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It’s showtime for Apple, but behind the scenes of its original video strategy, confusion reigns

The road to turning iPhones and iPads and Apple TV into the home for Apple-branded original entertainment has been rocky. But maybe the shows will be great.

It’s showtime for Apple, but behind the scenes of its original video strategy, confusion reigns
[Photos: Nathan DeFiesta/Unsplash; raphaelsilva/Pixabay]

When Apple sent out invitations to its highly anticipated event on Monday, March 25, the same invitation–emblazoned with the words “It’s showtime”–went out to all invitees, including Hollywood A-listers, some of whom would be gracing the stage where Apple is expected to unveil details surrounding its new video subscription service. But many top-level Hollywood participants, who are used to receiving the white-glove treatment, received no additional instructions about what would happen on Monday, or even whether they should arrive early, to help them plan their trip from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley. 

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“There are no details about the event,” griped one source. “People are just being told to show up. They’re just getting an invite that says, ‘Here’s the day.'”

The message to Hollywood is clear: Apple is going to do things its way, whether you like it or not. 

Coy invitations are just one way in which Apple’s foray into producing its own original entertainment–in the form of TV shows and movies–reflects a jarring culture clash between Cupertino and Culver City, where Apple has established its TV and film production outpost. Indeed, ever since Apple announced back in 2017 that it was hiring two top Sony TV executives to help the company morph into an original programming powerhouse on par with Netflix and Amazon, there has been endless drama behind the scenes. Showrunners have come and gone on high-profile–and highly expensive–shows, including its high-profile drama series about morning TV show hosts starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston (each of whom are making $1.25 million per episode), and a revival of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s-era anthology series Amazing Stories. The production hiccups, which were reportedly over “creative differences,” have caused delays, something that Apple, which prides itself on a Swiss-like obsession with precise production schedules, is not accustomed to. Then there have been tales of CEO Tim Cook’s input on scripts, which he deemed did not live up to Apple’s pristine brand. The company is purportedly limiting itself to family-friendly fare that veers away from controversy, violence, and political or religious views. The Wall Street Journal reported that Cook nixed a series based on Dr. Dre, Vital Signs, because it was too violent. And he requested that crucifixes be removed from a couple’s home in a psychological thriller series by M. Night Shyamalan.  

None of this would be all that remarkable if it were happening at, say, CBS. But because of Apple’s devotion to excellence and perfection in everything it does, as well as its strenuous commitment to predictability–even its launch events tend to take place at the same time every year–the snafus became news. 

Apple has been rumored to be eyeing Hollywood far longer than most people realize. In 2016, Fast Company reported that Apple was secretly taking meetings with filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival as it tried to figure out its strategy, which at the time was being overseen by Robert Kondrk, a low-profile exec who was VP of iTunes content and who reported to Eddy Cue, the longtime iTunes services chief who was a more known presence in Hollywood because he’d been negotiating licensing deals for downloadable video since the mid-2000s. At the time, the company planned to launch an “exclusives” app on Apple TV and within iTunes. In addition, it was looking to produce short films and music videos for Apple Music, which was under the aegis of music impresario Jimmy Iovine. He was championing the Dre series, while Kondrk while trying to find Apple’s own House of Cards–a network-defining series that establishes it as a player the way the political drama did for Netflix–though sources said at the time that, Apple being Apple, the company wanted several of them at once.

This muddled strategy produced the company’s first two original series, the Shark Tank knockoff Planet of the Apps and the series-length version of Carpool Karaoke. Both debuted on Apple Music in the summer of 2017. Apps was canceled after a season, and Apple’s Carpool is nowhere as popular as the James Corden-hosted Late Late Show segments that birthed it (though it did win an Emmy). Perhaps reflecting Apple’s understanding that it needed a different approach, it hired two respected programming executives from Sony, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, the duo responsible for developing Breaking Bad and Netflix’s The Crown, just 10 days after Planet of the Apps debuted.

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By hiring Hollywood veterans, Apple finally seemed to be getting serious about its Hollywood ambitions, which it had been signaling since its 2015 annual report when it started to try to shift the narrative from slowing iPhone sales to its growing subscription services revenue. Backed by a $1 billion programming budget, Erlicht and Van Amburg have lined up an impressive roster of original shows, including Are You Sleeping?, a mystery starring Octavia Spencer that’s based on the crime novel by Kathleen Barber; See, a fantasy epic starring Jason Momoa; two series from J.J. Abrams, one with Jennifer Garner and a musical with Sara Bareilles; and a comedy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia writers Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day.  

Apple has also made deals with Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, Oprah Winfrey, and Fast and the Furious director Jason Lin. 

But sources say that behind the scenes there is still creative confusion at Apple, which is intent on attracting the top names in TV and filmmaking but doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of its video identity. “Their point of view is all over the place,” says one agent. “Its family, non-family . . . . They haven’t figured out how to articulate what they do and don’t want.” 

There are also many cooks–no pun intended–in the kitchen. Both Cook and Cue, senior vice president of internet software and services at Apple, who oversees Erlicht and Van Amburg, have been weighing in on scripts and “are really involved in managing Zach and Jamie,” says a source, so that the pair is “not getting to do their own thing.” 

“It’s hard,” says one TV executive. “Zach and Jamie are dealing with creatives, but if they’re not making the final decision, where can they go?” 

At one point, there was talk that Apple was looking to bring in an executive to oversee Erlicht and Van Amburg–the name that was repeatedly invoked was Bob Greenblatt, who ran NBC and, before that, Showtime. But WarnerMedia hired Greenblatt three weeks ago as its new chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer. Since then, the rumors about a new top Apple entertainment exec have died down. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment.) 

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Meanwhile, the pace of a Hollywood production has vexed Cook, says another source. “He doesn’t understand why this is taking so long. He doesn’t understand that this is not like making widgets.”  

Despite these tensions, sources praise Erlicht and Van Amburg for infusing Apple with a culture that Hollywood can understand and work with. Despite the overall lack of information that’s offered about things like marketing and rollout plans, one source says, “They’re really easy to deal with, they’re very approachable. So there’s a shorthand. It’s not like Netflix, where the message is, ‘This is not how we do things’ and people don’t return your calls. At least Apple returns phone calls.” 

The real test, of course, will be how the shows are received when they begin rolling out, and whether they make Apple a must-have entertainment platform. Given Apple’s track record, and its dogged determination to get things right, even Hollywood observers assume the company will pull it off. Or at least die trying. 

As the TV executive says, “The amount of pressure to make everything meet Apple’s standards, and do it this quickly, is a challenge. Everything’s got to be great. There’s very little room for error.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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