But in Hollywood, Apple must hone its identity and reputation in an entertainment market crowded with competitors, from Netflix and Hulu to HBO and Disney. It’s using its deep pockets to buy itself a name in Hollywood. Apple is paying Witherspoon and Aniston about $1.1 million an episode each, according to a Hollywood executive with knowledge of Apple’s plans. Apple has nabbed other high-priced stars, such as Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” who will headline a new Apple show about video game developers. Loup Ventures analyst Gene Munster projected Apple would be spending $4.2 billion a year on original content by 2022.
And it must decide if it wants to make its content available only on its own devices – an incentive to remain in the Apple ecosystem if the content is compelling enough – or license its programming outside of its own streaming service to attract a wider audience. Apple has made its Apple Music service available on Amazon Echo devices and plans to make iTunes content available on televisions made by Samsung and others.
Apple has been trying to shed the notion that it is different because it hails from Silicon Valley. Hollywood is programmed to be skeptical of outsiders who don’t understand the intricacies of film making. Following some criticism for early original programming shown on its Apple Music app, Apple hired a team of Hollywood insiders known for popular and critically acclaimed shows and movies, which helped bolster its credibility.
Still, Apple has no Hollywood track record, and people who have inked deals with the company described the decision as a leap of faith in Apple’s ability to execute on its plans and deliver big audiences. Film and television creators say even they don’t know whether Apple’s streaming service will be available to everyone or just those who own Apple products.
“Whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be interesting and I guess it was worth the uncertainty,” said Gordon. “They’re taking a leap of faith, too. They made a strong offer without a script. There’s a certain amount of good faith or breath-holding that both of us are doing.”
But the Hollywood executive said that Apple CEO Tim Cook has passed notes to writers on Apple shows through the company’s Hollywood executives. “Tim is paranoid about anything that affects his brand,” the Hollywood executive said.
“Netflix is kind of the base for streaming viewers,” says David Burhenne-Sanderson, founder of Reel good. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said earlier this week that Netflix content would not be part of Apple’s new streaming product, meaning people will need to watch Netflix shows by opening up the Netflix app itself.
Apple’s content offering is looking more akin to HBO’s than Netflix’s. HBO, which has transitioned from an offering exclusively available on cable to a stand-alone streaming service, is known for producing fewer projects but creating critically acclaimed content and mega hits like “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Game of Thrones.”
The first drama Apple planned to release starred Dr. Dre and was loosely based on his life. The show, titled “Vital Signs,” featured stars like Ian McShane, but the cast also included some of Dr. Dre’s relatives who played fictional versions of themselves. Dr. Dre has ties to Apple through his music streaming and headphone company Beats, which he sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion.
After the Apple Music experiment, Apple considered offering free shows if its hardware customers paid the extra fee for Apple Care, which protects them against things like cracked iPhone screens, according to the well-placed Hollywood executive. Then they discussed an offering through Apple TV, the company’s streaming device that connects to televisions. “Whatever they try to sell on Monday, it’s not what they started with and they are trying to figure out what kind of engine to put in while the plane is in the air,” the executive said.
Other than its high security offices in Culver City, Calif., and the focus on secrecy, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is viewed as just another studio, according to producers, agents and consultants who have worked on projects.
Where Apple’s new shows will and won’t appear is one question show creators said they asked Apple during discussions. They said they were met with obfuscation and ambiguous responses, in part because Apple itself may not have made up its mind yet about exactly what its streaming service will look like. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on Apple’s plans. It’s unclear how long after Monday’s anticipated announcement of the streaming service it will actually launch.
One streaming executive cautioned that Apple would be wise to launch the service not only on its own devices. That’s in part because Apple TV devices represent only a small fraction of streaming devices connected to televisions. In fact, services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video are available directly through smart TVs without streaming devices made by companies like Roku and Chromecast.
All this has led to some uncertainty among people creating shows for Apple, who said they’d be watching Monday’s event with interest to find out more details about how their productions would reach audiences. “We don’t know what they are going to do, but they are paying a ton of money,” said the Hollywood executive knowledgeable of Apple’s plans. And while most people in Hollywood are hopeful apple will come up with a strategy that works, there is some resignation to the idea that Apple will have a steep learning curve when it comes to creating compelling content. And maybe that’s ok. “As long as they are paying us, we will take their money,” the executive said.