As Apple Readies Big TV Launch, Hollywood Powerbrokers Are Going in "Blind"

The tech giant is hosting top dealmakers and stars at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters on March 25.
Photo-Illustration by Kelsey Stefanson; Ben A. Pruchnie (Apple), James D. Morgan (Hollywood), both Getty Images

Nearly two years after Apple first signaled its plan to become a programming powerhouse, the tech giant is set to unveil its vision for the future of entertainment. And it’s got Hollywood on the edge of its seat.

Although producers and agents rushed (and continue) to sell star-powered shows to the iPhone maker in the months after television veterans Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht were tapped to run worldwide video efforts, they’ve been left largely in the dark about just how the company will distribute and market its slate. One representative admits being "blind" to most of Apple's plans for the service, while another notes, "that doesn’t happen when you make a movie at Universal or a TV show at NBC.”

The curtain will lift March 25 as Apple convenes some of Hollywood’s top dealmakers and stars and producers like Jennifer Aniston and J.J. Abrams at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters for an event teased with an invitation featuring an old-school movie countdown and the phrase, “It’s show time.” (Sources say Apple is also hosting a special dinner event on Sunday for its massive talent roster who will be in town for the Monday morning event.) Despite some frustration over the lack of information coming out Apple’s Culver City outpost in the days leading up to the event, most power brokers are expressing confidence that the company known for making the iPhone can shepherd these shows to success. “It’s important to have more options, more competition,” says an insider. “I want it to work and I hope it will.”

Although Apple has long courted Hollywood, the company got serious about providing original programming to iPhone and Apple TV users in spring 2017 when it hired Van Amburg and Erlicht, former Sony Pictures TV executives known for helping bring shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, FX’s The Shield and, more recently, Netflix's The Crown to television. Before the hire, Apple had been focused on offering music documentaries and reality programming like Carpool Karaoke and Planet of the Apps through subscription service Apple Music. (Apple has seemingly forgotten about Dr. Dre's Vital Signs.) Soon executives had ordered Amazing Stories from Steven Spielberg and a morning show drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. Apple now has content deals and more than two dozen shows from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Abrams, M. Night Shyamalan and Damien Chazelle. On the film side, it picked up Sundance coming-of-age drama Hala and struck a multiyear deal with A24. Although the company was expected to invest around $1 billion into its first round of programming, BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield estimates that it is spending more than $2 billion annually.  

While Apple has built up a star-studded roster in a relatively short time, its content budget is just a fraction of the money that Netflix ($8 billion in 2018) and Amazon (an estimated $5 billion) are spending to develop vast coffers of original and library programming. Instead of going after licensed fare to fill in the gaps, Apple is expected to sell subscriptions to third-party streaming video services like Showtime, Starz and HBO Now. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings confirmed on Monday the streamer wouldn't be part of that offering. A company spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. 

The video service is part of Apple’s push to diversify away from the iPhone revenue that has long been its bread and butter. The company is in the middle of an effort to grow its services business — the division led by senior vp Eddy Cue that includes iTunes, Apple Music, iCloud and other software products — to more than $14 billion in quarterly revenue by 2020.

Ahead of the Monday morning event, which will be live-streamed from the Steve Jobs Theater, Hollywood’s creative community is in an unusual position: Having already sold some of their buzziest shows to the streamer, they’re eager for reassurance that the bet is going to pay off. One dealmaker predicts, “They’re going to say, ‘We’re not messing around. We’re committed to doing this.' They want people to say, ‘Wow.’”

THR polled the town for the burning questions that they are hoping will be answered Monday.

What will the service look like?

Three years ago, an app called, simply, TV began to show up on Apple TV set-top boxes, iPhones and iPads. Designed as an aggregator of programming from across Apple's network of third-party streaming video apps, it offers a personalized experience from more than 100 different on-demand and live-streaming offerings. Observers like Greenfield have long expected that Apple, which has a device install base of 1.4 billion users, will use this app as the portal for its original programming efforts going forward, though the company could also opt to bundle its programming via its $10-per-month Apple Music service, which it has already done with music-themed programming like Carpool Karaoke. "The programming is the programming," says a source with business at Apple. "What's interesting to me is the product. Does it work?" 

