Apple's TV Strategy Becomes Clearer as Top Stars Jockey for Shows

Illustration by Victor Kerlow

The world's biggest company is officially taking meetings as everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Steven Spielberg salivates over selling the first big show. One studio chief says, "Who wouldn't want to be the 'Mad Men' or 'House of Cards' on Apple?"

It's not hard to imagine the scene: A tribe of Apple executives takes the stage before a rapt audience of bloggers and engineers. But rather than the next iteration of the iPhone or the Apple watch, the famous "one more thing" reveal is a high-end TV series.

Whether or not that's the venue the tech giant ultimately uses to announce its TV offerings, Apple's Los Angeles-based execs are busy lining up the first batch of potential shows. In recent weeks, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, poached from Sony Television in June to spearhead Apple's content acquisitions and video strategy, have been spotted all over town making their pitch to agents and studio executives.

Though Apple isn't looking to replicate the pace or scale of rival Netflix's $6 billion annual spend, it is eager to be in the prestige content business in a significant way. Per multiple sources briefed on the company's plans, its executives are looking for big, smart, splashy dramas, with at least one citing Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Crown as models. And though there are still plenty of questions — first and foremost, how will an Apple show be distributed? — talent is lining up to provide options.

"There's this sense of, 'It's the most innovative company in the world, of course you want to have a show there,' " says UTA TV head Matt Rice, whose agency, like many of its peers, has inundated the industry's hottest new entrant with spec scripts and packaged projects. Apple, which is famously secretive about its plans, declined to comment for this story.

Already, the Cupertino company's Culver City outpost has leap-frogged much of its competition in the Hollywood hierarchy, with multiple agents acknowledging that any project they would take to Netflix or HBO is now taken to Apple as well. Some credit the company's brand cachet for its overnight status; others cite the $260 billion-plus in cash on its balance sheet, which should translate to a content budget of at least $1 billion in year one.

The credibility of Van Amburg and Erlicht is said to play a considerable role as well. Unlike Netflix's Ted Sarandos or Cindy Holland, who joined the Hollywood fray from other arenas, the Apple pair came up in the TV business with the vast majority of the town's top sellers. Says WME partner Marc Korman, "There are a ton of people rooting for Zack and Jamie."

There's an allure to being on the ground floor, too. "Who wouldn't want to be the Mad Men or House of Cards on Apple?" says one studio chief, referencing the first breakouts on AMC and Netflix, respectively. According to multiple sources, Apple had hoped that Ryan Murphy's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest origin series, Ratched, starring Sarah Paulson as the diabolical nurse, could have been among its first shows.

Van Amburg and Erlicht, who sat with the prolific producer to discuss the project this summer, made a rich, multiseason offer. But, like Hulu, Apple ultimately was outbid by Netflix, which, in addition to offering two seasons up front, threw in bells and whistles that made the offer impossible for Murphy and his studio partners to refuse. Among those enticements: a jaw-dropping sum to continue streaming Murphy's American Horror Story, which also is available on Hulu.

Outside of the swift, ambitious play for Ratched, Apple's approach has been slow and deliberate, by design. Though the company has been deluged with nearly every script in town, knowledgeable sources say execs there pass on most of them. At press time, the company had bids out on only a handful of projects, including an update of Steven Spielberg's 1980s sci-fi, horror, fantasy anthology series, Amazing Stories, and a morning show drama starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, according to several involved. Van Amburg and Erlicht will have to make decisions, too, about a cadre of projects that preceded them from such producers as Dr. Dre and Harvey Weinstein.

In recent weeks, Van Amburg and Erlicht, along with development head Matt Cherniss, who previously ran WGN America, have been targeting creators as well. Insiders say the two have already approached talent including Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston and Outlander's Ron Moore, with whom they've had previous success, and now are trying to line up general meetings with others — think Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) or Mike Schur (The Good Place) — with whom they haven't worked. (Though the focus is on big international dramas to start, they're open to hearing hot comedy packages as well.) Kim Rozenfeld, one of several Sony staffers whom Van Amburg and Erlicht brought over, is said to be exploring docuseries, too, with queries already made about the Making a Murderer creators, among others.

There are still plenty of questions about what a deal looks like at Apple; and many suspect the company will keep its distribution plays proprietary for as long as possible (though it's hard to believe Aniston, for instance, would sell a show without knowing how it would be seen). In the interim, competitors and sellers alike are busy proposing theories about how Apple might rely on its streaming music service, or how it'll use every asset available, from iPhones to Apple store screens, to market shows. What is clearer, for now, is that Apple isn't looking to own its own content, which, from a seller's perspective, makes it one of the least complicated buyers in the marketplace.

Still, the lack of clarity has left at least a few, including ICM Partners managing director Chris Silbermann, asking tough questions. "Jamie and Zack are good guys, and they've done business with all of us for decades, and it's Apple, so everybody will sell there," he says. "That being said, they need to articulate to the creative community and the industry at large their marketing, release and distribution strategy. Simply, what does it mean to be an Apple show?"

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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