Inside Apple's Long, Bumpy Road to Hollywood

Illustration by: Erik Heintz

After a few false starts and a little offscreen drama, AppleTV+ finally makes its big debut with a slate of shows, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon and a billion potential customers ready to see what original programming looks like from the world's largest company, led by CEO Tim Cook.

In August 2017, Apple made a move that seemed to signal that the world's largest company was serious about Hollywood. The tech giant outbid Netflix for a soapy morning-show drama that would mark Jennifer Aniston's return to television. Based loosely on the Brian Stelter book Top of the Morning, the series was to be the flagship for an ambitious new streaming service.

But by that fall, producers were starting to panic. They had only just received the first script from writer and first-time showrunner Jay Carson. Meanwhile, the morning TV landscape was being upended by NBC's ouster of Matt Lauer over sexual misconduct allegations, and it was becoming clear that the #MeToo movement would need to factor into the plot. Apple, producer Media Res, Aniston and co-star/producer Reese Witherspoon began to ponder making a showrunner change as the early script, sources say, didn't match the standards of those involved. The group then began to look for a more experienced showrunner — and, in success, a writer who could pen a woman's experience.

In April 2018, Carson was ousted in favor of Bates Motel showrunner Kerry Ehrin. It had been 10 months since the Cupertino, California-based iPhone maker had tapped Sony TV veterans Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg to lead its Hollywood invasion. Now it was back to the drawing board for the show the duo wanted as their calling card. Apple — which, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter, had been in heated arbitration alongside Media Res, Aniston and Witherspoon against Carson over his "created by" credit — was getting a crash course in the messy business of entertainment.

Nearly every Silicon Valley titan that has chased Netflix into Hollywood has faced stumbling blocks. Amazon's foray was characterized by kooky, leather-jacket-wearing content chief Roy Price and his distaste for industry protocols (he resigned after a sexual harassment allegation). Microsoft wasn't willing to stomach the cost of launching Xbox Entertainment Studios and pulled out before high-profile Halo went into production.

According to dozens of interviews across the industry, Apple CEO Tim Cook is experiencing his own learning curve despite hiring respected showbiz execs. But while there have been some missteps (in addition to Carson, Steven Spielberg anthology Amazing Stories parted ways with showrunners Bryan Fuller and Hart Hanson, and sources say the Jason Momoa sci-fi epic See will soon make a change at the top), the interest surrounding Apple's Hollywood debut remains high.

"The two-way relationship they have with the consumer and the vast number of consumers they have, that's going to be game-changing," says CAA TV agent Rob Kenneally.

Apple executives have acknowledged entertainment isn't their expertise. "We don't know anything about making television," senior vp software and service Eddy Cue, the architect of the company's TV+ strategy, told audiences at South by Southwest in 2018. "We know how to create apps, we know how to do distribution, we know how to market. But we don't really know how to create shows."

But with AppleTV+'s Nov. 1 debut looming, Cue and company will need to prove that they've figured that out. Any hurdles they've faced leading up to the launch won't matter if their plan to offer a handful of original shows for $5 a month succeeds in attracting a fraction of their 1.4 billion Apple users. And many believe that it will. Wedbush estimates that Apple could attract 100 million TV+ subscribers by 2023 and generate between $7 billion and $10 billion in revenue from the product.

Though Apple makes significantly more — $167 billion in 2018 — from the sale of the iPhone, as people hold on to their devices longer, services like TV+ will be key to ensuring Apple ecosystem loyalty. "There's a lot at stake," notes Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives. "TV+ is going to play a major role in them further monetizing their 900 million iPhone users. The next leg of growth for Apple is going to be services." Apple declined to participate in this story.

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Drive down Washington Boulevard through Culver City and it becomes clear Apple is taking its entertainment pursuit seriously. Construction is underway on a sleek, glass-enclosed office building that will house Erlicht and Van Amburg's Worldwide Video team, which will make up a significant portion of the 1,000 or so workers Apple expects to employ in the neighborhood by 2021.

