Apple’s New Film Strategy Debuts With ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

The box office results for Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” will be revealed on Sunday andanalyzed by reporters and industry insiders. Did the movie perform well? Did it fall short? Did Leonardo DiCaprio’s inability to promote the film because of the ongoing actors’ strike ultimately mean less people went to see it?

This is a normal opening weekend practice for any major theatrical release, but it will be a first for Apple Studios, the producer and financier of the $200 million movie. It is partnering with Paramount Pictures to release the three-and-a-half hour R-rated film in 3,621 theaters.

Until now, Apple’s films were streaming-first. But “Killers of the Flower Moon” won’t reach its streaming service, Apple TV+, for at least 45 days. It is Apple’s clearest embrace of movie theaters since the start of Apple TV+ four years ago, and the first of three major theatrical releases from the company scheduled for the next six months.

During Thanksgiving weekend, Sony Pictures will partner with Apple to release Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix. In February, Apple is joining forces with Universal Pictures to release the spy caper “Argyle” in theaters around the country.

Bradley Thomas, a producer of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” called Apple’s partnerships “comforting,” because traditional studios have decades of experience with theatrical releases.

“So Apple is dipping its toe into it,” he said. “They aren’t take the whole thing on by themselves.”

The producer Kevin Walsh, who began developing “Napoleon” with Apple in 2020, has watched its approach to theatrical release evolve. The turning point, he said, came after the top Apple TV+ executives Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amberg saw the success Paramount had with “Top Gun,” which brought in $1.5 billion at the global box office last year.

“What ‘Top Gun’ did to the box office they are trying to emulate with movies like ‘Napoleon,’ and ‘Formula 1’,” Mr. Walsh said in an interview, referencing the upcoming Brad Pitt movie that Apple is making with the “Top Gun” director Joseph Kosinski. “I think there is money to be made, of course, for spectacle movies in the theater. But they also serve as a massive billboard for the Apple TV service when they are successful and rolled out well.”

Apple’s recent embrace of movie theaters is welcome news for a movie theater business that has seen itself upended by streaming companies’ penchant for making films largely for their at-home services. Netflix first disrupted the long-held tradition of the theatrical release by putting films in a limited number of theaters for a limited amount of time — usually the minimum required to appease filmmakers and qualify for Oscar consideration.

Amazon Studios recently reversed its approach, giving commercial films like Ben Affleck’s “Air” significant time in theaters before releasing them to streaming subscribers.

Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” will open in theaters on Thanksgiving weekend.Credit…Sony Pictures and Apple Original Films

But Apple, with its deep pockets, reputation for secrecy (it doesn’t share streaming subscriber numbers and declined to comment for this article) and interest in controlling all components of its ecosystem, has surprised some with its willingness to partner with others to market its films to moviegoers. It’s a situation that leaves the company open to the vagaries of the theatrical marketplace.

And “Killers,” with its high price tag, has to do big business to become a success. Analysts are predicting that the film could fetch anywhere from $18 million to $30 million in its opening weekend. That would be a tough beginning even for a film by Mr. Scorsese, whose movies traditionally have staying power in theaters and often eventually gross close to five times what they brought in on opening weekend. The film’s long run time and dark subject matter — the plot revolves around the murder of Native Americans — could also be commercial hurdles.

“We are a little more bullish than the industry expectations floating around,” said Shawn Robbins, an independent box office analyst, who predicts the film will open in the $30 million range. “The film certainly has its hills to climb with a long run time and DiCaprio’s absence from the press circuit.”

But “strong reviews and Mr. DiCaprio’s own box office history — especially with Mr. Scorsese — provide ample amounts of good will for audiences,” he added, and work in the film’s favor. “The market hasn’t had a high-profile film targeted toward adults for a while.” (“Oppenheimer,” with a similar run time and equally serious subject matter, defied odds this year and earned $942 million worldwide.)

While Apple has said very little about its shift in strategy, theater owners are ecstatic.

Apple is “a major company that has the ability to do a lot of high-quality work, and I think that the recognition on their part that movies belong in theaters is a strong signal,” Michael O’Leary, chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, a trade association, said in an interview. “Prioritizing theatrical will help them get major filmmakers to come into their tents, and to create even more dynamic, entertaining fare in the years ahead.”

Mr. Scorsese and his co-writer, Eric Roth, began adapting David Grann’s nonfiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon” in 2017. Paramount agreed to finance and distribute the film but when the production costs soared, the studio brought in Apple in 2020 to finance the project. Others wanted it, said Mr. Thomas, who initially purchased the adaptation rights to “Killers” with his partner, Dan Friedkin. It was Apple, however, that guaranteed a full theatrical release — a must for Mr. Scorsese, whose last film, “The Irishman” for Netflix, had a truncated run in theaters.

Paramount stayed on in a deal that saw Apple reimburse the studio for its development costs on the movie and a portion of Mr. Scorsese’s overall deal, according to two people with knowledge of the agreement who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details were not public. Paramount controls all theater bookings and media buys for the film’s trailers and commercials, while Apple controls its publicity and marketing materials. Apple made similar, though less expensive, deals with Sony Pictures for “Napoleon” and Universal Pictures for “Argyle,” with Sony and Universal sharing the marketing costs with Apple and handling each film’s distribution.

And while all three studios would like the opportunity to enter into long-term partnerships with Apple, the tech giant has not committed to any one partner.

“I’d be surprised if they take a single-studio approach for distribution,” said Tim Bazarian, chief executive of Creative Strategy, a high-tech research firm based in Silicon Valley. “Apple is willing to work, and they have shown that they can work well, with multiple studios. I think that track is more likely to be what they’ll use in the future. They are extremely calculating.”

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