fast? That remains to be seen."
Ambar Del Moral