March 2, 2024

Killers of the Flower Moon,” Apple’s first major theatrical release, has generated $120 million globally after three weekends of release.

Is that a good result for a movie backed by a streaming service? A terrible outcome for a glowingly received, $200 million crime epic directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro? Or somewhere in between? Everyone who follows the movie business has a different take, so parsing these ticket sales could take longer than the film’s daunting three-hour-and-26-minute run time.

“I don’t see how its current global box office puts it in a position to turn a profit,” says Eric Handler, a senior media and entertainment analyst at Roth Capital Partners. “It will need to drive a lot of new subscribers to Apple TV+.”

If a traditional studio released “Killers of the Flower Moon,” it would be branded a flop. And Scorsese’s latest still requires a big turnout to be considered a commercial winner. After a disappointing 61% drop in the film’s sophomore outing, revenues rebounded to decline just 25% in its third frame. It’s a promising sign the audience hasn’t totally dropped off.

But the reality is that it’s less cut- and-dried for streamers because these companies have different metrics of success. Apple, for one, isn’t judged by Wall Street based on the money it makes or loses on its films, nor does it place the same emphasis on box office as it does on streaming subscribers. As tech giants like Amazon and Apple warm up to the big screen and release movies in a traditional sense (each company is reportedly planning to invest $1 billion per year on theatrical films), that’s scrambling the idea of what is hit-or-miss at the box office.

“I don’t think we’re going to know how this turns out for weeks,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, referring to Scorsese’s latest. Beyond the box office, Apple is hoping that shiny trophies will validate the price tag for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Awards season doesn’t kick off in earnest until later in December and early January when Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are announced. “The challenge for the film,” Gross adds, “will be holding up through November and into December.”

Amazon faced a similar situation with Ben Affleck’s sports drama “Air,” which grossed $90 million worldwide on a $90 million budget. It didn’t get into the black during its theatrical run, but the film added on-demand rentals and other revenue streams that wouldn’t have been possible by going directly to streaming. However, these triumphs or failures are opaque. Streaming services do not report numbers or financials beyond now reporting box office grosses.

“We’ll never know how Apple and the streamers really allocate their production costs and how they tie their subscription income to production,” Gross says. “We don’t know if they’re getting a subscription bump or seeing other benefits.”

Any $200 million drama is a bold bet in today’s theatrical landscape, and analysts say a traditional studio would never be able to justify the economics for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” They also point out that a big-budget film that’s geared toward adult crowds and set during a dark period of American history wouldn’t exist at all without Apple footing the bill. Paramount Pictures was originally going to finance the film but brought in Apple to fund the project after production costs kept on rising. Instead of mopping up a sea of red ink, Paramount is walking away with a distribution fee from Apple. This way, they’re making money no matter what “Flower Moon” earns at the box office.

Movie theaters, too, are pleased even though ticket sales are lower than anticipated. Sure, the ultra-long run time means that cinemas can’t book as many screenings per day, but it’s not like there’s much else to show during this drab fall season.

“‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is a huge win,” says Chris Randleman, chief revenue officer of the Texas-based Flix Brewhouse chain. “It’s a very long, three-hour-50-minute movie with trailers and ads, so the fact that as many people are seeing it in theaters is great.”

Even if its future projects are shorter and more commercial, Apple has made clear it will spare no expense in landing top talent. Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as the French ruler, also cost $200 million and will be released by Sony in November. The company also bought Matthew Vaughn’s spy thriller “Argylle” for $200 million. It will be distributed by Universal in 2024.

Apple is one of the deepest-pocketed companies in the world, and its spending habits in the entertainment space are often jokingly called rounding errors. Does it matter to Apple if its theatrical releases aren’t making money?

“Apple making a $200 million movie is like you buying a cup of coffee and spilling it,” says Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s film school. “But it’s not making their brand look good if films underperform at the box office.”

Some experts argue that anything Apple earns at the box office is pure profit because the company wouldn’t have collected any of that money by going straight to streaming. Galloway disagrees, pointing out that Apple is spending tens of millions of dollars to have Paramount (and Sony and Universal) put — and keep — its movies in theaters. It’ll shell out even more for awards pushes. As a result, the break-even point – which would be $500 million to $600 million for a movie of this size and scope — keeps moving farther and farther away.

“If you have flops [like this] at traditional studios, heads get lobbed off. Balance sheets get studied more carefully,” Galloway says. “Apple and Amazon are learning these things.”

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