It takes one empire to build another. That at least seems to be the lesson Hollywood filmmakers have been learning over the past few years, as even the biggest of names – lions of the industry who had grown accustomed to bending traditional studios to their whims – now discover they need the buy-in of tech giants to get their visions out the door.
With such legacy players as Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Universal Pictures having drifted away from financing anything that isn’t easily franchise-able, filthy-rich outside players such as Amazon and Apple have come to the rescue, tossing around hundreds of millions of dollars to make adult-oriented films that essentially act as loss-leaders. Original movies, the thinking seems to go, are just a form of advertising: Consumers are drawn to streaming services, and then to companies’ other, more profitable divisions.
A trend that arguably started seven years ago when Amazon Studios got into bed with Kenneth Lonergan for the 2016 drama Manchester by the Sea has transformed itself into a curiously opaque financial ecosystem that runs parallel to the traditional-studio model. More recently, Martin Scorsese got upward of US$200-million from Apple TV+ to make Killers of the Flower Moon, David Fincher received who knows how much from Netflix to make The Killer, and Ridley Scott pulled in a reported US$200-million from Apple to make his latest epic, Napoleon, which hits theatres this week.
Scott’s new film, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the power-hungry French tyrant, offers a perfect case study for how to make an “original” big-budget film in today’s marketplace. A decade ago, the epic would be a natural fit for a place such as 20th Century Fox or Sony Pictures – the kind of massive star-laden Oscar-bait that gets a studio noticed during the holiday season.
Today, though, 20th Century Fox has been subsumed by Disney and is producing a fraction of the films it used to, while Sony is more interested in making Spider-Man spin-offs. That said, Sony did come onboard Scott’s film – but only because Napoleon’s financier, Apple Original Films, sought a studio partner that already had a solid theatrical-distribution infrastructure in place to make sure the movie would be seen on the big screen before it eventually made its way to Apple TV+.
“In a way, it’s an all boats rise with the tide situation,” says Kevin Walsh, a long-time collaborator of Scott’s who is one of Napoleon’s producers. “If it’s a big box-office win, then it will be a win on the Apple service side, which will push people to become members of Apple TV+, or Apple Music, or Apple One. Theatrical and streaming aren’t single alleys to success – they dovetail and help each other.”
Currently under a multiyear deal with Apple TV+ to produce films and series for the company but having previously served as president of Scott’s production company, Walsh has an intimate understanding of just what it takes to get a movie of Napoleon-sized ambitions into existence these days. While Scott’s pedigree and the on-screen talent (including Vanessa Kirby as Empress Josephine) add up to an attractive package, what might have been an automatic studio green light a decade ago is not a given now.
“The combination of Ridley and Joaquin meant that I had a lot of people calling for the movie when we were selling the film, from both the legacy studios and the streaming side. But it’s definitely harder today,” says Walsh. “We probably got a bit more resources with a streamer. It’s rare that you can make something that doesn’t have intellectual property behind it at this budget level. Though Napoleon itself has a big built-in IP – everyone knows the name and who he was.”
Even in the current feature-film space, though, Apple remains something of an outlier. The company will throw hundreds of millions of dollars at Scorsese and Scott to make huge impressions in the theatrical space, yet it will also think nothing of dumping similarly expensive films (including this past summer’s Chris Evans/Ana de Armas action comedy Ghosted and next month’s Mark Wahlberg-led comedy The Family Plan) into the great streaming void with little fanfare. The wide theatrical release of Napoleon – and the generous window of time it will take before the film makes its way to streaming – might signal a shift in ambitions for Apple. Or it might be another tech-land experiment, with the entirety of Hollywood its test subject.
“I think for Apple and film, the sky is the limit,” says Walsh. “The other week, they announced a Peanuts feature in development, so they’re expanding in animation. They have the ability to keep doing what they’re doing – going at a wise pace, being more selective in quality than quantity – to add to their strategy, which is not bombarding audiences with movies that aren’t good. And if the movies perform well, they serve as a billboard for Apple TV+.”
In addition to developing partnerships with studios beyond Sony to expand their films’ theatrical footprint (Paramount stepped in for Killers of the Flower Moon, while Universal is handling the release of February’s spy comedy Argylle starring Henry Cavill and Bryce Dallas Howard), Apple is leaning into exploiting premium large-format (PLF) screens for their releases, such as IMAX.
“We have every IMAX screen in the U.S., maybe even North America, for the opening weekend, easily the biggest one I’ve ever been a part of,” says Walsh. “It’s important to embrace the cinephile audience out there to show Ridley’s artistry on as large a canvas as possible.”
Not only do PLF releases give ambitious titles such as Napoleon the veneer of a must-see theatrical experience, they also have higher-priced tickets, helping fatten box-office numbers.
But revenue on a title such as Napoleon – whether it’s tickets sold or new monthly subscriptions added to Apple TV+ – doesn’t quite matter as much for Apple. In its most recent quarterly report, the company posted revenue of US$89.5-billion. Of that amount, the company’s services segment – of which Apple TV+ is but one of many divisions, alongside Apple Music, Apple Arcade, iCloud and the App Store – earned a record US$22.3-billion.
Not even Napoleon Bonaparte himself would dare to dream so big.