Historically, when Apple enters a new industry, it doesn't do so tepidly. When it launched iTunes in 2001, it struck deals with every major music label and, eventually, revolutionized the way people bought and listened to music. Now, for TV+, it has struck deals with A-list creators including Oprah Winfrey, Alfonso Cuarón, Justin Lin and Jason Katims. Echoing an industrywide push to own the content you distribute, on Oct. 11 Apple announced plans to launch an in-house studio (Masters of the Air, a third installment in the Band of Brothers saga, will mark its first wholly owned show).

"They didn't step in halfway," says CAA TV agent Sonya Rosenfeld of Apple's entertainment ambitions. "They were smart to hire people who have spent their careers at the center of the TV business, and they didn't stutter start."

By several accounts, the company already has well outspent its initially projected $1 billion annual content budget. Morning Show alone costs $15 million an episode for a total of $300 million for two seasons, per sources, due in large part to the $2 million-an-episode fees that Witherspoon and Aniston negotiated. (Their deals are said to be even higher with producing fees and ownership points.) See also is expensive, with sources estimating $240 million for two seasons. These costs are at the high end of premium streaming but represent pocket change for Apple.

As if to show off just how much cash the $1 trillion company has, execs are offering every AppleTV+ showrunner and series regular a free Apple product and have dispatched representatives to the sets of shows including Dickinson to take orders from talent on which style iPhone or iPad they'd prefer.

But the gifts haven't exactly made up for the regular Apple presence on some sets, where sources say development executives have been hands-on with ensuring that each show fits the Apple brand. While the company isn't imposing strict family-friendly guidelines — early episodes of Morning Show feature the heavy use of F-bombs — the understanding is that explicit content must be in service of the storyline and all projects should, ultimately, mesh with Apple's aspirational brand identity. (According to a recent BuzzFeed News report, the company also pressured creators not to portray China negatively to avoid angering the authorities.)

The corporate meddling has led to some creative differences. During early development of Amazing Stories, Fuller and Hanson received pushback from both Apple and studio Universal Television over what sources describe as their vision for an edgy, high-concept anthology. (One story would have followed a crazy cat lady murdered by her feline friends.) Though the show was meant to be part of Apple's launch slate, the departure of the producers delayed the project. Apple, interested in a more aspirational version of the show, opted to bring on Once Upon a Time duo Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.

While showrunner departures are common — especially with straight-to-series orders increasingly frequent at streamers and upstart outlets — some within the creative community attribute Apple's early hurdles to its lack of Hollywood savvy. "It's an interesting place because there's no history or precedent," notes one lit agent. "They have no systems in place. Two guys who ran a studio are now effectively running a network. They've built a collection of executives who individually are great but are working together for the first time." Adds one top producer who has worked with the company: "The biggest problem is Apple's insistence that the industry adapt to them and not the other way around."

Kitsis doesn't agree. "While they're a new network, they're really not," he says. "Meaning, from top to bottom, everyone we dealt with was a pro with tons of studio and/or network experience. Some of whom we had actually worked with back in our ABC days, so there was an immediate comfort level for us."

Veteran execs aside, Morning Show's drama continued into postproduction. After an arbitration, the Writers Guild awarded Carson the lone "created by" credit, though he has no current involvement in the show; Ehrin was granted "developed by" credit (Carson, Ehrin and the WGA declined to comment). The decision is said to have gone against the recommendation of Media Res — fronted by former HBO drama head Michael Ellenberg, who has three shows (and counting) at Apple.

"If you're going to bet on a new company to enter this space, we felt Apple is as good a bet as you can make," says Ellenberg. "Apple's brand is synonymous with excellence, and they believe in — and know how to create — cultural moments. And we knew if we were able to make something we were proud of, we could land the moment with them to cut through the noise."

While Morning Show will be key to the launch of TV+, Apple has started revealing its second wave of projects. M. Night Shyamalan thriller Servant will launch Nov. 28, and Octavia Spencer's Truth Be Told is due Dec. 6. Renewals already are being handed down for Dickinson (production on season two is underway), with See, Little America and the Hilde Lysiak drama Home Before Dark also quietly picked up. Morning Show, picked up with a two-season, 20-episode order, already is searching for a high-profile male lead to replace Steve Carell (who, spoiler alert, has a one-year deal).