How much will it cost?

Could Apple really give away shows starring Witherspoon, Jason Momoa and Brie Larson for free? That’s the question people are asking as it seems increasingly likely that the company could use original programming as a way to lure people into Apple’s video ecosystem, where they then could be upsold into purchasing subscriptions to other stand-alone video offerings with Apple sharing a percentage of that subscription revenue. Greenfield wrote in 2018, “We believe all a consumer will need to do is already own or buy an Apple device to have free access to all of the content Apple’s video team is creating.” But Jefferies analyst Tim O’Shea noted as recently as February that Apple could charge $15 per month for its offering. Such a price point would be higher than what Netflix charges for a much more comprehensive library of programming and suggests that Apple originals could be bundled as part of a larger offering.

Which shows will launch first — and how good will they be?

Over 20 scripted series have been ordered so far and more are in the works. Some — like Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore's space drama, For All Mankind, Hailee Steinfeld's modern-day Emily Dickinson comedy Dickinson, and Momoa-led See — have already been completed. A few, sources say, have even already been renewed (though Apple doesn't seem ready to discuss that — yet). Others have had creative issues. Prolific producers Bryan Fuller and Hart Hanson both exited Amazing Stories after they hit a creative roadblock with the tech giant over their plans to do a Black Mirror-type anthology. (Apple hired Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis, who created ABC's family-friendly fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time, to take over.) Aniston and Witherspoon's morning show drama also replaced its showrunners and is significantly overbudget, sources say. And another top producer is said to be exiting one of Apple's other big-swing series. Still, one thing is true: Apple has not struggled to land top talent who trust that the behemoth will be able to deliver. Stars putting their faith in the tech company include Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul (Are You Sleeping, from Chernin); Josh Gad (animated comedy Central Park from the Emmy-winning creator of Bob's Burgers and 20th TV/Disney); Chris Evans (limited series Defending Jacob, from Paramount TV and Anonymous Content); singer-actress Sara Bareilles (Abrams and Warners' Little Voice); Jennifer Garner (who reunites with Alias' Abrams for My Glory Was I Had Such Friends); and Joel Kinnaman (For All Mankind), among others. 

Will there be nude scenes and F-bombs?

The success of early projects will likely set the tone for future original programming, and there have been rumors — which Apple insiders have denied — that Erlicht and Van Amburg's programming is being carefully monitored by Cook, who wants family-friendly fare devoid of topics like religion and politics that could ruffle feathers among its broad install base. One top agency source notes that Cook has been very hands-on, recently visiting the set of the morning show drama and, in another case, scrapping one project over a concern that it wouldn't be TV-14. Some say Cook also has been protective of how technology — including iPhones and computers — is featured onscreen. But one source suggests that explicit content is being evaluated on a show-by-show basis, which should read as good news for creatives. Either way, it has been a balancing act for Erlicht and Van Amburg, who have made increasingly regular trips between Culver City and Cupertino as part of the push. Sums up a top agent: "It has not been a smooth ride."

What’s the distribution and marketing strategy?

There are still questions about whether the company will follow a Netflix-style binge release or experiment with rollout strategies like Hulu. Meanwhile, concerns linger over whether shows will be released individually or as part of a group. High-wattage stars likely won’t be thrilled if their project drops on the same day as five other shows and gets the equivalent marketing share. But the company does have a marketing advantage with the 500 Apple Stores it operates worldwide, which some predict could be used to market and reach the target audience. What if customers could watch trailers featuring instantly recognizable stars like Aniston, Witherspoon, Momoa, Evans and Larson while waiting at a Genius Bar? Apple also has the ability to send alerts to its 900 million iPhone users reminding them that a new show from the latest top-tier producer is now streaming. Amid regular complaints from creators over the lack of promotion for Netflix originals — which continue to grow (and grow) — Apple's marketing could be a calling card that helps the company land even more star power.