The A-List heads to Apple as challenge to Netflix takes shape

The A-List heads to Apple as challenge to Netflix takes shape
Tim Cook, Apple s chief executive is about to have a showcase event on Apple’s campus and is expected to reveal details about a dozen or more programs ready to go or almost done for its streaming service.  (ERICA YOON / NYT)

Hollywood is going to Apple.

On March 25, a delegation of producers, studio executives and big-name actors will enter the subterranean 1,000-seat Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino, California, for one of those Apple showcases, with the chief executive, Tim Cook, commanding the stage before a crowd of loyalists.

This time around, the focus won’t be on the next must-have device. With iPhone sales showing signs of fatigue, the event is intended to draw attention to the company’s billion-dollar-plus bet on entertainment, an initiative that will put Apple in direct competition with Netflix, Amazon and HBO.

The premiere date for the service is getting closer, with the first of a dozen or more shows likely to start streaming before the year is out. At next week’s presentation, Apple is expected to reveal details of what it has been working on with stars from both sides of the camera like Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Brie Larson, Jason Momoa, Octavia Spencer, J.J. Abrams, M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg.

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The tag line, “It’s show time,” appeared prominently on the invitations. For many of the show-business people, this will be their first trip to Cupertino, the corporate home of their new patrons.

Apple didn’t need stars before, but it needs them now. Although the company was the first publicly traded American firm to be valued above $1 trillion, its most recent earnings report showed flat profits and falling revenue.

So the plan is not only to sell devices, but to fill them with content. That has led the company into the alien territory of Hollywood, where local customs can clash with Silicon Valley folkways.

Apple is a relatively late arrival to streaming. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have offered original programming for several years and are now formidable presences at the Emmys. In 2018, there were nearly 500 scripted television shows available in the United States, with Netflix spending at least $8 billion (U.S.) on new content. Amazon, the Walt Disney Co. and Warner Media have increased their programming budgets to keep pace.

Apple has decided to put more emphasis on its services — think Apple Music and Apple Pay — to increase revenues. The strategy will include an expansion of Apple News, which is expected to be highlighted at the showcase, and the star-studded streaming service. Apple has negotiated with the likes of HBO, Starz and Showtime to populate its screens, Bloomberg has reported, but the centerpiece will be original programming.

The event at the Apple Park campus in Cupertino is also meant to drive home — for iPhone fans and anyone in Hollywood who hasn’t been paying attention — just how many shows Apple has pulled together. Five series have completed filming. Around a half dozen more are on the verge of wrapping production, according to several people familiar with the shows who were not authorized to speak publicly. And the number of original productions is expected to increase in 2020.

With all that new material, Apple will transform itself, seemingly overnight, from a tech giant into a more general enterprise, with a slate of original entertainment offerings sizable enough to put it in a league with Showtime, Hulu or FX.

Interviews with more than a dozen people who have had dealings with Apple, all of whom said they couldn’t speak publicly about private discussions, suggest that, while the producers and stars appreciate having another deep-pocketed company to pitch, they also have … well, let’s call them concerns.

Those concerns have arisen from the culture clash that may inevitably come about when a tech company that is used to guarding its trade secrets gets involved in show business, which runs on a stream of conversation, much of it of the just-between-us variety.

Players expect to be kept in the loop. But many of the people working with Apple said they have received little or no information on how, exactly, their shows will be released. Or even when they will be released, other than a vague assurance of “later this year, probably fall.” They also don’t have a clear idea of Apple’s marketing plans for the shows. Or what their colleagues in the newly built Apple stable are up to.

While Apple may be a late arrival to the streaming party, its showcase will take place 2 1/2 weeks before Disney is expected to preview elements of its new streaming platform, and many months before Warner Media provides details of its version.

Apple’s entertainment team has not been totally opaque. It has provided feedback to individuals involved in the shows, but it has been tight-lipped about the marketing and rollout plans. The March 25 event may allay Hollywood’s concerns, but several people involved in the new programs have interpreted the lack of communication as a sign that there may not be a clear game plan.

Apple had no comment on any aspect of its streaming plans.

Hollywood’s concerns have not prevented big names from making deals with the company. In all, Apple has ordered roughly two dozen series from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Damien Chazelle, Chris Evans and others.

The producer J.J. Abrams has two Apple series in the works, one with Jennifer Garner, who played the lead in the Abrams-produced ABC series Alias, and a musical show starring singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles that is about to go into production.

Apple has also given the green light to animated Peanuts specials and children’s shows made with Sesame Workshop, and it plans to round out its offerings with films it has acquired recently at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.
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