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If TV+ is successful, it could become a key driver of revenue for Apple's services division, which houses Apple Music, Apple News, iCloud and other nonhardware products. In 2016, Cook gave Cue the lofty goal of doubling services revenue to nearly $50 billion by 2020 as the company seeks new ways to diversify its business away from iPhone sales. "Apple has an innovation crisis," says Jeffrey Cole, director of USC Annenberg's Center for the Digital Future. "Entertainment is one of their attempts to do something innovative, but they're just dabbling."

Still, it's a far cry from just a few years ago, when Apple executives maintained that they didn't have Hollywood envy, even as they operated a large marketplace for digital purchase of films and TV shows and quietly tried (and failed) to launch a skinny TV bundle. In 2016, the company made a halfhearted move into programming with Planet of the Apps, a Shark Tank-style show that featured mentors will.i.am and Gwyneth Paltrow, and a spinoff of James Corden's Carpool Karaoke. But Cue remained adamant Apple wasn't "out to buy a bunch of shows."

Things changed in summer 2017. Planet of the Apps was making little noise and Carpool Karaoke's launch had been delayed. Vital Signs, commissioned by Jimmy Iovine and created by Dr. Dre (the duo had sold Beats Electronics to Apple three years earlier) had secretly shot its entire first season. But with at least one orgy scene and heavy violence, it was deemed too explicit for the conservative sensibilities of Cook, per one source involved in the project, and it was shelved indefinitely. (Apple has never confirmed the show's existence.)

Apple needed someone with real entertainment experience to compete in the age of Peak TV. It found two such executives in Erlicht and Van Amburg, who as the leaders of Sony Pictures TV had found success with Breaking Bad and The Crown. With their appointment and Apple's cash, the tech company quickly rose up the list of most desired buyers in town.

"They're going after top-tier creative talent, and they've been aggressive," says Kenneally.

Still, early enthusiasm for Apple began to wane at the beginning of this year as the town waited for more concrete details about the service. For a creative community that isn't accustomed to being kept in the dark about how a project will roll out, the company's star-studded March event at the Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino was a bit of a disappointment. While the "TV+" name was revealed, little footage was shown and no details about price or launch date were given (sources say the initial plan was to launch in summer). "They're the most secretive company ever," says one producer with an Apple show.

A month later, Disney CEO Bob Iger stood before investors and revealed that Disney+ would offer new Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars programming for $7 a month, plus a massive amount of library titles, including the full Simpsons catalog. Notes the producer: "Everyone was feeling like Apple threw the best prom ever. Then Disney came out, and everyone realized, 'Maybe it didn't.' "

Apple ultimately revealed in September that TV+ would be one of the lowest-priced subscription offerings on the market — and free for a year with the purchase of an iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV. It's a move that gives it a serious leg up in the streaming wars, where Netflix's standard plan is $13 a month and AT&T's HBO Max is expected to sell for $15 (or more) a month. The question now is whether the small slate of originals available at launch — including Morning Show, See, Dickinson and For All Mankind (a revisionist space drama from Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore) as well as a handful of kids programs like Snoopy in Space and unscripted projects like documentary The Elephant Queen and Oprah's book club — will offer enough for the price.

Unlike Netflix or Hulu, TV+ — which is bundled within the larger TV app that offers movie rentals and access to third-party subscriptions like HBO — won't come with a library. That means TV+ will live or die on the strength of its originals. Less than a month from launch, multiple people say that behind the scenes, the strategy around arranging critic and tastemaker screenings has been chaotic. "It's TV, not a product rollout, but that's how they're treating it," says one publicist with experience working with Apple.

The power of Apple's brand can make up for areas where it's catching up with Hollywood practices. Take Morning Show, for which Apple launched a teaser trailer that featured no footage of its megawatt stars and perplexed many industry insiders. The full trailer, released a few days later, proved more successful and has been viewed more than 24 million times.

