Apple Wants Indie Films Because Of Course

Apple’s Eddie Cue has made Apple TV’s content strategy at least a little more clear: The company will focus on producing fewer shows of higher quality, hoping that beats others who have taken a “more is more” approach. This comes just a little while after a similar statement was made about the company’s feature film ambitions, which include making a half-dozen or so films a year that are positioned as award nominees.

It also comes at about the same time Netflix is reportedly scaling back some of its ambitions, tightening the purse strings a bit, with some recent movies – Triple Frontier was apparently called out – not proving to be successful for the streaming company.

That Apple wants to focus on smaller, prestige movies that will bring with it accolades makes sense given it’s where just about where all of these streaming services start.

Think about Netflix’s first few releases: Beasts of No Nation, Talullah and others all play like the kinds of movies Fox Searchlight or Paramount Vantage would have put out back in the day. So too Amazon Studios, which kicked off with Chi-Raq, The Neon Demon and more.

They start there for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s cheap: Unlike movies like Bright and others, these smaller movies are usually inexpensive. The same goes for the kind of broad comedies Netflix has been making with Adam Sandler and the end-of-the-world sci-fi stories.
  2. It’s notable: These movies generate headlines and gain attention for the same reasons their they do when they’re released in theaters, because they involve talented actors participating in interesting stories.
  3. It’s long-term: As we’ve seen time and again, independent, character-driven movies rely much more word of mouth than massive blockbusters. Set It Up, Velvet Buzzsaw and others all generated a ton of conversations following release. That likely lead additional subscribers to watch them and even sign up for that specific purpose. So they have a long shelf life, much longer than a big, stupid action film like Bright probably had.

Contrast that with what Disney is doing with their nascent streaming service, which is go all-in on big titles with massive name recognition. That’s because they can and don’t have the same risks others do with the properties it manages.

If Apple follows the same path carved out by Netflix and Amazon Studios, it will eventually start to weave in more “blockbusters” over time, probably after the third or fourth New York Times article about how the movies it’s producing are too niche to really catch on with the mainstream. It will start to experiment with bigger budgets and higher concepts and, much like those other companies have, eventually find that smaller works better because the economics are more manageable. Not everything needs to bring in 100,000 subscribers, you just need five or six titles that bring in 25,000 subscribers each and keep the budgets reasonable.

Early Digital Releases Could Impact Marketing Efforts

A recent report from Bloomberg hints that the patience of movie studios is running out, leading at least some to move forward with talks with Apple and others about digital rentals being available just weeks after theatrical release. Those studios are, it seems, tired of trying to work with theater chains which have an active interest in blocking such efforts, and so may proceed with or without their blessing.

While this kind of new windowing is, as the story points out, unlikely to move forward until it has the blessing of the major chains, the studios may be hoping presenting this as a fait accompli may force theater owners to agree to something instead of blocking everything.

It’s going to be super-interesting to see how marketing campaigns may change to accommodate this new release pattern. There are two scenarios that come to mind.

Retain the Status Quo

The first option is that things remain more or less as they are. Studios right now are focused squarely on theatrical release being the central element of most all campaigns, with “buy tickets for opening weekend” being the most common call to action. There are slight variations on that here and there, but it’s a more or less universal approach. That’s usually followed up a few months later with a smaller paid campaign that’s built around the home video release, with TV commercials encouraging people to find the movie on Blu-ray and online ads leading to iTunes or other online platforms.

If the studios want to lessen the pain of the new reality for theaters, this is the approach they’ll maintain with their marketing.

One Campaign, Two Messages

If, however, the studios want to be a tad more antagonistic, they could start lacing in other CTAs, namely an additional message that says “…and then find it on iTunes three weeks later” or something along those lines. Whatever the specifics, it would clearly identify two options the audience can choose from: The theater now (depending, of course, on whether the film is even playing near them) or a premium VOD platform just a few weeks out.

That’s very different and essentially gives the audience an “out,” allowing them to shrug and opt to sit this one out, then make a fresh decision when it’s available for digital rental. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t immediately and substantially impact theater chains, which are already seeing lower tickets sales and foot traffic. It’s different even than the model used by Amazon Studios, which is much more along the lines of the traditional theatrical-centric marketing, making new mention of on-demand viewing until it’s actually available on Amazon Video.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that this discussion is coming to a head. It may not be one theater chains want to have, but studios obviously think this is an important step to take to shore up *their* business model, even if it impacts that of a long-time and valued partner.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.