The $200M+ Risk Apple Must Take on Martin Scorsese

The $200M+ Risk Apple Must Take
Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

Who could blame Paramount Pictures for having second thoughts about forking over more than $200 million to finance a film adaptation of the 2017 non-fiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” as The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday.

Yes, it’s a movie that would reunite Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio as director and star, which would mean instant credibility during awards season, and maybe even decent box office. But that price tag is enough to make any traditional studio think twice, particularly at a time when it’s not clear when Americans will even be allowed back into theaters.

Unsurprisingly, Paramount is considering unloading the film to another entity, or at least bringing in another company to help shoulder the cost. Among the companies WSJ reports have been approached include Comcast, MGM, Apple and Netflix, which may be feeling a sense of deja vu here having taken Scorsese’s previous project, “The Irishman,” off of Paramount’s hands when that film’s budget got a little too rich for ViacomCBS’ blood.

And that’s where things got interesting: Despite spending nearly as much on “Irishman” as “Killers” would cost, not to mention what has been widely estimated as tens of millions more on the marketing campaign for the film, Netflix went 0 for 10 at the Oscars with Scorsese, who was edged by South Korean sensation “Parasite” for both Best Picture and Best Director.

So if Paramount or anyone is feeling a little gun shy right now about picking up the tab for “Killers,” you can see why. There’s no such thing as a sure thing no matter how much you spend in Hollywood. Heck, some say it might have been the very fact that Netflix was perceived by some as trying to buy an Oscar that may have alienated some Academy voters.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. There’s going to be a bidding war for “Killers,” and I’ll bet Apple is going to end up with it for no other reason than they need it more than anyone else out there. And it wouldn’t hurt the company financially at all even if the film turns out to be another disappointment for Scorsese.

Which doesn’t mean Netflix isn’t going to bid aggressively for “Killers.” One might assume the streaming service’s top execs, including chief content officer Ted Sarandos and head of original films Scott Stuber, may have learned the hard way that Scorsese isn’t worth top dollar.

But my guess is their thinking is, they saw how close they came to finally giving Netflix the awards-season legitimacy the company so desperately craves, and they’re probably telling themselves that they’ve learned from their mistakes on “Irishman.”

Mistakes like, you know, an obscene 210-minute running time and laughably bad special effects that failed to turn back the clock on Robert DeNiro’s face.

Then they’re thinking about how much more marketable a Scorsese joint is with DiCaprio in the lead and…that’s hard to resist.

But even a company with a $17 billion content budget this year is going to have its limits. If another bidder comes to the table ready to blow everyone else out of the water, Netflix will know when to fold ’em.

Which brings us to Apple. It’s no secret that Apple TV+ is not off to a great start in the streaming wars, having failed to build the buzz another new market entrant, Disney+, has managed on the way to 50 million subscribers in five months. With the exception of some minor acclaim for its flagship original TV series “The Morning Show,” the only attention Apple seems to be getting with its nascent efforts to date on the film front has been negative, having weathered controversies from a sexual-abuse allegation linked with “The Banker” to Oprah Winfrey’s withdrawal from the Russell Simmons documentary “On the Record.”

Apple TV+ is in desperate need of something, anything to make a splash, and reposition itself in a market where it’s falling behind fast. With $200 billion in cash on hand, Apple can well afford to the make the kind of eye-popping offer for “Killers” that sends even loose-walleted Netflix away from the negotiation table.

Is it ridiculous to casually suggest Apple toss $200 million on a risky movie? Yes, but ridiculousness is everywhere you look in the streaming wars, where exorbitant content spending is simply table stakes.

Apple needs to pay its way out of its early struggles with Apple TV+ or lose out on the opportunity to stay competitive in the streaming wars.

That is, of course, unless Apple CEO Tim Cook ultimately decides to just buy one of its streaming rivals down the road.

Regardless, what this deal will come down to may not necessarily be money, but who is going to grant Scorsese the most generous theatrical window “Killers” can get before it streams to audiences. This could also be a sticking point for Netflix, which contained six of the films it released into awards season last year to theatrical windows that lasted 21-30 days.

If Sarandos and Stuber want to bring that number down, giving Scorsese an even longer window for “Killers” isn’t going to jibe with a more hardline stance they’ll need to start taking with filmmakers at some point.

Apple, on the other hand, may find that granting Scorsese the longest window possible is the competitive edge they’ll need to land “Killers.” It doesn’t make sense for Apple in the long term given it too won’t want movies it pays for hanging out in theaters too long, but if Apple TV+ doesn’t right its ship, it may not survive long enough to have a long term.

Now is the time for Apple to gamble. It’s a risky bet, but one the company might as well take.