Meanwhile, Van Amburg and Erlicht continue to pursue big talent-friendly deals (as a global company, it pays a premium to control worldwide rights). The duo bid $500 million to land an exclusive film and TV overall with J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, which ultimately opted for less money but the ability to sell elsewhere by staying with WarnerMedia. (Instead, Apple will license three shows from Abrams and Warners.) Graham Yost (Justified) and Simon Kinberg (X-Men) also quietly signed Apple overall deals. And Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage — who opted to sell passion project Looking for Alaska (in the works for 15 years) to Hulu rather than take a risk with Apple because the duo didn't know how TV+ would work at the time — inked a first-look deal with the company for the future. "They are a magnet for amazing actors, they're open to taking big risks and putting a tremendous amount of resources behind them," says Savage.

Still, Wedbush's Ives calls it a "massive headscratcher" that a company with a $1 trillion market cap isn't competing head-to-head with the $15 billion that Netflix is estimated to be spending per year. "There continues to be a major content hole that they're going to have to fix either organically or through acquisition," says Ives, who calls MGM, Lionsgate, Sony and A24 "digestible" acquisitions, but adds that the purchase of a Netflix or ViacomCBS would be a "bigger and bolder" play. USC's Cole suggests that the family-focused Disney makes the most sense for Apple to gobble up given CEO Bob Iger's revelation that the two companies already may have merged if founder Steve Jobs were still alive. (Iger until recently was on Apple's board.)


For now, Apple will storm Hollywood on its own. On Nov. 1, nearly 1 billion people worldwide will wake up to discover that a new show starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon is waiting for them on their phones. It might cost them $5, but Apple already will have their credit card information, so paying will be as simple as the push of a button. Apple might not yet have completely figured out Hollywood. But with that kind of power, does it need to?

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The Long, Winding Road to Apple TV + 

February 2016

Apple quietly enters scripted TV with Vital Signs, a sex-filled drama from Beats co-founder Dr. Dre. The series was was shelved and never released in a shift to aspirational fare. Apple has never confirmed the show’s existence.

March 2016

Apple teams with Ben Silverman and will.i.am for docuseries Planet of the Apps, canceled after 10 episodes.

July 2016

Apple lands the spinoff of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. Renewed in July for a third season, it’s Apple’s longest-running original.  

June 2017

Eddy Cue hires Sony TV’s Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg to head video programming, signaling what would be a significant and multibillion-dollar spending spree. 

October 2017

The first scripted TV series greenlit by Erlicht and Van Amburg is a Steven Spielberg-produced reboot of Amazing Stories from Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) and Hart Hanson (Bones), who depart after four months.

November 2017

After a bidding war, former HBO drama head Michael Ellenberg sells The Morning Show — starring and exec produced by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — to Apple over Netflix.

April 2018

Former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson (House of Cards) is ousted as showrunner of The Morning Show. Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel) replaces him and is the first to land an Apple overall deal ($10  million). 

June 2018

Oprah Winfrey inks a content partnership with Apple, which also adds a slate of new programming from Sesame Workshop. 

November 2018

In a multiyear, multifilm deal with A24 (Midnight), Apple inks its first film partnership. The first project is On the Rocks from Sophia Coppola.

March 2019

A-list creators and stars invade its Cupertino headquarters for a TV+ unveiling that is high on Apple-style glitz but low on details about the service.

June

J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, which has three shows at Apple, passes on the company’s $500  million-plus offer to sign a $250  million pact to stay at WarnerMedia.

Sept. 3

Apple scraps Bastards, an adaptation of the dark Israeli format starring Richard Gere. It lacks an aspirational  tone.

Sept. 10

At Apple’s annual fall product event, CEO Tim Cook announces  TV+ will launch  Nov. 1 and cost $5 a month (free 
for a year with the purchase of an Apple product). 

Nov. 1

Apple TV+ will launch with a slate of nine shows.

A version of this story first appears in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.