Martin Scorsese has signed a first-look deal with Apple AAPL . The tech giant, which made headlines when it teamed with Paramount PGRE to finance Scorsese’s $165 million Killers of the Flower Moon, for which Apple would finance and Paramount would distribute theatrically, can now add the director to its stable of big names (including Leonardo DiCaprio) and big “gets” (Tom Hanks’ Greyhound, which they bought from Sony for $70 million).
The filmmakers’ production company, Sikelia Productions has signed a first-look film and TV deal for which Scorsese will develop films and TV shows for the Apple TV+ streaming service. I do not know if the films will be given a token theatrical release, but I’d presume that was part of the deal.
This comes after Scorsese turned to Netflix NFLX to finance his $160 million mob drama The Irishman. The film debuted to rave reviews and rock-solid viewership numbers (allegedly 64 million subscribers watched at least two minutes of the 215-minute Robert De Niro/Al Pacino/Joe Pesci/Harvey Keitel epic) but ironically failed to win a single Oscar.
Speaking of irony, Scorsese, one of the most passionate defenders of cinema as an art form and the theatrical experience, is throwing himself in with the very streaming companies that have made non-franchise movies almost impossible to commercially justify for the very studios (Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, etc.) still focusing on theatrical releases. I don’t blame him, as the commercial reality is the commercial reality, but there you have it.
Scorsese joins the likes of Idris Elba, Ridley Scott in terms of bringing their production companies under the Apple umbrella. Ditto individual deals with Oprah Winfrey, Alfonso Cuaron, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Justin Lin, The Morning Show‘s Kerry Ehrin, Little America‘s Lee Eisenberg and Sharon Horgan. Point being, they are being aggressive about throwing money at top-tier talent, which is good because they are also the biggest streaming service (all due respect to Quibi) that isn’t primarily relying on established brands, existing IP and/or nostalgic reruns to get folks to sign up. There’s no Star Wars shows, Friends reruns or Saved by the Bell relaunches on Apple. But they are promising new and original TV shows and movies with an alleged premium on quality and talent.
We still have little idea to what extent anyone actually watches the Apple streaming service. They claimed back in January to have 33.3 million U.S. subscribers (back when Disney+ only had 23.3 million). However, the vast majority are folks who signed up for a free one-year trial subscription (for those who owned or purchased an Apple product), the first wave of which is due to expire in November. Will those merely subscribing for free then agree to pay $4.99 per month to keep it going? Moreover, of those who are technically Apple TV+ subscribers, how much of the content (29 TV shows and seven movies) is actually being watched by anyone other than critics and media people?
Sure, Apple claimed that Greyhound (which Sony was supposed to open in theaters this past summer) broke viewership records for the streamer, but without hard numbers that doesn’t mean any more than Hulu boasting that Palm Springs (probably the year’s best comedy) broke viewership records for a Hulu original feature. They’ll probably say the same thing when they release Aneesh Chaganty’s Sarah Paulson/Kiera Allen thriller Run, which they just picked up from Lionsgate (as a huge fan of Searching, this news is very bittersweet). Apple’s The Morning Show, Dickinson, See and For All Mankind have been renewed for a second season, and Emmy voters certainly noticed The Morning Show, but this is all “evidence of evidence” of decent ratings rather than tangible data.
Now if the only issue is that a given movie or TV show exists, then the streaming wars may be good news as Netflix, Amazon AMZN , Apple and the rest essentially throw money at Hollywood’s best and brightest with little of the responsibility for making sure anyone watches the films and TV shows. Paramount’s Megan Colligan was right when she responded to the media backlash over mother! by arguing that Netflix would have gotten huzzahs just for making the movie. Judging by the swiftly-changing “daily top ten” Netflix chart (The Old Guard and The Kissing Booth 2 are already gone), it’s likely that mother!’s run as a most-watched Netflix original would have been as brief as its time in the theatrical top ten.
If Scorsese’s next few Apple movies actually end up playing theatrically, then that’s a net-positive regardless of how many Apple subscribers watch Apple TV+. If not, well, it’s surely a sign of the times where the streaming wars are waged by who joins your team and how many subscribers you have as opposed to the individual result (commercially and critically) of each respective film or TV show. And, yeah, if Scorsese and M. Night Shyamalan give Apple TV+ an edge to counterbalance their lack of nostalgia-driven franchise revamps, existing favorites or exploitable IP, well, maybe Martin Scorsese is doing his part to save cinema as a viable art form in the only way he still can.